The Digital and the Divine: Cyber-Spirituality in Contemporary Science Fiction Film and Television

A special issue of Religions (ISSN 2077-1444).

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (30 November 2023) | Viewed by 5634

Special Issue Editor


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Guest Editor
School of Arts and Sciences, University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia
Interests: cinema/TV and mythology; virtues on screen; science fiction; religious representations; ethics

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

In 2006, Daniel Frampton proposed, rather provocatively, that as digital technologies become more and more advanced, and computer-generated images more ubiquitous, cinema will “truly become its own new world—able to show anything, be anything, go anywhere, think anything—and animators will be the new gods of this world” (Filmosophy, p. 205). As digital technologies continue play an increasingly dominant role not just on screen but also in our lives, it is worth reassessing the question of how these have, in fact, changed our relationship with the Divine. As a genre, science fiction has long played with the idea of all-powerful virtual beings and explored notions of transcendence through technological advancements. It has also been at the forefront of exploring our anxieties and hopes regarding these new technologies and the ethical and moral consequences of scientific advancement. This Special Issue will examine how recent films and television shows have dealt with our doubts about the increasing use of artificial intelligence, the challenges of digital environments and the dangers and opportunities of virtual worlds. At the heart of these questions lie deeply philosophical and theological concerns about an age-old question, namely: what makes us distinct as human beings and what lies beyond our own existence?

This Special Issue invites submissions from a broad range of disciplinary scholarship interested in exploring these topics through film and television representations, including film and media studies, religious studies, philosophy and theology.

Dr. Sylvie Magerstädt
Guest Editor

Manuscript Submission Information

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Keywords

  • science fiction
  • cinema
  • television
  • cyber-spirituality
  • artificial intelligence
  • digital technologies
  • virtual reality

Published Papers (4 papers)

