MIND MELD: Is Science Fiction Antithetical to Religion?
This week’s question was suggested by Lou Anders, who not only received extra Mind Meld credit redeemable at imaginary nerd shops everywhere, but who also must serve penance by answering his own question:
You can’t generalize about this large a field. For every atheist or agnostic author you can name, I’ll name a religious one. For example: Gene Wolfe is a devout Catholic. Ray Lafferty was a devout Catholic. Avram Davidson was an Orthodox Jew. Michael A. Burstein is an Orthodox Jew. Etc, etc, etc.
In 1984 I wrote a very controversial novel titled The Branch, in which God and the true Jewish Messiah (not Jesus) were the two villains of the piece. The poor producer/director who optioned and made it got excommunicated from his church and thrown out of his country (Andorra)…and yet if you do not accept the existence of God and the truth of the Old Testament, there’s no story. So was it irreligious, or was it simply Politically Incorrect religion?
I am an atheist, yet I have given God speaking parts in four or five humorous stories, and have treated religion with respect in literally dozens of stories and novels. On the other hand, I know many devout Christian and Jewish science fiction writers whose religious beliefs are deeply personal, and who choose not to share them fictionally with their audience. Are they irreligious because they do not evangelize in print?
You can’t just a book by its cover…and you can’t necessarily judge an author’s (or a field’s) religious beliefs by that book’s contents.
While I am personally always amazed at (deeply) religious people who are also science fiction readers – and even mores at those of faith who are writers – I would have to say that SF is not antithetical to religion. It is, however, analogous to religion in that both science and religion are attempts to grapple with the mysteries of existence and the wonders of the universe. Now, leaving aside the oft-cited example of C.S. Lewis SF trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength), which were really fantasy disguised as science fiction (Ransom does travel to Venus on a floating coffin, buoyed by angels, after all), there are certainly a number of committed religion folk working in our genre. And always have been.
Just as there are scientists who are capable of harnessing their faith to motivate them in the exploration of the creator’s handiwork, there are science fiction writers who are capable of imagining a divine clockmaker behind the wonders the universe has in store – Dr. Frank J. Tipler’s Physics of Immortality, though it relies on a Closed Universe ending in a Big Crunch – is just one such example of how one can reconcile an afterlife and a god with a totally material view of the universe. (It is also, by the way, a major source of inspiration for both Ian McDonald’s Brasyl – a harder work of SF you’d be hard pressed to find this past year – and Chris Roberson’s forthcoming End of the Century.) I am sure there are many more such examples if we cast about.
I will say that my friends in the science fiction community who are religious tend to be of a more relaxed and liberal bent. Karl Schroeder once observed that science fiction was where the universe conformed to natural laws, but that fantasy was where the natural laws conformed to moral ones and where nature would arise to punish transgressors. (This is why Pat Robertson lives in a fantasy universe, not a science fictional one like the rest of us.)
What I do think is antithetical to science fiction is fundamentalism and extreme orthodoxy. The scientific hypothesis, which is the basis of all legitimate science, and thus, the bedrock for fiction framed in a scientific mode of thinking, is predicated on the notion that observation informs, shapes and expands our comprehension of reality. If you believe that you already know everything there is to know, that you have the nature of reality handed to you in the form of carvings on stone tablets, and are utilizing your observations to confirm rather than test your presuppositions, you are not a scientist. And any fiction that flows from these presuppositions will be propaganda, not art. Theodore Sturgeon said that science fiction’s job is to “ask the next question.” As long as you believe that there IS a next question, and are prepared for any answer, even one you might not expect, then you are okay in my book, whether you believe those questions arise solely in the mind of the observer, or are puzzles set up by an infinite mind lurking behind the complexity of the cosmos.
But tell me you’ve got a direct and irrefutable line on truth, and I’m afraid I’ll stop reading. Personally, I’m not so concerned with final answers. For me, the real fun lies in finding more questions.
There has been comparatively little science fiction that deals directly with religion. Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, “The Star,” comes to mind. As do several of James Blish’s works, including Black Easter. In my own Grand Tour novels, part of the background is based on the concept that ultraconservative religious movements gain political control of most of the Earth, with deleterious results for human freedom. However, in novels such as Jupiter, I try to show that a person can have sincere religious convictions and be a working scientist at the same time.
I don’t know that most of the “fathers of science fiction” were atheists. But clearly they were more interested in exploring the future of science, technology, and discovery in their stories than in religious themes.
Is there an inescapable conflict between science and religion? If there is, I believe the basis for the conflict lies in this: The scientific attitude is to search for new knowledge, and to understand that all of our ideas and views are subject to change, based on new information. Science depends on testing, and measurement. Religion, on the other hand, usually takes the attitude that the believer knows all he or she needs to know, and that any challenge to reveal truth is dangerous and should be rejected.
Science tries to find the truth, knowing that we can never be satisfied that we hold the truth in our hands. Religion believes that it has the ultimate and complete truth, and anyone who disagrees should be shunned – or worse.
