The 1997 film Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name, raises a few interesting questions about the role of religious belief in science. The film revolves around a character’s contact with an alien, and explores the nature of the validity of personal experience in both religion and science. But does the film manage to show the compatibility of these?
Through the Wormhole
In Contact, astronomer Dr. Eleanor Arroway—let’s call her Ellie—detects a signal seemingly from the star Vega. It communicates prime numbers and contains an enhanced version of the first human TV signal powerful enough to escape into space: Hitler’s opening speech at the Summer Olympics in Berlin on August 1, 1936. As clear evidence of extraterrestrial life, news of the signal spreads and turns the world upside-down.
More data is discovered in the signal, but it can’t be initially deciphered. The key is given to Ellie by S. R. Hadden, who financed Ellie’s project and somehow gained access to the data. The key reveals that the signal contains blueprints for a giant machine which, when activated, is designed to drop a capsule carrying a human into it.
Ellie is selected to be this human. When dropped, she has the experience of traveling, via wormholes, to the center of the galaxy, where she meets an alien who takes the form of her deceased father. He explains that this is how first contact is made with civilizations once they start sending signals into space.
After what seems to be about 18 hours to Ellie, and a trip back to Earth, her capsule splashes into the ocean beneath the machine. But to those observing from the outside, it appears that Ellie merely dropped straight through the machine. Instruments show that she was out of contact for only a second, and the video that shows her capsule falling through the machine is only a few seconds long.
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The Evidence of the Encounter
Ellie is brought before a Congressional committee to provide evidence of her encounter. But besides her experience, she has none.
National Security Advisor Kitz—the antagonist of the film—suggests it’s more likely that her experience was a hallucination and that the whole thing was a hoax perpetrated by Hadden.
He faked the signal from a satellite to trick the government into paying for his experimental machine. That’s how he had access to the embedded blueprints and why only he knew how to decode them.
Ellie agrees that this is the better, simpler explanation—that’s even what she would think if she were in Kitz’s position. But, she says, she can’t doubt her experience.
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The Carl Sagan Controversy
Carl Sagan, the author of the novel that inspired the film, was a controversial figure. A prolific science communicator, he was an advocate for established scientific theories that many religious persons found threatening.
As the author of The Demon-Haunted World, a classic text that teaches readers how to think scientifically and discredits countless supernatural phenomena, Sagan was decried by paranormal enthusiasts and the religious alike.
Sagan claimed to be agnostic—to not hold any belief about God’s existence. Indeed, he was critical of atheists because, Sagan said, atheists are certain God doesn’t exist when no such certainty is warranted.
He even publicly defended the claim that science and religion are compatible. And, despite the fact that Contact is clearly critical of close-minded religious fundamentalist like the evangelical spokesman Richard Rank, and highlights the dangers of religious fanaticism by having the albino priest Joseph perform a suicide bombing, Contact clearly defends the thesis that science and religion are compatible.
God and the Extraterrestrial
Ellie’s love interest in the film is Palmer Joss, a reverend who says that his belief in God is justified by a vivid religious experience. He was looking into the sky, felt a presence, and knew “It was God,” that he wasn’t alone.
Ellie initially dismisses his experience as wishful thinking.
In the end, however, Ellie ends up doing just what Palmer did: trusting her own experience, even though she openly admits that it’s more likely a result of wishful thinking.
She even uses some of Palmer’s words to explain why she can’t help but believe that her experience was genuine:
[It] changed me forever … [it was a] vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves … that none of us are alone.
Palmer’s last line in the film has him saying that he believes Ellie’s experience was legitimate. But if Ellie is justified in believing she visited aliens based on her own personal experience, isn’t Reverend Palmer justified in believing in God based on his personal experience?
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The Shaky Ground of Personal Experience
Ellie can’t prove her alien/contact hypothesis, and Kitz can’t prove the hoax/hallucination hypothesis. But the hoax/hallucination hypothesis is simpler. Since it doesn’t invoke aliens, it is more conservative (given the size of the universe, it aligns with how likely alien contact really is) and has a wider scope: it explains perfectly why Hadden had access to the blueprints and was the only one able to decode them.
So, given what Ellie knows at the time of her testimony, it doesn’t seem that she is justified in believing that she contacted aliens.
The same is true for Reverend Palmer. You can’t perform an experiment to determine whether his religious experience was legitimate or a hallucination, either. In his case too, the hallucination hypothesis is simpler; it doesn’t invoke supernatural entities.
It’s more conservative; it aligns nicely with what we know about how the brain can produce such experiences. And it has wider scope; the wishful thinking explanation accounts for why religious experiences in all major religions don’t align.
It seems wrong, then, to suggest that Ellie’s belief in aliens, and in turn Palmer’s belief in God, were rational given the experiences they had. It seems that the film’s moral message about the compatibility of science and religion is on shaky ground.
Common Questions about Contact
In Contact, astronomer Dr. Eleanor Arroway detects a signal seemingly from the star Vega. It communicates prime numbers and contains an enhanced version of Hitler’s opening speech at the Summer Olympics in Berlin on August 1, 1936.
In Contact, the deciphered data in the alien signal reveals blueprints for a giant machine which, when activated, is designed to drop a capsule carrying a human into it.
In Contact, Ellie has the experience of traveling, via wormholes, to the center of the galaxy, where she meets an alien who takes the form of her deceased father. He explains that this is how first contact is made with civilizations once they start sending signals into space. Then she returns and splashes down below the machine.