I recently finished reading Robert Sawyer’s trilogy “The Neanderthal Parallax.” I found the plot intriguing, but the worldview issues the books brought up had great difficulties in how they were conveyed and the kind of hidden premises smuggled in. Every story has a worldview, and the worldview of these books was surprisingly hostile and disingenuous particularly to Christians. I have enjoyed Robert Sawyer’s work in the past, but feel forced to interact with these books in a fairly critical fashion. There will be SPOILERS in what follows. I’ll not summarize the plot, but interested readers can see summaries on Wikipedia. I have written a review of the books here.
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the books is that Sawyer seemingly did not put anything close to the amount of research and care into his portrayal of faith as he did his portrayal of biology, cosmology, and the like. On the latter topics, great detail is put into explaining aspects of various sciences and even invented science that Sawyer employs to support the plot. But people of faith are put up as frequently hypocritical but also lacking in erudition and thoughtfulness.
The central faith figure is Mary Vaughan, a specialist in ancient genetics. She consistently is put forth as the faithful counterweight to the faithlessness of the Neanderthals. However, she is a Roman Catholic who reveals objects to parts of her church’s official doctrines. She rejects the doctrine of original sin, for example. Having her put forward as the example of a religious person makes this even more difficult to swallow. I’m not suggesting that there are no people who have great cognitive dissonance in their beliefs–obviously many people do. The problem is that Sawyer uses Mary as the central image of Christianity throughout the novels, but she is woefully inept at even holding to the faith she claims for herself.
At one point in Humans, Ponter is talking to Mary at the Vietnam Memorial about life after death(188-207). He simply asserts that if you can’t see something it doesn’t exist. But of course this is as absurd as he claims “Gliskins'” (homo sapiens sapiens as opposed to the Neanderthals) belief in things like God is. I cannot see my own thoughts, yet they exist. Neither can I observe other people’s mental life, yet I am not irrational in believing that the people around me are also having thoughts.
In Hominids, Ponter speaks to Mary about the Gliskins’ viewing of a Mass taking place and again basically asserts that Christian belief in deity is absurd on its face. Mary struggles to articulate even the slightest defense of the Incarnation and other central Christian doctrines. Again, plenty of believers would struggle in this fashion, but Sawyer uses Mary as a kind of foil for all of Christianity. She’s got the best defenses Christians have to offer, and she can’t do anything but stutter when challenges to her faith are raised.
At several points, Big Bang Cosmology is challenged as something the Gliskins cling to because of their necessity of belief in a finite universe to support deity. Yet not only was Big Bang Cosmology initially rejected by the scientific community for this and other reasons (and only later accepted due to the mounting evidence for it), but even were the universe infinite, it would hardly follow that it is uncreated, as Ponter asserted without challenge. Sawyer seems to be unaware of–or at least makes his characters ignorant of–the entirety of Scholastic thought on the topic of continuous creation. Thomas Aquinas admitted this as a possibility. Thus, for Christians it is hardly an either/or of either eternal universe or finite universe. Either fits in with various strands of historic Christian theology. But again, Sawyer seems to have been either ignorant of this or willfully ignoring it to portray belief in deity in a more negative and indefensible light.
All of this wouldn’t be as unfortunate if Sawyer didn’t put discussions like this forward as if they were the best defenses Christians could come up with for their positions. Had they been simply believers who were also uninformed or insincere, it would not be as great an error. But Sawyer paints these interactions as though the defenses are the best Christians can come up with. As we have just surveyed very briefly, this is mistaken. I enjoyed the stories Sawyer put forward here, but his portrayal of people of faith is deeply flawed.
Sawyer uses the books to explore the notion of a God part of the brain which, when triggered, can set off religious experiences. In Humans, it is discovered that Gliskins have a part in their brain which is able to have “religious experiences” triggered through electromagnetic interaction, while Neanderthals do not have a corresponding part of their brains.
A central scene in the entire series is near the end of Hybrids in Times Square, New York City. The Earth’s magnetic field is resetting and it triggers religious experiences, UFO sightings, and the like among the crowd gathered as this part of the Gliskin (homo sapien, remember) brain is triggered. People are crying out to their deities, fending off invading aliens, and the like all over Times Square. From this, Mary Vaughan’s faith is finally shattered:
The Pope had some ‘splainin’ to do.
All religious leaders did…
“It’s all a crock, isn’t it?” [Mary] said [to Ponter].
…”Look, I’ve changed my mind. About our child… Our daughter should not have the God organ…” (389)
Thus, we find that in Sawyer’s universe, the notion that we can induce religious experiences in the brain (and other types of experience like UFOs) means that these experiences are baseless in reality. Mary decides that her child should not have the capacity to have religious experience because it is all “a crock.” The Pope and others have some “‘splainin’ to do.” Presumably they are expected to take this as some kind of major challenge to their respective faiths.
The main problem with this is that we can conceivably trigger all sorts of things in the brain. It does not seem too outlandish to suppose that if we triggered a certain part of the brain, we might bring up a memory. If we extrapolate more, Sawyer’s vision of electromagnetically triggered religious experiences could be on par with memories as well, which could (in this scenario) be triggered in the same way. Should we start to distrust our perceptions or memories if we are able to trigger them with various impulses? Certainly not. This way lies (true) madness: distrust in our own memories and senses.
So what is left? What does the notion that religious experiences might be triggered by various brain activity demonstrate? Just that: religious experience may be triggered through manipulation. Full stop. This doesn’t in any way undercut evidence for theism or other beliefs from religious experience any more than our capacity to trigger scents, sounds, or memories would undercut our rational basis for believing this things to be real (or about real events).
Sawyer uses the trilogy to attack all kinds of perceived and real social ills, from our treatment of the environment to gun control laws, and the like. But the question is how can he realistically put forward any kind of inter-cultural critique when the whole view he puts forward in the books is ultimately subjective. Mary Vaughan suffers a grotesque act of violence in a rape scene, but this is only used as an instrument in the plot (see my discussion here). Any moral critique Sawyer offers through his characters falls hollow because his only basis for it is some vague concept of pragmatism and self-preservation. Thus, it seems there is no ultimate basis for his criticisms of various ethical wrongs, and his use of several of these as mere instruments to advance the plot betrays this inability to provide an objective basis for right and wrong.
I’ve already written much on the difficulties with worldview in these novels. There are many more I could discuss. Again, I want to emphasize that it is very true that many Christians and believers would struggle to articulate their faith, be unable to defend various aspects of it, and not agree with at least some teachings of their church body. The problem is that Sawyer portrays this as the best Christianity can come up with. I was deeply disappointed to see that the overall thrust of the books was ultimately a kind of attack on my own faith, without any reasonable portrayal or interaction with stronger versions of it. Would that Sawyer had put the time into his depiction and study of faith as he had with the science behind this science fiction. For further reading, check out my reviews of the trilogy.
Book Reviews: “The Neanderthal Parallax” – Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids by Robert Sawyer– I wrote a review of the trilogy on my other interests site. This review brings up some of the other worldview issues in the books, in addition to a brief summary of the plot outline and look at the science fiction elements.
Aliens that believe in God: The theological speculations in Robert Sawyer’s “Calculating God”– I write about a different Robert Sawyer book that I did enjoy quite a bit, Calculating God. I even wrote a second post discussing abortion, fundamentalism, and other issues the book raised.
Robert Sawyer, Hominids (New York: Tor, 2002).
—, Humans (New York: Tor, 2003).
—, Hybrids (New York: Tor, 2003).
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