The Crowd as a Player (ihobo)
Other People's Taboos

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.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Sounds like this is going to be fun!

I don't know how much relevancy this would have to your future articles, but author John C. Wright just wrote an article about differences in opinions of religion between A.C. Clarke, C.S. Lewis, and H.G. Wells.

Hi Chris,
When discussing Battlestar Galactica, if you are talking about the new one, can you VERY CLEARLY mark spoilers :)

I haven't seen the last series yet - they started showing them at midnight here in Oz, without any warning, and so I didn't realise until after they had started. Obviously with a very serial show missing a few episodes (especially the first episode after a cliffhanger) I'm waiting for the DVDs...

So please, don't spoil :)

I usually define science fiction by contrasting it with fantasy. Fantasy explains the unexplainable or impossible aspects of a story with magic or the gods, sci-fi uses technology/science (even if it is fake science) or aliens.

I certainly don't agree with any of the definitions that you quoted any more than you do.

Thanks for the comments everyone!

Mory: "Sounds like this is going to be fun!" I hope so! I've put this back quite a bit to give Battlestar Galactica a chance to finish airing so I could make it more complete. I still have a lot of research to conduct, but I'm looking forward to discussing these subjects and themes with the players here.

DeeMer: thanks for this link! It's timely, actually, as next week will touch on Wells, Stapleton and Lewis - much appreciated!

RodeoClown: all of the sections discussing the specific instances of science fiction will almost certainly contain spoilers, and will be labelled from the beginning "May contain spoilers". I haven't seen the last three episodes of Battlestar Galactica yet so I have no idea if I will be making reference to events in the conclusion, or simply in the prior seasons - but I would advise you to skip the *entire* Battlestar Galactica post as a precautionary measure. You won't need to read this serial part to get the value from the other parts, as each should stand alone. (You can always come back to it when you've caught up).

Sorry for any inconvenience! It's simply too difficult to write about these topics without using spoilers, alas.

Katherine: the problem I have with contrasting science fiction with fantasy is that in the world of the imagination where are the boundaries between "magic/gods" and "technology/science"? Remember Arthur C. Clarke's line "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"? So what's the boundary here? That the characters express in terms of "magic/gods"? Because Conan could take place in a virtual reality, and the magic of the Isari in The Lord of the Rings could be technologically founded! :p

Clearly, there is a practical distinction here - but once again, it's not a boundary we can enforce. Following Wittgenstein, I would say both "science fiction" and "fantasy" are family resemblance categories, and as such they bleed quite readily into one another - quite literally in the case of something like Lawrence Watt-Evans' "The Cyborg and the Sorcerors"!

Looking forward to reading peoples perspectives as we go forward with this. Thanks again for commenting!

I love having unique and different relgions in fictional work of all kinds. I believe that it makes the reading experience much more fascinating and interesting and give it a level of depth. I personally liked the similarities in Star Wars to Zen Buhddism and Taosim. I prefer the Taoistic perspective on life, but the blending in the story was very well crafted. Science fiction isn't may favorite genre to read, although in my defense good science fiction is hard to come by. Some of the best science fiction was written by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and of course Isaac Asimov. But I think science fiction will, more than fantasy, always have different religions in it.

Hey Chris,
I have no problem with spoilers being present, I just don't want to be spoiled in this instance :)

I'll star it in google reader and check it out once I've seen the end of the show :)

I've never seen any of those shows. I think my nerd card needs to be confiscated.

Remember Arthur C. Clarke's line "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"?

I prefer the corollory. "Any technology distinguishable from magic is not sufficiently advanced."

Haha Peter :)

"Any technology distinguishable from magic is not sufficiently advanced."

Very good, oh very good :D

Posted a link to this post on facebook, here is a bit of resulting convo relating to definitions:
FRIEND: "ach, good science fiction is a critique or comment on today, using a different reality to exagerate the problems/consequences or as a basis to make the story more universal."

ME:"So any science fiction that doesn't reflect on contemporaneous issues is necessarily bad? I suppose that's on a par with saying that one should write about what one knows, which is good advice to start off with but shouldn't be an ultimate limit..."

ps intend to begin posting again soon. Yay.

Hi all!

James Swezey: new voice - passing through, or planning to stop by for the serial? Or are you a lurker? :) I find it fascinating that you consider the "good" science fiction to be the Golden Age stuff. It all reads quite clunkily to me - I prefer the cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk science fiction for the most part, although recently I have stopped reading fiction altogether, alas.

Sirc: "I've never seen any of those shows. I think my nerd card needs to be confiscated."
You've not seen *anything* that's going to be in this serial? Really? Never mind confiscating your nerd card, the nerd police will be coming to get you shortly! :p

zenBen: I agree with "FRIEND" that the best science fiction is a critique or commentary on today - but I would counter in this regard that this is true of *all* fiction, and is not unique to science fiction. But of course, all this is really saying is that good fiction is about people. :)

Best wishes!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)