Religious Naturalism Resources - Popular Culture

Art | Literature | Movies | Music | Photography | Plays | Video Games

Introduction

This page contains reviewed references, and sometimes reflections, on expressions of religious naturalism within popular culture.

Blue Ridge Bliss
from here.

Art

"Biosculptures" by Jackie Brookner (see here)

Artist Jackie Brookner’s sculptures are more than just art installations. They serve functional purposes. Her biosculptures incorporate hand-crafted stone figures as a base for living organisms. The sculpture becomes a functional ecosystem, cycling nutrients between photosynthetic plants and mosses and vertebrate and invertebrate organisms. The outcome of these created ecosystems is a natural biogeochemical water purification system. Brookner’s website states that the intent of the sculptures is “to seed a sense of connection to worlds beyond the human and to encourage understanding that is it possible to sustain human life in ways that benefit natural systems, rather than degrade them.” The biosculptures appear as installations in parks and museums around the world. In a piece entitled “The Gift of Water” located in Grossenhain, Germany, large cupped stone hands encapsulate an ecosystem of moss which filters aerated water passing through it to create a public swimming area without the use of chemicals.

Brookner’s art is compelling because of its incorporation of living organisms to create something that is more than just aesthetically pleasing. Instead of a representation of nature through artistic media, Brookner’s biosculptures highlight the beauty of nature and its processes as art. Her work draws attention to the important roles that seemingly insignificant organisms, such as moss, play in maintaining ecological balance on Earth. It awakens people to the power and self-nurturing qualities found within interdependent ecological relationships. It inspires awe as well as encourages environmental responsibility through the recognition of human dependence on natural processes. Brookner’s work gives an adequate balance of human construction and natural elements to convey the reality of modern human interaction with the environment. [JC]

Monet’s Paintings at Giverny (1883-1926) (see here)

Claude Monet (1840-1926) was the founder of French impressionist art and is most known for his “Water Lilies” paintings, all of which were painted in the garden at his home in Giverny. Monet moved to Givery in 1883, living and painting there until his death in 1926. Most of his paintings during this period of time focused on capturing the image of his garden through color, light, and water. Monet said, "The motif's essential is the mirror of water whose aspect is constantly being modified by the changing sky reflected in it, and which imbues it with life and movement." Monet’s use of reflection and the open spaces between water and sky bring the viewer into the painting, making them at home in nature in a way few painters before or after have been able to do. Monet’s use of light and shadows in these pieces capture the true depths of nature, hinting at and unruly under-conscious just below the surface. Monet said of himself, "I am not a great painter, great poet. I just know that I do what I can to express what I feel in front of nature." Monet’s connection to nature is what allowed him to paint such Truth in these pieces and why they still capture the hearts of audiences today.

Literature

"Speaker for the Dead" and "Xenocide," by Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card’s science-fiction book series which includes Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide is steeped in naturalist and religious debate. The main character, Andrew Wiggin (a.k.a: Ender), is a leader within a humanist religion which focuses on a naturalistic world-view and scientific empiricism. The book’s major themes revolve around the “big questions” of religion, science, universalisms, epistemology, ontology, and the human soul (including non-human, sentient beings). It is clear throughout the story that Ender does not believe in a God as a Being. In several discussions that take place between Ender and his Catholic wife, Ender expresses openness to ideas of transcendence, but only in a naturalistic sense. Several themes of personhood are discussed, especially around the varying levels of sentience in the universe which include two non-human species, the hive-minded beings known as the Buggers, and the Pequeninos, who after their corporeal death become sentient trees. Ender’s entire family is made up of scientists, including xeno-biologists and physicists, who, through their science and reason, make many of the big discoveries (some of which concern the nature of the soul and existence after death) and decisions of the series. These discoveries and decisions guide Ender throughout his life. One of the major themes in these books is focused on the fictional idea of philotes and Aiúas. In the series, through scientific inquiry it is discovered that the universe, at its ultimate core, is connected and made up of philotes, which are indivisible and of the physical universe. Every being also contains a sentient philote, an Aiúa, which makes up the “soul” or the indivisible “is-ness” of a person. Orson Scott Card’s books, while science-fiction, philosophically deal with a lot of deep questions that face both naturalists and super-naturalist today. [AT]

"The Leaf and the Cloud" by Mary Oliver (DeCapo Press, 2000)

What is the world and how do human beings fit within it? Does the world have a soul? Can we ever know nature’s mysteries? Mary Oliver’s chapbook of seven poems raises all of these questions and more while exploring nature in her everyday life. Her poems are a journey into reverence for plants, animals, insects, rocks, clouds, and sunrises. She describes each in great detail, mixing scientific knowledge and metaphor giving each depth as characters in her poems. Combined with reflection on her life events, Oliver’s poems indicate how ever-present nature is in our existence. For example, in “From the Book of Time,” she states, “Have I admired sufficiently the little hurricane of the hummingbird?//the heavy/thumb/of the blackberry?//the falling star?.” Nature is more than just a backdrop for human action. It can provide answers to life’s questions, or, alternatively, allow for questioning life fully and deeply. Love, grief, awe, happiness, loneliness, fear – Oliver’s poetry conveys all of these human emotions through nature’s lens.

I found Oliver’s poetry moving. Her descriptions provide the reader with a clear sense of her environment while also emphasizing the importance of inquiry and meditation to her work. She is not satisfied with taking nature at face value. Instead she questions its order and processes, delving deep to expose the awe-inspiring intricacies of interdependent life. Her work epitomizes religious naturalism, asserting that there is some ineffable quality of nature that is sacred and deserves to be acknowledged as such. Unlike many environmental writers, Oliver does not limit her discussion of the natural world to the joy it brings in human experience. She tackles death and fear as part of humanity and nature’s co-existence and relates these to the larger scope of the world itself. [JC]

"The Lord of the Rings" Trilogy

One of the major themes throughout the novels and the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings is the interconnection of humanity and nature. Focusing on the films, because of their more definite imagery, the importance of nature’s role is clear from the beginning. Good and evil are juxtaposed by their environments very early in the films. The wastelands of Mordor and the destructions of the forests at Isengard are shown in contrast to the idyllic meadows of the Shire and the breathtakingly beautiful mountains and waterfalls of Rivendale. Not only is the scenery telling of the good and evil alliances, many of the heroes, such as Gandalf, have special connections to nature, allowing them to speak to animals or mobilize entire forests. There are many characters that are nature incarnate, for example, the Ents, an entire race of trees, play a major role in over-throwing the literal production of evil that is taking place at Isengard. Much of the power behind the ultimate evil in Middle-Earth, Sauron, is produced through the destruction and mutilation of nature. In several scenes at Isengard, we see the brutalization of the natural world through industrialization, resulting in Sarumon’s entire army of uruk-hai and orcs, who embody this perversion of the nature. By looking deeper into The Lord of the Rings’ imagery and themes it becomes clear that naturalisms’ ecological concerns and connection to the natural world was an important theme for both J. R. R. Tolkien, the author, and Peter Jackson, the director. [AT]

