Battlestar Galactica and the Future of American Religion

From the pantheon of Greco-Roman names in the cast list to the hard-drinking antics of the pagan crew, there is a distinct Dionsysian vibe on the critically adored Battlestar Galactica, now entering its final season on the Sci-Fi channel.

There’s no character named Dionysus, it’s true, but we have straight-arrow flyboy Apollo and Cylon turncoat Athena and her existentially tormented human lover, Karl Agathon. Then there’s the simple fact that the crew of the Galactica is boozy as a fruitcake. Other than the cockpit, there’s no place that ace-pilot Kara “Starbuck” Thrace is happier than at the card table with a stogie clenched between her teeth, a straight flush in her hands and a tin cup of home brew close by. At day’s end, Admiral William Adama and President Laura Roslin like to reflect on the troubles of their ragtag fleet over bourbon in the Admiral’s quarters. And Col. Saul Tigh, Adama’s executive officer, was a spectacularly unrepentant lush until the end of last season.

Then he realized he was a Cylon; now he’s positively abstemious.

Apart from the tippling and the polytheism, Galactica’s Dionysian atmosphere summons up the show’s deep roots in the Western dramatic tradition—an art form that took shape as ritual elements of ancient Dionysus cults in the eastern Mediterranean were absorbed into classical Greek public life. The fruit of this syncretism was the theater; arguably the first example of the intersection of religion and media in Western history.

Theatrical productions in Greece began as reenactments of the Dionysian story arc, tracing the god’s life, death and rebirth through a dramatic narrative that always included some sort of initiatory trauma. For the human beings in Battlestar Galactica, this initiation comes in the form of a nuclear holocaust visited on them by a race of machines that has evolved both to resemble and to despise their human makers.

Do you sense the eternal themes at play in these particulars? That’s the magic of the theater at work, and also the crucible out of which all religious movements are sparked.

In Plato’s Ion, the philosopher likens the incantatory power of theatrical rites to magnetism: “This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings… In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself, and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration.”

Even if the heady fumes of Dionysian religion have all but dissipated from Western theater—whether on the stage or the screen—the persistent religiosity of the medium is easy to intuit from Plato’s analogy. Inspired drama exerts a magnetic influence on viewers, pulling them together over water-coolers or in online chat-rooms and sparking conversations about ontology or morality among people who might otherwise feel no urge to connect.

And anyone who doubts that morals and the meaning of life are the stock in trade on Battlestar might consider the lineaments of “A Measure of Salvation,” an episode that aired in November 2006. The story:

A beacon left behind 3,000 years ago by human colonists in search of Earth is discovered by a Cylon base ship. Turns out that the Cylons have no resistance to a virus that has been lingering in the beacon’s innards, and all the biomechanical creatures on the ship—robotic centurions and raiders as well as humanoid “skin jobs”—succumb to the bug.

After the rest of the Cylon fleet realizes that components of the virus are transmitted to resurrection ships with a dead skin job’s neurological data, the stricken base ship is abandoned near the pulsar where the beacon was recovered.

Galactica and its traumatized brood of space-faring human refugees find the ship when they arrive at the pulsar—another clue in the trail of interstellar bread crumbs leading the humans toward Earth.

“I think I’ve figured out a way to destroy the entire Cylon race,” Apollo announces after an expeditionary team from Galactica has assessed the situation.

Apollo’s plan entails lying in wait for the Cylon fleet, then executing five living but gravely ill skin jobs within downloading range of a resurrection ship.

“So that’s what we’re about now—genocide,” Karl “Helo” Agathon observes as Apollo, Adama and Roslin consider the fine points of Apollo’s idea.

“These are things—dangerous things,” Apollo replies.

Meanwhile, on another Cylon base ship, D’Anna—a humanoid Cylon—is torturing her human captive, Gaius Baltar, for information about the deadly virus. Baltar, who knows nothing about the virus but despairs of shaking D’Anna’s conviction that he does, decides instead to probe the chink he perceives in the monotheistic faith that his tormentor uses to justify her actions.

