May contain spoilers concerning science fiction stories written prior to 1960.
Why is it presumed that science fiction must tend towards atheism? Perhaps it is because the materialistic perspective upon which modern science rests – the idea that matter alone is real, or at least, reliably testable – seems to presuppose the impossibility of God or a transcendent reality. Yet there are no shortage of individuals who have accepted materialistic science without feeling the need to give up their beliefs in transcendence. Indeed, the challenge facing religions at the dawn of the twenty first century could be positioned in termed of whether they reject modern perspectives and uphold traditional practices, as with Amish communities, or find ways to position themselves in a post-materialistic world, as with the philosophy of Charles Taylor. Both are viable in their own way, although only the latter is perhaps compatible with enjoying science fiction. (I am doubtful that there is such a thing as Amish science fiction!)
Science fiction writers naturally come to the genre with their own prior metaphysical baggage. By “metaphysics” I mean the the philosophical domain of the untestable, which provides the foundation for all belief systems, religious, scientific or otherwise. The diversity of metaphysical beliefs among the authors of science fiction novels is palpable. C.S. Lewis' work is effused with Christian iconography and themes, and the same can be claimed to a more subtle extent for Ray Bradbury, who was raised a Baptist but became a Unitarian Universalist. Conversely, Iain M. Banks works are critical of religion and pursued in the spirit of “evangelical atheism”, and much the same can be said of the screenplays of Doctor Who reviver Russell T. Davies. Between these polar positions can be found all manner of variations, such as the “crypto-Buddhism” of Arthur C. Clarke, or the Taoist-leanings of Ursula Le Guin.
One of the interesting facets of how science fiction is received is that the metaphysical biases of the author need not be a barrier to the reader, at least in respect of the more mature writers. Iain M. Banks, for instance, takes a hard line stance against religion, yet his Culture novels have sold very well in the United States, including to a Christian audience. Banks has been forthright in his opposition to religion, but notes in a 2008 interview: “You have to have some understanding that a lot of people do need religion. They need something to believe in. You can dismiss it as a crutch, but it might be better call it a cast; in the end, the bone heals, and you throw the cast away.” This is far from an unfamiliar refrain, but at least Banks accepts everyone's right to free beliefs.
In common with many twentieth century atheists, Banks' viewpoint is very much based around the idea of religion as something which either has become irrelevant or will soon pass beyond relevance, what Charles Taylor has called a subtraction story. In an interview for British television in 1996, Banks espoused his viewpoint that religion represents early attempts to understand the world, and these days science has superseded that role – that science is the new religion. This kind of naïve scientistic outlook falls prey of Nietzche's criticisms concerning faith in science, but it represents a popular metaphysical perspective among modern atheists, many of whom position themselves as the mature and rational counterpoint to religion, which is portrayed generally by such individuals as mere superstition.
Why do religious readers not take umbrage at such anti-religious sentiments? Perhaps principally because everyone – religious or otherwise – sees great criticism with religion in the most general terms, thus attacks on religion can be tolerated by people of all metaphysical backgrounds. If a story makes a mockery of dogma, the moderate Christian (say) sees in the allegory a criticism of what they themselves dislike in the extremes of their own religion, as well as in other people's religions. Not to mention that many religious people do not see themselves as practising a religion. “Christianity,” (or Hinduism or whichever faith is referenced) “isn't a religion, it's a way of life”is a commonly espoused claim which allows this compartmentalization of religion into the positive (“my way of life”) and the negative (“religion”).
It is in fact the minority of science fiction writers who proceed from a position of complete hostility to religious belief, with most existing in a contradictory middle ground. Perhaps the embodiment of the conflicted middle ground is Arthur C. Clarke. On the one hand, he identified as an atheist and stated in an interview in 2000, “I don't believe in God or an afterlife”, but on the other he has said he was “fascinated by the concept of God”, and his works often have a mystical or metaphysical depth beneath their scientific trappings. In a 1972 interview he admitted to a bias against religion, claiming he could not forgive religions for the atrocities and wars they had instigated, yet his position was far more nuanced than this early interview suggests. Clarke stated: “Any path to knowledge is a path to God – or Reality, whichever word one prefers to use”, a statement very much in accord with Buddhist philosophy, and indeed Clarke described himself as a “crypto-Buddhist”, while insisting that Buddhism was not a religion. (Perhaps he claimed it was “a way of life”?)
