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:

Q: Two of the most highly regarded fantasy authors – Tolkien and Lewis – were also Christians, whereas the fathers of science fiction were atheists, and SF itself, it could be argued, grew out of Darwinism and other notions of deep time. Is science fiction antithetical to religion?
Mike Resnick
Mike Resnick is the author of 50 novels, 200 short stories, a pair of screenplays, and the editor of 50 anthologies, as well as the executive editor of Jim Baen’s Universe. According to Locus, he is the leading award winner, living or dead, of short fiction. His work has been translated into 22 languages.

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.

Lou Anders
A 2007/2008 Hugo Award and 2007 Chesley Award and 2006 World Fantasy Award nominee, Lou Anders is the editorial director of Prometheus Books’ science fiction imprint Pyr, as well as the anthologies Outside the Box (Wildside Press, 2001), Live Without a Net (Roc, 2003), Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film (MonkeyBrain, December 2004), FutureShocks (Roc, January 2006), Fast Forward 1 (Pyr, February 2007), and the forthcoming Sideways in Crime (Solaris, June 2008) and Fast Forward 2 (Pyr, October 2008). In 2000, he served as the Executive Editor of Bookface.com, and before that he worked as the Los Angeles Liaison for Titan Publishing Group. He is the author of The Making of Star Trek: First Contact (Titan Books, 1996), and has published over 500 articles in such magazines as The Believer, Publishers Weekly, Dreamwatch, Star Trek Monthly, Star Wars Monthly, Babylon 5 Magazine, Sci Fi Universe, Doctor Who Magazine, and Manga Max. His articles and stories have been translated into Danish,Greek, German, Italian and French, and have appeared online at SFSite.com, RevolutionSF.com and InfinityPlus.co.uk. Visit him online at www.louanders.com and www.pyrsf.com

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.

Ben Bova
Ben Bova is the author of more than 100 futuristic novels and nonfiction books about science. He first appeared in Amazing in 1960. He has been the editor of Analog and Omni magazines.

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.

Gabriel Mckee
Gabriel Mckee is the author of The Gospel According to Science Fiction: From the Twilight Zone to the Final Frontier, the blog SF Gospel, and Pink Beams of Light From the God in the Gutter: The Science Fictional Religion of Philip K. Dick. He has also written for Religion Dispatches, The

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.

Jay Lake
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com or his Web site at www.jlake.com.

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.

James Wallace Harris
James Wallace Harris is a life-long science fiction fan. With Olivier Travers, he created SciFan.com in 1999 and he programmed the database system. Since the early days of the web, James has maintained The Classics of Science Fiction, which was based on his article from the fanzine Lan’s Lantern back in the 1980s. He quit SciFan to study fiction writing and he attended the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in 2002. He now practices blog writing at Auxiliary Memory. James has been happily married for thirty years to his wife Susan. He works as a programmer and sys admin but dreams about space exploration and writing a SF 2.0 novel.

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.

Carl Vincent
Carl Vincent is the proprietor of the eclectic Stainless Steel Droppings.

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.

Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts was born two-thirds of the way through the last century; he presently lives a little way west of London, England, with a beautiful wife and two small children. He is a writer with a day-job (professor at Royal Holloway, University of London). The first of these two employments has resulted in eight published sf novels, the most recent being Splinter (Solaris 2007) and Land of the Headless (Victor Gollancz 2007). The second of these has occasioned such critical studies as The Palgrave History of Science Fiction (2006).

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.

Larry Niven
Larry Niven is the author of the multi-award-winning Ringworld series, the co-author of The Mote in God’s Eye, Lucifer’s Hammer and Fallen Angels, the editor of the Man-Kzin War series, and has written or co-authored over 50 books. He is a five-time winner of the Hugo Award and has received numerous wins and nominations for other awards.

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.

Andrew Wheeler
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years. He spent sixteen years as an editor for various bookclubs (most notably, working for the Science Fiction Book Club the entire time), ending as a Senior Editor. He is currently a Marketing Manager for John Wiley & Sons.

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.

Michael A. Burstein
Michael A. Burstein, winner of the 1997 Campbell Award for Best New Writer, has earned ten Hugo nominations and three Nebula nominations for his short fiction which appears mostly in Analog. Burstein’s first book, I Remember the Future, is being published by Apex Books in September 2008. Burstein lives with his wife Nomi in the town of Brookline, Massachusetts, where he is an elected Town Meeting Member and Library Trustee. When not writing, he edits middle and high school Science textbooks. He has two degrees in Physics and attended the Clarion Workshop. More information on Burstein and his work can be found on his webpage (http://www.mabfan.com) and blog (http://mabfan.livejournal.com).

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.)

D.G.D. Davidson
D.G.D. Davidson is an archaeologist and writer who manages the blog The Sci Fi Catholic. He firmly believes, for the love of all that is holy, that sf writers should stop mislabeling the Book of Revelation as “Revelations.”

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.

L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
L. E. Modesitt, Jr., is the author of more than 50 novels – primarily science fiction and fantasy, a number of short stories, and various technical and economic articles. His first story was published in Analog in 1973, and his latest books are Natural Ordermage and Viewpoints Critical, a short-story collection.

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.