Movies

“Avatar”

Depicting an alien race of beings capable of connecting with their natural world and the deity they believe to preserve it, James Cameron's Avatar has been largely interpreted by critics as promoting some iteration of religious naturalism. Both official and unofficial statements from the Vatican have characterized the film as pantheistic, describing a scenario in which “nature is no longer a Creation to be defended, but a divinity to be adored, while transcendence is emptied by incarnating itself in a plant and in its white vines which nourish spirits.” [1] Characterized by other commentators as endorsing a “form of nature religion” and aligning with “‘eco-theologies’ in which humanity and nature are seen in dynamic interaction,” many of the key elements of Na'vi culture and beliefs do appear congruent with at least some of the myriad understandings of religious naturalism. [2] This appearance, however, is misleading.

Jerome A. Stone distinguishes naturalism, “a set of beliefs and attitudes that focuses on this world” instead of something above or beyond it, from religious naturalism, which is a particular kind of naturalism that “affirms a set of beliefs and attitudes that there are religious aspects of this world which can be appreciated within a naturalistic framework.” [3] This naturalistic framework, according to David Ray Griffin, hinges on the “great truth” of being nonsupernaturalistic, where supernaturalism is defined as “the doctrine that there is a supernatural being who, existing outside the otherwise universal web of cause-effect relations, can violate it.” [4] Considering that the film's portrayals of popular naturalistic inclinations-respect for nature, peaceful coexistence with the natural world, the emphasis on a group of scientific researchers studying the global network of quantifiable pseudo-neuronal connections between the planet, its people, and their deity-are consistently intertwined with spiritual overtones, it is understandable that Avatar has been widely interpreted as an homage to a religiously naturalistic worldview. Alongside these motifs, however, is a consistent contradiction of the central tenet of naturalism-nonsupernaturalism-as evidenced in the portrayal of the Na'vi's deity, Eywa, as willful, persuadable, interventionist, possessing supernatural healing powers, potentially able to sustain a degree of subjective immortality for the mortal Na'vi, and existing within a presumably nonphysical realm. Thus, despite the seemingly naturalistic presentation of a deity that can be likened to a planetary neural network and an overarching theme of reverence for the natural world, the characteristics of Eywa as observed and implied within the film do not sufficiently avoid the supernatural as to justify compatibility with religious naturalism. [5] In light of this ultimate deviation from a defensible model of religious naturalism, the following investigation will outline the initial presentation of Avatar as consistent with many of the overarching themes of religious naturalism, particularly the religious naturalisms espoused by David Ray Griffin and Ursula Goodenough, followed by a discussion of the plot elements that contradict Griffin's “great truth” and disassociate the storyline from naturalism at large, and thus by extension, from religious naturalism specifically. Finally, potential reasons for this approach-developing a fairly robust religious naturalism only to negate it at a fundamental level with the inclusion of supernaturalism-will be identified, and the resultant implications of the final presentation of the film will be discussed.

Initial Presentation as Naturalism

As stated above, Avatar does not suffer from a total lack of alignment with a religiously-naturalistic worldview. The world of Pandora and its people, the Na'vi, initially present as being inclined toward religious naturalism, and are represented as “not [seeing] themselves as separate from nature, but rather an integral part of it.” [6] Their connection to their environment is indeed biological, given their capacity to “link” to other living creatures, as well as to their planet, via tail-like bundles of neural tendrils known as queues. [7] As Grace Augustine, one of the scientists studying Pandora, states:

I'm not talking about some kind of pagan voodoo, here. I'm talking about something real, something measurable in the biology of the forest...There is some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees, like the synapses between neurons...It's more connections than the human brain...It's a network, a global network and the Na'vi can access it, they can upload and download data, memories.[8]
In these ways, among others, Avatar sets itself up to be associated with religious naturalism, and if a viewer focuses only on these points, they would be justified in their estimation. Because so much of the public discourse surrounding Avatar is oriented toward this focus, it is important to identify its successful portrayals of religious naturalism before delving into the ways in which Avatar incorporates too many elements of supernatural theism to be considered religiously naturalistic.

To this end, David Ray Griffin's concept of naturalismppp-embracing panentheism, prehension, and panexperientialism-proves useful as a framework for understanding how Avatar does successfully present elements of religious naturalism. [9] With regard to panentheism, the beliefs of the Na'vi are by no means atheistic, and are instead oriented around the Gaia-like deity Eywa who is postulated to be “an emergent property of the ecosystem.” [10] This goddess is described as being “made up of all living things, everything [the Na'vi] know,” thus coinciding with the panentheistic component of Griffin's model. [11] Within this panentheistic understanding, the respect and care with which the Na'vi interact with the natural world coincide specifically with the religious principles identified by Ursula Goodenough as emerging from the naturalistic epic of evolution. [12] Neytiri, the daughter of the leaders of the Omaticaya clan in the film, exhibits visible reverence for the water she drinks off the leaves of a plant, gesturing in what appears to be gratitude. [13] This display amidst the paradisiacal bounty of Pandora coincides with Goodenough's principle of gratitude: hosannah here and now, rather than removed from the natural world at hand. [14] It is likewise revealing to consider the way in which the Na'vi react to killing animals and thereby negotiate their hunting practices. Neytiri is visibly disturbed and saddened at the loss of animal life necessary to save Jake Sully, the human marine who links with an Avatar body, when he is first stranded on Pandora after nightfall. When Jake thanks Neytiri for killing the predators that threatened him, she censures him: “You don't thank for this. This is sad, very sad only.” [15] When Na'vi hunters make a kill, they end the suffering of their wounded quarry as swiftly as possible while conveying their gratitude: “I See you, Brother, and thank you. Your spirit goes with Eywa, your body stays behind to become part of the People.” [16] Reflecting Goodenough's principle of reverence, the Na'vi exhibit a belief in the sacredness of all life that aligns with religious naturalism.[17]

Second, Griffin's concept of prehension, or the capacity for nonsensory perception, is conveyed by the film in multiple ways. [18] The traditional greeting between members of the Omaticaya clan translates as “I See you,” which indicates an insight beyond visual perception, a seeing into another person that is cultivated internally, largely unquantifiable via external means, and unteachable in a classical sense, as Neytiri indicates to Jake when he asks to be shown how to See as he would be shown how to shoot a bow: “No one can teach you to See.” [19] The idea of Seeing is associated in the film not only with interpersonal respect but with reverence for the connectivity of life on Pandora, as well as a general moral code. [20] In this way, ethics and morality are defined for an entire species, at least in part, by a mode of prehensive, nonsensory perception. Likewise, tsaheylu, the bond that the Na'vi are physiologically equipped to make with other living elements of their environment via their queues, presents a biological mechanism for connection that allows for experience beyond basic sensory perception. The queue connection allows the Na'vi to recognize energetic and kinetic signals from living entities in their environment, as well as to communicate telepathically with the creatures of Pandora. [21]This mode of experiencing outside of classical sensation thus aligns with the prehensive component of Griffin's naturalismppp.

