What would the possible consequences for humankind be if we were to discover extraterrestrial life forms? This was the theme of this year’s essay competition run by the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities (KHMW) and the NRC newspaper, which was open to entries from April onwards. The essay written by our own Mathilde van Dijk, Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity and Gender Studies at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, won first prize in the competition. Van Dijk was presented with her gold medal by the KHMW on Monday 14 October in Pakhuis de Zwijger, Amsterdam.
This wasn’t the first time that Mathilde van Dijk had considered entering the essay competition, but in the past, the timing had never been quite right. It often coincided with a busy period in which she was marking assignments and theses. ‘But I really felt at home with the subject this year, so I managed to write my essay quickly in between my other work. Science fiction is one of my favourite genres – particularly in film and on TV. And I’ve always been interested in astronomy. I read
the articles on this subject in the science supplement of the NRC newspaper.’
Mathilde van Dijk’s essay starts with a fictional newspaper article from the year 2619, about the unveiling of an extra-terrestrial monument in Amsterdam. The female president expresses her ‘hope that the statue will put an end to hundreds of years of colonization and discrimination, and mark the beginning of a future of equality and thriving relationships.’ Because, Van Dijk continues: ‘In popular culture, there only seem to be two possible scenarios for contact with extra-terrestrial beings: respectful interaction as we see in the Star Trek series, or a struggle for survival as depicted in Alien. History has taught us that the second scenario is more in keeping with our Earth. Europeans and their descendants have a long history of repressing and exploiting people who look different or who are less technologically advanced than themselves.’
Van Dijk thinks aloud in her essay: ‘If even minimal differences between people, such as clothing and skin colour, can cause such serious problems, how can we possibly hope to cope with extra-terrestrial beings that might have scales or look like clouds? The likeliest outcome is that we would colonize them and turn them into slaves.’ She concludes: ‘But what would happen if they were to discover us, instead of the other way around? Let’s hope it would be more like Star Trek than like Ripley. Otherwise, things might look pretty grim for us...’
Dr Mathilde van Dijk has been giving lectures on science fiction and fantasy for years, because of the philosophical questions that the genre poses: ‘Questions like: What can we learn from science, or on the other hand, from spirituality? What makes a human being a human being? The link between science and religion is what makes this genre so interesting; religion is sometimes portrayed as superstitious nonsense in relation to reliable science, but it is also sometimes portrayed as spirituality that keeps humankind on track. The UG used to have a marvellous slogan ‘working at the boundaries of knowledge’. This certainly touches on what science fiction is about: a genre with a strong philosophical perspective. It’s also interesting to note that it’s not only the fictional beings that follow a particular type of religion or spirituality, but that some fans of the films, TV series and games also adhere to these religions. They see themselves as jedi, for example. The narratives about God (or Gods), spirituality and religion also say a lot about the position that our current culture assigns to certain things. All of these aspects make science fiction an interesting extra research subject, which I have only just started studying alongside my regular work on late mediaeval reform.’
The gold medal presented by the KHMW is Mathilde van Dijk’s second gold medal: ‘I got my first one in the school swimming championships when I was 12! This exposure will be good for the Faculty and I think it will show people why working and studying at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies is such fun. I find the interdisciplinary context so inspiring: I would never have thought of studying science fiction if I hadn’t been around students and colleagues who were also interested in the subject, specifically cultural anthropologists, systematic theologians and philosophers.'
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