The film, like the 1985 novel by Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan which it adapted, recognized the essentially religious implications of the question of whether we are alone in the universe.
Amid the political resurgence of the Christian Right in the United States, which has culminated in the rise of so-called “alternative facts” and a Donald Trump presidency in which 81 per cent of white evangelicals voted for him, the anniversary of Contact provides us with the opportunity to revisit the politics of science and religion that Sagan took up.
Sagan has a reputation as a hardened, somewhat combative atheist. But the film gives us a very different picture, an affirmation of the religious experience of wonder. And the novel, in turn, offers an even more startling sympathy for the epistemological premise of revealed religions.
The film tells the story of the brilliant radio astronomer Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster), who devotes her professional life to the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. One day, her research program picks up a coded transmission containing a blueprint for what becomes known as “the Machine.”
As it turns out, the Machine is a station on a kind of multigalactic metro operated by a consortium of extraterrestrial species. It takes Arroway to the centre of the galaxy, where she meets an alien who appears as her deceased father in order to not distract her.
Once home, she testifies about this experience in language drenched in religious expression and meaning, as this clip shows:
The film captures the novel’s religious sensibility that Arroway is asking people to accept “on faith” her testimony of wonder.
Rise of the Christian Right
But while the film portrays Arroway as journeying into the heavens to meet the dead, it actually leaves out the novel’s most remarkable religious details.
For one thing, the novel has two “fundamentalist” characters instead of one. The sympathetic Palmer Joss (played by Matthew McConaughey in the film) is a kind of young Billy Graham figure. He’s patriotic, nonpartisan, and seeks a “middle course” on issues of science and religion. But in the novel he is contrasted with a huckster preacher, Billy Jo Rankin, who insists that a “real” Christian be sent on the Machine.
An important scene the film removes is a meeting between Arroway and the two fundamentalists at a “creation science” museum. Writing in the 1980s, Sagan the science educator recognized that evolution was the site of the loudest confrontation between science and religion.
Other religiously attentive American writers were focusing on different issues the Christian Right was contesting — such as abortion, feminism, the sexual revolution, desegregation and school prayer. But Sagan composed his novel while creationists were advancing an “equal time” approach for creationism and evolution in public schools, after the Supreme Court had earlier overturned legislation prohibiting evolution.
At the museum, Arroway sees a display of “a plaster impression from a Red River sandstone of dinosaur footprints interspersed with those of a pedestrian in sandals.” The diorama seemed to prove that humans and dinosaurs co-existed and that evolution was false.
Such dioramas continue to characterize today’s much more elaborate and well-financed creation-science museums, including the famous Creation Museum opened in 2007.
This museum’s fundraising success recently allowed it to build a full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark. Sagan’s novel was prescient, foreseeing the appeal of using a museum purportedly curating expert knowledge to consolidate fundamentalist orthodoxy.
The debate at Sagan’s creation museum centres on the authority and methods of religion and science. Science, Arroway explains, prizes skepticism and evidence because it realizes that scientists make mistakes.
Besides, Arroway thinks there are better ways for an “omnipotent, omniscient [and] compassionate” Being to leave “a record for future generations, to make his existence unmistakable.” That record would contain information unavailable to the historical human writers of sacred texts.
The Message, by contrast, is authentic because different human cultures are receiving the same data — it’s a public, not private, revelation.
Their debate reflects Sagan’s yearning for a reconciliation between the “two magisteria” of science and religion, both of which are “bound up,” Arroway says, with “a thirst for wonder.” As Palmer concludes: “Perhaps we are all wayfarers on the road to truth.”
Sagan the believer
Contact makes that reconciliation happen by establishing careful parallels between religious faith and the scientific enterprise as seen in Arroway’s journey and testimony.
For instance, preparing for the trip home, Arroway realizes her experience has become very “theological.” As the novel narrates: “Here were beings who live in the sky, beings enormously knowledgeable and powerful [… who] could clearly visit reward and punishment, life and death, on the puny inhabitants of Earth. Now how is this different, she asked herself, from the old time religion? The answer occurred to her instantly: It was a matter of evidence… There would be five independent, mutually corroborative stories supported by compelling physical evidence.”
It’s here that the novel really gets interesting, because Sagan purposefully dashes Arroway’s expectations. From the perspective of Earth, no time elapsed during the daylong journey.
Furthermore, the returned cassettes are merely “blank.” There is no “evidence” of the journey other than the oral testimony of the Five.
Weirdly, Sagan models the “good news” they bring home on the gospels about Jesus Christ.
Like early followers of Jesus attesting to his resurrection and messiahship and speaking in tongues, Arroway and the rest of the Five will be deemed mad if they tell their tale. The official story becomes that the Message was real, but that the Machine did not work.
The truth of the matter comes down to a faith decision initiated by an oral tradition spreading the good news. This recapitulates instead of repudiates the development of early Christianity.
Arroway has had a profound religious experience that she can’t prove, and the first person to accept her story is Palmer. Using religiously infused language, he suggests people will “believe” Arroway’s story; she is a new “witness” for modern times.
Arroway’s tale of the Machine ascending to the stars, Palmer says, was “foretold” in the story of Jacob’s ladder: “A ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.”
Sagan has turned Arroway’s distinction on its head. She earlier objected to religious authority because it is based on subjective experience rather than objective proof. She protested that God should appear publicly, and his message not depend on selectively-quoted passages.
Now, Arroway has only a subjective experience of aliens who refrain from public appearance. Their existence and technology appear to have been prophesied millennia ago in the Hebrew Bible.
The novel presses the parallel between religion and science by having Arroway compose a clandestine written testimony. She gives it to her first disciple, Palmer, to accompany the oral tradition presumably being propagated.
Although the gospels were not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s life, the parallel between Arroway’s gospel and those of the New Testament is upheld. The truth, held by the world to be madness, must be taken on faith and without proof, circulated by oral tradition and then written text.
The Artist’s Signature
This religious sympathy is dramatized even further in a coda about Arroway’s scientific explorations that never made it into the film. She had been mysteriously encouraged by her alien-father, during her journey into the heavens, to investigate the transcendental number pi.
So in the last chapter titled “The Artist’s Signature,” as her oral and written gospel makes its rounds, Arroway directs her supercomputers to calculate deeply into the mathematical constant pi. She finds something extraordinary: a nonrandom pattern of ones and zeroes in the white noise of random numbers. “Deep inside the transcendental number, was a perfect circle, its form traced out by unities in a field of noughts. The universe was made on purpose, the circle said. In whatever galaxy you happen to find yourself, you take the circumference of a circle, divide it by its diameter, measure closely enough, and uncover a miracle — another circle, drawn kilometres downstream of the decimal point. There would be richer messages farther in.”
This “artist’s signature” bespeaks “an intelligence that antedates the universe.” And so Arroway’s “new project” of “experimental theology” results in the discovery of God’s message in pi.
This sequence is Sagan’s affirmation of the religious structure of revelation, as is the novel’s parallel between early Christian testimony and Arroway’s.
Sagan was not just one of America’s most well-known science communicators; he also longed for a reconciliation between science and religion. Given his novel’s religious sympathy, it is intensely strange that Sagan is sometimes imagined as a kind of proto-New Atheist.
Sagan opposed emergent Christian fundamentalism for its growing political muscle and its creationism. He would be appalled and amused to discover that Contact’s premise of searching for meaningful patterns in random noise is used by the updated creation science of Intelligent Design to suggest the science-iness of its theological project.
He may have grown more cynical as the years went by, but his widespread reputation as a fire-breathing atheist is surely mistaken.