John C. Wright
John C. Wright is the author of The Golden Age Trilogy, The War of the Dreaming, Chronicles of Chaos and the upcoming Null-A Continuum, the authorized sequel of A.E. van Vogt’s World of Null-A books. His short fiction has appeared in Year’s Best SF 3, The Night Lands, Best Short Novels 2004, The Year’s Best Science Fiction #21, Breach The Hull, and No Longer Dreams.

Short Answer:

No. Science fiction is not necessarily antithetical to religion.

Long Answer:

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.

James Morrow
In praising The Philosopher’s Apprentice, James Morrow‘s recent novel about a young ethicist hired to implant a conscience in an adolescent amnesia victim, Entertainment Weekly concluded that the author “addresses controversial topics without being heavy-handed and infuses the narrative with a wit that pragmatists and idealists alike will appreciate.” Morrow’s earlier works include The Last Witchfinder, a postmodern historical epic about the coming of the scientific worldview, as well as the Godhead TrilogyTowing Jehovah, Blameless in Abaddon, and The Eternal Footman – dark comedies spun from the conceit that God has died for the greater good of humankind.

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 na├»ve 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.

33 thoughts on “MIND MELD: Is Science Fiction Antithetical to Religion?”

  1. After the hotbed that was the Mind Meld on YA fiction I expected this to generate similar discussion. I’m surprised at the chirping of the crickets! I personally enjoyed everyone’s responses and have been mulling them over as I’ve went about my work day. I feel quite humbled being included with such a group of individuals.

  2. >> …I expected this to generate similar discussion.

    Me too! Folks are usually passionate about, if anything, politics and religion…so I expected at least some debate.

  3. I really don’t believe this warrants heavy debate. ANY sci-fi novel creates its own universe- whether based on the real world or not- and so has all of the rights , laws, and freedoms decided solely by the author and inherent in such a place.

    Nowhere is there written a law that says you have to have God, Allah, Brahma, Shiva, or any god or gods, in your own universe. Your setting can have no higher a power than the sun, or no more Authority than an ancient temple, crumbling and austere.

    Some authors choose to put God or some other divine figure in their works because it demands one or because it is a plot device and nothing more. Why should we expect, or worse- demand- that writers acknowledge their own religious beliefs in anything they write?

    Of course Tolkien was religious (Catholic), but God and Jehovah make no appearance in Middle-Earth. Heinlein was Agnostic but made no apology for the use of God, Jehovah, and Satan in some of his best known works (see Stranger In A Strange Land and Job: A Comedy of Justice for well-written inclusions of the Afterlife and the inner workings of our most famous Deities).

    Religion is no more antithetical to science fiction than gravity or the speed of light.

  4. Really enjoying all the wonderful comments this has sparked, particularly Adam Roberts and John C Wright’s. Proud to have had a hand in it.

    On, only tangentially related item: Star Trek: Voyager actually planned to do a lot more with Commander Chakote’s “spirit guide” but Paramount was approached by the Native American tribe upon which his character was directly based, who let it be known that they were STRONGLY opposed to any depiction of how their society would evolve in a future setting – even a positive depiction. Paramount caved to the pressure and Chakote’s character was adapted to be much more generic, the spirit guide being dropped altogether. Heard this from Jeri Taylor’s lips.

  5. I admit I am astonished that both religious and agnostic authors shrugged and agreed on this point. I should have argued for the other side, and said that science fiction was a byproduct of a secular humanist worldview, and therefore antithetical to religion.

    Hmph. Too late now. I ended up agreeing with James Morrow, whom I had been hoping to sacrifice, Aztec-style, to the giant brass idol I have erected to C.S. Lewis. Now the whole ceremony is off. I cannot plunge an obsidian dagger into any victim with whom I share a polite agreement.

    Another lurid crime halted before it begun by SfSignal MIND MELD!

  6. Orson Scott Card is not just a Christian, but a Mormon Christian, as is David Farland (AKA David Wolverton). Brigham Young University hosts an annual SF convention. One of the posts said a religion that insists it has all knowledge is incompatible with science, which asserts there are always unknowns and surprises. But Mormon Christianity specifically asserts that there have been surprises (the Book of Mormon for one) and will continue to be more surprises, as God continues to reveal himself more completely over time, leading up to the End Time that is prophesied in both the Bible and Book of Mormon.

    One of the great Latter-day Saint scientists was Henry Eyring, a chemist who first applied quantum physics to chemical reactions and won every major award except the Nobel Prize for it (the belief is shared by many of his colleagues that his being Mormon had a lot to do with thaT). Eyring unabashedly spoke to audiences of religious people about his faith in science, and to audiences of scientists about his faith in God. He was especially enthusiastic about the experimental nature of acquiring religious knowledge that Mormonism embodies. Mormons are invited to “experiment upon the word” and to think deeply about what is offered as religious knowledge and to ask God directly for knowledge about religious questions. The Mormon canon is not closed, but specifically open.

    One of the greatest Mormon scholars of ancient history was Hugh Nibley (PhD UC Berkeley), a polymath who spoke many languages fluently and read widely in science. He enjoyed science fiction and even wrote an essay on its compatibility with Mormon religious views.

    Orson Scott Card has written a number of books that have religious roots, including The Redemption of Christopher Columbus (time travelers discover we live in a world in which Columbus was directed on a religious quest to discover America by time travellers from a previous parallel universe), Folk of the Fringe (a future Mormonism in a post-nuclear-war America), The Call of Earth series (projecting part of the Book of Mormon narrative into a far future), and the Alvin Maker series (imagining a protagonist who is the analogue of Joseph Smith in an early America where magic is real). As Ender’s Game and its sequels have progressed, the religious foundation of many of its stories becomes more explicit. Yet all of these stories are accessible to readers of all backgrounds, because they show how religious themes speak to common human concerns about family and life’s purpose, even in markedly transformed worlds.

