I saw Avatar a few days ago, and thought it was a wonderful movie and a thrilling fantasy story. Just after watching, I described it as a kind of mash-up of The Matrix (in the sense of being able to plug into a machine and enter a different reality), a book by Issac Asimov called Nemesis, and Fern Gully.
I liked the objective, evidence-based view of the scientists, especially that of the main scientist Dr. Grace Augustine. I also noticed the way that she came to believe in the mystical environmentalist religion of the Na’vi. And I’d have to say that if I observed the things that she observed that I would have believed too.
Think about it. She and the other scientists were first amazed to find out that all the plants on Pandora had some kind of chemical/electrical communication system going on between them. She also would have observed in her Na’vi avatar body, as Jake Sully did, that she had an odd sensor thing at the end of her braid that allowed her to tap into that network. Then she finally got to see the magical tree that was at the hub of all the communication. If I were to see an experience all that, I would definitely be leaning toward some sort of pantheism even if I considered it all to be totally natural (as opposed to supernatural). If I had all these signs, all this evidence, that it was true then I’d be right in there with the believers.
Now for the Issac Asimov explanation I promised. In the book Nemesis, a group of humans who have inhabited an asteroid in the increasingly crowded solar system have found a way to leave for another sun. They try to terraform an earth-like moon of a gas-giant planet in orbit around a large red sun, but workers on this new world are continually struck by some sort of ‘madness.’ It turns out that there is a microbial life form covering the planet, but it’s not just bacteria. It’s a huge planet spanning superorganism, and it does not want to be destroyed to let the humans terraform the planet. To top it all, this interconnected mass of microbes is telepathic, and communicates with the main character in the story, a girl named Marlene. In the end it is able to convince them, by communicating though Marlene, to stop the attempts at terraforming.
A common thread in Avatar and Nemesis is that the main characters are generally skeptically minded rational people who encounter the reality things that they had previously thought impossible. And in the face of this mind-boggling evidence they accept what the evidence implies. It’s any open-minded skeptic’s dream.
Of course, this is all fantasy and not reality. These fantastical happenings are commonplace in fiction, but not so much in the real world. Skeptics are not convinced by fanciful speculations and second-hand stories.
So if you are curious about what would cause this skeptical atheist to believe in (fill in the blank) check out the sort of things that convince the skeptics in these stories. Seeing (and verifying) is believing.