[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.]
In last week's post, I briefly introduced the current conflict between science and religion in the US of A. The topic of this series is, however, science fiction, so let's move forward.
I have asserted that religion is essentially verboten in science fiction (some exceptions were already noted in the comments to my first post). How can that be? Religion, faith, spirituality -- all these are commonplace in literature. Fantasy is, in my mind, a closely-related genre, but fantasy novels feature the supernatural all the time. Science-fiction: essentially never.
So why is religion overlooked in science-fiction? Let me try to work through some of my thoughts on what might be going on.
- Science fiction authors aren't religious.
This is an interesting possibility. I don't really know any way to test this theory... it's true that scientists tend to be less religious than the general population, but scientists and science-fiction-authors are very different creatures.
- The conflict between science and religion has already been won for science in the future.
This possibility presumes a few things: first, that there is a conflict between science and religion, and second, that it will be won for science in the future. There are indeed many conflicts between science and religion, but not in all things; neither is it necessary that science and religion conflict. Whether this putative conflict will or won't be won in the future is obviously open for debate. Suppose religion "wins" in the future--isn't that going to make for interesting, creative science-fiction? Suppose science "wins"--does that mean future people will hold no spiritual beliefs at all? And what happens when we meet alien races that do hold strong religious beliefs?
- Religion doesn't sell.
I think this might be the real reason. Authors are professionals, and their publishers are professionals -- they're all in the business of making money (more charitably: a living). I'm inclined to believe they have a very good idea of what sells. So my guess is that science-fiction novels that feature future religions rarely sell well.
But why wouldn't religion in sci-fi sell well? Is it that the people who buy sci-fi aren't very religious? What's the biggest audience for sci-fi anyways?
Could things be more subtle than the sci-fi audience isn't really interested in religion? Suppose the sci-fi audience is reasonably religious. What happens if an author portrays a future for a particular religion? Will the Catholic League condemn books that portray a future that is monolithically Methodist? Jewish? Hindu? Is it possible to envision a science-fiction future in which the human race is as multicultural as it is today?
So what do you think - why is religion avoided in science fiction?
Next week I'll try listing a few science fiction novels that actually deal with religion.