    Much of science fiction centers around protagonists who become messianic figures, often without their prior knowledge or even against their will (Dune). The hero’s journey is one primarily of self-discovery, crudely presented in the Star Wars mythos. Mormonism can be interpreted as suggesting that ALL human beings are potentially such figures, all having a heritage and potential that exceeds our ability to imagine, and that the function and goal of God and Christ is to bring this promise to fruition in as many of humanity as they can. The ability to know things not accessible to ordinary mortals, either in the future or the remote past, is both a classic science fiction speculation and the classic talent of the prophet. The ability to heal the sick is both religious and science fictional.

    Mormonism as a religion is not averse to speculation about reality. For Mormons, consensus “reality” is not completely real. They believe they live in a reality where not only God lives, but also other powerful beings who assist God in intervening occasionally in men’s lives, primarily by giving them new knowledge. For Mormons, even God exists in time and space and has a physical reality.

    The original mythos of the old Battlestar Galactica series was drawn from a pot of Mormon exotica by its creator. The new series has embraced that religious legacy and makes it a key part of the conflict, and mystery, behind the two parties, the humans and the human-looking Cylons. The religious beliefs of both sides actually work, despite the expressed atheism of people on both sides. Mormonism embodies answers to powerful questions about reality, and it is open to new questions and new answers.

  7. Believing (mistakenly, I see), that I had to keep my comments as short and sweet as possible because of the number of responses that would be displayed, I left out a lot, though I doubt if I could have added anything substantial that the other essayists haven’t already said better than I could.

    To those who suggest that Fundamentalism doesn’t accord well with sf, however, I say this: there are actually a lot of Fundamentalist sf readers and writers. I know this because I interact with them regularly. Many here may be unaware of them because they can often be found haunting their own private subgenre and publishers.

    Though not technically a Fundamentalist by any logical standard, I am nonetheless considered a Fundamentalist by those who have forgotten what the word means. I maintain a casual interest in the Christian sf subgenre partly because its growth and development has, to an extent, mirrored that of sf as a whole. Originally, it was a small enclave of enthusiasts with big ideas and limited writing skill who often sacrificed good storytelling for heavy-handed preaching (like some Campbellian sf). Now the subgenre has begun to attract writers with even bigger ideas as well as serious artistic merit, so its standards have grown better and its thinking has grown more sophisticated and diverse. It will be interesting to see if it breaks out of its ghetto in the future the way regular science fiction has.

  8. I also agree that this is an excellent discussion.

    As some of the responses implied, I believe this depends on how you define “religion”. If you define religion broadly, as the human attempt to make sense of what is our proper relationship with the universe, with each other, and with our selves, then it seems apparent that science fiction is a genre that permits some wonderful speculative explorations of such questions.

    If you define religion narrowly as a set of specific doctrines of one religion, then much of science fiction may frequently be at odds with such doctrines.

  9. Fascinating stuff from all. And I’m glad all the human sacrifices are off.

    One thing I’d like to toss in, in response to this quote from Mr. Resnick:

    “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.”

    I’ve heard this basic argument before, and it always strikes me as a bit odd. As a Roman Catholic, I work through my life from the assumption that Roman Catholicism is true, sure. That’s why I’m Catholic. But to say that I have the nature of reality handed to me on stone tablets…

    There’s a difference between believing the teachings of the Church to be true, and believing that the Church knows everything. It doesn’t, in a scientific sense. If it did, all possible earthly knowledge would have popped into existence alongside the Church, day one. As soon as Christ stepped out of his grave, we would have had electric cars and cancer cures and solar power and twinkies and known that North America was on the other side of that bit of water. Of course we haven’t had the nature of reality handed to us on tablets. We still don’t know everything, and it’s taken us all a good long while to get as far as we have.

    And, despite popular rumors, the Church has gotten along just fine with scientific discovery most of the time. A good chunk of scientific discovery was scientifically discovered by clergymen. I see no reason why this would change in the future, real or science-fictional. If I discovered life on another planet, it would not shake my belief in Humanity’s place as the chosen children of God, but make me curious about how these other children of God fit into the plan. If I met a charismatic android who seemed to have the beginnings of a rational soul, I would play it safe, and treat it as though it did (essentially for the same reasons I wouldn’t abort a day-old fetus: It might be human). Better to err on the side of love. All too often, in SF scenarios like these, we hear collared throats yelling words like “abomination” and “affront to nature” and blowing up the creepy new thing that doesn’t fit our current worldview.

    Although fictional religious characters are often prone to burying shocking new truths for the sake of covering up possible loopholes in their own beliefs, I’ve never run across this in real life. It seems to me that, when a man discovers holes in his religion that shake his life to its core, he doesn’t send out the albino assassins to take care of whoever is pointing out said holes, he simply converts to Lutheranism, or becomes an Atheist, or otherwise gets out of his now punctured belief system.

