Support Books Under the Bridge

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Future of Religion (Part 1)

[Edited to add: This is turning into a modestly popular series of posts, with comments continuing to trickle in (the Long Tail!). Please be sure to peruse the comments to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. And, err, Part 5.]

One topic that has been puzzling me lately has been the lack of any serious portrayal of religion in science-fiction. Science-fiction -- real science-fiction -- is in my opinion about people, about the interaction of science, technology, and human culture. Science-fiction is speculative anthropology (see Ursula K. Le Guin, for example). So what does science-fiction have to say about religion? Apparently, nothing.

Go figure.

Religion is seen frequently in science fiction, but almost always religion is associated with alien species. (Star Trek might be a very accessible example here.)

Recently I've been wondering about this while watching Babylon 5. Like much science-fiction (television or otherwise), there are several significant alien species. The Narns revere G'Quan and his writings; spirituality among Narns in general is frequently shown on the show. The Minbari on the show are highly religious. In contrast, the Centauri show little or no spirituality (other than, arguably, the potential civil religion focused on the old Republic). The Vorlons are too cryptic to make sense of, so we can draw no conclusions from them. The only remaining major species on Babylon 5 is the human species, and none of the major characters show any inclination towards religion while on the station, other than partaking in some of the Minbari rituals. True, there are a few episodes that deal with religious humans, such as an episode in which Roman Catholic monks arrive on the station, but overwhelmingly it appears that humans aren't religious.

(In one episode, a major spiritual visitation occurs on the space station. Representatives of each species each see their own main religious figure. The Narns see G'Quan; the Drazi - a minor species - see their ancient prophet; the Minbari see Valen. And what do humans see? Some sort of angel that looks like Mister Clean. I can't begin to guess what that was supposed to represent. Intriguingly, one automatically assumes a monolithic religion for the alien species, but that is simply not possible for humans.)

I won't claim that religion is a universal trait among humans, but it's pretty close to universal... so doesn't it seem odd that science-fiction overlooks the possibility that humans in the future might be religious?

This post is the first in a multi-part series. Please come back next Monday - I'll take a quick detour to blog about the alleged conflict between science and religion. After that, it's back to the science fiction, and hopefully I can present some ideas as to why science fiction typically ignores human religion.

In the meantime, comments are invited; what do you think might be going on? Any favourite science-fiction novels that do portray future religion?


Angry Professor said...

I'm fond of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow and Children of God. Robert J. Sawyer (Factoring God and Factoring Humanity) is entertaining but I find reading him is like eating snack food; it's fun at the time but after you wonder why you did it. Heinlein also wrote a lot of future-religion fantasies (Stranger in a Strange Land, Revolt in 2100).

Billy Goat said...

I was also going to post Stranger in a Strange Land as a story prominently featuring religion.

Off the top of my head, I can think of a bunch of stories that use religious groups as villains or talk about religion as it exists today.... However, I don't think this is what you're looking for.

How about The Church of the Second Chance, in Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld books?

I'll post again if I think of more examples. :)

Mister Troll said...

AP - I'm afraid I haven't encountered those books you mention, but I'll be sure to check them out! Neither have I even heard of Revolt in 2100, and I'm a big Heinlein fan. Intriguing...

Stranger I know quite well, however. I might have more to say about it later, but it does strike me as typical Heinlein. But I've never sorted out how religion fits into Heinlein's raging iconoclasm. In Stranger, traditional religion is basically seen as the equivalent of snake-oil salesmanship (although in occasional asides he seems to approve of various aspects of Abrahamic faiths). A new faith is founded in the novel, based on some sort of spirituality but definitely not including worship of the supernatural. But the book ends with this odd literal ascension-to-Heaven scene.

Maybe some people can make sense of it, but not me. (And where do the Martians fit in?)

At any rate, I'm flattered you stopped by! (May we expect any more "Guess That Department" riddles?) Thanks for commenting!

Mister Troll said...

BG - Ah, the Riverworld series. Never has Mark Twain been more interesting. And you're right, it definitely had a good mix of interesting religions practiced by the characters, as well as a new religion created by their situation. Thanks for reminding me!

Billy Goat said...

AP - I read The Sparrow a few years back, but was unaware of a sequel (although it makes sense). I enjoyed the book, and had forgotten it until reading your response. I thought the treatment of religion in it was pretty interesting, including the main character's trials and choices, and how they impacted his beliefs. It was also interesting to see inside the Jesuit organization within the Catholic Church. I was raised Catholic, but learned little about the Jesuits growing up.

The Sparrow also had some good things to say about a Catholic missionary's viewpoint in a first contact situation, as well as the conflict that would arise in the Catholic Church when you have such a missionary trying to fold a non-human sentient species into the Church cloth.

I'd say it's relevant to this discussion, even though there's nothing really radical here. However, Children of God may have some more good ideas to add. I'll definitely have to put it on my reading list.

Thinking about the themes of The Sparrow also reminds me of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game sequels. In Speaker for the Dead (or maybe Xenocide), part of the plot involves bringing Christianity to the Pequeninos, another sentient species.

Billy Goat said...

Oh, another one - In C. S. Friedman's ColdFire trilogy, in particular in When True Night Falls, the plot deals with spiritual/Christian themes that are extended into a fantasy/sci-fi realm. Friedman looks into issues of "creating" a God, the idea of mass faith fixing a world in which doubt causes science to inexplicably fail, sacrifice (sometime religiously-based) having supernatural consequences, and maybe a few others.

Anonymous said...

