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Religion in Science Fiction (2): Metaphysics of Science Fiction

May contain spoilers concerning science fiction stories written prior to 1960.

HGWells 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.

Ten Game Development Vices, Part One (ihobo)

Over on ihobo today, the first of a two part series looking at the vices of the game development industry. Here's an extract:

The videogames industry is young, less than forty years old, and racked with bad habits. An industry friend of mine puts the chief problem of the games industry like this: When the new Star Wars movies premièred in Hollywood, Mann's Chinese Theatre was thronged with diehard fans dressed as a Stormtroopers and Wookies. You wouldn't put the geek dressed as a Stormtrooper in charge of writing a Star Wars script and expect anything good to come of it, but the videogames industry routinely puts its most obsessive videogame fanboys in charge of game development. We shouldn't be surprised that this gets us into trouble.

Part two will go up next week.

Other People's Taboos

Taboo500 To what extent should we respect other people's taboos? This is perhaps one of the most difficult questions in ethics.

A taboo (or tabu) is a deeply felt social prohibition against specific words or actions, usually shared by a particular culture or community. The sheer diversity of beliefs that come into collision in the modern world inevitably create social and political battlegrounds over subjects that some people consider taboo, that others do not. Consider the following diverse examples of taboo subjects or behaviours, and worldviews that may generate them:

  • Abortion for an individual with “pro-life” metaphysics
  • Testing of medicines on rats for animal rights activists
  • Declawing of cats for a cat lover
  • The display of the image of Muhammad for a traditionally-minded Muslim
  • The burning of a the flag of the United States for a patriotic citizen of that nation
  • Gay marriage for an individual for whom “marriage” expressly implies a partnership between a man and a woman
  • Female circumcision for individuals with no such tradition

(Note that the examples of worldview are by no means exhaustive: others may also be offended by the taboo in question, but the examples serve to emphasise the relevant point).

Anyone looking at this list is likely to find something in it which causes offence, and perhaps also angry cognitive dissonance – the blind rage we experience when confronting something that should not be, and yet is. But how do we untangle the web of moral complexity that surrounds issues about which opposing sides square off with little or no common ground?

In the global village of the internet world, the barriers between cultures have fallen to an extent previously unthinkable. Furthermore, the diversification of subcultures within the wealthier cultures (such as the United States and Europe) as a result of what philosopher Charles Taylor has dubbed the Nova Effect has increased the social pressure between people of different beliefs in some areas, while eliminating it in others. The result is a patchwork quilt of different beliefs, sharing common resources and spaces (both physical and virtual) within which disputes about ethics become essentially inevitable. Against this backdrop, I have proposed that relative ethics – the accepting of the variation in beliefs as valid, even though the plurality may deny consensus – is the only viable manner to approach the modern ethical dilemma, a view in common with Kwame Anthony Appiah's principles of cosmopolitanism.

The seven examples above were chosen because nearly everyone takes offence at something in this list. In many cases, individuals would like to impose their moral values on others (to reduce their cognitive dissonance by imagining they can eliminate the offending behaviour) and when forced to accept that they cannot they instead experience extreme agitation and demonise those who conduct such practices. One only has to think of the bombing of abortion clinics to see the worst excesses of this process. But in each of the seven cases, there is a conflict of rights concerned, as we can see if we examine the counter-positions in each case:

  • The right of a woman to control her own body (for an individual with “pro-choice” metaphysics)
  • The right of an individual to take any and all steps to pursue medical treatments that could save or prolong their life (even if that means testing on animals)
  • The right of property in respects of animals and livestock (i.e. if you can kill an animal for meat, since it is legally property, you can surgically alter it provided the operation is deemed sufficiently humane)
  • The right of free speech (versus display of the image of Muhammad)
  • The right of free expression (versus burning of a flag)
  • The right of equality (versus opposition to gay marriage)
  • The right to assert tribal or cultural tradition (versus opposition to female circumcision)

(Note that I am not expressly endorsing any of these counter-positions, nor the original taboos – I am merely observing that each taboo in effect infringes on someone else's perceived right).

