How Television (and Plays) Can Change the Religion/Science Discussion

How Television (and Plays) Can Change the Religion/Science Discussion

Can drama change the way we talk about religion and science? A fan of “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” and a former theater professional believe so.

As part of Sinai and Synapses’ series “More Light, Less Heat,” John Sianghio and Seth Patterson share how the role of drama, art, and movies can reframe the conversation about science and religion. Rather than focusing on “truth” in a scientific sense, they talk about how movies and television can provide a different kind of “truth.”

John Marc Sianghio, Jr. is a Sinai and Synapses Fellow. He is a Ph.D. student in Religious Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Formerly he was Assistant Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL. As an outgrowth of his faith, John is personally passionate about conducting justice and human rights operations internationally. He worked in his native Philippines with the Christian NGO International Justice Mission to build local frameworks for the prevention of human rights abuses. He served in Operation Enduring Freedom as Human Terrain Analyst for Task Force Patriot, 4BCT-10IN and as a member of the Civil-Military Operations Advisory Team for 3-89 CAV.

Here, he talks about how his love for two classics of science fiction — “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” — have helped him talk more effectively about science and religion.

Seth Patterson is currently the Associate Director for Chapel Life at Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago and the Project Manager of the Chicago Commons Project through the University of Chicago Divinity School. He has received a Master of Divinity from the University of Chicago Divinity School and an MFA in theater performance from Florida Atlantic University. He is interested in the way that arts, specifically theater, interact with and ask similar questions as religions and spiritualities.

Here, he talks about how drama creates new discoveries for the audience, and offers different perspectives about truth.


John Marc Sianghio, Jr,

Hello, my name is John Sianghio and I’m a Ph.D. student in religious ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. In a former life, I was a professor of political science and also a social scientist and analyst for the Department of Defense.

So for me, both religion and science have been very important, very prominent aspects of both my professional life and in the way that I just generally view the world. So it was rather disturbing to me, when, a few months ago, my 12-year-old brother, who I have because of the miracles of modern science, came to me and said that in his Sunday School class, he was doing a presentation about atheism and the monotheistic religions. When I asked him what he meant by the relationship between these two things, he proceeded to define “atheism” as “those who believe in the Big Bang and in evolution.”

Now, we grew up with the same parents, we grew up in the same household, we grew up in slightly different churches, but I went (when I was growing up) to an even more conservative church than he does now. And yet when I was 12 years old, I was not defining “atheism” as “the Big Bang and evolution.” In fact, I told my Sunday School teacher, and my youth pastor when I was in 7th grade, that I believed in both evolution and in the Big Bang.

So I wondered, having very similar upbringings, why my brother was defining atheism, and pointing out the antagonism between religion and science, at this very early age where I, at 12, did not have that same sense of antagonism between these two things,

And to be fair, I grew up in a place where creation happened in six days, where God created every species from His own hand, there was no evolution, it wasn’t really talked about in my household. But what I think is very interesting, and I think what made the difference, is that I was very open to science, and really passionate about science and empiricism and looking at the world through investigation…because of the other thing that we did in my household religiously, which was to watch “Star Trek.”

And watching “Star Trek” with my dad, who started life out as a chemical engineer and then went into business, so a scientist himself, who even though he might have believed in evolution, and in six days of creation, and the universe coming into being that way, still had this love of engineering, of Star Trek’s way of solving problems through the scientific method.

And not only technical problems, but also investigating human communities, and investigating human emotions, looking at Commander Data. who is an android, and really wants to process and understand what it is to be human. Looking at all these things, there never seemed to be an antagonistic relationship between religion and science, between culture and science. There was always a very, very deep respect, and while science was prominent, it was a way to get at human questions, just like religion does.

And growing up with that sort of environment, growing up with that very, very prominent emphasis on watching “Star Trek” with my dad, something that I did as a kid, it, I think, made me very open to exploration and understanding religion and science to be intrinsically interconnected.