Finally, the panexperientialist element of Griffin's model, which affirms the distinction between mind and brain while maintaining a connection between them that avoids dualism, is evidenced in both the use of the queue, as well as the functionality of the Avatar bodies themselves. [22] The Na'vi are able to connect their consciousness (mind) to other sources of consciousness as a result of the physical neuronal capacity of their queues, which are extensions of their central nervous systems (brain). [23] Similarly, a simultaneous distinction and connection between the mind and brain is seen in the process of linking a human consciousness to an Avatar body: the consciousness is all that is transferred, but the success of the transfer depends upon the genetic compatibility between the human Avatar driver and the Avatar body. [24] The distinction of mind and body is further underscored in the Na'vi conceptualization of life and death, in which the world is viewed as “a network of energy that flows through all living things...all energy is only borrowed and one day, you have to give it back.” [25] Coinciding here with Goodenough's Credo of Continuation of the primacy of life within a definitively natural order, the overall presentation of Na'vi culture and belief does appear, on the surface, to be reconcilable with at least some kind of religious naturalism. [26] Despite these points of cohesion, however, Avatar goes on to deviate from religious naturalism in a crucial way: it affirms supernaturalism, the stated antithesis of the very naturalism that serves as a foundation for religious naturalism.

Ultimate Inclusion of Supernaturalism

Despite these depictions of a naturalistic ethos, Avatar ultimately contradicts the core assertion of religious naturalism-Griffin's “great truth” of nonsupernaturalism-with significant inclusion of the supernatural with regard to the nature and actions of the deity Eywa. [27] While the film often muddles the distinction between the deity Eywa and the natural neuronal network of the planet, official tie-in publications make it clear that the “profound spiritual connection among all creatures” that the Na'vi are able to access and participate in via their queues is not synonymous with “the deity they call Eywa.” [28] Building upon this differentiation and using the observed and implied actions and comments of the Na'vi to define the universal web of the interconnected natural world of Pandora, Eywa is characterized in the film as having a distinct will, as being persuadable, and, as a function of these two traits, as being capable of divine interventions that violate the natural laws of balance that seem to govern Pandoran life.

Griffin presents ontological supernaturalism, in which “there exists a being that can interrupt the world's normal processes,” in opposition to his “great truth” of nonsupernaturalism. [29s] Thus, one crucial theme of supernaturalism recurrent within the storyline is the potential for Eywa's intervention in the natural processes of the world and the affairs of the Na'vi. Eywa is characterized as willful from the beginning of the film: Mo'at is the Tsahìk, the spiritual leader responsible for interpreting the will of Eywa, implying that the Na'vi desire to know (and perhaps act in accordance with) Eywa's will, which in turn suggests an indirect intervention of the deity in the natural order. This is seen similarly with the atokirina, or seeds of the sacred tree, which are viewed as intervening, in conjunction with the will of Eywa, to sway Neytiri from killing Jake Sully when they first meet. [30] Likewise, Jake confides in Eywa a belief that the goddess “chose [him] for something,” implying a degree of predestination in the interactions between Eywa and the natural world that violates naturalism by implying divine intervention in the natural order, as well as by undermining causal relationships in nature.[31]

Beyond these examples, the interventionist capacity of the deity is depicted most significantly in the interactions that Jake Sully has regarding Eywa leading up to and during the climax of the film: the assault of the human mining militia, the RDA, upon the Na'vi. Neytiri tells him that the Utral Aymokriyä, or the Tree of Voices, is a place to commune with Eywa directly, describing it as “a place for prayers to be heard, and sometimes answered.” [32] Such a claim implies that Ewya is a goddess open to petition and likewise capable of acting above the capacities of the Na'vi to “answer” their prayers. However, when Jake attempts to ask Eywa for help in the upcoming battle against the human forces seeking to subdue the Na'vi, Neytiri explains that Eywa “protects only the balance of life.” [33] This implies the capacity of the deity to interfere in whatever circumstances occur as a result of the natural order to preserve or reassert said balance. More than this, however, when Neytiri witnesses the seemingly coordinated assault of Pandora's fauna against the humans attacking the Na'vi, she enthusiastically cries out: “Eywa has heard you!” Whether this is indeed a response to mortal petition or a response to the need for balance, Eywa is clearly depicted as an interventionist, and thus a supernaturalistic, deity.

Another supernatural element that is mentioned multiple times throughout the film is that of continued subjective consciousness, either within Eywa, or through physical reincarnation. The Tree of Voices is a site at which the Na'vi can access the memories of their ancestors. [34] While this description does not necessarily tread into the realm of supernaturalism, given the physiological capacity of the Na'vi to connect neurally to their planet and their deity, Neytiri claims that the dead “live...within Eywa,” which introduces a degree of vagueness that can be interpreted to imply a supernaturalistic continuation of subjective consciousness, rather than the more objective immortality represented by the simple continuation of static memories. [35] Similarly, while the reference is fleeting within the script, Jake Sully makes the implication that a belief in reincarnation is at least colloquially referenced in Na'vi culture: “The Na'vi say that every person is born twice; the second time is when you earn your place among the people, forever.” [36] This passing comment is given further weight when considered in conjunction with a much more significant display of Eywa's power: the capacity to transfer subjective consciousness between physical bodies.