At this point, it is likely everyone has specific objections relating to their own preferred cause. The “pro-lifer” objects that the woman's right to control her own body doesn't extend to the “murder” of foetuses (say); the cat lover objects that onychectomy is inhumane; the opponent of female circumcision objects that tradition cannot be invoked to endorse “cruelty” and so on. In each case, these objections are essentially irrelevant because the cultures and subcultures that one is in conflict with on the relevant point do not share this value judgement. The “pro-choice” individual does not believe that termination of a foetus is murder; the person with declawed cats considers their quality of life to be only marginally reduced; the member of a tribe that practices female circumcision denies that a right of passage should be deemed cruel and so forth.

This, indeed, is the problem with attempting to enforce one's taboos upon other people: it is simply not reasonable to do so if we accept relative ethics, since we cannot force our values upon others. (And if we do not accept relative ethics, we must be prepared for other people to enforce their values upon us!) We can argue our position and attempt to sway other people's opinions, of course, although in practice when one is under the influence of cognitive dissonance on such matters what seems like a convincing argument to the objector often emerges as blathering nonsense to the target of the outrage, and is far more likely to entrench them in their opposing stance. Thus “pro-life” bumper stickers (Smile! Your mom choose life!) do not sway people towards this metaphysical stance – they simply anger people with “pro-choice” metaphysics and make them even less open to the arguments of their opponents on this issue.

You can object to other people's behaviours, and you can attempt to argue against them (although to do so while angry is to invite ridicule and thus to be ignored) but you can only decree acceptable behaviour within your own community, and even then only when your objection accords with the other members of your community. (It is worth mentioning at this point the question of where the boundaries of the notion of taboo should be placed, and the answer as usual is far from clear. But regardless, we only control and influence the laws of our own communities outside this, we have no direct jurisdiction).

Often, cognitive dissonance occurs in respect of taboos because humans have a natural tendency to take a general situation and instantiate themselves into it. Thus, parents with the relevant metaphysics are especially vulnerable to cognitive dissonance in respect of abortion because the thought of their own children having been terminated as a foetus is wildly distressing (the declawing of cats trips the same kind of upsetting connections in the cat owner, and the animal rights activist equivalentlyidentifies with those creatures being effectively sacrificed to research). Similarly, for someone who was not raised in a culture with a tribal right of passage, the details of the procedures conducted horrify because one projects oneself into that situation despite the fact the member of the tribe comes to the ritual with a wildly different cultural background, and thus has a radically different experience to the one we imagine. 

Cognitive dissonance is also triggered in the case of both the display of the image of Muhammad and the burning of a flag, and in both cases it is the intensity of respect the individual has for the founder of their religion or for their nation that leads to the offensive event being interpreted as a personal insult. Once again, the individual instantiates themselves into the general.

Opposition to gay marriage appears to run in a similar vein: the institution of marriage is intrepreted as being a sacred union between a man and a woman, and thus attempts to redefine marriage as a union of souls irrespective of gender seems a violation of tradition. It is the individual's respect for a traditional interpretation of marriage which can become the root of offense, although generally this is felt to a far lesser degree than those other instances mentioned, and this taboo may yet cease to be a major cultural battlefield in Western sociery within our lifetimes.

These kinds of situation can become further complicated by the problems of the global village, which can make the world seem like a single community, rather than myriad diverse communities. Take the case of the reprinting of the Danish Muhammad cartoons in the French newspaper France Soir (which I have discussed previously as an issue of prejudice): yes, free speech may allow you to reprint what you wish, but this freedom exercised without sufficient cause becomes simple rudeness. Part of the result of this debacle was a reinforcement of the stereotypical view that the French are arrogant and insensitive; what, if anything, was gained by the actions of France Soir?

Many serious issues will remain unaddressed until greater respect for the rights and beliefs of others become an accepted part of the background of ethical disputes. The animal rights activist, believing that their “cause is just”, feels justified in violating the rights of other members of their communities in the pursuit of their own moral goals, up to and including systematic persecution of employees of companies they find offensive. Sometimes there may indeed be justification (the Huntingdon Life Sciences scandal, in which an animal testing company was shown by activists to be violating animal protection laws, for instance), but one's own sense of moral outrage is never sufficient in and of itself to justify any action, except in the mind of an extremist. Protesting an abortion clinic is fair game in most nations, but the bombing of such an establishment – especially by someone claiming to be a follower of Jesus – can never be adequately justified.

