I’m a latecomer to the Game of Thrones phenomenon. So in keeping with my generation’s TV consumption patterns, I’ve been binge-watching the episodes in anticipation of the fourth season release on April 6. My immersion in George R. R. Martin’s dark-ages-Europe-turned-fantasy-drama no doubt accounts for why I’m relating everything to the series. So the fact that Jerry Coyne’s recent New Republic article on the conflict between science and religion made me think of a Game of Thrones analogy, perhaps should be taken with a grain of salt.
It’s not the bloodshed in the series that calls to my mind possible conflicts between science and religion. No, it’s the chaos. You can really feel it as the complicated plot unfolds—the characters all believe they have some control over their lives, even as their worlds coming crashing down around them.
And so everyone in the Game of Thrones universe is looking for an answer that makes sense of it all. Something that gives order, that confers meaning beyond the senseless, bloody, uncontrollable mess of their lives. And there are almost as many answers for what makes the world run as there are characters: Blood lines. Honor. Armies. Death. Magic. Dragons. The Lord of Light (one of the deities of the series, somewhat based on Zorastrianism). As soon as one character proposes a final answer, another one contradicts it. In a scene during the second season, one of the court advisors coyly informs the queen that he knows her terrible secret. “Information is power,” he gleefully declares. She responds by having her guards hold him at sword point. “Power is power,” she answers.
We want final answers. We want an answer to the chaos. And such is the promise of modernity: that science has succeeded where religion has failed.
At first I thought that the message of Game of Thrones was the meaninglessness of religion, since there are so many competing gods in the series (i.e. akin to the criticisms of Catholicism in the young adult fantasy the Golden Compass). But as I continued to watch, I realized the point might actually be more subtle. There isn’t a final essential answer that makes sense of everything—the world is what the characters make of it. The meaning of the world walks around with the characters and lives and breaths with them only as they do.
So perhaps George R.R. Martin is a post-modern author. Or perhaps I am just post-modern myself. But to me, Game of Thrones is a highly entertaining lesson in why modernity is so attractive, and ultimately also why it has failed us. We want final answers. We want an answer to the chaos. And such is the promise of modernity: that science has succeeded where religion has failed.
People are never so able to do horrendous things to one another as when they believe they are in the right.
This is why Jerry Coyne believes that science and religion must be at war. In his words, it is a struggle “between using faith to discern what is real as opposed to using reason and observation of the universe.” For Coyne, science is the right answer to the question: what makes the world make sense? And to Coyne, religion is simply the wrong answer to that question.
But I think that Coyne and modernity are asking the wrong question. Or maybe not the wrong question, but not the best one. I’d like to ask a different one: how do we live well in the world? Live well for ourselves and live well in relationship to others.
And what is clear, and perhaps ironic about these two questions, is that those who are preoccupied with the first are often prevented, or very bad at answering the second. People are never so able to do horrendous things to one another as when they believe they are in the right. I’m not at all saying that those who love science and want to promote it are responsible for all the evils we see around us. Science is extraordinary. It really is. I marvel at it daily. And the atrocities done in the name of religion are easily found through history and in the present. What is certainly true, is that the graphic violence in the fictional Game of Thrones is only a shadow of the far deeper pains in our own world. But I can’t help but believe that humility on all sides is the only way forward to kindness, healing and justice.
Myrna Perez Sheldon is co-editor-in-chief of Cosmologics.
Image from Flickr via Frank Kehren