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Science Fiction and Religion – a Marriage NOT Made in Heaven, Nor Even the Laboratory

This month I tackle an old bugaboo – religion and science fiction.

Of late there have been quite a few blog postings on the subject, mostly variations on the following themes:  science fiction isn’t necessarily negatively critical of religion – and – science fiction spends an awful lot of time dealing with religion,

My experience is that science fiction is almost always negatively disposed towards religion, and I have difficulty understanding how anyone would think otherwise, let alone why anyone would want it to be otherwise.

Religion, at its core, is a concept antithetical to the core concepts of science fiction.

Science fiction – all of it – is founded on the premise that science (observation, fact, hypothesis and theory) is the fundamental underpinning of all that is and all that ever will be.

Religion on the other hand, putting the best possible face on it, wants us to believe that science has its place (is even useful at times) but is subordinate to some higher power that can flaunt science’s reason and logic whenever and wherever it so chooses, without requiring explanation.

How can these two NOT be at odds within works that  begin with the premise that science works?

There’s a fight going on between atheists and religionists these days that is taking place at a level of discourse we’ve never seen before.  Some atheists have begun questioning the place of religion within our societies at foundational levels.  People like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet ask hard questions, destroy long standing arguments with virtually unassailable logic and make provocative statements (‘religion is child abuse’) that are hard to ignore.

Religionists fight back in their own way, one of which is an attempt to usurp the public spaces (the Creation Museum, Christian science fiction as a subgenre).

With such high-level argumentation almost constant in both print and electronic forms, it’s not surprising to find the discussion creeping into the ‘literature of ideas’, nor is it surprising to find a lot of apologists attempting to identify reconciliation within the pages of a genre that is the perfect (if biased) sandbox.

My take is that you can’t find a religion-positive argument in any work of science fiction, so long as you are being honest with yourself and the work is an honest piece of science fiction.

Take Dune, a major award-winning novel, that centers on at least two different religions, one a stand-in for Islam, (the cult of the Fremen) the other a hodge-podge of mysticism, Judaism, Christianity and others (Bene Geserit and to some extent the other religions implied throughout).

Apologists want to present the inclusion of these religions as evidence that A: science fiction has to resort to religious themes to “make things work” (which then underpins the contention that science is only a piece of the puzzle and not the primary one) and B: since the characters used religion to achieve their goals, religion must be a good thing – or is at least being treated in a positive manner by a science fiction author (which must prove that SF authors – despite declarations of atheism – are really believers).

The problem is –  and Dune is a perfect example of this – religion is being done a dirty throughout the entire novel.  The author, Frank Herbert, looked for and found the one tool that could manipulate large groups of people into doing crazy, illogical (and often stupid) things.

The entire novel is one long dissertation on the powers of manipulation and on revolution. A revolution not based on logic or reason but on witchcraft, psychological control and lies.  One that ultimately brings down an entire galactic civilization.

(Interestingly, the revolution starts when Paul’s mother, Jessica, manipulates religious beliefs held by the Fremen – a downtrodden, persecuted, indigent society that suffers from perpetual dehydration: exactly the kind of weak-willed, mentally unstable people that organized religions are constantly preaching to.)

The real take-away from Dune is that Unreason can be used to manipulate more readily than reason and therefore, the real danger is religion.

Take Clarkes’ The Star as another example.  Many present this story as one in which science and religion are presented in a balanced manner; the conclusion of that story is seen as a great question:  Which really holds the answer, science – or religion?

But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find an answer rather than a question.  The story goes like this: A priest is a member of an expedition to a star that went supernova in a time and place to be viewed on Earth as the star that shined over Bethlehem, heralding the birth of Jesus.  Upon arriving at the star, they discover that there had been an advanced civilization on one of its planets, that civilization being destroyed by the supernova.

The priest then wonders why God would make a searchlight out of an entire planet to announce the birth of his son.

Deep philosophical questions flow forth.

Except.  Well, the priest didn’t travel through space on a prayer, he took advantage of science and technology to get there. People are born on Earth every second of every day and no doubt the ‘star of Bethlehem’ heralded the arrival on Earth of several thousand new babies.

That’s a bit of a stretch, admittedly, until you realize that the entire story is a tale about a Jesuit Priest’s crisis of Faith – a battle that the Priest has lost.  That battle is foreshadowed early on: -.”…But how you can believe that Something has a special interest in us and our miserable little world—that just beats me.”

The Priest, gazing upon an image of St. Ignatius of Loyala asks this of himself: “The Rubens engraving of Loyola seems to mock me as it hangs there above the spectrophotometer tracings. What would you, Father, have made of this knowledge that has come into my keeping, so far from the little world that was all the Universe you knew? Would your faith have risen to the challenge, as mine has failed to do?”

Loyola himself says this in his principle work: “That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity with the Church herself, if she shall have defined anything to be black which appears to our eyes to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.”

We must accept reality, whether it contradicts religious beliefs or not.

The story isn’t about balance, it’s an indictment, one that uses scientific evidence as proof.  The supernova/star of Bethlehem was significant of nothing other than the normal goings on within the universe.

Supporting this contention is the theme of depression that runs throughout the story.  The atheist crew becomes depressed upon having learned of the fate of a capable, wise and seemingly benign alien species.  The Priest is depressed because it means his life of devotion has been meaningless.  The priests depression is a selfish one.

Take Hogan’s Code of the Lifemaker; religion and religious tools are used by scientists to manipulate an ignorant population of self-aware robots, while a ‘mentalist’ charlatan uses science to trick his followers.  In the long run, only appeals to reason  and a judicious use of technology (the fruits of science) win the day.

Or Asmiov’s Foundation trilogy.  The Mule, the only serious threat to Seldon’s long-term psychohistorical plan (psychohistory is a SCIENCE created out of the study of heretofore seemingly intractable and religious-like – a-logical – societal elements) uses mental manipulation to create a cult of unquestioning and unreasoning soldiers for his attempt at galactic conquest.  A deliberately messianic figure, the Mule is eventually brought down by the continued application of the scientific plan.

In David Brin’s Startide Rising, a small band of humans and ‘uplifted’ dolphins succeed against hordes of highly sophisticated aliens bent on their capture or destruction.  The aliens primary flaw is obedience to various religious beliefs, while the humans steadfastly employ science and technology to win the day.

Those are admittedly a small sample, but a representative one, I believe.

If you dig deep enough in any work of science fiction that includes religious elements, you will find that where the two interact, religion always comes off second best, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise.

Science fiction is the expression of the triumph of reason, logic and the tenets of the scientific method over a mysterious and little understood universe.

At its core, religion holds the view that  there IS an answer to everything (no matter how convoluted or dissatisfying the answer may be ).

Working from a religious viewpoint, there is no room for science fiction.  Within the works of science fiction, religion must be displaced and shown to be wanting,  otherwise, religious certainty undermines the adventure of a literature that isn’t so much looking for answers as it is inviting us along for the journey of discovery.