Religion features prominently in the Hyperion series, especially The Rise of Endymion. The evolution of the church to the ultimate betrayal was brilliantly written by Dan Simmons. However, there are many different religions described, both extended from today's practices to newly imagined. Temptation, power and greed are human desires.

Mister Troll said...

Thanks for the suggestion!

Off-topic, I got to thinking about what other things don't appear in science fiction. It occurred to me that pregnancy was one of them. I can think of fantasy novels that treat pregnancy, but science fiction. Off the top of my head, only Heinlein. (He'd better have discussed pregnancy! Given the... ah... eagerness of his characters.) That's a topic for another day, perhaps.

I'll leave that topic to Billy Goat - he can illustrate it with traffic-drawing baby photos :-)

Billy Goat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Billy Goat said...

Mister Troll - Haha :) Interesting thoughts about pregnancy. Aldous Huxley also hits it pretty obviously with Brave New World. Another example (that I haven't read) would be Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (which I haven't actually read, but have heard about).

Anonymous - I have Hyperion sitting on my to-read bookshelf. I've heard so many good things about it, but it keeps getting passed up for other things. Thanks for the note about it!

Also, I thought of some other sci-fi books that discuss religious matters. Gene Wolfe's Long Sun books look at a set of people who set themselves up as a pantheon on a generation starship. There's ideas about "divine" possession by the stored memories of these people, robotic clergy, discovery of a God that doesn't fit in with this pantheon (probably the Christian God, although this might be up to interpretation), etc. I've heard it said that it's written to be in a style somewhat like a futuristic gospel, and I could get on board with that.

There's a new book called The Electric Church by Jeff Somers. I haven't read it, but it looks like it has some interesting ideas. It might go a bit farther than what it looks like on the surface (i.e. Religious group as bad guys ala Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero album/Alt Reality Game, or the facetious religions featured in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash or Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land).

Mister Troll said...

Huh. I must not remember Brave New World at all.

I was going to mention Handmaid's Tale in one of the later posts, thanks for stealing my idea :-) Of course pregnancy, definitely featured there (should've remembered that!).

aspiemom said...

I just finished The Book of Joby (as I mentioned on another post). It was a "secular" book that delved into the war of good and evil.

It was not my favorite book. I thought it was about 100 pages too long, but that's me. Other people have raved about it.

I tried reading Ender's Game and just couldn't get into it. I wonder if this is a trend, lately.

This was an excellent post. I'm off to read part 2.

aspiemom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Billy Goat said...

Aspiemom - I really enjoyed Ender's Game, but it's been about 15 years since I've read it (holy cow). It's too bad that you keep reading books you haven't been enjoying. I feel like it's such a waste when I read something that I don't end up enjoying. Thankfully, it doesn't happen often, but I might just be easy to please.

About the only book I can think of off the top of my head that I really did not enjoy was Peter F. Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction. I hated it, and my wife made me stop reading it halfway through because I would voice my disgust at it after each reading session. Thankfully, I took her advice. :)

Billy Goat said...

On second thought, there are some other books I haven't really enjoyed. However, I usually don't make it through them, and thus don't remember them very well. The ones I do make it through usually have parts I enjoyed, like The Wheel of Time books, in which I have contemplated skipping the middle 500 pages of the last 5 books I've read.

Fredosphere said...

I really liked The Mote In God's Eye because it depicted a human galactic empire with a state religion that most people accepted at least passively, that was clearly Christian. (There was no mention of a Pope, and Russians were influential, so I concluded it was probably a successor organization to the Orthodox churches of today.) The book showed religious minorities consisting of Moslems and, on one planet, a weird, not-very-sympathetic "heretical" group.

I liked what this novel did, not only because I thought this future was a reasonable one, but also because I thought it was gutsy for a couple of SF authors to assume Christianity would continue intact and as a dominant force in culture. It compares favorably (IMHO) to the more typical attitude, represented by Asimov for whom religious folk are either vague post-Buddhists or crazy Luddite fundamentalists who leave a path of destruction in their wake.

Anonymous said...

Er... A Canticle for Leibowitz? The Sparrow? Cordwainer-Smith's Instrumentality? Pretty much anything by Gene Wolfe?

I disagree. I think there's plenty of religious sci-fi out there. And, as agnostic, I don't even really go looking for it... ;-)

Mister Troll said...

@ Fredosphere -

I remember Mote fondly, but it's been, gee, probably fifteen years since I've read it. I totally don't remember the religious parts of it, but thank you for bringing it up!

@ Anonymous

Canticle and Gene Wolfe, definitely. (I had forgotten Wolfe. Sparrow and Instrumentality I'm afraid I don't know; Sparrow's come up a few times in the comments now, so I'd better check it out.

There are a number of examples of novels with humans portrayed as religious, I agree. Personally I find the ones that don't far outnumber these. Still, I've gotten a lot of good suggestions for novels to read in the comments to this post and the follow-ups.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

hello Mister Troll. nice handle. do you think the ratio of SF books that discuss religion vs the SF books that do significantly differs from the ratio of non-SF books that discuss religion vs those that do?

skinnyblackcladdink said...

whoops. that's discuss religion vs those that don't...obviously.

Mister Troll said...

Yes, I think the ratio is different.

Pick up a random fiction book, and I think you'll find that some of the characters are religious. It will probably be mentioned in passing, and it probably won't be a major part of the story at all.

But if you pick up a random sci-fi book, you'll find no characters that are religious.

Several of the commenters have already disputed this with me, but I'm sticking with this opinion.