When Grace Augustine suffers a fatal gunshot wound, Jake originally states that he means to seek the help of the Omaticaya; however, by the time he reaches the Na'vi to ask for help, he specifically “[begs] the help of Eywa,” implying that, as Grace's condition grows more dire, Eywa would be capable of healing beyond the skills of the Na'vi and/or the natural world. [37] At the Vitraya Ramunong, or Tree of Souls, Mo'at leads a ritual to petition the help of Eywa in transferring Grace's human consciousness into an Avatar body. While the Na'vi do participate in this ritual, invoking the collective power of their queue connections in communicating with and experiencing Eywa, the work of transferring Grace's consciousness and saving “all that she is” from impending death is ultimately achieved through an encounter with the deity in which Grace must “pass through the Eye of Eywa, and return.” [38] In this act of supernatural manipulation of consciousness, Eywa is again characterized by Mo'at as willful and persuadable, claiming that the deity “may choose to save all that she is in this body,” and thus implying that Eywa may just as easily choose not to save Grace in her Avatar body. [39] If indeed the Na'vi conceptualization of the lifecycle can be summarized, as the characters claim, as “a network of energy that flows through all living things...all energy is only borrowed and one day, you have to give it back,” then the potential for subjective immortality would violate the natural order, introducing the supernatural continuation of consciousness as sustained and mediated through a deity outside of the naturalistic framework. [40] Likewise, such affirmations of subjective immortality reject the central assertion of most religious naturalisms that death is scientifically programmed into our genetic code and is part of the natural course of life. [41] Finally, just before Grace dies, she proclaims, referring to Eywa: “I'm with her Jake. She's real.” [42] In this short attestation, the deity is characterized as both personal and present within an unseen, presumably nonphysical realm, which violates the naturalistic idea that the natural, physical world is singular, and that no separate, supernatural, or immaterial world exists beyond it. [43] Overall, then, Avatar embraces supernaturalism too heavily to be considered a faithful representation of religious naturalism on the whole.

Conclusion

As a film, Avatar presents and affirms many elements of various frameworks of religious naturalism, particularly aligning with the naturalismppp model of David Ray Griffin and the emergent religious principles identified by Ursula Goodenough. Despite this, the deity within the film is portrayed as being capable of and engaging in numerous acts of supernaturalism. Thus, the religious orientation of the Na'vi toward Eywa does not successfully model a framework of religious naturalism. In light of this conclusion-particularly given the fact that Avatar does convey a fairly robust religious naturalism that, had it not been paired with supernaturalistic elements, would be a defensible example of religious naturalism in popular culture-it is relevant to consider what the ultimate inclusion of such themes achieves within the context of the film as a commercial work aimed at an audience with particular cultural and cognitive biases.

Modern science suggests evolutionary origins for the human predisposition toward supernatural beliefs, citing specifically that the overactive cognitive capacities that once functioned primarily to aid hunter-gatherer survival eventually produced the tendency to attribute intentionality and causal influence to unseen agents. [44] This attributive tendency, among other evolutionary, social, and behavioral factors, produces numerous cognitive biases that produce errors in perception: errors that often favor supernatural explanations for situations that violate the familiar, accepted paradigm. [45] When these biases and predispositions are considered within the context of Avatar, it makes sense that the film presents a planet typified by connection and peaceful coexistence that adheres to religious naturalism up to the point where it allows for supernatural interventions. This approach couches the less popularly affirmed view of religious naturalism in familiar terms, presenting only a few “strange features” to “minimally violate, and thus memorably contrast with” an ultimately recognizable (if idealized) world, an alien race that adheres largely to human ethics and social mores, and the presence of the kinds of supernatural beliefs that human beings are predisposed to affirm. Thus, one possible reason for the direction Avatar takes toward supernaturalism might be the biases of the human creators of the film itself. However, writer and director James Cameron identifies himself as a “converted agnostic,” which makes this explanation less likely. [46] The commercial aspect of the enterprise is a possible motivation, considering that it is only logical that people are more willing to pay to see things they find more interesting, and ideas that align with existing cognitive biases and are violated minimally, but memorably-such as the case with Avatar-are generally perceived as more intriguing. [47] Given the financial success of the film, which earned more than $2.78 billion and holds the all-time box office record for top grossing film, such an approach could certainly be deemed as having been successful.[48]

A less cynical interpretation as to why the film avoids pure religious naturalism and reflects supernaturalistic cognitive biases, however, can be found in Cameron's dedication to the preservation of the natural world and his own intended message of environmentalism in Avatar. Citing environmental motivations for his vegan diet and noting that his intention for making the film was to highlight the need for environmental awareness and activism, Cameron states:

People need to be reminded [of Earth's environmental crisis] from every direction. Maybe people want to go see a film for pure entertainment, and not want to think about it and not have to feel guilty – I'm not trying to make people feel guilty... I just want them to internalize a sense of respect and a sense of taking responsibility for the stewardship of the earth.. and I think this film can do that by creating an emotional reaction. [49]

Cameron also notes that while he was asked to remove some of the more religiously naturalistic elements from the film by its distributor, 20th Century Fox, whose executives disparaged the themes as “tree-hugging, ‘FernGully’ crap,” he stood firmly by their inclusion based on his personal convictions. [50] Given such a context, it seems likely that the reasoning behind the inclusion of supernaturalism in Avatar, even as it contradicts an otherwise religiously naturalistic worldview, was intended less as a marketing strategy and more as a means of raising public consciousness and concern for the state of the natural world. Kanda and Wagner-professors of biology and religion, respectively, at Ithaca College-identify the overarching function of Avatar as being an invitation for the audience to mimic intimacy with the natural world on screen in real life. [51] Accepting such an invitation to contradict the prevailing paradigm of environmental apathy, then, proves much easier when it is offered in conjunction with the familiar. Thus, the choice to pair naturalistic and supernaturalistic elements in Avatar, while not consistent with religious naturalism as a worldview, does prove to be a viable approach for achieving the filmmaker's intended ends.

[Katelynn Carver]

Notes

[1] Decent Films Guide, “Avatar: What the Vatican Really Said,” accessed April 7, 2013, http://www.decentfilms.com/blog/avatar-vatican.

[2] Florian Jeserich, "Spirituality as Anti-Structure in James Cameron's Avatar," Journal Of Religion & Film 14:1 (2010): 1-2.; Michael W. McGowan, "A View from the Inside: James Cameron's Avatar," Journal Of Religion & Film 14:1 (2010): 1-4.

[3] Jerome A. Stone, Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), 1.

[4] David Ray Griffin, Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 2.

