Religion and Fundamentalism in the Sunshine


The other week I watched the 2006 science fiction film Sunshine, a box office flop that got moderately positive reviews from critics, with some considering it a masterpiece. It tells of a small crew on a desperate mission to reignite a dying sun and save humanity. There is much to admire about the film’s visual design, acting, and storytelling elements. Like many critics, I did grow increasingly unenthused with the horror-suspense sequence the story morphed into in the last act, but nevertheless my overall experience was positive.

The shift in tone at the climax is effected when an antagonist crashes into the scene, the disfigured and crazed Captain Pinbacker. After deliberately sabotaging his own mission, he was abandoned to himself on Mercury for years. Now he wanders around the protagonists’ ship, murdering its crew, and explains his motives along these lines: the sun, the source of all human existence, is dying. While alone in the cold insensibility of space, he had a religious experience and realized that human existence is so insubstantial, it ought not to interfere with what God wills–it must allow the sun, and humanity, to die, and so find Heaven. Conceptually interesting, the character is little more than a ranting monster on screen. That said, the character plays a role invested with deep thematic significance, for he is intended as a pointed allegory for religious fundamentalism.

The director, Danny Boyle, explained in numerous interviews that Pinbacker “represents fundamentalism” and is “basically the Taliban,” once describing him as “medieval.” One of the stars of Sunshine, Cillian Murphy, told the press that working on this film moved him from agnosticism to definite atheism, because the film to him highlighted the conflict between “science and religion, or science instead of fundamentalism.”

One need hardly look outside the film itself to perceive this theme. The heroic crew in their various ways all seem oddly indifferent to religion; some analogue to spirituality appears only in the form of fascination with the deadly power of the sun, a force of madness threatening the crew’s mission by undermining its ethic of survival. It is this that would seem to be the source of Pinbacker’s deadly transformation, as he stands naked before the sun and lets it ravage his body and mind. Whatever Pinbacker represents clearly originates from the dark, irrational side of human nature, and it is this Boyle has chosen to describe as “fundamentalism.”

sunshine-featureFor me, this raises several questions. First, how does the film conceive and represent fundamentalism? Second, is the film able to critique it successfully?

With the help of frank interviews with the director, the first question is easily answered. The essence of fundamentalism, to Boyle, is disbelief in science. Basically everyone besides the Taliban, he says, believes that science can improve our lives and save us from nature. But then, he implies, there are those fundamentalists who don’t get it, and violently try to subject science to some higher agenda, telling us to go home and wait for God. Contrasting this, Boyle believes, is the righteous “arrogance” of the scientist who believes he can go out and change things–defeat disease, change the course of nature, transcend his human limitations.

On this model, fundamentalism, by opposing the salvific capacities of science, is the chief obstacle lying between humanity and transcendence.

The film thus posits a kind of dualism within the human race between active and passive, rational and irrational, self-preserving and self-destructive. Science is identified with the former traits, thus placing Sunshine in a tradition stretching from Bacon and Descartes to Marx and Trotsky which sees the natural end of science as the dominance of man over nature. The older ideals of contemplation of a natural order imbued with divine energies are thrown out; awe, the root of philosophy in the classical tradition of the West, is depicted by Sunshine as irrational and at times malignant, corroding our will to power. The modern approach to nature is one of objectification. Enlightenment thinkers saw the world as an essentially “dead” mechanical system to be exploited by men of learning for the benefit of the human species.

This change in posture appears to be illustrated in the film. Those who have fallen prey to fascination with the sun are subjected to its destructive energies. Pinbacker is deformed by his exposure to the sunlight. But the physicist, Capa, whose profession and cool demeanor suggest a devotion to pure abstract reason, enjoys a kind of apotheosis, appearing to touch the sun unharmed. It is, visually, a reversal of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, as mankind “arrogantly” (to use Boyle’s word) ascends to touch its creator. It is an affirmation of Babel.