Perhaps the most civilised way forward on these kinds of issues is to attempt to move to a place whereby we can respect the rights of others, even when we do not agree with how those rights are exercised. This is no small thing to ask! Yet an insistence on characterising the opposing viewpoint as the enemy guarantees a lengthy and intractable conflict. Conversely, if we can learn to respect other people's right to have taboos, even when we disagree with them, we will be better positioned to understand the complex social and moral currents that provide the undertow to numerous political battlegrounds. This understanding may not ultimately result in one's own moral argument winning out, but by permitting dialogue between differing camps it greatly increases the chances of working towards some kind of tenable resolution to what would otherwise remain a Gordian knot.

The opening image is Taboo by Lynn Taetzsch, which I found here on her site. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Religion in Science Fiction (1): Introduction

Astounding Science Fiction.Dec1947 All fiction is fantasy, in so much that it imagines what has never happened. Critics consider science fiction to be a form of speculative fiction (a term often attributed to Robert A. Heinlein) along with heroic fantasy, horror, alternative histories and all other genres which postulate worlds significantly different from our own. What distinguishes science fiction from other forms of speculative fiction are its boundaries, although as is often the case with language it can be challenging to demarcate these edges clearly.

The problem extends beyond defining “science fiction” and into defining “science”, since it is rather unclear what legitimately constitutes 'science' given that different individuals impose wildly different criteria. This is further complicated by the inevitable meandering of scientific beliefs. For example, what nineteenth century author H.G. Wells (dubbed the “Father of Science Fiction”') believed in the context of science was quite different from what mid-twentieth century author Isaac Asimov believed, and this in turn is considerably different from what late-twentieth century author William Gibson believes – as indicated by the kinds of technologies that each author imagined. This issue somewhat invalidates the kind of definition offered by Robert A. Heinlein, namely “realistic speculation about possible future events based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method”. How can the boundary of science fiction be judged by a criteria such as “realistic”when what is deemed realistic changes with each decade?

Vaguer definitions are easier to support, but offer less clarity. Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling suggested “fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.” This is a tenable idea, although it still leaves to the individual the question of improbability versus impossibility – do we really think that Star Wars is merely improbable, for instance? (The term “science fantasy” is sometimes deployed pejoratively in order to make this point). Lester Del Rey suggested that “there are no easily delineated limits to science fiction”, and Norman Spinrad proposed that “science fiction is anything published as science fiction” - ideas which comfortably dovetail with the philosopher Wittgenstein's ideas about language, but leave us no closer to a working definition.

It seems odd, therefore, if “science fiction” as a term resists definition, that people regularly deploy the term “hard science fiction” to delineate a cleaving to greater “scientific realism”. When we talk about “hard science fiction” we are really admitting that there is more research and less wild imagination behind such writing; that their conceits are closer to the perceived facts of modern engineering, and so presumed to be less improbable. The trouble with this line of reasoning is that given the rate of change of science beliefs, “hard science fiction” is no more likely to be a predictor of future possibilities than entirely off-the-wall speculation. Consider the extent to which Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey overshot the mark as to what would be possible at the dawn of the twenty first century. All futurism tends to suffer from this shortcoming. Ultimately, “hard” in this context tends to mean something between “well-grounded in current physics” and “unwilling to speculate”, yet there are undoubtedly people for whom hard science fiction” implies closer to truth, however strange this assumption may be on examination.

What is arguably revealed here is the way in which scientific beliefs – many of which are metaphysical beliefs about science or reality – create their own dogmatic traditions in a manner not dissimilar to the encrustation of religious metaphysics with specific dogmas. Wherever one has firm, unshakeable beliefs the seeds of dogmatic belief can be found – and this happens more frequently in the modern world with science than it does with religion (thanks in part to the effects of what Max Weber termed 'the disenchantment of the world' in the nineteenth century and beyond). This is not to suggest that religious dogma no longer has significant influence, merely that new dogmas occur more readily in the sciences than in the sphere of religion, which enjoys considerably slower rate of change of beliefs.

