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Trip Adler

Expository Writing 20
Essay 4- Final Draft

Melding Science and Religion in the Movie Contact: The Next Cold Fusion

Throughout history the dividing line between science and religion has been fickle.

Awed by the accomplishments of the past several hundred years, and oftentimes ignorant

of the real workings, the modern world looks upon science as being almost godlike. The

result of this myth is that contemporary society has tended to deny the separateness of

science and religion and fuse these two belief systems into one. The movie Contact,

which is directed by Robert Zemeckis and based on the book by Carl Sagan, exemplifies

this inclination of people today. The movie tells the story of Ellie Arroway, a scientist

working for the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, who discovers an

alien signal that contains instructions on how to build a transportation device. Ellie is

eventually chosen to represent all of humanity by using this machine to travel to a distant

place in (or outside) the universe. This series of events involves much debate over the

scientific and religious aspects of the discovery. While Ellie represents the scientific side,

Palmer Joss, a fictional advisor to the President of the United States on religion,

represents the religious side. Hoping to inspire the viewer, the movie thoroughly mixes

the two belief systems to the extent that they lack any separateness. Ultimately, this

fundamentally flawed endeavor to meld the two systems of belief results only in

confusion and an awkward cinematic premise. In reality, science and religion are not the

same, and like oil and water, they are not easily combined. This can best be understood

using the ideas of the writer and theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who describes the concept of

speech genres, which are different ways of speaking. By attempting to fuse science and

religion into one belief system, Contact ends up appearing unnatural and at times


To develop the above argument it is important to first establish the concept of

speech genres and how they can be used to explain the inherent separateness of science

and religion. The author Mikhail Bakhtin defines a speech genre as the certain type of

“utterance” that is associated with a particular “sphere of communication” (81). Because

science and religion are each associated with its own speech genre, they must by

definition use different types of utterances. But how does this communication disparity

lead to inherent separateness between the two belief systems? Bakhtin emphasizes that

an utterance must be considered “as a link in the chain of speech communication and

with respect to other, related utterances” (86). The connectedness of utterances therefore

affects their creation. Bakhtin goes on to explain that an “utterance is constructed while

taking into account possible responsive reactions, for whose sake, in essence, it is

actually created” (87). The possible response to an utterance is so important that it is

what makes a genre unique: “Each speech genre in each area of speech communication

has its own typical conception of the addressee, and this defines it as a genre” (87).

Applying these ideas to the scientific and religious speech genres, we can understand how

each involves utterances that are created in anticipation of responsive utterances that

belong to the same genre. Therefore, what defines the scientific way of speaking is the

use of utterances that are created with the notion of a scientific addressee, who could be

anyone from a scientist to nature itself. Meanwhile, what defines the religious way of

speaking is the use of utterances that are created with the conception of a religious

addressee, who could be anyone from a priest to God himself. Because the two different

types of utterance anticipate a different addressee, it is impossible for an utterance from

one genre to be a response to an utterance from the other genre. The existence of

different addressees creates separateness between the two speech genres and prevents

their mixture. Since communication is necessary to bring science and religion together,

the inability to combine ways of speaking prevents fusion into a unified belief system.

We will now illustrate how Contact attempts to combine science and religion into

one system of belief, and how this premise and the associated incompatible speech genres

make for an awkward storyline. The first example directly shows the importance of the

addressee in a conversation composed of utterances. When Ellie Arroway is being

interviewed about her discovery on national news, the interviewer asks her to comment

on the safety issues involved with the transportation device. She responds by saying in a

scientific manner that she thinks it would be safe to build and use the machine because

the extraterrestrials who sent its instructions are probably millions of years ahead of

humans in technology: “I have to believe that a civilization that advanced knows what

they’re doing. All it requires on our part is…” She pauses for a moment to think of the

correct scientific word to insert into her sentence. But before she speaks again, the

interviewer quickly asks, “Faith?” The entrance of religion into a scientific discussion

leads to an awkward pause in the conversation for Ellie. While Zemeckis is attempting to

show how science and religion cannot be separated from one another, the awkwardness

of the moment instead seems to show the difference between the two belief systems.