Perhaps Boyle would not go so far. But I think it is undeniable that the film attempts to contrast the values of scientific humanism with a supposedly older, religious mentality. Thus, in the world of Sunshine, fundamentalism is the naysayer, attempting to constrain human creative power, making reason (or instrumental reason, anyway) captive of the lower human impulses in a kind of inverse Platonic anthropology.

But this raises the not-insignificant question of what relation Boyle’s vision of fundamentalism bears to real life. Is Pinbacker an effective representation of a people group or a social trend? Is opposition to instrumental reason a genuine characteristic of fundamentalism? By what criteria can we regard Pinbacker as a fundamentalist, or is the term just an arbitrary slur? Perhaps most important, is there a real danger here that the film is warning us of?

Having parsed Boyle’s definition of fundamentalism, it is necessary now to study the wider use and significance of the term to see whether it is apposite.

The first thing to realize is that the term today, in popular discourse, is fundamentally confused (pun intended). As historian Jonathan J. Edwards has explained, fundamentalism is commonly “a word we use to denigrate perspectives and people we don’t like.” Mass media seem to use it as a catch-all term for inappropriate or distasteful religious zeal, especially where it gets violent or political.

I think it is unnecessary for me to go into any great detail here, as for those interested, theologian Roger Olson has come up with a list of identifying traits of Christian fundamentalism and the history of the movement. There are, moreover, quite a few books currently available on the subject, the most venerable being George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture. I will therefore content myself with a broad overview.

Descent_of_the_Modernists,_E._J._Pace,_Christian_Cartoons,_1922The term originated a century ago in reference to American Protestants who held to certain “fundamentals,” opposing the “modern theology” movement that was gaining ground everywhere. Fundamentalists believed the departures of liberal Christianity constituted heresy that must be purged from their respective denominations. Notwithstanding this common purpose, the various fundamentalist groups disagreed on a wide variety of theological issues. Most eventually embraced dispensationalism, which placed eschatological issues front and center. Yet the most distinctive and universal fundamentalist doctrine was biblical inerrancy, which implied not only a rejection of textual criticism but a highly literal approach to the Bible. Thus, fundamentalists rejected evolution and generally held to traditional teachings on the virgin birth, the apostolic authorship of the New Testament, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, and so forth.

Despite this apparently conservative orientation, historians have frequently pointed out that it is a profound error to treat fundamentalism as a relic of the past. Fundamentalism was not only born of a reaction to modernism, but was shaped by many of the modern world’s basic assumptions. For instance, the emphasis on inerrancy (the word first coming into currency at this time) was a product of nineteenth-century “scientific” methods of interpretation, which treated the scriptural texts as a collection of univocal facts to be methodically and rationally analyzed–a tremendous departure from medieval and ancient exegesis, which embraced textual polyvalence.

In the 1920s, self-identified evangelicals began to diverge from fundamentalism. Fundamentalism became more aggressive in its emphasis on purity, while evangelicals, who held to many or most “fundamental” doctrines, embraced a more conciliatory approach (ecumenism). Fundamentalists defined themselves more and more narrowly, and splintered further and further. In consequence, fundamentalism declined and disappeared off the public stage. It unexpectedly resurged in the 1970s, as conservative Christians gained new political consciousness. With liberal Christianity in a tailspin, the new fundamentalists targeted the encroaching power of secularism. The crusade for theological purity in the church now fell in the shadow of a crusade for public morality.

Only a tiny minority of American Christians would today describe themselves as fundamentalists; despite attempts by Jerry Falwell and others to redeem the label, its negative connotations have won out. The Southern Baptist Convention, widely considered the largest fundamentalist denomination still active, generally eschews the label. Most American Christians today would associate fundamentalism with excessive dogmatism on “non-essentials” and hostility toward the wider culture. Fundamentalist churches are insular, independent, and usually small, eccentric in their theology and often led by authoritarian pastors who draw inflexible lines between who is “in” and who is “out.” They regard themselves as the “remnant,” the sole persevering faithful in an apostate world.

