June 6 2018 First Sunday Monthly Service on Frankenstein

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June 6 2018 First Sunday Monthly Service on Frankenstein

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Our June 3rd 2018 service began by comparing the general outlook of:

Believers, who believe (so they say!) that our lives are infinitesimal when compared to an eternal afterlife, but that what happens in that evanescent blink of an eye determines whether we spend forever in heavenly bliss of hellish unending torture, and that all we have to do is feed the hungry, clothe the naked, turn the other cheek, resist not evil, take no thought for the future by living like birds and lilies, and preaching this “good news” to others,


Freethinkers' lack of belief that there is any life beyond this one we know so that the best course of action is to live as well as we can by learning and growing and behaving according to facts and reason so as to reach the end of our lives, whenever that may be, without regrets is what is important.

It seems obvious that people with the latter outlook have more reason to gather and engage in deliberate and cooperative discovery and exploration of our knowledge and understanding of the world, ourselves and others, and the best ways of applying these things to the task of managing the human condition. Because believers in supernaturalism have little more to do but “keep the faith” while suppressing all doubts and questions. Anything else – rereading “holy books” over and over again and singing praises to a divinity – just makes less time and effort and opportunity to, oh, say, buy a one-way ticket to Riyadh or Islamabad and preach salvation to the infidels on street-corners there.

We enjoyed a Moment of Science looking at a part of most every cell that most of us never were taught about. It is called the primary cilium. This is one single little extension of the cell, similar to the cilia and flagella that move and serve various functions, that had for a long time been thought not to serve any purpose. It turns out that it serves a very important purpose in orienting each cell in the body as well as having receptors for hormones and being able to sense movement outside the cell. Without it, a cell would not know up/down/right left. And is also turns out that there are serious birth defects and diseases caused by defects in the primary cilium called ciliopathies. The primary cilium reminds us that how we are situated in life and in which directions we are looking and going are of vital importance!

Our main topic was Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein that was published 200 years ago this year. Mary Shelley and her family were a part of the early Freethought movement of the day in England. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, is still considered “the mother of feminism” and was well-known in her day as an advocate of women's education and women's rights. Sadly, Mary Wollstonecraft died 11 days after giving birth to the future Mary Shelley.

Frankenstein has obviously made a tremendous impact on our culture with many versions and variations of the tale having developed over 200 years. The “mad scientist” trope is perhaps the most obvious product of this arguably first work of science fiction. Another is the whole idea of artificial life, everything from AI to cyborgs and robots. More on some of these things are in the June 2018 bulletin here.

We enjoyed some clips from what the film version that probably comes closest to following Mary Shelley's original story, which is the 1994 version directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh and with Robert De Niro playing the part of the monster. As in the book, De Niro's creature is no shambling mindless beast but, rather, an abused/confused and mistreated soul or, as the monster itself asks its creator, Victor Frankenstein: “What of my soul? Do I have one? Or is that a part you left out?”

In the book, the monster, besides reading Victor's journal and learning of his origins, has read Milton's Paradise Lost, a classic epic poem that explores the biblical story of the “Fall of Man.” It was well-known to Mary Shelley's readers. In the book, the monster tells Victor: “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.” And in the film the monster asks Victor: “Did you ever consider the consequences of your actions?” and observes “And you think I am evil.” It is a powerful account – perhaps the first in literature – of a created being taking its Creator to task. It raises questions far more troubling for believers in a deity than any having to do with human hubris.

These implications for religion and religious questions may account for the popular interpretations that divert attention to Victor's ambition or the monster's hideousness. These are far less interesting than questions of whether the creation of humanity may be no less irresponsible – or even criminally immoral or insane – than Victor Frankenstein's creation of his monster. But obviously believers would find such questions unwelcome.

In addition to this, Frankenstein relates to many questions of science and society that were live issues 200 years ago but which linger today in different or less recognizable ways. Many have also seen autobiographical elements in Mary Shelley's famous novel and whether these have been interpreted correctly also remains an open question.
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