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Inside the Blogosphere: Religion and SF

This week’s topic is controversial, but worth discussing. Thanks to our bloggers for their considerate and thoughtful responses.

Does the very nature of science fiction (as opposed to fantasy) automatically preclude fair treatment of religion? Must religion always be seen as an outdated and outmoded way of thinking, or are there authors who can and have included religion (whether real or imagined) in its pages without forcing an either/or proposition between religion and science?

Due to the length and breadth of the responses, I have placed the majority of the text in the extended entry. I am sorry for any inconvenience, this is not something I like doing, but it was necessary.

If you would like to participate in one of our roundtable sessions, please email me through the link above stating your request, your blog (or published work, if an author), and your name/pseudonym.

Chris @ The Book Swede: Hmm. This is a difficult question. There are definitely those in real life who think a true understanding of science (particularly evolution and biology) is anathema to religion. On the other hand, I have seen a lot of religious people who are have a very keen interest in science. And a number of scientists are religious. So: hmm. This question cuts to the heart of the thing — the relationship between science and religion, post-Enlightenment, when it became (slightly) more acceptable for people to be non-religious.

I’m not sure about the “fair treatment” part in your question, and I think that is the main part. It is definitely true that science-fiction, with its emphasis on science, will probably be less likely to have religion in it — the science-fiction world, as opposed to the fantasy world, is not supernatural. That is to say, no matter how amazing or awful or mind-boggling the technology, it still has some basis in “real world”, even if it, for example, utilises Faster Than Light travel which is theoretically impossible with physics as we know it at the moment. Magic and the supernatural (which would include a god, being as it would be above/beyond/outside the natural order, capable of breaking its own laws of the universe, which is what answered prayer is, for example) tend not to mix with science, just by their very natures, as you say. I think the very nature of science-fiction limits the amount of religion in it. There is also the fact that, sadly, some religious people try to impose their religious beliefs, e.g. Creationism/Intelligent Design, in the classroom, on children. I think that is wrong. I think that is unfair. Creationism cannot possibly be correct without everything we know about science being absolutely, categorically wrong, and that is not the case, as the repeated evidence shows. Creationism has a place in the Religious Education room, not the Science room. So, with religion not respecting the scientific, classroom boundary, science-fiction writers, who tend to be passionately in love with science, are not really going to look on religion too happily in their fiction. They merely extrapolate from what they see in the real world.

I think, as an atheist, as one who does not speak to a faith, it is harder for me to see the unfairness you speak of, because some of the charges you mention that are levelled against religion in science-fiction are perhaps correct and apposite, in my opinion at least. We all have our different beliefs, based on different reasoning. I happen to believe, and I don’t mean to horrible or patronising or offensive, that religion is outdated. Or rather, the religions we have at present are. The main three monotheistic religions of the world are all based on different texts from the Bronze Age, texts that compare to the Odyssey in moral values (except, that nobody views the Odyssey as a moral guide…). All assert that the other religions are not correct and their gods not real, their followers should be converted or destroyed. They cannot all be right. In fact, two of the three must be wrong. I do not see why the third shouldn’t be wrong, either. And I think, from what we’ve seen on Earth, that no matter how tolerant and lovely and kind most religious people are, religion still causes such strife, such violence and death and destruction. And they all believe they are right. And then, of course, there is Hell. The most nauseatingly horrible and immoral thing humanity could possible imagine is a place of eternal torment for the fellow creatures. Worse than that is that a benevolent, loving, being should have created it, knowing, in his omnipotence, who would go there, before he created them. I am not an atheist wholly through science, I am an atheist through simply reading the religious texts, and seeing, knowing, in whatever moral and evolved place I have in my mind, that what I was reading, what I was hearing, is simply not nice. At all. So I have a little trouble seeing why non-religious science-fiction writers should necessarily treat religion as a positive thing, on top of the fact that the two fields are at odds, by their natures.

Another thing is that what is written is not necessarily the opinion of the author, after all. They write in characters. Hence the foofaraw when a reader misinterpreted a poem by British poet, Carol Ann Duffy, thinking that Duffy was actually condoning knife crime, when she was in fact merely writing in a voice, and the opinion was not hers, but that of the character (who Duffy made clear was mad and not to be looked up to).