Science fiction, stories based on science and technology, usually follows the scientific frame of mind. Evidence is more important than revealed “truth.” Science fiction writers by and large believe that scientific investigation has given us a clearer understanding of the world than the writing of ancient apologists and mystics.
Revealer, and Nerve, and is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.
Is science fiction antithetical to religion? Of course not! Samuel R. Delany wrote, and I agree, that “virtually all the classics of speculative fiction are mystical.” Regardless of the stated beliefs of its authors — who aren’t all atheists, by the way — SF works best as a genre about the Big Questions of being and meaning, and any halfway-satisfying answer to those questions has to have a bit of religious flavor. Critic Darko Suvin has argued that any SF story that takes religious concepts seriously becomes a “fairy-tale.” But this view belittles or ignores the work of truly great authors in the genre — Robert Silverberg, Olaf Stapledon, Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, Robert J. Sawyer — whose writing is great in large part because of the intelligence and understanding with which they consider religious and metaphysical concepts. Don’t let the name fool you — there’s more to science fiction than science, and without philosophy, theology, and myth, it wouldn’t be the genre we love.
That’s not to mention the fact that ideas can sometimes get out of the hands of their authors, too — witness the late Arthur C. Clarke’s disclaimer that the opinions expressed in Childhood’s End, a mystical novel if ever there was one, “are not those of the author.” In fact, SF isn’t just not antithetical to religion — it’s probably the best venue we have for theological speculation. Like theology, SF is all about exploring the unknown, and some of the most dynamic theological concepts of the past century have found their best expression in SFnal forms. SF has a whole toolbox of techniques for pondering the infinite, describing the indescribable, and building paradise. This doesn’t diminish the importance of 20th century theologians like Alfred North Whitehead or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin — but I’ll wager that Philip K. Dick has more readers than both of them combined.
Richard Dawkins may be convinced that a certain ultranconservative, anti-science fringe is the core of all religious thought, and that every Martin Luther King is really a Jerry Falwell in disguise. But it simply ain’t so. Science (and SF) may exclude a certain close-minded branch of religiosity, but there’s plenty of room for both scientific and theological speculation in other wings of religious belief, and SF fits quite well in the overlap.
Not at all. Speaking as a Low Church Atheist, I am quite comfortable saying that religion is a core component of the human experience. Science fiction is more than any other genre the literature of the human experience, taking “human experience” to mean our species as a whole.
There’s certainly that classical strain of technocratic SF which lies at our Silver Age heart, that bears a deep assumption about the irrelevance of religion in a world ruled by logic. Us at our Apollonian best, as it were. But science fiction has a deeply Dionysian side as well, stretching all the way back to Mary Shelley at least, on through Ellison and Zelazny and into a large swathe of what’s being published today.
Religion in a formal sense sits away from the center of our banquet, but even there we have books ranging from James Blish’s A Case of Conscience to Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow that deal with religion in a supportive manner, as well as such lateral commentaries such as James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah. We’re all about the religion, us, even if we won’t be caught dead walking past the church door.
Is religion and science fiction mutually incompatible? Are they in direct opposition? Once, on my blog I wrote “The Religion that Failed to Achieve Orbit” describing science fiction as a minor forgotten religion of the 20th century. If the question is simply: Are science fiction stories for atheists like Bible stories are for the faithful – then yes, but not in the way the question expects. Plenty of people love both religion and science fiction. But the question also asks about Darwin and deep time, and that brings up another idea.
There have been four major inventions for explaining reality: fiction, religion, philosophy and science, and I think they evolved in that order. Fiction has always absorbed elements of the other three, and science fiction claims to combine two of the four to make a unique form. I’ve always considered religion a descendent of fiction – men and women a long time ago came up with a lot of ideas about reality and some people said: Let’s pick some stories to believe.
Fiction tries to tell the truth by lying. Religion attempts to find the truth through believing. Philosophy wants to tell the truth through logic. And science works to find the truth through observation and experimentation.
All four mental disciplines have the same goal of describing what’s real. By that standard religion and science fiction both fail miserably. Here’s the big difference. Religion and science fiction express what people want from reality, whereas philosophy and science express what is. Both religion and science fiction want to alter the habits of people and both often scare their believers with end of the world themes. Immortality and fantastic worlds in the sky are common elements to both. Each practice the art of world building. What’s really very Freudian is both disciplines love stories about super heroes with non-human powers.
Like I said, I believe religion is a branch of fiction, and science fiction is just another branch. I don’t know if they are in opposition or just competition for the same pool of believers. The older I get the more I try to evaluate the origins of my science fictional beliefs and I’ve concluded that as a child I didn’t accept Jesus but Heinlein.
Is Science Fiction antithetical to Religion? At the risk of being crucified (pardon the pun) I would have to say ‘no’. If anything science fiction can be a great proponent of religion, religious thought, and the exploration of the vast mysteries inherent in the most well known religious text in the world, The Bible, as well as other religious texts.