Prior to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the word “science” was used in the same sense deployed by Aristotle: knowledge that was sufficiently secure as to reliably describe how to do something. Thus, all domains of knowledge, some of which we might nowadays consider crafts, were considered under the banner of the Latin word scientia. The transformation of the term “science” into its modern meaning has its root in the Enlightenment, a period usually bounded by the works of two philosophers: Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz in the seventeenth century, and Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth. What characterised the Enlightenment was a shift in the basis for authority. While previously tradition (both religious and political, often hand in hand) had been used to establish legitimacy, the Enlightenment attempted to position reason and rationality as a more appropriate foundation for society. This transformation precipitated a radical departure from traditional religion, but it would be an error to suggest it was a break from religion: both Leibniz and Kant had staunch theological motivations for their philosophy.

What is now called “the scientific method”, which had its roots in Islamic scholarship (particularly the work of Ibn al-Haytham in the tenth and eleventh century) began to gain ground in Europe during the Enlightenment. In the seventeenth century, there was not yet a formal culture of scientific thinking for science fiction to emerge out of, but there were still early “prototypes” of science fiction, mostly embedded in the utopian fantasy genre, which generally constructed their narrative around an imaginary voyage. For example, Francis Bacon, one of the foremost champions of the scientific method in his day, published his New Atlantis in 1627, in which the crew of a lost ship stumble upon the mythical land of Bensalem. Here, the most intellectually capable citizens attend an institution named Solomon's house, in which scientific experiments are conducted in order to understand and conquer nature, for the betterment of society – a vision which prefigured the modern research university.

By the nineteenth century, the transformation of “science” to something akin to its modern meaning had been largely completed. Fuelled by this new rationally motivated, systematic view of the world, writers of this period such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells penned what were termed “scientific romances” (only in the late twentieth century did 'romance' take upon its modern genre meaning; prior to this point it meant something akin to 'heroic fantasy'). These works had a sense of the wonder of the universe to them, and the novelist Farah Mendlesohn has suggested that works of this period “revelled in the immaterial and imparted to genre SF a desire for the transcendent; this vision of the future represented an attempt to peer into the heavens.”

The first signs of science fiction positioning itself in opposition to religion did not begin until the twentieth century. Mendlesohn suggests that this conflict was facilitated by the pulp magazines, such as Amazing Stories and especially Astounding Stories (later, Astounding Science Fiction, the December 1947 cover of which appears above). By frequently representing religion in a purely material and ritualistic context, pulp science fiction created many of the clichés we now associate with the portrayal of religion in science fiction, such as paranoia about theocracy (Heinlein's “If This Goes on”) and internecine religious wars (Fritz Leiber's “Gather Darkness!”).

Yet it would be profoundly incorrect to jump to the conclusion that science fiction is necessarily hostile to religious beliefs. While the philosophy of materialism (the belief that matter is all that can be proved to exist) is foundational to modern science and, by extension, science fiction, the idea that the 'disenchanted world' of materialism is anathematic to religion rests on specific beliefs concerning both religious philosophies and materialism – and within this diverse space there is ample room for many different approaches.

Over the course of the next few weeks, we will look at the portrayal of religion in numerous different popular forms of science fiction, including Dune, Stargate, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars. However, before we can look at the specifics of any given instance, it is necessary to consider the metaphysics of science fiction authors, in order to appreciate why the genre is so often regarded as atheistic literature.

Next week: Metaphysics of Science Fiction

Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.

Science and the Sacred

Path-of-spirit-still Why should it be that science, the domain of observable and testable knowledge, seems to be in conflict with the sacred, the domain of veneration and reverence?

The short answer is that there is no objective conflict here: the domain of the testable, and the concept of the sacred, need not intersect at all, let alone conflict, as Stephen Jay Gould suggested in his idea of non-overlapping magisteria. But this obscures the evidence of our experience which shows that there are indeed battlegrounds over which ideological wars are being fought, especially in the context of the teaching of evolutionary theories versus traditional creation stories.

I want to argue that this conflict can be understood as a difference of opinion as to what should be considered sacred, and thus should be resolved as a question of freedom of belief.