Using Bakhtin’s vocabulary, we know that Ellie considers possible reactions from the

interviewer when she creates her utterance. Because she is speaking with language from

the scientific genre, she expects to hear a scientific utterance in return, or in other words,

she expects an utterance from a scientific addressee. However, when the response to

what she says uses vocabulary from a different genre, the chain of speech communication

is interrupted, and this is confusing for the viewer. This scene vividly illustrates the

difficulty of combining utterances from both religion and science into one fluent


There are other examples of mixing belief systems in the film that are not directly

related to speech, but where the ensuing awkwardness can be explained by speech genres.

One such example is when the movie tries to show science being used to answer

traditionally religious questions. At the beginning of the movie, the young Ellie asks her

dad how far radio signals can reach. When he answers that humans can talk to distant

planets, Ellie responds, “Dad, could we talk to Mom?” Because her mother has passed

away, he answers, “I don’t think even the biggest radio could reach that far.” This

dialogue implies that science cannot answer questions that belong to the sphere of

religion. However, by the end of the movie, the viewer is asked to accept the notion that

science can answer the ultimate religious questions, as Ellie’s scientific discovery enables

her to rejoin her long diseased father. In another example of the same philosophy, Bill

Clinton, playing himself in the movie as President of the United States, pronounces that

this scientific breakthrough “promises answers to some of our oldest questions.” A

personal friend of Carl Sagan, Joan Campbell, who is from the National Council of the

Churches of Christ, explains that “religion talks about ultimate, or primary questions”

(257). It is logical that the “ultimate, or primary questions” are the same as the “oldest

questions” that Clinton speaks about. Therefore, it could readily be interpreted that

Clinton is talking about science answering religious questions, in yet another instance of

the director trying to fuse both into one belief system. Here again the idea of science

answering religious questions is nonsensical. While a scientific experiment is not directly

a form of speech, it can be thought of as a question in the language of science. When one

of these scientific utterances is constructed, the conception of a scientific addressee is

present, and a religious response is totally out of place. As long as a question is grounded

in science, only a scientific response will suffice. This phenomenon stems directly from

how the question is created.

The director of Contact tries to show that a scientific experiment can prove the

existence of religion. Toward the beginning of the movie, it is suggested that this cannot

be done. Ellie Arroway explains this when she refuses to believe in religion without

proof, and Palmer Joss responds by saying that some things simply cannot be proven. It

is implied in this scene that what separates science from religion is empirical evidence.

But in an illogical twist, the ultimate conclusion of the movie is that the existence of

religion can be scientifically proven. This is because all the work done by scientists in

the movie, which can be thought of as one big experiment, supposedly leads to these

extraterrestrials communicating their thoughts about religion. Although it can be argued

that the words of the aliens are not supported empirically, it is clear that Zemeckis wants

viewers to think that they are. We are expected to believe that the simple fact that the

extraterrestrials are advanced enough to send a human to their world is proof that what

they say is correct. When Ellie arrives at her destination and is greeted by her father, who

is in some manner is supposed to represent the extraterrestrials, he responds to one of

Ellie’s scientific statements by saying, “That’s my scientist,” in a sardonic tone


suggesting that science is not always the best way to think. He then goes on to say that

the human race feels “so lost, so cut off, so alone. Only you’re not. See, in all our

searching, the only thing we found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.” By

these words he implies that love, the same thing that Palmer claims cannot be proven,

forms that foundation for religion and is the ultimate force in the universe. To further

substantiate this argument it is worth noting that Carl Sagan, the author of the book on

which the movie is based, explained to Campbell that he believed in “a direct, empirically

verifiable, peer-reviewed experience of divine revelation” (255). Now upon returning to

Bakhtinian thoughts, it should be noted that if a scientific proof is thought of as an

utterance, the result of the proof must be the response of the addressee, which in this case

would be nature. It is therefore illogical for the final conclusion to come from a religious


In attempting to illustrate the fusion of science and religion, the film searches for

common ground. But in doing so, it tends to oversimplify and this results in considerable

awkwardness. The first commonality to be discussed is faith. Joan Campbell describes

that not only religion, but also “science offers facts for men and women of faith” (258).