[5] In considering a fictional narrative, specifically a distinctly alien one, it is necessary to recognize the discrepancies between what is actually occurring within an objective reality, and the biased accounts of that reality as conveyed by the characters within the story. Given the limited information on the objective reality of James Cameron's Pandora and the Na'vi as a species, I am relying primarily on the observations, implications, and reactions of the characters, in conjunction with supplemental material on Na'vi culture and beliefs, in order to address the question of whether or not Avatar, as considered in this stated context, reliably conveys the paradigm of religious naturalism that is largely assumed by critics and commentators in the public discourse surrounding the film. Due to the aforementioned lack of objective information about the Na'vi and their religious beliefs, I have chosen to address this question with regard to practiced religious naturalism as it is understood and accepted by the population that adheres to such a worldview, approaching the content of the film and its associated official publications as comprising a qualitative ethnographic dataset for consideration. Additionally, I have largely chosen to interpret ambiguous comments or occurrences within the film literally rather than symbolically, particularly when addressing the supernatural capacities of the deity Eywa. This is because I believe that such speculation would result in the observer error of making assumptions about the subjective biases of the characters based on an externally imposed framework and without sufficient evidence. This choice was also informed by the supplemental materials available (cited within the text) that make distinctions between the natural neuronal connectivity of the Pandoran ecosystem and the deity, indicating that Eywa exists as something other than/outside of that network. Numerous questions and/or suggestions of alternative approaches will undoubtedly arise in response to this mode of inquiry, particularly considering the vast array of religious naturalisms that may or may not align with my interpretation of Na'vi religious understandings and practices, as well as the capacity for alternative interpretations of the implied nature of the deity within Cameron's world. The question of whether other interpretations might yield different conclusions regarding whether this film can be considered consistent with religious naturalism is beyond the scope of this investigation; nevertheless, it is crucial to define the terms of the ensuing conversation, as well as to expand upon the reasoning behind my selected approach to the task at hand.

[6] Maria Wilhelm and Dirk Mathison, James Cameron's Avatar: A Confidential Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandora (New York: ItBooks, 2009), 29.

[7] Wilhelm and Mathison, James Cameron's Avatar, 28-30.

[8] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition, directed by James Cameron (2009; Los Angeles: 20th Centruy Fox, 2010), Blu-ray.

[9] Griffin, Two Great Truths, 76.

[10] L. Leann Kanda and Rachel Wagner, "‘I See You’: Na'vigating the Bridge between Scientific Observation and Religious Apprehension in Avatar," Journal Of Religion & Film 14:1 (2010): 1-5.

[11] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[12] Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 167

[13] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[14] Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature, 168-169.

[15] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[16] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[17] Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature, 170.

[18] Griffin, Two Great Truths, 76-77.

[19] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[20] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[21] Wilhelm and Mathison, James Cameron's Avatar, 29.

[22] Griffin, Two Great Truths, 78-82.

[23] Wilhelm and Mathison, James Cameron's Avatar, 28-29.

[24] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[25] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[26] Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature, 170-171

[27] Griffin, Two Great Truths, 2.

[28] Wilhelm and Mathison, James Cameron's Avatar, 25-30.

[29] Griffin, Two Great Truths, 64.

[30] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[31] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[32] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[33] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[34] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[35] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[36] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[37] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[38] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[39] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[40] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[41] Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature, 146-147

[42] Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition.

[43] Thomas W. Clark, Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses (Somerville, MA: Center for Naturalism, 2007), 1.

[44] Wesley J. Wildman, Science and Religious Anthropology: A Spiritually Evocative Naturalist Interpretation of Human Life (Burlington, VY: Ashgate, 2009), 91-99.

[45] Wildman, Science and Religious Anthropology, 95-99.

[46] Rebecca Keegan, The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron (New York: Crown Publishers, 2009), 8.

[47] Wildman, Science and Religious Anthropology, 92-93.

[48] Box Office Mojo, “All Time Worldwide Box Office Grosses,” accessed April 10, 2013, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/world.

[49] Samantha Chang, “Vegan director James Cameron: You're not an environmentalist if you eat meat,” Examiner.com, October 9, 2012, accessed April 10, 2013, http://www.examiner.com/article/vegan-director-james-cameron-you-re-not-an-environmentalist-if-you-eat-meat; Wendy Koch, “James Cameron sees Avatar as cautionary environmental tale,” USA TODAY, January 3, 2010, accessed April 11, 2013, http://content.usatoday.com/communities/greenhouse/post/2009/12/james-cameron-sees-avatar-as-environmental-warning/1#.UYAM1ErT7FJ

[50] Eric Ditzian, “James Cameron Says 'Avatar' Is Inspiring Environmental Activism,” MTV.com, February 17, 2010, accessed April 7, 2013, http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1632038/james-cameron-avatar-inspiring-environmental-activism.jhtml.

[51] Kanda and Wagner, "‘I See You'," 1-5.

"Dead Poets Society"

Dead Poets Society is a coming-of-age tale told largely through the learning and living-out of the literary-lessons imparted to a group of male prep-school seniors by their eccentric English teacher, Mr. Keating. Keating pushes his students to heed Thoreau’s Walden, prompting them to go into the woods and learn to “suck the marrow out of life”; to recognize the wisdom of the oft-pantheistic Whitman and affirm that “you are here--that life exists” in the moment, in the present world and that the aim is to “contribute a verse” to the ongoing play of existence. Keating likewise contextualizes the living process as it cycles into dying within a fundamentally naturalistic framework, using Herrick’s entreaty to “make much of time” and “gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” for “this same flower that smiles to-day // To-morrow will be dying,” thus emphasizing the natural cycle of human life: the body becomes “food for worms,” according to Keating, the dead serving to “[fertilize] daffodils.” Within the context of religious naturalism, these observations serve to emphasize both the significance of individual agency within the present world (rather than a supernaturalistic view of divine intervention or predestination), as well as the interdependence inherent within the process of life and death as decaying human flesh fosters nature, which in turn fosters human life anew (as opposed to a supernaturalistic afterlife). Additionally, Keating uses poetry to impart the kinds of critical thinking skills and curiosity that align with the empirical and scientific leanings of religious naturalism: “Don’t just consider what the author thinks,” he advises his students, “consider what you think”; “Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in a another way,” he notes, leaping atop his desk to view the classroom from a new perspective and prompting the young men to “constantly look at things in a different way.” Steeped within such observations and revelations about the nature of life, Dead Poets Society depicts religious naturalism as a means of making sense and attributing meaning to life as it is lived. [KC]