Now, I can’t really think of as much of a parallel from the religious side of it, but I think as close as I can get is something that has been very influential in my life, as well, which is the “Star Wars” films. I’m a big nerd, as you can probably tell, but you have a conflict in the Empire between those believe in the technical terror of the Death Star and those who really believe in the old ways, and the power of the Force, like Darth Vader.

And in Luke Skywalker, you have, I think, the perfect blend of both the technological aspect, the technological emphasis that we see in a space opera, like Flash Gordon or in Star Trek, with this very, very prominent feature of a religious worldview, a worldview that is really centered in and around the Force. And while “Star Trek” is a way of getting at human questions through science, there is an approach to science and technology in “Star Wars” that really has its focusing lens as the Force. Yet in the newest Star Wars movie, Han Solo, talking about in the first movie, he was saying that there’s no mystical energy field, none of that stuff controls my destiny, it’s all a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, and in this new film, he says, “It’s true. All of it. The Dark Side, the Jedi, it’s all true.” And there’s a real understanding of how these two things can be in synergy.

And so I just think that it’s interesting that the dialogue between religion and science, for me, the differences I see in my worldview and my 12-year-old brother’s worldviews, the things that shaped it, I think, are not talking to scientists or reading academic journals, or the academic investigation of religion, but rather, these really fun moments with my father, doing things that as a young child really engage the mind from an entertainment perspective.

And so I think in the conversation between religion and science, not only do we have to understand and be very careful about the contents, but also the presentation of how we approach this conversation and dialogue between religion and science.

Thanks for listening.

Seth Patterson

Hi, my name is Seth Patterson, and I’m the Associate Director for Chapel Life at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago. I have a Master of Divinity from the University of Chicago Divinity School, and I also have a Master of Fine Arts in Theater Performance from Florida Atlantic University and before getting my M.Div. I spent my career as a professional actor, director and producer.

And being approached with this question of the relationship — or the possible antagonism between — religion and science I find fascinating, because it’s not one that I grew up with.

I grew up in a household in which the two things seemed to have no problem relating to each other. My grandfather was a chemical engineer who worked for Standard Oil and invented a thing that apparently they still use, and then he went to seminary, and ended up being the president of a major American Protestant denomination. My father is a Presbyterian minister and works as a hospital chaplain, and growing up, I saw him read science. We referred to Albert Einstein in my house as “Uncle Al.” He read about theories and chaos theory, and so this was part of my life. I saw this.

So to watch the antagonism, to watch that there seem to be lines drawn in the sand, has always been curious to me. And it could be that I don’t know enough about either religion or science to know where the lines are, but it’s not something that I’ve ever experienced.

And then having worked in the theater, and plays as being a place of discovery, a play is a moment when multiple people come together, committed to discovering or creating, or forming out of somebody’s words, some sort of truth that can be passed onto an audience. In that world, I also don’t see an antagonism between science and art, or art and religion, that the two things work together as modes of discovery, as questions about the unknown, or questions about what we are supposed to do, or not do, in this world.

And it reminds me of a dialogue in a play called “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” by Steve Martin, and here’s a very old script of it. Einstein says, “The theories must be beautiful. You know why the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth? Because the idea is not beautiful enough. If you’re trying to prove that the sun revolves around the earth in order to make the theory fit the facts, you have to have the planets moving backwards, and the sun doing loop-de-loops. It’s too ugly. Way ugly.” Picasso says, “So, you’re saying you bring a beautiful idea into being?” “Yes, we create a system and try to see if the facts can fit it.” “So, you’re not just describing the world as it is?” “No! We are creating a new way of looking at the world.” “So you’re saying you dream the impossible and put into effect?” And Einstein says, “Exactly.”

“You dream the impossible and put it into effect.” That is the role of art, that is the role of religion, and that is the role of science, in the most ideal of circumstances.

Thank you.

(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, “How Science Influences Religious Language).


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