    I think the real problem with this belief-in-a-knowable-truth-as-propaganda theory is that it basically treats believers of any kind as being incredibly doubtful of their own beliefs. It says that Catholics lay awake at night worrying that Dan Brown is about to come along and EXPOSE THE TRUTH, and everyone will see how very, very silly we’ve been all along. It says that these Catholics, rather than convert to some system of belief that doesn’t have all those deep, dark secrets, will obscure the truth and bend the facts into place to support the rickety facade (which they know to be a rickety facade) in place.

    The motivations are all…tangly. You seem to be saying that claiming to know the truth will result in bending the facts to fit the lie you believe, so that no one else will find out you believe a lie. Of course, if you have to lie to support the lie, you obviously don’t believe the lie you claim to believe is the truth…which means that the problem isn’t claiming to know the truth…it sort of collapses in on itself.

    Everyone, including atheists and agnostics, speak from the belief that they have the nature of the world at least somewhat figured out, in that they are right about what they are saying. That’s why they bother to speak. Catholics will look at the world and try to understand it through the Church, because they are Catholic, not because they are propaganda-mongers. Atheists will look at the world through science, because they are Atheist, not because they are fascinated with spreading Atheist propaganda. Agnostics believe they are correct in their belief that the truth is unknowable, or at least unknown, and speak from that belief, not from the need to bend facts and preach propaganda to fit their theories.

    Rambunctiously,

    Luke

    P.S. In the specific case of Catholicism, we also have this spiffy idea of Sacred Mysteries. These are things like the nature of the Trinity, or the way in which Jesus can be all God and all man. The idea is that these things are divine, and bigger than human minds can ever comprehend, but it is good and ennobling and holy to try and figure it out anyway. We celebrate both our inability to understand the divine, and our need to try and do it in spite of that. A better exultation of curiosity and striving for truth I’ve never seen.

  10. “I think the real problem with this belief-in-a-knowable-truth-as-propaganda theory is that it basically treats believers of any kind as being incredibly doubtful of their own beliefs. It says that Catholics lay awake at night worrying that Dan Brown is about to come along and EXPOSE THE TRUTH, and everyone will see how very, very silly we’ve been all along. It says that these Catholics, rather than convert to some system of belief that doesn’t have all those deep, dark secrets, will obscure the truth and bend the facts into place to support the rickety facade (which they know to be a rickety facade) in place.”

    Not to be too snarky, I wonder if the people who regard the Catholics-Fear-Dan-Brown meme as true are indulging in a bit of projection. There are certainly enough political projects invented in the last Century (Nazism and Communism) which had a religious motivation, even if they were not, strictly speaking, religions, and I am sure the partisans of those movements did lay awake at nights fretting that the opposition might expose the truth.

    The main distinguishing characteristic of these millenarian political projects, these bloodthirsty utopias, was intellectual dishonesty. Newspeak, political correctness, and the distortion of the ordinary meaning of words to mean their opposite are a hallmark of these regimes and of the “useful idiots” in the West who cheerlead for them.

    No one indulges in this kind of political correctness who does not fear, or, at least, seek to avoid, plain speaking.

    JCJW

  11. Luke – my brother converted from Protestantism to Catholicism for exactly the reasons you outline. I was obviously not speaking of your religion nor your practice of it. But I was raised fundamentalist, in a school that refused to teach us anything about evolution (or even the names of geological epochs), which insisted the earth was 5,000 years old, which offered proof of the inaccuracy of carbon dating, and which showed us films of dry river beds in Tennessee that showed human and dinosaur footprints side by side. About the only science we were allowed to be taught was basic chemistry, and my high school math teacher once objected to a textbook chapter on “the evolution of the Pythagorean Theorem” because “I just don’t like that word -evolution.” And this was one of the better schools in my city!

    Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization is just one wonderful example of the contributions to science and to the world at large on the part of persons of religious faith and vocation (also the idea presented therein is the basis for both Asimov’s Foundation series and Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz – which could serve as two more works treating the same theme with different emphasis, like the older examples Wright sites above). But my comments (they were my comments, not Mike Resnick’s) are aimed at a very real, and very large segment of American Christians, who, while hardly representative of the totality of world believers, or even all believers in America, do exercise a great deal of political will and social control in the US, to what I think is increasingly detrimental effect. I am very encouraged by recent trends – like the growing green movement among evangelicals, and the efforts of conservative republicans to reclaim their party just as democrats of faith struggle to reclaim the association of their religion with ultra-conservatism – but I do not want to downplay the “clear and present danger” that a certain segment of Christianity represents. Not the totality – not you, not the Mormons, not the Jesuits, not the scientists in the Vatican observatory, not my numerous friends who are both believers and SF authors – but a very real and very active and very vocal and very dangerous segment of believers whose close-mindedness I have had to struggle against my whole life. This has been a very interesting, very balanced, and very nice discussion between rational people of many varied beliefs – maybe the best Mind Meld so far – and I’ve agreed with pretty much everything said; but I don’t want to pretend that it is every okay to “shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding,” and let it never be said that, towards that segment of the population that preaches intolerance for homosexuals, demands subservience from women, and which hides and misrepresents the findings of actual science, I am ever anything less than “fundamentally” opposed!

  12. Luke and Lou…Wow, great stuff. I think you hit the nail right on the head Luke and did it quite eloquently. Thank you.