Before I go any further, I have to admit that though I initially wanted to be able to take a step back from my own belief system, Christianity, I found myself coming back to this time and again, fascinated by all the paths my meditation on this question took me down. I also want to make it clear that when I refer to religion I am not referring to a negative societal view of religion as a rigid set of rules and regulations put forth to control the masses, nor am I envisioning the stereotypical hard-headed, science-damning, Bible-thumping Christian. Instead I hope to speak from the standpoint of the educated, intelligent person who defines religion as a relationship with a Higher Power. For the ‘religious’ person whose set of do’s and do not’s are more important than relationships, I believe science fiction, like any fiction whatsoever, probably is antithetical to religion. I am not that type of person nor are most religious folks with whom I associate.
Science Fiction has long been touted as the genre that looks to the future and attempts to postulate what life may be like either ‘out there’ or ‘in the future’ or a combination of the two. Science Fiction, in one aspect, allows the author and the reader to actively wonder about just what exists beyond the bounds of earth as well as beyond the bounds of life. Just as scriptures like Genesis 6:1-4 can be mined for tales of folklore, fantasy and mythology:
“And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they [were] fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.
And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also [is] flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.
There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare [children] to them, the same [became] mighty men which [were] of old, men of renown.”Scriptures like 1 Corinthians 2:9
“But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”
The entire Book of Revelations, and many other Old and New Testament scriptures are ripe with possibilities as far as exploration in the science fiction genre. In fact I believe that all of the various religions are an untapped resource of paths down which science fiction could blaze new trails and postulate interesting theories. Talented authors could (and many probably already have and I am just ignorant of their work) theorize many amazing science fiction scenarios that explore the many aspects of religious thought.
Perhaps it is the old Inherit the Wind mindset that leads those who do not practice a particular faith to believe that religious people are closed minded in regards to science, scientific discovery, and by extension science fiction. I certainly see that stance projected in many of the anti-religious rhetoric I come across in my travels down the information superhighway. I personally believe that most educated people of all faiths see science as an enhancement to their belief systems. All the minute detail and order that scientific study reveals actually enhances many peoples’ belief that only a divine Creator could have made all that the universe contains. Scoff if you must, but I truly believe that science (which wasn’t the topic, I digress), science fiction, and religious faith need not be antithetical at all.
Interestingly enough as I traveled around looking for specific scripture references during the writing of this post, I came across an essay from a Rabbi, examining the significance of the two trees (The Tree of Life and The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) in the book of Genesis. With a nod to Quantum Physics he theorized that before their choice to eat from that second tree, Adam and Eve were in an undetermined state, between mortal and immortal. As I read that my mind went wild with science fiction scenarios.
While I certainly see and have read a great deal of science fiction whose aim, or at least a particular plot thread, was to prove that God does not exist or that the future with all its advancements will eventually produce a world in which religion no longer exists, I do not think this alone makes science fiction antithetical to religion. This only demonstrates that this is one of the more explored aspects of science fiction’s predictions for the future. Speaking entirely from personal experience, one of the things that science fiction drives me to do over and over again is to step outside and look at the night sky. While doing so I not only dream of space travel and daydream about whatever world I was just reading about, but I also stand in awe of my Creator and the wonder of the universe He created. Science fiction has never been antithetical to my personal religious experience, it has always enhanced it. Science fiction makes me think, makes me question things, and makes me not only evaluate my universe but also makes me evaluate my place in it. My great joy is that it will continue to do this as long as I continue to open the covers of books and allow myself to be taken on amazing journey after amazing journey.
I feel a personal investment in this question. A few years ago I wrote a critical history of SF, the main thesis of which was that science fiction as a genre has its roots precisely in the religious conflicts of the Reformation. The first thing that I noticed when I sat down to research that book was just how extraordinary and varied was the wealth of SF predating Verne and Wells(hundreds and hundreds of stories about travelling to other planets, about robots and imaginary technology, about future societies). In my history I trace the lineage of these sorts of stories back to about 1600. I suggest that it is no coincidence this new mode of literature, engaging the new scientific thinking about the cosmos, arose at the same time as the great intellectual and theological debates of the Reformation. In other words I challenge the premise of your mindmeld question: I don’t agree that the fathers of science fiction were atheists. On the contrary, I’d argue that the fathers of science fiction were either Protestants (seventeenth-century writers like Kepler, Godwin, Wilkins and eighteenth-century writers like Swift) or else more-or-less freethinking Catholics (people like Cyrano de Bergerac and Voltaire).
In a nutshell my thesis is that Fantastic Literature (which is of course as old as humanity, going back at least to Homer and the Gilgamesh poet) bifurcates during the Reformation: one branch begins to predicate its fantasy upon the possibilities of the new sciences, discourses largely condemned by the Catholic Church (who burned Giordano Bruno to death for positing an infinite and inhabited universe, and who forced Galileo to recant) but important for the developing Protestant separatists; the other branch stays within the conceptual framework of traditional religion, predicates its fantasy upon ‘magic’ in the fullest sense, and becomes the tradition of the fundamentally sacramental, anti-technological and at base religious mode of contemporary Fantasy exemplified by Catholic writers like Tolkien. But this is not to argue that SF is atheist. Despite being godless myself I don’t think the genre I love is atheist at all. I think its a complex and evolving discourse still determined by its Protestant roots, a mode of art that is trying to articulate a number of core fascinations essentially religious in nature: questions of transcendence (‘sense of wonder’ as we sometimes call it, or ‘the Sublime’ in the language of literary criticism); atonement and messianism in particular. This is a very crude version of the argument I make: you’d have to read my History to see how I join the dots…available from all good booksellers etc.
