It is easy to make fun of the Believers. Especially in these days, when atheism has gained something of a cult following. Even more so when we take into account the general advance of modernity, which at all points has seen tradition and religion as something to overcome in the name of reason and progress. I suspect many of you who read this see religion in general (and thus the Believers in particular) as wrongheaded, and thus not worthy of consideration. While this point of view is understandable in a contemporary context, it is not conducive to a nuanced understanding of the Believers as a faction. Given that this is a blog about a computer game, rather than a theological assertion this way or that, the best course of action would be to suspend disbelief.
The Believers have one core principle that they put above all others: the most important thing humans have are each other. This goes figuratively, as in the famous sonnet by Emma Lazarus found on the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me
While the Believers are by no means the land of the free, as envisioned in the dream of America, they do emphasize the value of humans by virtue of being humans. This intrinsic value of human beings may or may not be acknowledged by other factions, but the Believers hold it as sacrosanct.
The flipside of this is the more literal understanding of human social bonds as an active force in the world. Humans build communities, and these communities have the potential to be very kind to insiders and ruthlessly unkind to outsiders. The Believers not only acknowledge that this is a powerful force that needs to be understood in order to grok humans; they are also very effective at harnessing these same social forces and processes for their own ends. Human social dynamics are not a bug to be rectified, but a feature to be used.
It is crucial to understand this duality in order to understand the Believers as a faction in general, and Miriam’s point of view in particular. On the one hand there is an explicit valuation of humans as humans; on the other hand, there is also an acknowledgement that humans are flawed and quirky and do strange things when put in strange circumstances. We can see this play out in in the leader quote:
The righteous need not cower before the drumbeat of human progress. Though the song of yesterday fades into the challenge of tomorrow, God still watches and judges us. Evil lurks in the datalinks as it lurked in the streets of yesteryear. But it was never the streets that were evil.
– Sister Miriam Godwinson, “The Blessed Struggle”
A quick reading would hone in on the evil lurking in the datalinks: of course a religious fanatic would say something like that. The mere use of the word ‘evil’ would be enough to trigger such an immediate dismissal in a skeptic. But a more careful reading would notice the last sentence, in particular the emphasis on where the evil is located. It was not the streets that were evil, but rather those who dwelled there. By analogy, the datalinks are not evil, but there are those who would use them for purposes that can only be described as evil. The datalinks can – and are – used for good, but we have to acknowledge that its users are still human, and thus capable of all the things humans are capable of. Accepting that humans are as humans do means to accept that new technologies will, inexorably, be human too.
There is a case to be made that technologies are more about organization than application. True, inventing a laser that can cut faster than previous lasers is an advancement, but the real improvement comes not with the laser itself, but is rather realized as a result of its application. One new invention doing one thing once is an event; applying it hundreds of thousands of times is a societal foundation. Knowing how humans work and how they tend to apply new inventions thus becomes a fundamentally technological question, and vice versa. Working through the implications of such lines of thinking takes a non-trivial amount of time, but it also avoids the rapid creation of drones as seen in the University. Being human is not merely having been born; being human is what you do with what you have.
Here, we can invoke Virilio’s notion of an ‘accident’. As soon as a technology is put in place – such as a railway – it also creates the potential for accidents. In this case, train crashes. This is not a side effect or unintended consequence, but rather an inherent potential of the technology as such. As long as there are railways, there will be train wrecks. Not because of faulty implementation (though that ups the probabilities), but because trains in motion are a precondition for trains coming to a sudden, violent stop. This goes analogous for every technology, at every level of society, and thinking through the accidents is a continuous effort requiring input from scientists, engineers and cultural critics alike. Neither the streets nor the datalinks are evil, but they do seem prone to accidents, mechanical and human.
Given that the premise of Alpha Centauri is that humanity becomes less and less human as the game progresses, valuing humanity as an end in itself is inherently problematic – and thus interesting. In gameplay terms, it translates into a massive penalty to research and a moderate penalty to planet ratings, respectively. The emphasis on humanity means that understanding the radically alien nature of the world becomes counterintuitive; it is not who they are. The strong community spirit does, however, allow the faction to attack its enemies with intense fervor, and support large armies in defense of the cause.
A transcendent Believer faction would have much in common with the Peacekeeper endgame, in that the very question of what a human is, is central to the project. They differ in that the Believers would take a radically conservative approach – in the political sense of conservative, Burke rather than Locke. It would be a very gradual process, taking one step at a time to ensure that no dramatic and irreversible changes are made. At every point an effort would be made to preserve that which is human, and only eventually deciding to fully merge with Planet; a contradiction forced onward by necessity.