I hope I haven’t gone on too long, or been too boring, or gotten on my pet steed, Tangent, too often. I also hope that I haven’t caused undue offence to anyone. I do not despise (or, ugh, worse, pity) religious people. I just think they’re wrong. There is room enough in the world for that difference in opinion — so long as friendly debate such as this is allowed. Once one side moves to guns, and planes in apposition with skyscrapers, you get trouble, and the two cannot then be compatible, and there will be blood. There is blood falling over it, right now.

Alice @ Sandstorm Reviews: You only have to look back a few years to see some great religious-themed SF that doesn’t necessarily show religion in a poor light – from the cheesy classic idea of the two stranded astronauts on a distant planet who turn out to be called Adam and Eve, to Arthur C Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” which turns the whole religion v. science thing on its head. As an atheist, I’m not honestly that bothered by negative treatments of religion in SF, but I’m much more interested in seeing unusual takes on the subject, and discussions that go beyond the simplistic “religion is the enemy of science” trope.

One good example is Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, which has a Jewish theologian debating the morality of Abraham’s sacrifice, as well as a Catholic priest confronted with the horrible reality of eternal life – all treated intelligently without a particular sectarian axe to grind, and highly recommended (regardless of what tripe Simmons is now churning out).

I’m not so keen on specifically Christian SF, as the core assumption that Christianity=Good sits uncomfortably with both my own beliefs and what I expect from SF; Cordwainer Smith can just about get away with it, but I found Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet an awful piece of writing. As an experienced genre reader, I know very well that if some God-like alien creature offers to kill you so you can go to heaven, you say NO!

SMD @ The World in the Satin Bag: What a strangely difficult question to answer. Where do I even start?

First off, I don’t think fantasy or science fiction are all that different in their portrayals of religion, only different in how much exposure religion receives. I’ve read a few fantasy books that didn’t exactly make religion sound all that wonderful and others that glorified it. The only reason we see more “fair” treatment in fantasy is because fantasy is almost exclusively written in a faux medieval historical period. Ancient peoples were generally more religious for a lot of entirely valid reasons: such as because there wasn’t anything else and they didn’t understand how the world or universe came into being, or how they got there, and the best explanation they could come up with was “the gods or God did it.”

Science fiction only looks at religion more critically because SF is almost exclusively written in a future that hinges on some aspect of a potential reality. Fantasy can’t happen. It’s basically an impossibility that someone writes as if it was real (and that’s not to say that fantasy is a poor written form because of that). Science fiction is based on what is, in theory, possible (with exception to some minor tropes that are necessary to make certain stories happen, such as FTL and humanoid aliens). With that in mind, one can completely understand why the futuristic societies within a science fiction novel have a higher likelihood of being skeptical and/or generally non-receptive to religious ideology. That’s not to say that science fiction does not look at religion positively. There isn’t exactly an overwhelming supply of SF novels that look at religion exclusively as being a negative thing. Quite a few actually look at religion from both angles: both as a force of “good” (however you want to describe good) and a force of “evil” (the same).

Perhaps the reason we notice SF novels that specifically look at religion negatively or present futures where religion isn’t involved at all is because they make it obvious. But if you look at the world we live in today, can we honestly say that religion is still the only viewpoint to have a say? For that matter, does religion have to play a role in things like science (an active, direct role)? The problem is that some believe that religion has to have an active role in matters of science, when it doesn’t. I’m not suggesting that religion and science cannot work together, but I am saying that scientific discoveries do not rely on one’s belief in God or in gods. Science advances because of the human mind, not from an external force (although you could, perhaps, argue that God, if he/she/it exists, has a hand in our daily lives, and thus has a hand in the dealings of science; the problem with that argument is it is without proof and preventative of the ability to prove, and thus becomes and argument that cannot be used when looking at a reality we all share).