"Princess Mononoke" by Studio Ghibli, distributed by Miramax Films

This is the English-language release of the Japanese animated film もののけ姫 (Mononoke Hime), released in theaters in Japan in 1997, and then in 1999 in the US. It is the work of Academy Award winning director Hayao Miyazaki, famous in Japan for numerous films produced over the course of his more than five decade long career. This movie takes place in pre-Edo Japan, probably the Muromachi period (1337-1573), and follows the story of Ashitaka, the last prince of the Emishi people. As the film opens, Ashitaka’s village is being attacked by a strange demon that leaves a literal trail of death in its wake. Ashitaka is able to slay the creature and save the village, but at the terrible cost of being touched by it, inflicting him with a curse that is destined to lead to agony, followed by death. Exiled from the village, he travels westward, hoping to find some meaning in his impending death, following the only clue he has: a lead ball found lodged in the body of the demon, apparently the cause of its rage and madness. He traces the bullet’s origin back to Iron Town, where the people are embroiled in a war against the gods and creatures of the forest. As the plot develops, we come to see that this is a conflict in which there will be no winners, and as the story draws toward its climax the opposition between humankind and nature reaches a fever pitch, represented by the leader of Iron Town’s hunt for the head of the forest spirit. In the end, Ashitaka joins forces and falls in love with the mysterious forest girl San (the titular “princess of spirits”) in order to save the forest spirit and prevent the mutual destruction of man and forest, alike.

This film proves, like many of Miyazaki’s works, that the Japanese anime genre can be much more than a collection of childish clichés, in the hands of a skillful artist. As someone who generally doesn’t care for anime at all, I nonetheless cannot recommend this particular film enough (although that recommendation extends to the rest of his corpus, especially Spirited Away). It is nothing short of excellent. One can sit down to watch this film with a simplistic mindset about the relationship of humankind and nature, and enjoy it just fine. But for those who like to engage a film more carefully, there is great depth to explore. Miyazaki paints a world where the industrialization of a particular society has made it seemingly impossible for it to coexist with the natural world that surrounds it, and nature has responded in kind. Both sides have come to see the other as a deadly foe that must be obliterated. But the viewer will notice from the beginning that there is no proper villain to be found anywhere in this story. Even the woman responsible for killing the boar god from the opening scene is herself a protector of the weak, taking in the lepers and brothel girls that have been ostracized by the rest of the world. On the contrary, each side in this conflict has a preconceived notion that the other is inherently hostile and evil, when they are actually all caught up in the same sort of destructive utilitarianism. Although this is a cartoon, it is great for teens and adults alike (but the imagery is probably a bit scary for young kids), and I think it’s one that everybody should get a chance to see. [TD]

"The Tree of Life"

Upon first impressions, the movie Tree of Life may appear sharply incongruent with religious naturalist sensibilities: the film opens with a quote from the Hebrew Bible, it contains chapters entitled “Creation” and “Eternity,” and a substantial proportion of the speaking parts are prayers addressed to God. Indeed, the film can be read as a potent, though uncommon, articulation of Christian theology. Yet the film is equally illuminating and inspiring when interpreted from a religious naturalist perspective – a point that, perhaps more than anything else one could say, testifies to the brilliant depth of director Terrence Malick’s vision. Though the film warrants a much fuller analysis, I will limit myself to three comments concerning how the expression of traditional religious themes within Tree of Life permits a vibrant religious naturalist reading.

First, from beginning to end, Tree of Life is a commentary upon the Book of Job. Rather than burdening the film with religious dogmas and platitudes, the radical theological vision of Job provides the perfect conversation partner for Malick. Untamed and undiluted after millennia of scriptural canonization, Job’s stunningly anti-anthropocentric Whirlwind emerges as the true subject of Malick’s film. No doubt it is God the proud creator of Leviathan and Behemoth, ancient symbols of chaos, that Malick’s preacher commends to his parishioners: “Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that He gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that He takes away? Does he alone see God who sees God turn His face towards him? Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?” Like Shiva, Malick’s God is equally Creator and Destroyer, a praying mantis deity that devours even as it generates. Thus, the glorious Creation sequence is concluded with a vision of the Sun’s expansion into a red dwarf star that engulfs our once fertile planet. However a religious naturalist lands on the question of “god-language,” she cannot help but feel that Malick has framed the religious question properly: you are destined to lose all you love and create; will you still love and create?

A second stumbling block to a religious naturalist appreciation of this film may be the use of the word “creation” to describe the evolution of the universe. Two things must be said here. On one hand, Malick provides nothing but a visual portrayal of our best empirically-based narrative of the universe’s evolution. While his twenty minute creation sequence is probably the most stunning and aesthetically pleasing portrayal of that story to date, there is no room here for cosmic eggs, gardeners, or inspiriting potters. Science is the only trusted text – a stance that defines the beating heart of naturalism. On the other hand, Malick’s insistence on the language of “creation” can be read as an argument that continuity with the depths of traditional religions ought to be maintained whenever possible. Whatever else the word “religious” in religious naturalism entails, it must at least include a willingness to ask, explore, and celebrate ultimate questions. Stripped of its anthropomorphic framing, “creation” merely highlights the sheer fact of existence, the mysterious “givenness” of reality. If religious naturalists avoid such “uncomfortable” topics, they risk promoting nothing more than another shallow, spiritually degrading scientism.

Lastly, to many religious naturalists the explicitly theological focus of Tree of Life is simply incompatible with naturalism. How could a religious naturalist embrace a film in which every other line is a prayer addressed to God? Other religious naturalists will disagree, but I don’t think the use or refusal of theological symbols like “God” identifies the proper fault line between naturalism and supernaturalism. A more helpful distinction highlights whether or not ultimate reality is conceived as epistemologically and ontologically continuous with nature. On this view, a religious naturalist need not object to a conception of the divine as Nature’s Deepest Root, both revealed and veiled by the manifestation of the visible cosmos. If this view is accepted, then Malick’s cinematic masterpiece fits comfortably within religious naturalist orthodoxy: nothing in Tree of Life suggests that God is a being outside the universe or a force working against nature’s grain. Rather, God is known in the explosion of a star, the curling of an ocean wave, and the growth of the tree of life. For Malick, no separation exists between God and nature; rather, God is the very essence of the natural world. [DR]

Music

“A Love Supreme” (John Coltrane Quartet)

First of all, by reviewing this piece I am not in any way suggesting that John Coltrane or the members of his quartet were religious naturalists. They were not. The poem/prayer in the liner notes makes this abundantly clear by saying things like “God loves . . . we are all from one thing – the will of God . . . He will remake us.” Nevertheless, great art is never limited to the vision of the artist, but is equally about the experience of someone viewing or listening to the art. This is good news for religious naturalists who would be pitifully impoverished if they could not appreciate and learn from the religious experience of people whose ideas fall outside the realm of religious naturalist “orthodoxy.” With this in mind, my response will be as much about my experience in listening to “A Love Supreme” as the Coltrane Quartet’s visionary performance.

