herald

Saturday 21 October 2017

On the air: Missing aliens and some focus

The Space Shuttle Endeavour arrives on the back of a NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft as it passes over the 405 freeway in Los Angeles on a low level flyover at Los Angeles International Airport
The Space Shuttle Endeavour arrives on the back of a NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft as it passes over the 405 freeway in Los Angeles on a low level flyover at Los Angeles International Airport

We’re going to leave this planet where religion is part of the human fabric of the place,” said Colette Kinsella on Sunday’s Life Matters, “and head somewhere it doesn’t exist: space.”

Not the sort of stuff one usually hears on RTE Radio 1 of a Sunday evening. It sounded bold, exciting, wild. It also, let’s be fair, sounded like a pretty zany misuse of the national broadcaster’s budget.

Don’t get me wrong. If it were up to me I’d happily divert a certain percentage of Ryan Tubridy’s salary (let’s say 100pc) into a radical, RTE-funded space programme designed to help non-believers flee Earth and all its religions. I’d be on for such godless space high jinks myself. Sounds like a lark.

Sadly, it’s not up to me. So we’re stuck here. And stuck with Tubs. And stuck with oodles of religion. And everything is rubbish and nothing is fair.

And, anyway, Kinsella was describing a notional journey, not an actual one. Can you imagine Liveline’s switchboard if such atheistic carry-on did end up so funded? It wouldn’t just explode, or implode. It would go super-bloody-nova, creating a singularity of outrage that might well consume the entire universe. Which, on balance, would probably be a bad thing.

Episode 6 of Life Matters – The God of Aliens – wasn’t quite as bad a thing as all that, but it still felt rather limp and tepid for a show aiming to explore something as meaty as “the ethics of how we live today”.

The notional journey that Kinsella, co-host Sean Duke and assorted “thinkers and scientists” were making into space was being undertaken to “investigate whether religion is still relevant in an age of space exploration”.

Asking whether or not religion is “still relevant” is the type of big question that’s a) much loved by shows like this and b) almost meaningless. What does “relevant” even mean in this context? Relevant to whom? Relevant in what sense and to what end?

Also, when Duke swept in with sweeping questions such as “Do we still need religion?” and “Can we imagine a world without it?” it was tempting to simply answer “Some of us do, some of us don’t” and “Some of us can, some of us can’t”, respectively, and leave it at that.

And that “we” is problematic. Who’s included in it? Who’s excluded by it? Is it a Christian “we”? The show’s largely Christian-centric flavour would seem to suggest so, but there’s a laziness and slackness of focus about Life Matters that means such matters (important matters) often go unclarified.

A pity, really, as some of the contributions were reasonably interesting and provocative. For example, Joseph Bulbulia’s contention that belief in “moralising gods” seems to be measurably higher in “harsh ecologies” than in more clement climes and environments. And where were all the aliens? We were promised aliens. I mean, Sunday’s episode was called “The God of Aliens”, for God’s sake. It’s there in the title. Yet there was barely a whiff of ’em.

OK, I know they’re elusive buggers, but I turned in specifically to hear chat about the philosophical/religious implications of the discovery of extraterrestrial life. One of the contributors, Paul Davies, has even written a book on this topic  – not that you’d have known it.

So our RTE-funded spaceship of atheists turned out to be notional. And the show itself didn’t do exactly what it said on the tin. Disappointments all round.

Life Matters, RTE Radio1, Sunday

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