C. S. Lewis was considered a science fiction writer too.
Some science fiction writers lean away from religion. Some don’t. Jerry Pournelle’s characters are likely to be religious. So are Poul Anderson’s, and he dealt with basic religious questions (“The Problem of Pain”), as did James Blish and Lester Del Rey. Pournelle and I wrote two sequels to Dante’s Inferno.
In fact, generalizations in science fiction usually spark exceptions, as writers try to answer other writers’ questions.
That’s cherry-picking names, though, isn’t it? Plenty of the classic SF writers weren’t atheists, and even the ones with sanguine views towards organized religion (such as Arthur C. Clarke) believed, or wanted to believe, in some kind of transcendence, even if it wasn’t direct experience of some Godhead.
Science Fiction often does think religion will mostly go away, or will settle down quietly – let me mention Clarke again, who in several books has the whole world think better of religion after some major event – but that’s just part of the general classic SF tendency to put the world into a neat, easily-defined box. (Psychohistory also comes to mind in this context; classic SF often thought all of human knowledge would eventually be as rigorous and predictive as classical physics – though they were clearly wrong about that.)
The only real, died-in-the-wool atheist of classic SF that I can think of is Asimov, who utterly epitomizes the idea that pure thinking can reduce the world to a set of axioms. Science has since proven – actually, science was already proving, back then, but classic SF didn’t pay as much attention to real cutting-edge science as some people like to pretend these days – that the world is much stranger and more complex than the layman thought.
Smart SF writers, the ones who understand how real human beings think and feel, don’t discount the effects of religion (and other forms of irrationalism and wishful thinking) on humanity. Clarke may have hoped that we’d outgrow it, and newer writers like Egan (in “Oceanic”) may argue that we can and should engineer religiosity out of humanity, but they still take its role in human culture seriously, and know they have to account for it.
SF does have a tendency to explain things away, and religion is one of the biggest targets there – and “those closed-minded religious fanatics” are a common villain type for all kinds of SF – but there are plenty of SF writers who actually believe, to one degree or another. SF isn’t necessarily anti-religion…it’s just anti-irrationalism. The more rational a religion is, the more likely it is to be treated positively in SF.
Science fiction is only as antithetical to religion as science is.
In other words, science fiction is as antithetical to religion as its practitioners make it. And the range of practitioners means that science fiction is in no way antithetical to religion by its nature alone.
It is true that many of the early writers of science fiction saw themselves as great rationalists, and they viewed religion as irrational. From this perspective, science itself would be the new religion. This attitude is strongly found in works such as the H.G. Wells novel and movie Things to Come, in which a group of scientists form what is considered the first truly benevolent government in history. From that perspective, science fiction would appear to consider religion in the same way as Marxism does, as an opiate for the masses.
The attitude has continued to be shown throughout the history of science fiction, particularly in media science fiction. For example, the TV show Star Trek presented its fans with many quasi-omnipotent beings who had the powers of gods but acted like spoiled children. Clearly, the lesson there was to eschew religion and embrace rationality. More recently, Stargate:SG-1 featured a set of villains, the Ori, who used advanced technology to convince the humans of the galaxy that they were gods to be worshipped. Again, it would appear as if science fiction was taking a stand against religion.
And yet science fiction has also produced works that show great respect for religion and religious people. Walter Miller’s novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, by showing generations of monks working to preserve human knowledge after an apocalypse, can be seen as an argument that religion and religious practice has a role in saving humanity.
Babylon 5, a TV show created by an avowed atheist, portrayed religious people in a positive light as well. In fact, an early episode, “The Parliament of Dreams,” implies that humanity’s strength lies in our diversity of religious beliefs, and not in our ability to discard them. (It can even be argued that the universe of Babylon 5 includes definitive proof that a god of some sort exists.)
I’ve incorporated religious themes into my own work, and some of those stories have proven to be the most popular ones among my readers. In fact, the readers of Analog, the bastion of rational, hard science fiction, voted one of those stories, “Sanctuary,” as the best novella the magazine published in 2005. Clearly, the readers of science fiction are willing to accept religious themes into their stories. (And many science fiction writers, including me, are perfectly able and willing to incorporate religious practice into their own lives.)
The question you asked arises only because so many atheists fall into the same trap as religious people do — they assume that one day, the human race will have the scales fall from their eyes and they will accept their beliefs as obvious and correct. Who knows what belief is the true one? I doubt that the world will suddenly “see the light” and convert to any one monolithic belief, and science fiction would betray its vision if it banned religion from its works. No matter what anyone might hope or believe, religion is a uniquely human practice that will accompany our race on our journey to the stars.