“A Love Supreme” is about one of the strangest of biological facts: homo sapiens who desire the Ultimate. The four part suite is structured around a journey towards God. “Acknowledgment” begins with a gong signaling an initial enlightenment, a realization that some deeper truth must lie beneath the transience of this world. Coltrane’s sax is cool and noncommittal, as if pondering whether to pursue the matter any deeper. Where his sound gains energy, the phrasing is haphazard - an undecided backwards and forwards without gaining momentum in any direction. Yet the divine desire has taken root and cannot be ignored: “a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme,” Coltrane chants in monotone. With “Resolution” the journey begins in earnest and the quartet enters the path with steady momentum. The last three minutes is one long solo where Coltrane crafts multiple runs at the same theme, as if he is struggling to find an appropriate spiritual posture. By the third part, “Pursuance,” the pace is desperate, almost frantic. For four minutes incessant cymbals and a rapid, high-pitched piano express a deep anxiety, as if the religious journey turned out to be more serious than they initially planned. When Coltrane finally enters, his three minute solo brings the spastic energy to a frenzied crescendo. The last few minutes are filled with a sparse and reflective bass solo – the calm before the storm. Most interesting from a religious naturalist perspective is the final part, “Psalm.” Here the religious journey reaches its object. From Coltrane’s very first phrases, the piece is an unexpected mixture of ultimate satisfaction and holy fear. If there is peace here, it is not a playful, comforting peace; rather it is the peace that passeth understanding, the peace a water droplet feels as it falls towards the ocean. The God that Coltrane and company encounter is a rumbling God of terrible light, not a being conveniently scaled to support human moral concerns. Here, in theism’s mystical depths, the Nice Big Man, Santa Clause, and all other silly human symbols dissolve. Here, with Coltrane’s haunted ecstasy filling the air, the mystical theist and the religious naturalist find common ground. [DR]

"Dauðalogn" by Sigur Rós (directed by Henry Jun Wah Lee; see here)

Visually and lyrically, the music video for Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós’ “Dauðalogn” (unofficially translated as “Dead Calm”), is a testament to the originary role of nature in human life and the inextricable symbiosis that exists between humanity and the natural world. Part of The Valtari Mystery Film Experiment—Sigur Rós’ visionary idea to pair their latest album, track by track, with the unscripted visual imaginings of various filmmakers—the video is a composite of time-lapse footage from Japan’s Yakushima Forest, moving from macrocosmic shots of starscapes, rolling clouds, mountain ranges and sunrises into microcosmic scenes of ancient tree bark, moss, and roots before expanding outward and reconnecting to the macrocosm with scenes of running water, crashing waves, and a stretching horizon. Lyrically, the song outlines a span of undisturbed silence in which an individual experiences a oneness with nature—vast cliffs echoing within one’s consciousness; embers from a bonfire sparking an inward warmth; the process of awakening tied intimately to the rippling of the surface of the sea against a storm—that ultimately coalesces into an interconnected sense of selfhood. According to director Henry Jun Wah Lee, “since the time of our earliest ancestors, nature has been a source for inspiration, imagination, and wisdom. Nature is where we come from.” To this end, his decision to film in Yakushima—with its once-sacred Sugi trees seeing a dramatic resurgence after years of destructive logging practices—represents the “often fragile relationship between humans and nature.” This setting, when overlaid with the haunting instrumentals and simple vocals of “Dauðalogn,” speaks to the awe-inspiring interplay of nature and humankind that religious naturalism so centrally affirms. [KC]

“Moya” by Godspeed You! Black Emperor (see here)

In using words to describe experiences of sacrality, linguistic semantics often gets in the way of profundity. By omitting lyrics altogether, the nine-piece Canadian post-rock instrumentalists of Godspeed You! Black Emperor create a sweeping invitation to seek and interpret meaning with “Moya,” the standout track from their 1999 EP, Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada. A nearly eleven-minute tribute to the sprawling vastness of the North American landscape, “Moya” employs a Góreckian sacred minimalism in weaving a unique sonic tapestry of harmonies and cacophonies, molding ascending and descending scales into slowly shifting patterns that repeat cyclically but never stagnate, using changes in layering, tempo, and volume to mimic a naturalistic sense of creative perpetuity. This orchestral study in unpredictability rises and falls in waves, vacillating between speeds and pitches as it presents a collection of objectively-simple progressions—notes with reliable functions like the laws of physics—in ever-changing configurations. Outfitted thusly in a spirit of Whiteheadian contrast and novelty, “Moya” embodies the holy mystery and divine chaos that typify nature and the human psyche alike. More than this, however, the piece also seeks to bridge the human and the natural by means of such indwelling similarities, highlighting gradual transformation and evolution in both nature and human life as a product of the natural world, and underscoring an associated sense of awe within both contexts. A visceral conversation between the past and the present, the known and unknown, “Moya” tells a story without words, communicating in the universal language of music to craft a tale of fear and hope, rage and love, comfort and despair bridged wholly by the unspeakable awe of being. [KC]

“What a Wonderful World” (performed by Louis Armstrong, written by George David Weiss, George Douglas, Bob Thiele)

This classic song evokes the wonderment of everyday human interaction with the world. Armstrong’s unique gravelly voice lends a specific tenor of joy and sentimentality in its delivery. The song’s simplistic use of color to describe clouds, trees, and roses makes it relatable to most people’s experiences of these natural phenomena. However, color does not signify simplicity or ordinariness. Rather, it is an expression of the complexity inherent in all aspects of the world. The same goes for the song’s description of temporality; both day and night are “blessed” and “sacred,” respectively, because of the awe they inspire upon reflection and meditation. In the same way, humanity itself is highlighted as cause for amazement, especially in interpersonal interactions. The song does not mention any supernatural or extra-worldly cause for how or why these aspects of nature take on their wondrous qualities. Instead, it appears to be inherent to all aspects of the world.