“You can’t help asking yourself how God can allow death and destruction and then you despise yourself for asking,” he says. “The truth is if we knew God’s will we’d all be gods, wouldn’t we?”

The episode sparked lively comment on the dozens of blogs that cover Battlestar. A blogger for Blogcritics Magazine—which describes itself as “a sinister cabal of superior writers”—opined that the themes in “A Measure of Salvation” were “reminiscent of ethical dilemmas found in the Star Trek universe, allegories of present world events of our daily lives, though Battlestar Galactica is far superior to the Star Trek franchises.”

At the other end of the opinion spectrum, a blogger for Webomatica wrote, “[T]he moral qualms seemed to come out of left field to me. The Cylons obliterated millions of humans… [I]f you really have issues about exterminating the whole race, keep the handful of infected Cylons alive as a kind of Galactica petting-zoo.”

These popular commentators—and the two million other magnetized links in the chain of Battlestar viewers—represent a particular kind of religiosity that’s at once timeless and distinctively modern. In a sense, the fans who are inspired to kibitz by the show’s thick brew of divinity and morality are the heirs of spiritual meaning-making lineages that include not just Dionysian cults but yeshivas, monasteries and madrassas. They’re also the progenitors of what will likely become new and radically media-intensive religious movements that are emerging in an age of rapid technological change and remarkable spiritual flux.

Consider, for example, recent data from religious identification surveys (see links at the end of this story) showing that about 15 percent of Americans identify their religious affiliation as “none of the above”—a cohort larger than Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutheran combined and double the number of “nones” since that last such survey in 1990.

And among the 18- to 29-year-old demographic—the leading edge of a new generation of spiritually and technologically iconoclastic seekers and the core audience for media convergence phenomena like Battlestar—“nones” account for a quarter of the total population and an even higher portion of men.

Even as traditional brick-and-mortar religious institutions repackage themselves to appeal to young people weaned on interactive media, the technological innovations driving cultural change are allowing the producers of electronic information to create interactive media environments that are ever more keenly attuned to the experiences of the human beings who populate virtual worlds.

In other words, a 26-year-old “spiritual-but-not-religious” seeker participating in a online Battlestar chat or creating an avatar on Second Life expects the technology he or she is interacting with to be both responsive and fluid—the key features of interactive media environments.

The mission statement for Giga Omni Media, a blogging network and thought-leader in emerging information technologies, declares that people who inhabit electronic media environments expect not only to acquire but to participate in the creation of information, “simultaneously devouring, sharing and shaping the flow for our own needs.” How are musty old creedal religions going to keep up?

If the fate of the Dionysian cults that birthed the Western theatrical tradition holds any lesson for American Catholicism, mainline Protestantism and the other traditional religious institutions that are shedding members—and isn’t it delightful to think that it might?—it’s that the interplay between inspiration and the forms of religious practice and observance must always be fluid. Imposing a sober orthodoxy on rituals intended to pierce the veil that separates the mundane from the sublime almost always diminishes the force of the experience; then, as Plato observes in the Ion, priests and poets become “like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind.”

The human pagans and biomechanical monotheists on Battlestar Galactica have to contend with these hard truths too. As the show’s fourth and final season builds toward its climax, Gaius Baltar has become the prophet at the center of a crisis cult on the Galactica, Cylon culture is torn by rebellion as sentient raiders attempt to shake off the domination of the elite humanoid skin jobs and, heedless of the guideposts established in sacred texts, Starbuck has struck off on her own with a restive crew in search of Earth. Will the center hold? When the time is right for initiation and rebirth, it must not.

[For a pithy and witty 8-minute video primer on the Battlestar story arc through the beginning of the current season, click here.] [For more data from recent religious identification surveys, check out the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the American Religious Identification Survey published by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.]