(By the way, if anyone out there is interested in learning more about why a technically-minded person might embrace religion, I recommend they check out the new book God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion by Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit astronomer who works at the Vatican — and who is a science fiction fan.)
The answer is no. Science fiction writers have explored religion from every angle. Religious people (including C. S. Lewis) have written science fiction, just as atheists have written fantasy. At its core, science fiction is a loosely connected body of tropes that allows writers to write certain kinds of stories. It is not beholden to any one philosophy or theology, nor should it be.
Even hard sf, which merely refers to that kind of science fiction that seeks to be as true as possible to real science, is no more off-limits to religious people than is real scientific study. Educated religious people today are aware of such things as deep time, evolution, and the vastness of the universe, and most do not consider such things incompatible with their religions. In fact, religious people were aware of the vastness of the universe even when the Ptolemaic system was generally accepted; they just weren’t aware of its shape.
Many science fiction writers have incorporated religion into their fiction, successfully or unsuccessfully depending on their personal talents and inclinations. Arthur C. Clarke, an atheist, and Gene Wolfe, a Catholic, have made good use of science fiction as a vehicle for addressing metaphysics and religious issues. Connie Willis often incorporates religion into her stories. John C. Wright, who has made a much-publicized conversion to Christianity, clearly feels that writing sf is compatible with his new religion. And in my experience, a great many religious people are sf fans: the Catholic blogosphere, for example, is teeming with them.
Religious themes are an entrenched part of the genre. If they were not, science fiction would never be able to move beyond the level of gee-whiz technophilic sf; to explore the genre’s scope, writers must address the nature of humanity, our place in the universe, and the moral implications of technology. In other words, they must address questions that are properly philosophical and religious, and there is no reason to suppose that they must address these questions from only one angle.
Generalizations are dangerous because they’re mostly true, but inapplicable in enough cases that anyone can mount enough examples to prove that they’re not valid for whatever issue to which they are being applied. So it is with the proposition that science fiction is antithetical to religion. Yet…science fiction is at least theoretically based on the logical applications of peer-reviewed and tested science in a fictional narration. Religion may or may not have a logical construct, but belief, rather than tested accuracy, is at the heart of all religion. There’s a reason why followers of a faith are called believers. Even so, I don’t see religion and science fiction as necessarily antithetical, but I do see science fiction being at least perceived as hostile to any form of blind belief that rejects demonstrated scientific findings on the basis of belief.
No. Science fiction is not necessarily antithetical to religion.
Science Fiction has two figures I would call the fathers of science fiction: H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Since we cannot survey all science fiction writers, let us glance at these two, and assume they represent the schools they founded.
H.G. Wells was a socialist, a progressive, a eugenicist, and an atheist, and some of these ideas are strongly reflected in his writings, which dwelt more on the “soft” sciences of politics, sociology, and the humanities. Since religion touches the soft sciences of sociology and politics, religion becomes a matter for the soft SF tales.
Jules Verne was not an atheist; he was a French Roman Catholic. His religious ideas are invisible in his tales, for those tales dwelt on fantastic voyages and fabulous machines, such as submersible ironclads or airborne clipper ships or shells shot to the Moon. Since he dealt with hard science, physics and engineering, religion was immaterial to his plots, and never came up.
Vern was the hardest of all hard SF writers. His meticulous details (unfortunately lost in some English translations) give his tales a verisimilitude and an accuracy still remarkable. Some day soon, even non-science-fiction readers might come to believe that a moonshot is possible, or a rotary engine, or a heavier-than-air flying machine, or a submersible vehicle capable of sailing under the Antarctic icecap! – I’m sorry, what? These things were actually invented? Decades ago? Well, sciencefictioneers are just dreamers, right? Just a lucky guess by Verne.
The guesses of H.G. Wells were not so lucky, because he was not playing that particular hard-SF guessing game. His speculative fictions were veiled social commentaries. Ironically, while time machines and invisible men, Cavor’s antigravity metal or invaders from Mars, remain dreams no less fantastic now as in the Victorian Era, the Wellsian fiction remains more timely than Verne’s more accurate predictions, because the comments on society, on man’s place in the universe, always remain pertinent.
Let us look at The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells. The impact of the tale rests on the delicious blasphemy that Moreau, like Frankenstein before him, is playing at God. The scientist is breathing into the beasts a rational soul. After the death of Moreau, Edward Prendick, the narrator, attempts what can only be called priestcrafty: he tells the beast-men that the Master is still alive, that the Law said by the Sayer of the Law is still in force, and that the House of Pain will return. Nonetheless, the beasts-men strip away the bandages, discard human clothing, grow hair, and return to all fours.
The real point of the story is in its final paragraphs, where Prendick suffers from the same kind of melodramatic and suffocating horror we recognize from H.P. Lovecraft. Prendick (like Gulliver at the end of his travels) finds he cannot tolerate the sight of his fellow men: they seem like beasts, beasts inflicted by a disease called reason, not truly rational creatures are all. He is haunted by the idea that all human notions of right and wrong come from some source as cruel, human, and arbitrary as Doctor Moreau, and that Christian hope in the Second Coming is as foolish as the fear of the beast-men that Moreau is not dead, but will come again to enforce his Law. Prendick is terrified that mankind will ignore their own Sayers of the Law and degenerate back into shambling bestiality before his eyes.