    And Lou, I agree with what you are saying other than the fact that, speaking from the inside, I agree that there is a very vocal group of American Christians who are close minded about some things. I also see that same very vocal group mirrored in other groups as well. I just don’t think they truly represent the majority of the way people feel or act. At least I don’t see it in the group of folks I hang out with. I’d hate to think that the most vocal people are the true representatives of any part of humanity…if so we are in a helluva lot of trouble. The only reason they are the most vocal is because they are the most controversial, i.e. the most newsworthy. It is that newsworthy, news making group that gets the most play and unfortunately has to stand in for the more ‘normal’ ‘level-headed’ members of any group, religion, political party, etc. I tend to think we are all much more the same than we would like to admit, but perhaps that is just me.

  13. I feel obligated to point out numerous flaws in Mr.Adam Roberts’ essay. For one thing, he heavily implies that while science fiction is not antithetical to religion, Catholicism is, which, as a Catholic and science fiction fan I find quite offensive. I also must point out that Voltaire was in no way shape or form a Catholic. He was an avowed Deist, and in fact rather anti-Catholic.

    In response to Mr. Kieshe’s comments, while Tolkien did have a single god responsible for the creation of the world, Eru or Illuvatar, (those are in fact the only two names), he was in no way the Christian God.

  14. Carl, certainly I have many friends among the “level-headed” members of Christianity, and certainly, we can find bad apples tarring the good name of any aggregate grouping of peoples anywhere (including, gasp, science fiction!). When Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore refused to remove the Ten Commandments monument from the the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court building, all of my Christian friends and family here saw it for what it was (political posturing) and were deeply embarrassed and offended by it. But there is an active war on right now against a segment that wants to roll back the enlightenment, essentially, and they are very politically savvy and well-financed. The schooling I mentioned in my earlier post for example. I didn’t grow up in a small, rural community in the middle of nowhere attending some Little House on the Prairie one room school, but in a large city, attending a grammar and high school associated with a mega-church that has members in the thousands now, who count many politicians, business people, and many, many educated multi-millionaires among their number. They are still there, still actively opposing science education as hard as they ever were – still churning out hundreds of students a year who believe the earth is 5k years old and Darwin was in league with Satan. I spent 12 year of my life in the church, and know from the inside how actively they organize to oppose my own moral values. These are real people – people who still support the war, people who believe that women should be subservient to men, people who believe that gays should strive to be cured or remain celibate! And they vote. Without wanting to bring politics into it any more than I have to, I think the numbers of people in this country who hold values that I find abhorrent and antithetical to what I know to be right and good are a lot higher than you admit, or a certain idiot wouldn’t be president right now. Trying to dismiss them as a vocal minority has, IMHO, horrendous repercussions. Fortunately, I think we are seeing a large number of liberal/rational evangelicals waking up to the danger, who do take this schism seriously, and who are actively engaged in bringing a more rational religious perspective to the forefront of American political thought. More power to them. For my part, I have chosen to dedicate my life to working in the field that was instrumental in extricating me from the fundamentalists’ grasp in the hope that some of what I help to create might one day do the same for someone else.

  15. (including, gasp, science fiction!) Say it ain’t so!!!! :D

    I certainly won’t argue your point. I think it is valid. I also think there is an equal majority/minority/what have you on the complete opposite end of the spectrum with just as dangerous viewpoints, agendas, etc. I think there are probably just a lot of us who are squarely in the middle. Who believe in a real God but also can look at science, etc. and not see the huge conflict that those on either spectrum see. Perhaps we are just not vocal enough, or perhaps our message of wanting to focus on other things besides political and religious fights just aren’t as glamorous and don’t get the same press. I don’t know. I’m not trying to dismiss the nutjobs, believe me. Just pointing out that they exist on both sides. Radical fundamental Christians want to point out that liberals are trying to destroy the family and everything that is decent in the world. Radical liberals like to paint every Christian as blind sheep walking down the path of the uneducated, hoping to plunge the world back into darkness. What I think both sides miss over the last 8 years is that the country was pretty darn evenly divided and that the majority of people on each side are unhappy with where we are right now. As I said in my last post, I think the majority of us are more alike than we think.

  16. I feel obligated to point out numerous flaws in Mr.Adam Roberts’ essay. For one thing, he heavily implies that while science fiction is not antithetical to religion, Catholicism is, which, as a Catholic and science fiction fan I find quite offensive. I also must point out that Voltaire was in no way shape or form a Catholic. He was an avowed Deist, and in fact rather anti-Catholic.

    Brendan is quite right that Voltaire was basically a Deist, and he would be right to be narked if I were to suggest that Catholicism is ‘antithetical’ to religion; but I would never argue anything so foolish. There are a great many Catholic SF writers; some are friends of mine. By the same token, I wouldn’t agree with Darren’s assertion that Voltaire was ‘in no way shape or form a Catholic': he was raised a Catholic (he was educated by Jesuits) and despite attacking aspects of the Catholic Church he remained in many ways culturally Catholic. But, yes: as I say, Voltaire is an unconventional Catholic, like Cyrano de Bergerac; and that fact informs the sorts of fantastic literature they wrote (SF).

    We can take ‘religious’ in several ways. For many people, of course, their religious views are an account of the way the cosmos literally is. According to this view, since the cosmos can only be one way, there can only be one religion — usually the religion the speaker herself endorses. Another way of looking at religion is as an undeniable fact of human life: there are as many varieties of Catholicism (and Protestantism, and Islam) as there are human cultures; and eg Catholic views are as much an expression of human social interaction, cultural richness and individuality as they are a metaphysical discourse.