Unsurprisingly, the popular secular view of fundamentalism is even harsher. Scholars such as Edwards emphasize its opposition to pluralism and compromise. Any Christian whose beliefs or actions are suspected of posing a threat to the secular order may be regarded as a “fundamentalist,” whether they describe themselves as such or not. Many assume fundamentalists hold a theocratic or reconstructionist theology, though old-style fundamentalists are more likely to advocate complete separation from politics.

The term and its negative connotations were expanded in the late twentieth century when media commentators used it to describe radical Islamist groups. Many have argued that this application is incoherent and unhelpful, eliding important distinctions, but it has sunk deeply into public consciousness. “Fundamentalism” has been universalized, and subsequently reverse-applied to conservative Christian political groups of a variety of theological stripes. The term today in popular discourse seems to me to cover a broad range of negative traits: bigotry, intolerance, radicalism, dogmatism, violence, anti-modernism, and fanaticism. Occasionally, the term is extended beyond religion.

In the case of director Danny Boyle, at least, this universalization of the term has provided a name for secular humanism’s bugbear. His repeated references to the Taliban as a voice of opposition to science seem significant. Perhaps he was referring to the Taliban’s theocratic school curricula, which de-emphasize scientific studies or eliminate them altogether in favor of more “traditional” Islamic disciplines. Perhaps he was referring to the Taliban’s campaign against the polio vaccine, though I am not sure if this was an issue when Sunshine was made, and regardless, the Taliban objects to the vaccine for political rather than religious reasons. Perhaps he was simply referring to the group’s fanatic violence, although religion has hardly been the most violent force of this or any other century.

But perhaps the most likely explanation is that Boyle is subtly identifying science with the secular humanist synthesis achieved by western civilization. The Taliban constitutes one of the most visible and extreme groups today which oppose this synthesis. When it suits their interest, they are quite willing to utilize science in the form of military technology. In 2012, the Taliban released a video demonstrating their “high-tech” capabilities. They are hardly Luddites, or if they are, as in the case of the historical Luddites, it is not out of irrational hatred of science as such. The relationship between certain Muslim communities–which have experienced two centuries of western imperialism–and the western-dominated international scientific community has broken down. A climate of trust is one of the conditions science requires in order to function, and this has sometimes either never developed or come under suspicion.

The character Pinbacker, then, resembles no existing form of fundamentalism, and has more affinity with the bizarre religious extremists that litter Stephen King novels than anything in real life. Rather than being an illuminating image or even moderately truthful caricature, he is simply an absurdity. Even his worldview is contrived as a mess of contradictions: he is portrayed as an deeply religious fatalistic nihilist (an oxymoron in itself) who believes God’s immutable judgment requires his murderous activities to come to pass. To equate fundamentalism with outright insanity is, as I hope has been made clear, preposterous and unhelpful.

One might protest that this is unfair. Sunshine is first and foremost a work of art, not a documentary. Boyle’s use of the term “fundamentalism” may have been misguided by some definitions, but that hardly invalidates the message of the film, which uses Pinbacker to embody what is wrong with the world, whatever this may be called.

This critique overlooks the fact that these semantic issues reveal deeper problems. If Pinbacker stands for a thing Boyle calls “fundamentalism,” then a lot of questions must be raised if no such “thing” exists. And indeed, in the popular aspersive sense of the term, there is certainly not some universal thing–whether identity, force, or tendency–called fundamentalism, only a constellation of diverse religious phenomena associated primarily by their failure to conform to western secular values.

Deconstructing this term, then, is part and prelude of exploring the dualistic worldview behind Sunshine. This worldview, as already mentioned, depicts an alleged conflict between enlightening science and the forces of irrationality. This is the founding myth of secular humanism, and as a myth it continues to guide interpretation of the present: Pinbacker is the shadow in us all that must be defeated by faith in reason.

This worldview goes well beyond both the findings of science and the merely negative assertion of atheism, for it invests science and human rationality with a particular cosmic value. Sunshine does not take place in a Lovecraftian universe, where human beings are gnats at the mercy of incomprehensible powers. Rather, it is one which may be successfully negotiated, even dominated, by the rational powers inherited by humankind. Sunshine‘s anthropological dualism of reason over body and cosmos hints at Cartesian dualism.