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Research

22 pages, 347 KiB  
Article
Artificial Life, Divinity, and Mythology in Star Trek
by Amy L. Norgard
Religions 2024, 15(4), 436; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel15040436 - 31 Mar 2024
Viewed by 877
Abstract
The Star Trek franchise’s depiction of artificial intelligence (AI) and affiliated technologies—namely, supercomputers, androids, and holograms—evokes common themes and motifs from the myths of the ancient Mediterranean. This article analyzes the mythological underpinnings of Star Trek’s historical treatment and approach to AI, [...] Read more.
The Star Trek franchise’s depiction of artificial intelligence (AI) and affiliated technologies—namely, supercomputers, androids, and holograms—evokes common themes and motifs from the myths of the ancient Mediterranean. This article analyzes the mythological underpinnings of Star Trek’s historical treatment and approach to AI, from The Original Series to The Next Generation and up through the newest additions to the canon, Short Treks, and Picard. AI in Star Trek, like Data, the Doctor, and Zora, expresses qualities associated with divinity: superhuman strength, intelligence, and agelessness. These very qualities distinguish them from humans and bar them from considerations of personhood. Like the Greek gods of myth, AI can present as immortal, which fundamentally distinguishes it from mortal humans, as seen in the tensions between gods and humans in Homer’s Odyssey and the Homeric Hymns. The ancient tension between mortal and immortal is manifested in the combative relationship between organic creator and artificial creation, a common sci-fi trope, that can lead to a cycle of fear and hostility evocative of the divine generational warfare in Hesiod’s Theogony. The artificial–organic tension resonates with the contemporary audience’s conflicted experiences with evolving technologies and problematizes the show’s presentation of the evolution of humanity into a posthuman existence. Just as mythology is used to consider humanity relative to the divine, narratives about AI are fertile ground to analyze what it means to be human and establish parameters for what is decidedly not human. Full article
18 pages, 312 KiB  
Article
Climate Migration in Post-Apocalyptic Narratives on the Mainstream Screen
by Linda Koncz and Alex Villas Boas
Religions 2024, 15(2), 231; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel15020231 - 16 Feb 2024
Viewed by 1155
Abstract
Through the perspective of ‘catastrophising thought’, this work undertakes a comparative analysis of five post-apocalyptic films dealing with climate migration: Waterworld, Snowpiercer, Interstellar, Mad Max: Fury Road and Mortal Engines in order to identify recurring themes within their dystopian societies. These [...] Read more.
Through the perspective of ‘catastrophising thought’, this work undertakes a comparative analysis of five post-apocalyptic films dealing with climate migration: Waterworld, Snowpiercer, Interstellar, Mad Max: Fury Road and Mortal Engines in order to identify recurring themes within their dystopian societies. These narratives share an apocalyptic literary approach, intertwining biblical elements to draw a subjectivity that enables us to see the end of our known world order simultaneously as a new beginning. In the plots, technological development is related to the disrespect of ecological harmony and, therefore, extreme climate conditions. The changes in the films’ narratives lead to a new kind of spirituality and a new concept of home. This article concludes by evaluating how these findings relate to the real, contemporary world. Full article
22 pages, 309 KiB  
Article
Eschatological Technophobia: Cinematic Anticipations of the Singularity
by Daniel Conway
Religions 2024, 15(2), 172; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel15020172 - 30 Jan 2024
Viewed by 903
Abstract
My aim in this essay is to isolate and describe the eschatological technophobia that is expressed by many popular films in the genre of science fiction. What I have in mind by this designation is the (irrational) fear of advanced technologies with respect [...] Read more.
My aim in this essay is to isolate and describe the eschatological technophobia that is expressed by many popular films in the genre of science fiction. What I have in mind by this designation is the (irrational) fear of advanced technologies with respect to the conjectured likelihood that autonomous systems and programs will inevitably deliver a negative judgment of humankind. In expressing and/or cultivating this fear, I offer, directors in the genre tend to help themselves to the language and imagery of the Biblical Day of Judgment, especially as it is prophesied and characterized in the Abrahamic religions of the global West. This fear, I maintain, is itself an expression of a deeper anxiety pertaining to the possibility (or likelihood) that the achievements of humankind matter very little, if at all, especially when evaluated on a cosmic scale. Following my critique of several films that rely, uncreatively, on the trope of eschatological technophobia, I turn to a consideration of two relatively recent films in the genre: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016). From these directors, I suggest, we receive subtler and more thoughtful treatments of the judgments of humankind that superior intelligences are likely to pronounce. What emerges in these two films is the exploratory expression of a religiosity or spirituality that I associate with an updated, epoch-appropriate version of humanism. Full article
10 pages, 233 KiB  
Article
Upload, Cyber-Spirituality and the Quest for Immortality in Contemporary Science-Fiction Film and Television
by Sylvie Magerstädt
Religions 2024, 15(1), 109; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel15010109 - 16 Jan 2024
Viewed by 1444
Abstract
As a genre, science fiction has long played with the idea of all-powerful virtual beings and explored notions of transcendence through technological advancements. It has also been at the forefront of exploring our anxieties and hopes regarding new technologies and the ethical and [...] Read more.
As a genre, science fiction has long played with the idea of all-powerful virtual beings and explored notions of transcendence through technological advancements. It has also been at the forefront of exploring our anxieties and hopes regarding new technologies and the ethical and moral consequences of scientific advancement, raising deeply philosophical and theological concerns about an age-old question, namely: what makes us distinct as human beings and what lies beyond our own existence? This article aims to provide an overview of recent themes that have emerged in science fiction film and television, especially with regard to extending our lives beyond their natural biological age. As the article will outline, these ideas generally appear in notions of cyborgization or mind uploading into cyberspace. Both indicate a deeply human desire to avoid death, and the films and shows discussed in this article offer a range of different ideas on this. As we will see, the final case study, the Amazon Prime television show Upload (2020–), brings both of these elements together, touching on a broad range of ideas about cyber-spirituality along the way. The article concludes that although many shows raise interesting questions about the ethical challenges inherent in transhumanist fantasies of mind uploading, they ultimately remain ambiguous in their critique of the dream of digital immortality. Full article
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