    My portion above is a very brief account of a very long book, and I fear distorting. The nub of my argument depends upon a particular view of the Reformation: that one motor of the Protestant reaction was a desire to take the ‘magic’ out of Christianity: fierce debates over eg transubstantiation, the selling of indulgences, the infallibility of the Pope (not everybody shares this view of the Reformation, but many historians do). I don’t mean ‘magic’ in a trivial or insulting way: it is my shorthand for the sacramental or ‘mystery’ emphasis of a great deal of Catholic thought. But I do think that ‘magic’ in the fullest sense is what distinguishes SF from Fantasy. Lord of the Rings, for instance, is a profoundly sacramental work, deeply involved with the question of the incarnation. SF parses its investment in the fantastic via science, or quasi-science; Fantasy parases the same fascinations via magic. Both fascinations are, I think, fundamentally religious … not because only religion can address questions of what is beyond the everyday, but for specific historical-cultural reasons that have to do with the roots of these two interlinked discourses.

  17. Also, this from Lou: “I was raised fundamentalist, in a school that refused to teach us anything about evolution (or even the names of geological epochs), which insisted the earth was 5,000 years old, which offered proof of the inaccuracy of carbon dating, and which showed us films of dry river beds in Tennessee that showed human and dinosaur footprints side by side. About the only science we were allowed to be taught was basic chemistry, and my high school math teacher once objected to a textbook chapter on “the evolution of the Pythagorean Theorem” because “I just don’t like that word -evolution.” And this was one of the better schools in my city!

    That is just amazing. I am amazed.

  18. Well, I think the struggle lies in the fact that science (excluding the fiction for a moment) and religion can be perceived as being at odds with each other.

    Religion is the manifestation of man’s desire to understand truth in things that are hard to comprehend. Science does the same thing. Science fiction is just the extrapolation of sciences on to the realm of fiction (and even there it gets a little hazy, ha ha!)…

    Even reading the works of Orson Scott Card (as mentioned by Raymond up there) features issues where “God” and science collide. The novel “The Redemption of Christopher Columbus” actually takes some time to point out the observations of the time viewers that Jesus Christ was a regular man – and that the holy revelations experienced by the people of the past were actually intervening time travelers.

    Fundamentally, religion / spirituality is a part of humanity, and even in our uber-technical current phase of existence has not fettered out (perhaps it’s even become more fundamental and ingrained). It’s a foolish author that would think that a society in the future has overcome our desire to not be alone in the universe en mass.

  19. @ Lou Anders: I am a member of the group of American christians you quite derogatorily mention in post # 12. And I am a science fiction fan. I was led to conversion from agnostisim by scientific evidence.

    While I respect your views, and nearly entirely agree with them in principle, I fear that you fall into a common trap that many well meaning atheists and agnostics (which I assume you are) fall into. Namely, a misrepresentation of many of my fellow christains and I, by way of a hasty generalization.

    What you have done, Mr. Anders, is to group all protestant conservative christians, and indeed all protestant non-liberals, with a politically powerful faction of ultra-conservative christians. Thus you insult the intelligence of any protestant christian who does not hold with the views of either the liberal “cultural christians” or ultra-conservative “Bible-thumpers” who attempt to direct current thought in the general christain community. In your hasty generalisation, you have failed to take note of the fact that there are plenty of us out here who hold with the tenants of a traditionalist protestant religion, conservative politics, and still have faith in the scientific method as a way of gaining answers to the physical world.

    I believe in a seven day, literal creation by an omnipotent, intelligent, morally good creator.

    I believe in an approximately 5,000 year old earth.

    And I believe that science backs these beliefs up in full. The insinuation that I find my answers and then make my facts fit them is inaccurate.

    Instead, I, like most of the intelligent believers I know, simply see the facts through a different lens (as does every scientist) and interpret them differently (while admitting that we are, like every other scientist, biased in some way, and attempting to counter-act that natural bias). We come to different conclusions, Mr. Anders. But we see the exact same facts. That’s what scientists do. In fact, the very foundation of the scientific method is robust argumentation in an atmosphere where no fact is ever absolutely proven. The only difference between us is that our conclusions in science point, not only to more questions, but also to a non-naturalistic (or, if you will, supernatural) source of answers. This doesn’t invalidate me as a scientist, it is merely an extension of the scientific method beyond naturalism.

    I hope this clarifies for you the position of a large portion of christians not only in the US but across the world about science.

    Respectfully,

    James Weston

  20. Carl V said :

    “Radical fundamental Christians want to point out that liberals are trying to destroy the family”

    As far as I’m concerned they’re right. I definitely want to destroy the family.

    A question though : Why is it that SFSignal’s comments seem to feature far more Christians than those of any other SF site? is it just because they keep asking John C. Wright for his opinion on things?