Let us call this the “Horror of Darwinism.” It is the disorienting sensation the world felt when Copernicus yanked the world out from the center of a Ptolemaic cosmos. It is the disorientation of the weirdness of quantum mechanics and general relativity. The narrator is shocked to find that Man is not the center of the universe.
Science fiction thrives on the Horror of Darwinism. That sense of weirdness is a twin brother to the Sense of Wonder of American pulp fiction. We science fiction people like it when Copernicus yanks the world out from under our feet: to us, it is like a roller-coaster ride.
Is the disorientation of Darwinism antithetical to religion? Maybe or maybe not, but H.G. Wells, Progressive, is antithetical to religion. The last line of the book is telling. The narrator is looking up at the stars. “There it must be, I think, in the vast and eternal laws of matter, and not in the daily cares and sins and troubles of men, that whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope.”
In other words, the soul of man (that which is more than animal in us) can find solace and hope, not in religion, but in the vast and eternal laws of matter, i.e. in physical science. Even though the book never mentions God, the moral atmosphere of the tale is rich with those odors that waft from Victorian notions of Progress, Eugenics, Darwinism, Materialism. The Progressives will instinctively recognize the scent and smile.
Progressives, let us not forget, regard religion as one of those things to be left behind on the junk pile of history, along with monarchy, slavery, femininity, personal property, marriage, death and taxes, and whatever else will not exist in the Brave New World of our loving Big Brother.
If H.G. Wells represented all, or even most, science fiction, the antipathy of Science Fiction to religion would be plain.
But compare Doctor Moreau to Robur the Conqueror.
In Master of the World, Jules Verne describes a remarkable machine, called “The Terror”, which, powered by a rotary engine, can act as a horseless carriage, a boat, a submersible, and even a flying machine. It achieves speeds of upwards of ninety miles an hour, so that when traveling down roads, branches are snapped off and birds yanked out of the air by the hurricane of its passage.
I am sure there is some sort of plot in there somewhere, something about a treasury agent trying to track down the inventor of the machine. The story ends when Robur, the inventor, in defiance of the powers of heaven, flies his machine into a raging electrical storm above the gulf of Mexico. The machine, once it reached the height exactly equal to the tower of Babel, is struck by red-hot lightning, and plunges like proud Lucifer aflame into the raging deep. Only the narrator survives, or, I should say, “I alone survived to tell the tale.” Now, if there is a religious parallel or point to that scene, I cannot see it. It looks like a normal boy’s adventure story to me.
The religious parallel is so slight you have to squint to see it. However, the moral atmosphere of Jules Verne does reflect the values and assumptions of Christianity, and the moral atmosphere of H.G. Wells is hostile to them.
Now, here is my question: is the hubris of Dr. Moreau, and his downfall, one iota different from the hubris and downfall of Robur the Conqueror, or, for that matter, of Dr. von Frankenstein? Wells the story teller, not anything in the story itself, chooses to make a pro-Progressive and anti-Religious point, using science fiction as his weapon. Verne tells an almost identical story and does not so chose.
Which one of them is really the father of science fiction? Both.
But the difference is that Wells can put his irreligion in the forefront of his story, because the disorientation of Darwinism, the speculation that man can mock (or replace) God with Science is new and disorienting; whereas the religion of Verne is in the background of his story, because the theme warning against hubris is old and familiar.
Criticism of religion is an SF theme, because it is speculation. If Jesus turns out to be a Martian, or the Bethlehem Star turns out to be a supernova, that is speculative. Defense of religion is not an SF theme, because the idea that our ancestors were right on this point is not disorienting. It is not speculative.
Let us not misunderstand this point. It is not that religion is unscientific ergo science fiction is irreligious. That argument is beneath contempt. It is that science fiction readers love the roller coaster of new ideas.
When the Gray Lensman Kimball Kinnison marries Red Lensman Clarissa MacDougall on planet Klovia, the biggest wedding in two galaxies, we can assume the marriage ceremony is some sort of nondenominational vaguely Protestant rite carried out by the chaplains of the Galactic Patrol. But these things are in the background. The religious ideas are not on stage, not part of what makes SF science fiction. You read a Lensman novel to hear about the psychic powers of the Lens, the grandeur of the galactic war. If they worship atom bombs, or Vaal, or Landru, or the Great God Finuka, those religious ideas are on stage because they are strange and novel. If the people living beneath the Planet of the Apes worship the same God your grandparents did, where is the speculation in that?
Let us not exclude from the discussion the third father of science fiction, a man as inventive of basic tropes and ideas of our genre as Wells, but woefully neglected: Olaf Stapledon. He typifies the third way science fiction tales deals with religion. He was also not an atheist; he merely was not a Christian.