Getting back to the question, I don’t see science fiction as being a literature that designs itself around the exclusion or negative treatment of religion, but more as a literature that looks at the future of the world from a certain perspective. There are SF novels that are centered around religion (The Sparrow, for example, and Octavia Butler’s Parables of the Sower and Parable of the Talents), just as there are novels that are not centered around religion. Both exist for a purpose, though I won’t pretend to understand what that purpose is. But I suppose the problem comes back to one of reality. Religion is an outdated and outmoded way of thinking, in general. We have seen this as our world has changed over the last 500 years. If the people from the 1500s were to see the world as it is today, they’d probably have massive heart attacks. Religion is, unfortunately, a system of beliefs and ideals that is not open to change, as we have seen in our short history when someone outside of that religion, or at least “progressive” within it, proposes a change and the masses of those religious idealists rise up to squash that altering viewpoint.

We see this in the gay marriage debate, this refusal and denial of the change that will happen whether we want it or not, because such change has happened in the past on similar issues (women’s rights, non-white rights, worker’s rights, etc.). This is probably why this question focuses on SF that looks at religion in either a negative light or doesn’t look at it at all. SF writers have a higher tendency to see the future as one being focused on issues greater than religion.

Petty squabbles between individuals who don’t agree on who is going to go to hell are superseded by interstellar wars, global issues such as pollution/global warming, economic issues, etc. These novels, in my opinion, see religion as something other than a solution, because the solutions to such issues will almost never be ones based on a religious ideal. Perhaps this is because the future these novels see is based upon the idea that religion cannot solve the world’s problems.

So, given the fact that this whole rant has been one of contradictions, I propose that we don’t really have an answer at all to this question. I suspect a lot of reasons for why SF sees religion differently than fantasy and why they aren’t that different, as well as why SF portrays the science/religion dichotomy as opposed to a holding of hands of the two. My problem is that I can see both sides of the argument and have read novels that lean one direction or the other. I think we also have to be considerate of the histories present when the authors who might be attributed to this type of negative representation of religion wrote their novels. History has
an interesting way of sneaking its way into our stories, whether we want to admit it or not. Religion and science both cross the line and one may write a novel that reflects futures that take those crossings to the extreme. That might be something worth looking into.

Mark @ Walker of Worlds: I think that religion has a place in any work of fiction regardless of whether it’s fantasy, science fiction or paranormal. More than anything, religion can be used as a plot device, as motivation for the characters or as beliefs of a race/group. Of course, with much history between religion and science in this day and age it’s easy enough to automatically assume that in future worlds the science aspect will mean that religion can be dismissed, although it can also mean that new religions can be created based on science. I have nothing against any of these things set in a fictional world, so long as the author sticks to their own rules within that setting and story.

I can think of quite a few novels with that religion aspect, although some work better than other and almost all have different takes on it. Hyperion by Dan Simmons, for example, has the priest’s tale which then forms the basis the the two Endymion books. This is a perfect example of an old school religion mixing with science, even though it may be against some beliefs of that religion. Two of the best sci-fi books I’ve read, The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell, are great examples of near future first contact. The books follow the story of a Father whose belief helps him in many ways, but he also questions God with the events he goes through. Without this element of the novel it would not be anywhere near as good as it is, and even though religion is something I don’t align myself with I am completely sympathetic to his cause.

I suppose that if you look upon religion and its views as strictly black and white you will have a very different interpretation of how it can interact with science. As far as I’m concerned there is no black and white, only many shades of grey, and a religious element in a story that can use that viewpoint will always be relevant in science fiction. Bottom line, as long as it doesn’t detract from the story or force a belief upon me then I’d quite happily read it, and probably enjoy it.

New Participant! Liz @ My Favourite Books: I personally feel that science fiction questions religion a lot more than fantasy does – therefore those who are quite sensitive can take offense to a lot of science fiction available on the market. But then that is what fiction in all its scope has done from the start – broadened our horizons and made us question what the majority of us were indoctrinated with from a very young age.

I always look to Sharon Shinn’s Samaria Series when considering religion portrayed in a dystopian futuristic setting. The struggle between the humans and the angels are closely followed, and the revelations that they are all in fact refugees from an earth, carried in the hold of a spaceship which is close to being omnipotent, comes as a tremendous revelation as the stories unfold – it embraces religion of a one god, the progress of science, and the genetic manipulation by the machines who brought them to the planet, to create the angels to look after the world, thereby creating a strong hierarchal caste system which is what caused the trouble in the first instance – that and science.