  21. James, with respect, I think I was very clear in all of my posts that I am aware of the range of believers aggregated under the banner of Christianity, that I count many friends and family members among them, and that I by no means equated Christianity across the board as being equal to close-mindedness, anti-science bias, and intolerance. However, the group that I “derogatorily mention” as you say was in no means the result of any sort of “hasty generalization.” I spent 12 years of my life attending the grammar school, junior high and high school associated with a conservative protestant church. 5 days a week in the classroom and a sixth day in the chapel every day of my life for twelve years. I have read the Bible cover-to-cover twice, memorized thousands of passages from it over a dozen years, have studied Calvin, Luther etc, and knew my Francis Schaeffer backwards and forwards. In fact, I was the only one in the history of my school to receive both a hundred on the “Schaeffer exam” and on the senior year Bible exam (Bible being the hardest course offered). I do not generalize at all – the group that I identified I counted myself among for over two decades. If you tell me there are conservative Protestants who are not anti-science and not intolerant, then I would include those in the larger category of religious persons that I was not referring to in my comments. But if you tell me that there is scientific evidence in support of a literal, seven day creation, we have an impassable gulf between us that I fear can never be reconciled. (And remember, I was made to watch hour upon hour of films “proving” just such assumptions, so I know the evidence offered in support of creation theory.) But if a difference in cosmology was all it amounted to, we could certainly agree to disagree. However, I also remember countless lectures on how “unseemly” it was for a woman to hold any authority over a man in the household, arguments that women who sought to compete in the workplace equally with men were damaging their own potential for happiness, and many, many statements to the effect that homosexuality was nothing less than the final sign that someone had so turned their back against God that he gave up on them, and, denied his presence, whereupon they then turned to such “base desires” as a sign of their irredeemable nature. (I recall one chapel where we were made to listen to an account of gay sex that had been colored to be as nauseating as possible in an effort to forestall any latent homosexual leanings in the students.) I make no apologies that I believe to the depths of my soul that the bigotry and sexism I have just described is nothing short of evil, and to condone it in any way, double-so. Now, I hope that you are as appalled as these things as I am now, and my apologies if I gave the impression that all conservatism is the same as the ultra-conservative brand that I experienced. No offense was meant, and I acknowledge that in struggling to liberate myself from ultra-conservative Christianity, I am not capable of approaching any but the most liberal forms of religion these days without some residual aversion, and I do apologize for any offense given. But I assure you I do talk from long personal experience with a particular sector with whom I obviously have irreconcilable differences.

  22. @ John C. Wright:

    Quote: “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 a gross misunderstanding. The operation of the star drive in Robinson’s novel relies on a predisposition of the Relativists to engage the mechanism in a specific way. The FIRST person to make it work was a Zen Roshi; after which a disproportionate number of Zen Buddhists seem to make the cut, but there is nothing that excludes other groups.

    It appears to me that the speculation that Robinson is making is that the practical disciplines of a meditative practice hone the skills of someone who possesses an innate ability to function as a relativist; The skills required seem to be 1) The ability to sustain one-pointed concentration 2) the ability to sublimate one’s ego to drive mechanism and 3) the ability to form an unusual relationship with the drive- the precise nature of which is not made clear.

    The specific reasons that Robinson chose Zen Buddhism are his alone; but I submit two possible explanations for this choice:

    First, aspects of Zen practice are present enough in general culture that it makes a convenient shorthand-via-stereotype for a series of practices and mind-sets that we Westerners tend to lump into the category of “mere mysticism” when expressed in culturally familiar terms.

    Second, Western meditative practices are usually ecstatic in nature, and are rooted in acts of external adoration, whereas Eastern practice is largely oriented toward simplification and internal change. While ego-death is an eventual product of Western practice, the intervening steps are not necessarily compatible with a shipboard environment- from Sufi dancing to ritual magick to the ecstasies of the saints, the orientation and experiential content of the Western way just doesn’t jive with the practical requirements of shipboard life.

  23. Thought I’d offer a few reflections on the discussion of Sci-fi and religion, seeing as I am a fan of both.

    Atheist Ursula LeGuin wrote: ” All fiction is metaphor. Science Fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life–science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook among them.”

    Now based on that definition of sci-fi (if you accept it), there is nothing to prevent deeply religious people from producing very, very good science fiction. The best illustration in my opinion, is Orson Scott Card. While I absolutely do not share Card’s Mormon beliefs, anyone who has read even a smattering of Card knows that he uses science and technology as metaphor for probing religious and psychological questions – and he does it very well.

    As to this somewhat larger issue of art and orthodoxy:

    Surely, art can never be confused with propaganda, but is propaganda-masquerading-as-art necessarily indemic to religious orthodoxy? (In the modern world those regimes most repressive of free artistic expression and most given to propaganda have been avowedly atheistic – Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, etc.)

    Isn’t it a bit naive – even propagandistic – to suggest that art produced from the perspective of religious orthodoxy is somehow intrinsically inimical to free inquiry and observation? It would seem to me that 19 centuries of western art strongly belie that supposition. If I may suggest a very recent counter example – look at Flannery O’Connor. A deeply orthodox Catholic, and yet who was more brutally honest in describing Christian Society? Illustrations could be multiplied.

    I would also take issue with any framing of the issues that sets the scientific hypothesis against religion in terms of “observation and experimentation” vs. “I already know everything there is to know.” Modern intellectual history (and the scientific revolution) really gets it start in the Universities of Medieval Christian Europe where the reigning methodology was the “Disputatio” (disputation)–not the fill-in-the-blank exam. The whole observational methedology of modern science was born in the Franciscan reaction to Dominican and Arabian Aristotelianism. As a matter of theological conviction, the Franciscans were committed to reason, human freedom, and the indeterminate nature of the natural world. (They would have loved quantum physics.) Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and their heirs developed a metaphysic, a logic, and an epistemology that demanded observation of the natural world and rejected intuitionism.

