I’ve been watching through Stargate SG-1 with David. We’re still in the first season, and we just finished watching an episode titled “The First Commandment.” The basic outline of the plot is that a member of an SG team–a man named Jonas Hanson–has set himself up as the god-incarnate of a primitive world. The SG-1 team is tasked with removing him from rulership and bringing him back to earth to face disciplinary action. I began the episode expecting Hanson to be a gun-wielding nut, thirsty for adoration, and ruling with violence–and he was, but he was also more complex than that. It’s already established that people on other worlds containing Stargates have been previously visited by beings possessing fearsome technology, which was usually interpreted as magic. Hanson starts on the path to ‘divinity’ by simply allowing the natives to maintain their interpretations.
Hanson doesn’t establish himself as a god by brandishing weapons and demanding subservience. Instead, he is accepted as inherently superior because he traveled by Stargate. He wins the love and trust of the natives by rescuing a small child lost in the lethal radiation of the daytime sun–an act made possible by his resources but unimaginable to the people of the planet. His superior weapons and knowledge of life on other worlds simultaneously cements his ‘right to rule’ and enable him to enforce his authority. The combination of love, trust, and fear leads to a powerful bond of loyalty extended by planet natives to Hanson.
Over the course of the episode it becomes clear that Hanson has also guarded against the possible influence of other earth visitors by introducing the concept of devils. Anyone who looks like him, appears to possess his power, and speaks out against his rulership is to be instantly dismissed as a tempter from hell. With no other point of reference, Hanson’s people not only believe him, but are willing to live, die, and kill for him. It’s the perfect autocracy, guarded by the very people Hanson rules.
Hanson frequently quotes pieces of Jewish scripture, adopting phrases like, “I have the power to help, and to cast down,” and “Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord.” Yet to call Hanson deranged would be to oversimplify his character. Hanson doesn’t believe himself divine in an ultimate, idealistic sense. He instead defines his relationship to the natives as the paternalistic bond between man and his ultimate authority of appeal, firmly believing the relationship will ultimately benefit the natives.
Hanson is a demanding god, forcing ‘his people’ to labor under slave-like conditions to build a temple in his honor. The disobedient or ‘lazy’ are brutally executed. Yet Hanson recasts even this in an altruistic light. When Sam, Hanson’s ex-fiance and fellow soldier, eventually confronts Hanson about the construction, he explains:
“These caves were once mines, they permeate the hillside for miles.” Hanson is referring to the extensive underground dwellings, which the natives use to escape the deadly UV radiation of the daytime sun. “But these people have been multiplying like rabbits. They don’t have the technology to dig themselves more space, they don’t have the courage to leave the caves. It’s like a third world country in a bottle…Mere survival for these people will require unquestioning faith, pure devotion. They must believe in me, if I’m to lead them into the desert, to the promised land. I’m merely separating the wheat from the chaff.”
Hanson doesn’t just want a monument, he’s using its construction as a litmus test for fitness–an artificial evolutionary pressure.
His argument with Sam continues:
SAM: And you think you’re saving them?
HANSON: I know I am. These people…they’re like us. How can we turn our backs on them? …We must help.
SAM:…How is posing as a god and slowly working these people to death going to help?
HANSON: …I’m not posing! It is a matter of definition. My people need me. They believe in me, and because they believe they work…We’re building a civilization, Sam. There are going to be sacrifices. It’s better then rotting in caves, living and dying in squalor like you’ve never seen. I’m creating a great people.
SAM: In your image?
Hanson believes his superior tools and knowledge entitle him to mold the cave-people into a civilization resembling the one from which he came. Although he shows blatant disregard for personal agency and self-determination he also intends to give this civilization a huge technological leap forward and room in which to expand. He believes charitable ends justify his stone age means, allowing him to perceive himself as an ultimately benevolent figure. If the cave-people are viewed through a paternalistic lens (perhaps only capable of responding to violence), and Hanson’s actions evaluated via consequentialism, Hanson fails to appear as a deranged tyrant, but instead as a benevolent savior, which–of course–is how Hanson views himself.
Problems with Divinity
There is an interesting moment when Hanson is showing Sam a group of important cave drawings portraying people and animals dancing under a giant orange bubble. Hanson promised ‘his people’ that when his temple was complete he would turn the sky orange. Of course, he knows that an orange sky is not inherently beneficial to the people, but relates to a shielding device he found on the planet which, when activated, would cut the amount of penetrating UV radiation to levels safe enough for the people to build a civilization above ground. Despite his promises, however, Hanson doesn’t understand how the shielding device works or how to operate it.
“I really wish I understood these drawings,” he tells Sam.
“Why don’t you ask your people?”
“All knowing,” he replies, tapping the temple of his forehead.
When I heard this line it occurred to me that any ‘god’ wishing to portray himself as omniscient need only know more than everyone else. However, the appearance of omniscience may become tenuous as religious adherents increase their own knowledge. One of my friends on a skeptics board suggested that this was ‘the problem with Yahweh and Jesus.’ If we accept–as many evangelical Christians do–that Yahweh and Jesus are personas of the same deity, then we have a being who claims to be omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, ultimately just, and the incarnation of love. This particular combination of ultimate attributes had never been claimed previously and has been rarely claimed since. Ancient Canaanite gods, Greek gods, and certainly the tribal gods of various South American and African civilizations all came with limits. They were bound to elements, certain types of adherents, and geographical locations. They could change their minds and have conflicts with beings equally or more powerful than themselves. To find out a deity had been proven wrong, was tricked, or had failed in his or her task was not grounds for atheism because gods–like people–could fail.
Yahweh, however, is perceived to have no such recourse. Thus every historical record, scientific discovery, and natural phenomena that seems to conflict with Jewish and Christian scriptures on any level is viewed as a slash to his credibility. Furthermore, the appearance of benevolence is extremely difficult to maintain when coupled with the claim of infinite knowledge in the context of an imperfect world. Even those conflicts which can be smoothed over by an appeal to nuance beg the question of why an all-powerful being didn’t opt to use his power for ultimate communicative clarity.
I finished the episode with a lot of questions, the sort of questions that people older and wiser than me have been grappling with for centuries, including:
What should I make of a being who promises benevolence only in exchange from complete devotion?
Can infinite love be conditional?
Is consquentialism a morally defensible ethical model?
What should I make of a benevolent being who doesn’t immediately use his powers for the highest good of all those depending upon him?
At the end of the episode, ‘Hanson’s people’ are convinced by the SG-1 team that he is not a deity. They become a mob, picking him up and dropping him through the Stargate, effectively killing him. “Love turns to hate rather quickly when you realize you’ve been used,” I said, mostly to explain to myself why his formerly devoted people had been willing to turn on him so quickly. It was in that moment that I realized where my own bitterness comes from. I have often prided myself on not being the stereotypical ‘angry atheist.’ But when I look on the hurtful things religion taught me–sex-negative attitudes, fear of my own nature, prejudice towards people of other faiths and ethical systems–I feel lied to. I feel used.
At the end of the episode I turned to David and said, “What would you think if I told you I see no appreciable difference between Hanson and ‘god’?”
The similarities are striking.
(Check out my post script to this blog post here.)