In Starmaker, the combined race-wide consciousness of all sapient worlds, stars and nebulae, at the end of the universe join in a telepathic union and attempt to achieve understanding of God. God, in this background, turns out to be an Artist indifferent to the fate of His creation, and He smites the combined universal mind for its presumption. Unlike in Christian mythology (where the Creator loves even those men who hate Him), the created beings have an unrequited love for the indifferent and cruel Starmaker. God is cruel because Darwinism, or perhaps the Artistic mind, requires clumsy experimentation, trial and error, and remorseless culling of the stock, to achieve evolution.
This theological speculation (that man’s proper relation to God is the relation of a battered but clinging wife to a cruel and indifferent husband) appears in other works by Stapledon. The dying races of mankind in Last and First Men regard life as a tragic waste, and pointless, and yet they salute the darkness of the indifferent universe with joy.
No one seriously will claim Stapledon, one of the founders of Science Fiction, did not write science fiction. And yet, in Starmaker, God Himself comes on stage as a character, no less than in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the meeting with God is the climax of the book. It is merely not the Christian God. The book is speculative fiction: in this case, theological speculation.
Stapledon’s approach to religion is not the Progressivism of Wells nor the Christian moral sentiment of Verne: it is something that gilds Darwinism with the glitter of religion. One can see a similar sentiment in Dune by Frank Herbert.
Any non-Christian spirituality in SF follows in the footsteps of Stapledon. The moral atmosphere of Ursula K. LeGuin is religious, but in her case the religion is Taoism rather than Christianity. The Lathe of Heaven is a Taoist parable about the virtue of quietism. Left Hand of Darkness and Wizard of Earthsea are redolent with Taoist thought. Ironically, no matter how ancient eastern religion is in the East, in the West it has a new (or even ‘New Age’) odor to it, and so it can be a source of sciencefictional novelty and wonder to a Westerner.
The most egregious example of this anything-but-Western one-sidedness is in Variable Star by Spider Robinson. In this tale, we learn that only Zen Buddhists can pilot starships, because the quantum uncertainties involved in the star drive require transcendental meditation in the observers. Or something. This is marketed and sold as science fiction. Yet imagine if Mr. Robinson had written Variable Saint, and it was the same story with one detail changed: in this future, it was discovered that the laws of high energy physics required that a Roman Catholic priest in full canonicals, with miter and alb, had to bless the drive core and sprinkle it with holy water out of an aspergillum before it could ignite!
I assume most readers would not regard that as a proper science fiction speculation. Eastern mysticism is not more scientific than Western, but it is more novel to us, so we wonder at it.
It is telling that there is not a single science fiction story where Eastern gods or Eastern mysticism is treated as false and contemptible. In Star Trek, if an Indian, excuse me, a Native American, introduces a starship captain to his “spirit guide”, this spirit never turns out to be a computer in disguise or a lying energy being. On the other hand, if anything remotely like the Christian God shows up, Spock shoots him with the forward phaser battery. This is because Progressives do not (as yet) regard any religion as antithetical to their world-view aside from Christianity. Perhaps Christianity is hard to tame.
Progressives can, and always have, use science fiction as a tool to put across their social commentary and satire. Religion is part of society and is fair game for comment and satire. But they are arrogant if they claim that science fiction is necessarily loyal to Progressivism.
Other writers, not of that faction, can and always have used science fiction to put across their world-views as well. We would have to narrow the definition of Science Fiction artificially to exclude the science fiction stories that take place in a religious moral atmosphere.
I am currently reading In Green’s Jungles by Gene Wolfe: there are both godlike beings in this tale and ghostly visitations, and other things that may or may not have a scientific explanation. Whether this tale counts as “science fiction” depends on your definition. But the moral atmosphere is hauntingly, even majestically, religious; nay, it is specifically Christian, both the acute pessimism and the otherworldly hope of that ancient faith are present, even though no Christian deity or doctrine is ever named. A book, science fiction or not, that breathed the same atmosphere would be Christian, even if nothing supernatural ever happened in the tale.
But if we fiddle with the definition of SF merely to throw out Gene Wolfe as a science fiction writer, then we Science Fiction writers lose the single best writer in our field today.
We also have to throw out Cordwainer Smith and the stories of the Instrumentality of Man.
And, while you are fiddling with the definition to exclude the Christians, what will you do with Robert Heinlein? Oh? You do not think that Number Of The Beast or Stranger In A Strange Land are religious science fiction?
They are not Christian, I grant you, but a tale where a solipsist discovers he is God, or where the dead are alive in Heaven wearing halos and angel-wings cannot fit anywhere into a materialistic or scientifically-understood universe.
If Stranger In A Strange Land is not science fiction, please tell me, because I would be glad to write in that genre instead.
Let us be honest. Science fiction is not necessarily about the science. It is about the wonder. Any writer man enough to portray religion as a source of wonder, as Gene Wolfe does, can make it a fit matter for science fiction.