    Pope Benedict is so bold as to claim:

    “From the beginning, Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the Logos, as the religion according to reason… In this connection, the Enlightenment is of Christian origin and it is no accident that it was born precisely and exclusively in the realm of the Christian faith… Today, this should be precisely [Christianity’s] philosophical strength, in so far as the problem is whether the world comes from the irrational, and reason is not other than a ‘sub-product,’ on occasion even harmful of its development–or whether the world comes from reason, and is, as a consequence, its criterion and goal…In the so necessary dialogue between secularists and Catholics, we Christians must be very careful to remain faithful to this fundamental line: to live a faith that comes from the Logos, from creative reason, and that, because of this, is also open to all that is truly rational.”

    I don’t know if the Pope is personally a fan of sci-fi, but it seems he ought to be.

    -David

  24. My SF credentials are thin on the ground, to be sure. I have helped run conventions for many years, peaking at being in charge of the Hugos in 1991. I have published a technical analysis of Tolkien’s invented calendars. I have other connections to the genre, but that’s the best I can do. Angels would hesitate to tread where I am about to go. In that respect, however, I feel I’m qualified. ;)

    There is one aspect of orthodox Christianity that has been conspicuous by its absence in the preceding discussion. Or at least, its presence is so muted that I missed it. That is, we Christians actually think that, at the very heart of the matter, we are right. Other systems of thought are either incomplete or, at their heart, wrong.

    To fail to confront this aspect of the dominant religion of the culture from which SF arose is to put “keeping peace” above the truth. One way or another, Christians say with Robert Frost, “We all dance round a ring, and suppose; the Secret sits, in the middle, and knows.” Then we do something Frost would have rejected. We say we know the Secret. He is the I AM, as in, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me.”

    By keeping peace, I refer to avoiding contentious discourse. As has been mentioned by many participants in this Mind Meld, I too have a number of delightful, thoughtful, friends in the SF community who disagree with me on anything that has to do with faith. I don’t feel a need to force the issue. There is no benefit to anyone, including me, if I hit somebody over the head to get them to agree with me, whether the contact I make with their cranium is material or metaphorical. There is the added danger that if someone does end up agreeing with some of what I say, it will be with those points on which, it will turn out, I am wrong. I believe that as a finite being, marred by the Fall, I am capable of error. I have ample confirmation in both practice and theory. But I am convinced that this is not true at the heart. If I thought that, I would not be a Christian.

    I suggest that there are a number of points on which Christianity and much of SF disagree. A central one is revealed truth. That is, that there is information that is given to us directly by God. Science does not address even the possibility of such information (the SF I read, for the most part, goes along). As a result science, and SF of that ilk, are really good about describing things that can be found out by intentional observation, and really terrible about everything else. Next, Christians say that revealed truth explicitly includes the Christian Bible. This separates us from other non-scientific religions. And we don’t stop there; we say that the Bible is true uniquely, as opposed to, say, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon.

    I could go further, but not without venturing into areas in which even Christians do not have a consensus. I will add, though, that my belief in revelation does not mean either of two silly things: first, that there is nothing to be learned except what is in the Bible; or second, that when faced with an apparent discrepancy between revealed and observed truth, it is acceptable to just discard the latter.

    Of course, what you or I think is not the crux of the matter. What God thinks is. Still, the door is open for extrapolation of all kinds. I wonder what God thinks of black holes; and I marvel at Hubble pictures of colliding galaxies, and wonder what it would be like to be in the Milky Way when the Andromeda galaxy plows into it. I’m looking forward to seeing how nearly right I got it.

  25. Eek!

    Mr. Resnick, I apologize for my mis-attribution of Mr. Anders’ quote. And vice versa, to Mr. Anders. Thanks for pointing it out!

  26. I hope you won’t mind me asking, but do you know of any planned panel discussions of the religious themes in sci-fi at upcoming conventions or similar events? If so, please do let me know – someone asked me today and I couldn’t think of any off hand. Thanks in advance for your help with this!

  27.  ” I suggest that there are a number of points on which Christianity and much of SF disagree. A central one  is revealed truth. That is, that there is information that is given to us directly by God.  suggest that there are a number of points on which Christianity and much of SF disagree. A central one is revealed truth. That is, that there is information that is given to us directly by God. “

     Actually Im a christian too but I disagree with this quote above,  because SF is whatever you make it there is nothing in and of itself in SF that makes it anti religion.  Listen we live in an ‘SF’ world now, the 21st century would look like the most fantastic sf to our ancestors even those in the 1800s let alone those in the distant past, yet we have relgious scientists and rocket pads (at least in a couple of areas) down the are from churches. Thats how good sf looks like to me , the way heinlein described it when he said he includes religion in his books because he sees that humans keep it up.

    There is nothing in ‘sf’ that says God cant speak or there is a God or their isnt.  SF like our modern world is merely the banquet hall its up to the writers to cook up the feast.  I oppose all my christian friends who think that Sf is against religion.  No just like the modern world there are those who are hot or neutral or cold against any number of ideas.   SF is our world plus 10.   Yet our current world is the past +10 isnt it?   I see science and technology and temples and churches, believers and nonbelivers existing in this our ‘fulfilled’ SF day (in a matter of speaking).

    Yes I know we dont have a permanent colony on the moon yet. But someday we will and it will have a five star hotel and a university and guess what: a few temples and other places of worship. 

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