The message in “What a Wonderful World” is simple: stop and reflect on the world that surrounds you and you will be amazed. Without consideration and contemplation, it is easy to ignore the deeper meaning emerging from all aspects of our surroundings. Armstrong’s iconic voice increases the impact of the lyrics because of its deep bass and scratchy texture which indicates that he has experienced much of the world. In moving from only describing nature to describing human interactions, the song presents human beings as a continuation of the world, or nature. We are not separate: we are interdependent with the world around us as wondrous beings. However, this depiction is utopian. It highlights beauty, wonder, and amazement of a perfect world where people love one another, and indeed, have time to stop and “smell the roses.” But it fails to address the unsightly or even gruesome aspects of nature, including death and destruction. It also has a distinctly anthropocentric quality, claiming that the trees and roses “bloom for me and you,” indicating that nature serves humanity. There is nothing wrong with recognizing the beauty and overwhelming majesty of nature, but to ignore the less desirable aspects of it does not portray its reality. [JC]

Photography

"Portfolios" by Ansel Adams (based on The Portfolios of Ansel Adams, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1981)

For religious naturalists committed to a this-worldly spirituality, developing aesthetic appreciation for the world around us is absolutely essential. Nature’s depths are enough: unfathomably rich, profusely interconnected, and aesthetically perfect, the natural world provides endless and constant inspiration once we learn to see rightly. But seeing is an art that one must learn. In the photography of Ansel Adams, we have a chance to learn from a master.

The elegant curves of grass, the swirling pattern of river suds above an eddy, snow whiting the curves of a stately tree, weeds strewn in lines above a muddy pond: Adam’s camera asks us in frustration, “What do you mean mundane?” So often we live blind to the beauty that captivates this visionary. Yet when we look with him at a simple leaf or a pine-studded hill, we perceive a manifestation of divine creativity, an eternal flicker beneath the smoke of time. Flat as the surface of a still lake, his black and white images peer through the world. It’s as if Adams is saying, “Don’t get distracted by distance, shape, and weight: see forms revealed by light.” As spiritually satisfying as meditating on Adam’s photography is, the deepest reward comes when you begin to see with him as you walk alone. [DR]

Plays

[Information coming soon...]

Video Games

"Anno 2070" (published by: Ubisoft)

This is a futuristic real-time strategy (RTS) game that takes environmental disaster as its main theme. It is primarily a city-builder style game, less like a StarCraft or Civilization, more reminiscent of SimCity. There is some combat action, but it is minimized in favor of accentuating the complexity of city planning and resource management. According to the game’s story, by the year 2070 large segments of the icecaps have melted, leaving many former coastal areas under water. The player must now work for one of two competing factions to establish settlements on islands (presumably former mountaintops), while carefully managing their resources, including energy, tax revenue, population, and ecological balance. One of the playable factions is an industrial corporation, which favors productivity and efficiency over environmental concerns; the other is an environmental organization that is more eco-friendly and sustainable over time, but costlier and slower to develop. While this isn’t exactly a hyper-realistic picture of the real world’s ecological situation, it nonetheless places issues of environmental concern into the foreground of a high quality game from a top-notch publisher, lending this title great potential for raising basic awareness of ecology among a wider audience than titles made for that purpose by small, conservation-focused publishers (although indie games are enjoying unprecedented access to large distribution channels, which may result in decreased reliance on big-name publishers as time goes on).

I was very pleasantly surprised by this game. I found it while searching for games that make a point of focusing on ecological and conservation issues, expecting to find mostly a variety of very small projects, created by small and inexperienced development teams on behalf of various environmental organizations or initiatives. In other words, I was expecting to find games made by non-gamers, which would have little realistic appeal for serious gamers. Stumbling upon Anno 2070 was a stroke of luck—this is a real game, for real gamers, with real production value. One downside of the game is a lack of a robust tutorial, which creates a pretty severe barrier to entry for people not familiar with this genre; even my girlfriend and I, both veteran gamers, took quite some time to make sense of the ins and outs of Anno’s controls. But once you can get into the groove of the game play, the challenge this game provides is intense, and I would project that it can easily make for upwards of 100 hours of engaging play time in the single player modes alone. Combine that with the downloadable content that’s already available and the various multiplayer options, and it all adds up to a game that I would genuinely recommend to any fan of the RTS genre, especially those that enjoy the more cerebral style of games like SimCity. [TD]

"Universe Sandbox" (version 2.2, published by: Giant Army, LLC)

Universe Sandbox is actually less of a video game, since it does not offer anything in the form of objective-based play, and is more of an interactive 3-D gravity simulation program. In a nutshell, the game provides you with empty space and gravity, and you are free to fill it with objects, ranging in scale from baseballs, to planets and stars, to galaxies and black holes, in order to watch how they interact over time, which can be sped up or slowed down (since watching the moon orbit the Earth once in real time takes, well, a month). The user interface is pretty straightforward and the game includes a good variety of pre-built simulations that can be run and played with, for the more casual and curious user. For the more serious astrophysics geek, the paid “premium” version of the game has additional features that allow the user to create her own simulations from scratch or edit existing simulations in any way she chooses, whether by shooting meteors at the Earth or colliding galaxies. The free version can be downloaded from the game’s website at http://universesandbox.com/, where there is also a very active forum community that allows users to share their simulations with one another. The premium version can be purchased there also for $19.95 USD, although Steam users can get a better deal at $9.99 (http://store.steampowered.com/). Upon download or purchase, users are granted lifetime access to updates, the next substantial one of which is due in 2013 with an overhaul to the graphics engine and a plethora of additional features to be added.

This game is a ton of fun, but an honest warning is in order: this is not a typical gamer’s game. It is decidedly aimed at astrophysics geeks who can be entertained without any sort of narrative guidance, given the tools to create their own solar systems and cosmic events. To really get the most out of this experience, one should probably have some understanding of physics, which I utterly lack, although I still had a blast just playing haphazardly with the masses and orbits of planets and moons, chuckling to myself as their orbits devolved into chaotic messes. Not knowing a thing about astronomy myself, I couldn’t speak to the question of scientific accuracy, although Giant Army does have a professional astrophysicist on staff. And given that the game is available free to schools, I imagine that its creators envision it serving as an educational tool. For many gamers, that will unfortunately be the end of this game’s appeal, but there will be a crowd of gamers who are extreme fans of the sandbox style, the kind who are still devoting hours at a time to games like Minecraft and still love playing with Legos, that will find Universe Sandbox deeply satisfying, provided they are not turned off by the absence of any multiplayer element (again, non-objective-based game play). But since the basic version of the game is free anyway, I think that anyone whose interest is piqued by this fun little simulator should definitely give it a try. [TD]

Key to Abbreviations of Review Authors

[AT] Ashley Theuring, member of the 2013 Religious Naturalism Research Seminar at Boston University

[DR] David Rohr, member of the 2013 Religious Naturalism Research Seminar at Boston University

[JC] Jessica Chicka, member of the 2013 Religious Naturalism Research Seminar at Boston University

[KC] Katelynn Carver, member of the 2013 Religious Naturalism Research Seminar at Boston University

[TD] Troy Dujardin, member of the 2013 Religious Naturalism Research Seminar at Boston University