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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories discusses...


with Elana Gomel

An excerpt from Elana Gomel’s Science Fiction, Alien Encounters and the Ethics of Posthumanism: Beyond the Golden Rule appears in this issue.

[Don Webb] Bewildering Stories has precedents for publishing scholarly works and reviews on literature, history, philosophy and even other topics. Elana Gomel’s Science Fiction, Alien Encounters and the Ethics of Posthumanism: Beyond the Golden Rule was a title bound to catch my eye and interest. I invited Ms. Gomel to send us an excerpt, and the results are quite rewarding.

The excerpt in this issue challenges us to think in new ways and even to examine critically the words we use. In particular, two caught my attention: “humanism” and “religion.” And, of course, I had questions.

What is meant, exactly, by “humanism” and “religion”? The excerpt has little good to say about either. Humanism is defined as “the rhetoric of the Golden Rule, empathy and human rights.” Sadly, “Humanism went bankrupt in Auschwitz and the Gulag.”

My question: If that’s what “humanism” is, do we have to wait for the 20th century to find counter-examples? James J. O’Donnell cites plenty in his Pagans and The Ruin of the Roman Empire.

As for religion: “Despite the rising tide of religious fundamentalism, religion can no longer offer a guide to living in the new world.” And “secular humanism and religious fundamentalism are locked in a futile stand-off.”

My question: That does seem to be the case, but are “fundamentalism” and “religion” necessarily one and the same? In The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong defines fundamentalism as special cases of religion, ones that are consciously opposed to science and, often, to the principles of the very religions to which they claim to belong.

[Elana G.] Your questions are really to the point. Some of them are answered in the book, of course, but I was beginning to think I should write a more accessible essay addressing them and your questions have given me the impetus to do so.

Very briefly: the kind of humanism I'm against is the one based on similarity ("we are all the same"; "human nature is the same everywhere") and empathy ("I know how you feel"). But what about ethical obligations to people and entities who are NOT like us (animals, for example; or just people who are very different)?

You're right, of course, that in some sense humanism never got off the ground, but communism and fascism also defined themselves in terms of humanism: it just depends on where you draw the line between human and nonhuman.

As for religion: I actually agree with your point, and much of the book tries to redefine religion in terms of awe and the sublime — as in openness to the ultimate Other, whether you conceive of it as divinity or simply the universe as a whole. The book makes clear, later on, that when I say that religion cannot offer a guide to living in a new world, I mean religious fundamentalism which, indeed, is a rising political force.

[Don W.] Thank you, Elana! I think I see what you’re getting at.

The term “humanist” is very broad, of course. In the original, classic sense, I think of Renaissance scholars like Montaigne. A descendant of a Jewish family originally from Portugal and Spain, he studiously refrains from mentioning religion at all in his Essais. Rather, as a classic Humanist, he explores the question “What is human nature?”

Of course, we have to wait till the 20th century for Jean-Paul Sartre to say, in L’Existentialisme est un humanisme, “There ain’t no such thing.” In that light, Montaigne’s answer — almost 400 years earlier — practically anticipates Sartre’s: Chaque homme porte la forme entière de l’humaine condition — Every man embodies the complete form of the human condition. Montaigne emphasizes unity; other constructions of humanism emphasize differences.

In the end, we all create the deities or creeds in which we claim to believe. The questions then boil down to: Whose humanism? Whose religion?

The excerpt raises an important question: Can science fiction serve as a “mediator” between human beings with radically different notions of what it means to be “human”? Can we learn to understand each other, let alone animals and space aliens?

I would say that, at its best, science fiction can at least try to imagine ways to do that. And science fiction got a very good start, more than 360 years ago, with Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World.

Thanks again, Elana. We’ve only scratched the surface here. I hope you and others will continue the discussion.

Copyright © 2015 by Elana Gomel
and Bewildering Stories

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