Religion in sci fi (fantasy, literary and genre novels) always acts as a tremendous catalyst – specifically in Frank Herbert’s Dune where Paul Maud’dib becomes a messianic figure to the Fremen. In the movie Stargate the visitors are seen as gods themselves and the locals grovel in abject fear of them – the supposed ancient gods they revere are parasitic aliens who are there to exploit humans. The list can go on and on. The fact remains that science fiction specifically examines religion with a critical eye, seeking explanations and new insights to existing dogma and holds it up to the light of science. Religion will never be easy bedfellows with science – in real life and sci-fi writing – but that is what makes sci-fi such fun to read. It always takes us unawares and leads the way.

Tia @ Fantasy Debut: I recently read a novel that takes a very obscure earth religion and brings it into prominence. It is not a widely worshiped religion in the novel, but it seems be rooted in the truth just the same. It actually made me somewhat uncomfortable, especially when one of the characters is resurrected, rather like Jesus Christ.

Most SF that I’ve read simply ignores religion. However, one series I read a very long time ago by Julian May, starting with The Many-Colored Land, had a priest as a prominent character. Another novel, a Hugo award winner from the 80s, if I recall correctly, featured a priest as well. I can’t recall the name of that novel, mostly because I never finished it. (I have an odd habit of not being able to finish Hugo award-winning novels. But I digress.) And it seemed to me that authors like Arthur C. Clarke often pondered the Infinite. Carl Sagan did as well in his novel Contact, where the Creator hid a secret message in the value of pi.

I have noticed that science fiction tends to dispense with religion, as if in our next stage of enlightenment, we will realize that that whole messy religion thing was just a relic of the evolution of Human Thought. However, that ignores the reality that faith is as prevalent as ever. Even places like Europe, which has seen a decline of Christianity, other religions like Islam is filling the vacuum. The Baptist faith is growing in places like China, where pastors run illegal churches out of their homes. Buddhism also persists despite attempts of the Chinese government to control it–they even chose their own Panchen Lama, the heir to the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama has recognized his own heir, so who knows what’s going to happen.

Sometimes when I read an SF novel, I wonder if I’m reading the author’s attempts to fulfill their own wishes of an atheist future. However, as I said above, most novels just ignore the issue. One
novel, Elom, featured an entity that was so powerful that it could easily be mistaken for a god. In Star Trek, Christianity had become a mere myth in one movie, yet in another Kirk jeered at the idea of God needing a starship. In the original Star Wars, the Force was an “ancient religion”, but by the time the prequels came along, it was just some sort of genetic enhancement.

Religion isn’t always missing from a novel just because it isn’t there. I don’t expect to see a lot of religion in a typical urban fantasy, so it’s no surprise if it’s not in a typical space opera. But sometimes, it is conspicuous in its absence.

And that’s when I wonder if the author intended it that way.

Heather @ The Galaxy Express: Science fiction does not preclude fair treatment of religion. On the other hand, I don’t think SF has to be fair toward religion (creative license and all that), and just because a book explores religious beliefs (ergo, raising questions that a reader might not want to hear) doesn’t make the treatment unfair. But with research, an open mind, and effective worldbuilding, the chances increase that an author will present an informed, balanced viewpoint of whatever religious belief system exists in his/her created world.

Holistic worldbuilding is inclusive about cultural aspects such as religion. If there is no compelling reason to include religious beliefs in the story, that’s fine, but otherwise, given the mind-blowing number of religions and spiritual traditions in our own world, I need an author to provide me with a very good explanation about why it doesn’t exist in the worlds of his characters. Ultimately, this issue has a lot to do with the actual focus of the story.

Religion doesn’t always have to be viewed as outdated and outmoded. I want to be entertained, not preached to. However, one expectation I’d have is for an author to acknowledge that some characters view the belief system as outdated/outmoded, while others do not. Because wouldn’t that reflect our reality?

To the extent that an author can genuinely embrace the idea of multiple belief systems as well as the statistical probability of religious beliefs in the future regardless of scientific advancement, she can certainly weave religious elements in a story without making science and religion mutually exclusive, or without making a value judgment about one being more important than the other. For me, two examples of authors who have convincingly weaved religion into a story are science fiction romance authors Linnea Sinclair (GABRIEL’S GHOST) and Sandra McDonald (THE OUTBACK STARS).