The notion that fantasy accords with religion while SF remains intrinsically secular is a simple enough argument – but it’s not simplistic. This hypothesis has many virtues, not the least of which is its potential to spark interesting conversations. As the French say, “Yes, it works in practice, but will it work in theory?” And the question before us works marvelously well in theory.
To the degree that science fiction is the literature spun from human insights into the laws of nature, then it is indeed the last place a person should look for corroboration of the Christian worldview or any other frankly religious perspective. For better or worse – better, in my opinion – science has yet to provide a single molecule of evidence for the supernatural, and so far every attempt to make the empirical substantiate the ethereal, from the laboratory testing of the Shroud of Turin to the crude appropriation of particle physics by various self-styled mystics, has come to nothing. How appropriate that I should be composing this essay in the shadow of the death of Arthur C. Clarke, who spent so much of his creative energy reminding us that neither conventional theists nor “New Age nitwits,” as he called them, will find any genuine comfort in science qua science.
As always, however, the gritty observable is more complicated than the airy ontological. One thinks immediately of Michael Bishop, Gene Wolfe, and Orson Scott Card, three unapologetic Christians who’ve written novels and stories that are manifestly science fiction. No sane critic would argue that any of these authors has betrayed the genre’s heritage or compromised the integrity of his artistic vision by filtering it through a spiritual persuasion – indeed, I suspect that something like the opposite is true for Bishop, Wolfe, and Card: their faith may give their fiction its edge. On a more personal note, let me add that, in addition to Bishop, I am pleased to count among my most beloved literary friends a half-dozen SF writers whose beliefs are by no means synonymous with my own unqualified atheism.
Does this mean that future James Morrow novels will serve up some sort of cozy conciliation between religion and science? I certainly hope not. Religion has far too many things wrong with it, and science far too many things right with it, for me to adopt such a stance and still keep company with myself. May God strike me dead if I ever cast my lot with the kumbayahoos and Francis Collins schizoids who assert that Charles Darwin poses no genuine problem for faith. As far as I can tell, the only deity compatible with the evolutionary evidence would inevitably evoke the famous couplet from Archibald MacLeish’s verse drama J.B.: “If God is God He is not good / If God is good He is not God.” I would contrast MacLeish’s hard-won humanism with the legerdemain of all the major theodicies – the move whereby, when the Supreme Being putatively relieves some portion of our suffering, this becomes evidence for his boundless loving grace, and when that same Supreme Being permits the suffering to persist, this also becomes evidence for his boundless loving grace. Such “heads I win, tails you lose” logic should be exposed for the shoddy thing it is, and we must not allow its inarguable consolations to trump the post-Enlightenment arguments that today remain our only defense against exterior and interior theocracy.
I can perhaps make this point best in reference to the late, great Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was a terrific writer, a first-rate thinker, and an all-around bodhisattva, but I was saddened to pick up his 2002 manifesto and discover that he’d stopped fighting the good fight and instead embraced a kind of intellectual apartheid. In Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life Gould makes his case for NOMA or “non-overlapping magisteria,” a model that would have us, in the name of détente and common sense, confine scientific discourse to the material universe, while we simultaneously cede the moral universe to religion. I’m sorry, Professor Gould. I love you, but that dog won’t hunt. A Martian encountering the NOMA solution would come away assuming that religion and science are commensurate in their achievements, so that, just as science can point to breakthroughs within the empirical realm, so can religion boast astonishing accomplishments in the ethical sphere. Alas, when our naïve Martian turns from Gould’s book to the bloody pages of human history, he will find that religion has hardly shown itself to be uniquely competent to deal with moral issues. Au contraire, its contributions to that conversation have often been ugly in the extreme. But how could it be otherwise? Both science and religion are almost certainly nothing more, and nothing less, than the creations of flawed and fallible human beings, with the infinitely nontrivial difference that the claims of the former are answerable to the court of nature and the claims of the latter are answerable to no one.
If intellectual apartheid is a questionable strategy in the ethical domain, it makes even less sense in the arts. My own career happens to throw this problem into high relief. Two of my novels have won the World Fantasy Award, and yet the secular-humanist sensibility underlying Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah could not be further from the supernaturalist teleology of J.R.R. Tolkien, a writer I admire on grounds other than his Catholicism, and the allegorical apologetics of C. S. Lewis, whom I detest on every ground I can imagine. Did the custodians of this award make a category error in singling out my theological speculations for such recognition? I don’t think so. The World Fantasy judges might have suffered a lapse in their critical faculties, but they were within their rights to adopt a liberal definition of fantasy.
Genre labels have their uses. At a certain point, however, we have to stop blood-typing our favorite books and recognize that the value of literature lies not in its ability to fulfill readers’ expectations but in its potential to help us reimagine the mystery of it all. Whether our private pilgrimages bring us to the transcendent rationalism of Clarke, the numinous heresies of Tolkien, or anywhere else on the continuum that stretches from Spaceship Rama to Middle Earth, we find ourselves in “magisteria” that rarely, if ever, operate independently of their ostensible opposites. Science fiction and fantasy: long may they overlap.
Tagged with: Michael A. Burstein
Filed under: Mind Meld
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