Contact attempts to demonstrate this presence of faith in science when Ellie returns from

her trip to the ends of the universe without any evidence that she traveled anywhere. It is

later discovered that the camera she has with her during the trip records eighteen hours of

static, thereby leading the viewer to know that Ellie’s experience is substantiated by

empirical evidence. But before this discovery is revealed, the only evidence of Ellie’s

journey is her story. Without proof of an extraterrestrial encounter, the viewer is expected

to simply believe that it happened. In doing so, the director is suggesting that faith is

important in both science and religion. If the experience of faith is thought of as a

conversation, then believing would be an utterance, while that in which one has faith

would be the addressee. Since the scientific addressee would be nature, while the

religious addressee would be God, it is obvious that there are two different types of faith.

Although this may be a commonality, the two ways of being faithful are ultimately


A second commonality to which this movie alludes is a sense of awe. Campbell

explains that the two belief systems “share an emotion about the universe’s beauty,

mystery, and energy” (258). In most cases, this emotion tends to be awe. When Ellie is

traveling through the universe, she stops moving at one point and observes a celestial

event. She begins crying as she says, “No words to describe it. […] They should have

sent a poet. It’s so beautiful. I had no idea.” By revealing the overwhelming emotion

that she feels for the universe, this scene reflects the admiration that scientists have of

nature, which is similar to the sentiments that a priest might feel about God’s creations.

The importance of emotion is also depicted when President Clinton expresses in the

movie that the discovery’s “implications are […] awe-inspiring.” But the film’s attempt

to meld the two is unnatural because the type of admiration is different in both cases. Let

us again think of this as a conversation. Within the scientific speech genre, nature creates

an utterance, or reveals its awe-inspiring aspects, and someone scientific reacts by

expressing emotion. Within the religious speech genre, God creates an utterance, and

someone religious reacts by expressing emotion. Therefore, the addressee will differ

depending on whether nature or God creates the sentiment-evoking utterance, which

suggests that there are two types of awe. The movie’s claim that a sense of emotion fuses

the two systems of belief is an oversimplification.

The awkwardness of the film Contact stems from its proclivity to gloss over

fundamental incompatibilities. Because of the importance of the addressee in defining a

speech genre, science and religion cannot be fused into a unified belief system. It could

almost be said that the movie’s attempt to combine the two has a lot in common with cold

fusion, which is a way of fusing atomic nuclei using very little energy. It was exciting

when the existence of cold fusion was first announced to the world, the same way it was

exciting for the director of Contact to announce his idea for a belief system fusion. But

cold fusion was eventually determined to be an illusion, just like our finding for the film’s

version of fusion. In both cold and belief system fusion, little energy is required, while in

reality, fusion needs a large driving force. Since it is true that nuclear fusion can take

place if enough energy is present, could it be possible for science and religion to mix if a

special hybrid speech genre existed? If such were real, might it be possible for humans to

have the vocabulary to comprehend the exact relationship between science and religion?

But until then, these two systems of belief are necessarily separate.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “The Problem of Speech Genres.” The Bakhtin Reader. Ed. Pam

Morris. London: Edward Arnold, 1994. 80-87.

Campbell, Joan. “Science and Religion.” Carl Sagan’s Universe. Ed. Elizabeth Bilson

and Yervant Terzian. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 254-260.

Contact. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Warner Bros., 1997.