Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Listeners

I wrote the other day that materialists and atheists are unlikely to reach out into the vast universe. That isn't entirely true. There is in fact a class of people who claim to believe in nothing and who are reaching out, if only with their minds and their ears. They are the Listeners, the people who believe with all of their hearts and with a religious intensity that we are not alone in the universe and that tomorrow . . . or the next day . . . or the day after that . . . we will hear from our space brethren. The Listeners speak of this possibility like a Muslim waiting for his Mahdi or a Christian for his Jesus. And despite all non-results--decades of non-results--they promise that it will happen soon, that we will finally hear from the stars . . . tomorrow . . . or the next day . . . or . . . They sound like the early UFO enthusiasts, men like Major Donald E. Keyhoe (a contributor to Weird Tales) who longed for, expected, and predicted that "[a]t any time, there could be a sudden development for which we are totally unprepared," namely, the arrival on earth of aliens from space. (1)

This isn't to say that all Listeners are materialists and atheists. But I suspect many are. I have called them the Listeners after the novelette "The Listeners" by James E. Gunn, originally published in Galaxy Magazine in September 1968. Mr. Gunn's story is about the crew of a radio telescope, seemingly based on the real-life facilities at Green Bank, West Virginia, or Arecibo, Puerto Rico. There is even mention of Iosif Shklovskii (sic), Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, and other figures from the early search for intelligent life in the universe. I have a couple of quotes from "The Listeners" (from Breaking Point by James Gunn, DAW Books, 1973):
And then maybe Adams was right. Maybe nobody was there. Maybe nobody was sending signals because there was nobody to send signals. Maybe man was all alone in the universe. Alone with God. Or alone with himself, whichever was worse. (p. 148)
What kind of mad dedication could sustain such perseverance? . . . Religion could. At least it once did, during the era of cathedral building in Europe, the cathedrals that took centuries to build. . . . They [the listeners of the title] were building cathedrals, most of them. Most of them had that religious mania about their mission that would sustain them through a lifetime of labors in which no progress could be seen. (pp. 164-165)
Here, then, is the religious angle, identified by a science fiction author nearly half a century ago, and a bit of evidence that science in modern times has taken the place of conventional religion, that it is more or less a new kind of religion, with radio telescopes as its cathedrals, both of which structures are designed to reach towards the heavens.

More to the point, though, is the idea expressed in the first quote, specifically the idea that man may be "alone in the universe. Alone with God. Or alone with himself, whichever [is] worse." I suspect, as I have written before, that the person who fails in his belief in God is likely to loathe himself, and if not that, to loathe humanity. To be alone with ourselves would be intolerable to the man who has turned away from the reality of the non-material. But to be alone with God, it seems to me, would be infuriating to him who claims to believe in nothing. And so he looks for someone out there as evidence that man is nothing special, really only one of countless intelligent species spread across the universe, risen by a currently unexplained process of spontaneous generation and carried forward by a slightly more explanatory and supposedly random process of evolution.

So he keeps looking . . . and listening . . . and listening . . .

Note
(1) From Aliens from Space . . . The Real Story of Unidentified Flying Objects (Doubleday, 1973), Major Keyhoe's last book, published near the end of his career as an author and UFOlogist.

Major Donald E. Keyhoe, a trading card from my series UFOlogists and Cryptozoologists. Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley.

Original text and art copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

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