Now many atheists (and indeed, many agnostics) baulk at the idea that they have a concept of the sacred, since this term has become viewed as the exclusive domain of religion, and people whose beliefs lie somewhere in the non-religious spectrum do not have a religious identity to draw against. But put aside the implication that “sacred” sometimes implies a deity or divine aspect, and consider that one of the meanings of this term is “secured against violation or infringement by reverence or a sense of right”, as in a “sacred oath”.

Is it not the case that many scientists lean towards believing that truth is sacred, in the sense I have outlined here? A matter for respect, something that should not be violated or infringed? If this is not the case, why is it so offensive to certain people within the scientific community that there are cultures who base their view of the world upon (say) predicating the text of the Bible as truth? (Ignoring for the purpose of this discussion the criticisms of both Charles Taylor and myself that this is a form of idolatry, and thus essentially incompatible with Christianity). Surely the cause of this indignation is something like the idea that scientific truth is sacred, and that basing truth on something other than observation is an offence of some kind.

Nietzsche saw clearly this quasi-religious quality that can creep into the scientific endeavour, noting that it was “a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests”, and connecting this back to Plato's belief “that God is the truth, that truth is divine”. In his view, the expulsion of God from the sciences (“the death of God” in Nietzsche's memorable term) did not mean the termination of a sense of the sacred attached to the notion of truth. Thus, whatever violates the currently popular conclusions rendered by scientists risks becoming a sacrilege, an affront, something offensive that must be opposed.

Part of the fear that some narrow-minded Christians have concerning atheism comes from a difficulty in understanding that living without a concept of the divine in the form of a deity does not necessarily entail an abandonment of the sacred. A great many non-theists (of whom Einstein has been prominent example) hold to a naturalistic pantheism in which “the Earth is sacred, and the universe divine”. Interpreted in theistic terms, this means that God is immanent in nature – but this need not exclude a transcendent God. To think ill of someone for preferring an immanent concept of the sacred is as profoundly bigoted as to think less of someone for having faith in transcendence.

It is a profoundly personal matter what each of us considers sacred, and it is inappropriate for the State or the scientific community to interfere in this freedom. The human rights agreed to at the end of World War II encoded this freedom of belief, which begins in its modern conception with the right of parents to choose how their children will be educated. But the foundation of this liberty of conscience goes back far earlier – to the Maurya Empire of ancient India in the 3rd century BC and the Charter of Medina drafted by the Islamic prophet Muhammad in 622 AD. We think of human rights as secular, but as Taylor has demonstrated, they emerged through the process of the reform of Christianity, shaped by influences from other religious traditions. That their staunchest defenders in the modern world are quite often non-religious demonstrates another sense in which there are things considered sacred, with or without an explicit sense of the divine.

The apparent clash between science and the sacred seems quite different when we think of it in terms of disputes over what should be considered sacred, for it is comparatively clear in our modern world that each individual must decide this for themselves. The Intelligent Design furore becomes a dispute between competing claims of sacrosanctity, one based on observationally-derived beliefs, the other upon tradition. Either will become a problem when demanding that its formulation of the sacred must necessarily overrule all other conceptions.

The opening image is Walking the Path of Spirit Again, another fractal artwork by Vitor, whose blog can be found here. Vitor kindly gave me permission to use his art here on Only a Game.

Without Further Ado...

Somehow I have managed to scrape up the time to draft some material, so let's get the Summer Season of Only a Game underway! Starting tomorrow, we should have regular posts from Tuesday to Thursday with just a few breaks through to the Wheel of Fortune in November.

I'm going to be passing back into Ethics territory for a while, and next week I'll be tackling the question of Other People's Taboo's that I never quite managed to fit into the Ethics Campaign. This week, however, as I prepare to launch the Religion in Science Fiction serial, I'm going to be leading off tomorrow with a new look at an old chestnut...

See you in the comments!

So... What You Been Up To?

Still hopelessly swamped, I'm having difficulty rounding up the time to get material together, but I'm hopeful that I might be able to get things rolling forward by next week at least. Thought I'd ask what people have been up to while I've been "off the air". What's made you happy in the past few weeks? What's made you angry? What's new with you?