For those of you who haven’t yet seen The Martian, Ridley Scott’s first good movie in a decade, I suggest you do so before he releases Blade Runner 2 and ruins his reputation again. That man’s filmography has more peaks and valleys than a BMX racetrack, so it’s best to catch it on the upswing. Also, there may be some spoilers ahead, but you should read on anyways. For those of you who have seen The Martian, you probably just thought you were seeing an enjoyable science fiction film with some stunning visuals and a healthy dose of good ol’ Matt Damon charm. The movie is all that, of course, but it is also something much more. Whether or not it was intentioned by Scott, screenwriter Drew Goddard or author Andy Weir, The Martian is forceful argument on behalf of Deist philosophy.
Deism is a theological philosophy first developed in Great Britain at the turn of the 18th century that featured prominently in the writings of Enlightenment scholars such as John Locke and Thomas Paine. It posits the existence of a Supreme Being (God, if you will) who, at that beginning of time, formulated all the laws of nature, made himself a gigantic bucket of popcorn, and proceeded to watch as life evolved from tiny microbes to Homo Sapiens to the sentient entity that is Donald Trump’s hair.
In essence, God built the watch, fiddled with all of the little gears and mechanisms, and then let it tick unabated for eternity. God doesn’t deign us important enough to actually intervene in our affairs. As noted theologian and prominent Deist Aaron Rodgers said, “I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome.”
Deism, like The Enlightenment as a whole, places great importance on scientific discovery and the understanding of the fundamental laws of nature, and less importance on praying for divine intervention and on prayer in general.
In The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead on Mars after he is separated from his departing crew and must devise a way to survive for as long as it takes NASA figure out how to rescue him. He doesn’t look to God for assistance. Instead, he buckles down and “sciences the shit” out of Mars. He uses his extensive knowledge of chemistry, botany, astronomy and practically every other class that college students “will never even have to use in the real world” to draw up a plan for survival that quite literally involves both shit and Mars.
Watney only turns to religion once during his travail, in what is perhaps the clearest indication of Deism in the film. While searching for a combustible to aid in the creation of water, Watney realizes the only flammable material that made its way to Mars with him are the wooden crucifixes brought by one of his crewmates. Without hesitating, he takes a knife to the wood and makes kindling. He doesn’t turn water to wine, but he does turn Jesus into water.
All this is not to say that spiritualism and the awe of the divine are anathema to either Deism or The Martian. Instead, they are merely achieved in a different manner. Deism rejects the concept of miracles in the traditional theistic sense, such as turning water into wine, but leaves the door open for simpler, smaller indications of divine presence. The fact that the laws laid down before time allowed Matt Damon to successfully science his way to survival is indeed nothing short of a miracle. Everyday science shows us its miracles. We may be so accustomed to their effects that we no longer think of them, but the basic laws of physics, of biology, of quantum mechanics, hold our world together. Is it not a miracle that the laws of nature are so perfectly balanced as to allow life as we know it to flourish?
Many argue that Deism and its distant but better-known cousin atheism are too cold, too removed and too clinical to be acceptable. This could not be further from the truth. There is untold beauty in science and mathematics. There is divinity found in the simplicity of the most fundamental axioms of nature. And rather than make the world a colder place, removing an active God from the modern day creates more space for human progress and ingenuity. Picasso did not create his masterpieces because God moved his brush for him. He created them because he, Picasso, had the talent and the vision to do so. Aaron Rodgers does not throw the perfect spiral because God makes sure he has the correct shoulder movement. He does so because he has trained to do so for his entire life. And Mark Watney, along with his real-world analogues Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise (the crew of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission) did not survive because God intervened on their behalf. They survived because of their mastery of spiritualism of Deism, that is, the laws of science.
Jacob Rubashkin is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Jacobin appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.