As numerous philosophers have pointed out, it is inherently problematic to elevate reason to some transcendent status within a reductive physicalist metaphysics. However, Sunshine makes no apparent claims to physicalism, and Boyle has before described himself as a “spiritual atheist.” The “mysticism of reason” has found great favor among secular intellectuals with spiritual inclinations, including physicists and philosophers, however much these inclinations may be veiled or denied. Likewise, there has been much positive regard for the neo-Gnostic aspiration of human ascent to more and more perfect stages of rationality and knowledge. The most dramatic versions of this hope foresee leaving bodily existence and all human limitations behind (see 2001: A Space Odyssey and many varieties of transhumanism).

Despite reserving its grandiose expectations for science instead of God, a fundamentally religious impulse seems at work here. It imagines a science not subject to intrinsic limitations, a mutable human nature detached from bodily existence, a cosmos receptive to the domination of consciousness. Science is here not merely a method aimed at producing particular advancements in knowledge and technology; it is a salvific entity supposed to be able to solve problems well outside its domain.

Perhaps we could add that Boyle does not seem to recognize the danger of unfettered instrumental rationality. The scientific community has been at times deeply implicated in such moral lapses as scientific racism, eugenics, forcible sterilization, human testing, weapons of mass destruction, and various disastrous social engineering schemes. The vision of man as master of nature has, we now know, led to all manner of environmental havoc. Science, as a discipline of utility that aspires to be value-free, cannot logically provide its own values; in this sense, it must be constrained by a higher order, and the truly dangerous human being is the one who insists otherwise.

Having said all this, how does it reflect on modern westerners’ persistence in thinking of fundamentalism as some kind of dangerous regressive tendency implicit in all religion? It simply indicates some level of acceptance of the secularist mythos, and with it a gravely distorted view of real-life fundamentalism. By refusing to understand it, by dismissing it (falsely) as mere unevolved backwardness, one has ceased to be able to speak to or about the problem effectively. The only remaining response is the violent censure displayed by various secularizing states over the last couple centuries.

Bydgoszcz_1939_Polish_priests_and_civilians_at_the_Old_MarketIf fundamentalists are othered into irrational creatures athwart human destiny, “stuck in the past,” they become unintelligible, a bogey for politicians and polemicists to exploit. If fundamentalism is taken to refer to alleged perennial and irreducible religious “bad traits,” we will read fundamentalism into radically disparate phenomena and never uncover their root causes. We will embrace the myth that religion in the abstract has a propensity toward violence. Only when fundamentalism is historicized and put into its proper context can it be truly comprehended and its genuinely unpleasant or irrational tendencies repudiated. Otherwise, one may fall prey to precisely the simplistic “us-versus-them” dualism that characterizes fundamentalist rhetoric.

Sunshine implicitly puts us in such a position. In the opinion of many critics and viewers, Pinbacker’s appearance derailed the sophisticated artistry of the first two thirds of the film. But of course, his appearance was necessary for reasons other than dramatic. The crew, earth’s finest, required an antagonist to manifest the primordial darkness that lingers in humanity, a gloom that can only be penetrated by the light of science, which beams from the reflective rational mind and illuminates all corners of the cosmos. Humanity does not kneel in worship before the sun like the unreasoning animals that came before; humanity stands upright, lordly, and returns to the sun the gift of life continually received across one hundred and fifty million kilometers of void.

This is a potent myth, and one, I have implied, with potentially dangerous social consequences. But it is also a myth in which, as John Gray has tirelessly indicated, survives a residue of religious and even specifically Christian imagination. Sunshine, with its imagery of salvation and transcendence, appeals to profoundly religious instincts. It reveals, if anything, the universal human need for the meaningful story, the narrative that offers a reason and ground for our existence. We may, I think, go so far as to see the physicist, Capa, as an unintentional type of the Son offering himself up as a living sacrifice to the Father, alone worthy to approach the consuming fire.

Sunshine Finish


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