There are even science fiction writers who escape hostility towards religion entirely, while not belonging to any specific tradition, of whom Greg Bear is the most prominent example. Considered a “hard” science fiction writer (which as discussed last week, simply means that Bear is well-versed in modern scientific theory, and able to deploy it in a literary context), his future histories view religion as continuing into the far future, and he manages to portray both people of faith and non-believers as credible characters. When asked in 2000 about his religious beliefs, he said:
My religious beliefs are hardly settled. I do believe in God, but leave wide open his (or its) character. I will say that the relationship is not one so much of master or lord to servant, but of friends – but who knows if that will change under the influence of some tragedy! A peaceful life does not give complete insight into God's nature. I do believe that the scientific quest, seeking explanation for things without invoking God's intervention, is enormously fruitful for now. Whether this technique or discipline will explain all is not knowable at present, of course.
With such a wide range of metaphysical positions feeding into the genre, science fiction achieves considerable variety in its themes and metaphors. When religion is farcically presented, science fiction can tend towards atheistic scripture (“Ye, there art no God”) or scientistic propaganda (“science will save us!”), and the same degree of ludicrousness can be achieved by starting at a theistic position, as in C.S. Lewis' bizarre “That Hideous Strength”, which culminates in a literal battle between religion and science (between space angels known as eldila and a demonic science agency named N.I.C.E). Perhaps the most abhorrent point of interface between religion and science fiction are the Left Behind novels, which radically butcher the teachings of Jesus in order to render a eschatological future in which Christians are permitted – in fact, encouraged – to massacre non-Christians, in strict defiance of the core tenets of the religion. Although praised by televangelist Jerry Falwell, the books have garnered considerable criticism from many Christian critics.
A more sophisticated relationship with religion can be found in what scientist Freeman Dyson has dubbed theofiction , that is, science fiction novels which explore theology beyond its conventional bounds, such as Olaf Stapledon's novels Star Maker (1937), which culminates in an encounter with a creator entity who is loving yet merciless and sees the universe as something of a failed experiment, and Sirius (1944), in which a scientifically-engineered super-dog has a radically different theological perspective than any human, seeing God as the supreme hunter. Stapledon was hostile to religious institutions, but not to religious yearnings – a position that lead him to argue in correspondence with the staunchly anti-religious H.G. Wells (pictured above), perhaps the only science fiction author to have a greater influence on the development of the genre than Stapledon himself.
Wells was perhaps the first science fiction writer to take an openly hostile stance on religion. There are hints of this in his 1898 novel War of the Worlds, in which a curate is driven mad by an inability to rationalise his religion with the Martian invasion, and the narrator is ultimately forced to incapacitate the man, resulting in his death. It is even more apparent in later works, particularly The Shape of Things to Come (1933) in which Wells envisions a world state brought about by the “benevolent” Dictatorship of the Air, which enforces English as a global language, and exterminates all religions as a necessary step on the path to a peaceful utopia. It was reading H.G. Wells novels that motivated C.S. Lewis to try to infuse Christian ideas with science fiction, which in turn led to Arthur C. Clarke trying to push against this in another direction in Childhood's End (1953), and Lewis and Clarke corresponded on the matter, much as did Wells and Stapledon. (Golden age science fiction authors were closely engaged, being quite a small crowd!)
Despite H.G. Wells obvious anti-religious stance, the claim that science fiction as a whole is an atheistic literature is ultimately a purely dogmatic one. Anyone with particularly rigid metaphysical beliefs (of any persuasion) will always struggle with stories that are incompatible with their beliefs, and this can make religious orthodoxy especially critical of science fiction. But for the vast majority of the followers of traditional belief systems there is no significant conflict between science and religion, and certainly nothing that would stop them from enjoying a ripping yarn of cosmic, temporal or technological imagination.
Having established a framework for understanding what we mean by “science fiction”, and exploring the many different metaphysical positions that the writers of this unique genre can possess, we are now ready to examine specific instances of the portrayal of religion in science fiction, beginning with what some have called the greatest science fiction novel of all time.
Next week: Dune
Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.