Joss Whedon (the guy behind Dr Horrible and Firefly, and recently Dollhouse) on Humanists as “True Believers”:
This clip is relevant to the recent discussion as he talks about “faith” and points out that it isn’t the enemy. In fact, “faith” is important, faith is something we have to embrace he says in a wonderful climax to his talk. The climax can also be read towards the bottom of Dale McGowan’s post My cover is blown, which might or might not have been the first place I spotted that Joss Whedon clip.
To talk a bit about Joss and worldviews: I understand Joss to be a humanist / absurdist / existentialist with Jean Paul Sartre influences. I really loved the portrayal of the power of belief in Firefly, or rather the movie Serenity which is set after the series to tie up ends left tragically loose by its premature termination.
I recall the Operative is described as a particularly deadly and “unstoppable” foe because he is “a believer”. Quoting wikipedia for confirmation: the Operative single-mindedly hunts down River Tam because he believes that his actions “make the world a better place”. He recognises the evil in himself, but his belief in the greater good he is committing atrocities for succeeds in completely overriding any guilt and concern he might have had. For more details on his “believer” worldview including his realism about his own place in it, see “Operative” on firefly.wikia.com.
Mal on the other hand was floating through space without much of a mission or belief providing a goal or some sense of profound meaning in his life: he had lost all his faith in the aftermath of losing the war against the Alliance. Towards the end of the movie they reach Miranda and learn something exceedingly horrifying. As a result (quoting Serenity (film) on firefly.wikia.com) “for the first time in years, Mal is moved by something greater than himself; a belief, something he thought he’d lost in the Battle of Serenity Valley”.
One last recap of this theme for both characters, from “Serenity (film)” on Wikipedia:
The Operative believes so strongly in this idea that he willingly compromises his humanity in furtherance of it. In contrast, Mal is, at the movie’s beginning, a man who has lost all faith. By the end of the movie, however, Mal has finally come to believe in something — individual liberty — so strongly that he becomes willing to lay down his life to preserve it.
This also reflects for me the advice Dan Dennet gave in a TED talk I wrote about nearly two years ago:
I myself am a philosopher, and one of our occupational hazards is that people ask us what the meaning of life is. You have to have a bumper sticker, you have to have a statement, so this is mine:
The secret of happiness:
Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.
For a more thorough treatment of the portrayal of religion in Firefly (which features Christianity, rare for sci-fi set in the future), check out Chris Bateman’s excellent post Religion in Science Fiction (7): Firefly — certainly worth a read in my opinion! And enough material for an interesting discussion if anyone’s keen.