In the television show Stargate: SG1, aliens posing as pagan gods have kidnapped and enslaved people from all over the earth and distributed them among a bunch of planets that look like Canada. Our heroes, an Air Force special forces group, travel from world to world, coming into contact with cultures from the distant past that maintain their medieval and pre-medieval ways. One of the characters, Daniel Jackson, the linguist and ancient culture specialist, usually spends a great deal of time explaining to the poor, uneducated people that their gods are actually aliens and that magic is actually technology.
And the people rise up and say “Thank you. We now understand that gods are aliens, magic is technology, and so are free from a world of supernatural darkness and despair.”
I love SG1 for many reasons, not least of which are the enjoyable plots and the witty writing. And Christopher Judge beating people up with a stick. That’s good too.
But SG1 also serves as a brilliant illustration of modern materialism and its bad reasoning.
There are two halves to this. The modern perspective, and the ancient perspective.
The Modern Perspective
Say we have Bob the atheist. Everyone say ‘Hi, Bob.’ [Waits for audience response.] Cool.
What if, instead of philosophizing away, I tried to convince Bob of the errors of his ways by finding something supernatural and showing it to him.
Suppose I find a unicorn, or a flying spaghetti monster (atheists like to try and prove their superiority by using examples they see as obviously ridiculous. I say, why be offended? Embrace the wacky!)
Does producing a living, breathing unicorn dissuade Bob? No. If such a thing were to happen, he would first suspect a hoax, and then, if the unicorn were proven real, he would simply add it to his list of real equines. If the unicorn started talking, even then Bob would not ultimately be flapped: he already suspects that dolphins can talk in a way, and that orangutans can learn sign language. Why not have a member of equus also bordering on sentience?
Same with dragons, leprechauns, and vampires. The very thing he uses today as examples of the irrational would, upon producing confirmation of their existence, immediately be boxed up and shipped to rational land.
Okay, what about magic? Well, magic simply doesn’t exist. But what if we produce a magic effect? Well, that was a trick. But what if it wasn’t? Why then, it must be some sort of technology or scientific law that we do not yet understand. If I produce a rabbit from a hat and prove it wasn’t a trick, Bob will immediately posit a quantum tunnel, and GLaDOS will gleefully begin her experiments.
What if Thor shows up? Man in a costume. Thor produces a thunderstorm. Coincidence. Thor repeatedly produces thunderstorms. Alien life-form with some sort of natural or technological weather altering ability.
The standard skeptic response is to disinclude anything the existence of which isn’t confirmed by his select list of reliable sources, which may or may not be arbitrary, and which usually is topped by his own two eyes and scientific journals. But his system of thought is flexible enough to incorporate anything. Essentially, he has two categories: the natural (meaning stuff that does exist) and the supernatural (meaning stuff that doesn’t exist). If something he keeps in the second category is proven to exist, it is moved over into the first category, plain and simple.
The Ancient Perspective
But wait! There’s more.
When the ancient says the word magic, he basically means the manipulation of poorly understood natural laws. Alchemy is mixing chemicals to produce new chemicals – we mock the attempt to turn lead into gold because we are now sure that this is impossible. Meanwhile, we happily continue trying to turn common chemicals into valuable chemicals. We mock the attempt to confer immortality by discovering the philosopher’s stone, but at the same time pharmaceutical companies mix chemicals in hopes of pushing us closer and closer to immortality. In short, we aren’t doing anything different.
“But what about summoning demons and spirits?” you ask. Well, what about it? We’ve figured out how to build an electronic drug-sniffer out of bees. We turn to sub-human forces for special powers, and wonder why the ancients turned to super-human forces. But if we didn’t rule out super-human forces from the outset, we would turn to them too, just as Stargate Command dissects the technology of evil aliens and asks for help from good aliens. They even make deals, promising to do things in exchange for technology.
Just as a modern would see a demon as an alien, so an ancient would see an alien as a demon. And they would be confused by our distinctions.
“That’s not magic. It’s a tool, like a shovel, only more complicated,” Daniel Jackson says.
A real ancient looks at him in bewilderment. “Of course it is,” he says. “That’s what the word ‘magic’ means, genius.”
“These are not gods,” Daniel continues, then searches for a way to say ‘space alien’ to people with no comprehension of space aliens. “They are mortal creatures, like you an me, from another world among the stars. Their powers are nothing but technology and some natural abilities, no more magical than, say, your sense of smell.”
“And how is that not the very definition of the word ‘god?’” the ancient may reply. Indeed, the same people who regarded the stomach as a furnace would regard the sense of smell as magical. If they discovered the stomach was not a furnace, but rather a vat of acid, they would find that no less magical.
Knowledge may have in fact progressed. We may know there are no unicorns (although how anyone could have proven that is beyond me). But understanding, wisdom, intelligence; these things have not progressed. We are not smarter than the ancients. We have switched out their terms for new ones, then redefined theirs in an insulting and arrogant fashion. We use the word “technology” to mean what they mean by “magic,” redefine “magic” to mean “stuff that cannot exist,” and then mock them for believing in something cannot exist, when in fact they believe much the same as we do.
In other words, you may or may not be right to disbelieve in gods and demons, but even so, that disbelief is not intelligence, but arrogance, a way of discounting people just as intelligent as you, maybe even more so, as idiots.
The modern has gained nothing but a swollen ego.