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Monday, February 4, 2008

The Future of Religion (Part 4)

[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.]

It's time to sum up. This has turned out to be a very interesting set of posts on the topic of religion in science fiction -- interesting for me to work out some thoughts I had, and interesting to read some comments that others have had. I opened with some musings about the portrayal of human religion in science fiction, followed up with a short aside on the alleged conflict between science and religion, and wondered why so little of science fiction shows humans with religion.

The thesis (or perhaps more accurately: supposition) is as follows:

Very few novels in science fiction portray humans as religious.

Please note that I am referring to religion of humans in science fiction (not religious themes, or religion of aliens). Religion may be rife in science fiction, but largely in the purview of aliens (religion as The Other). I would frankly expect the opposite -- that we would unconsciously assume religion to be a human endeavor, while rarely if at all ascribing religion to aliens. Instead I find that authors typically portray humans as areligious.

Lately I've been mentally contrasting science fiction and fantasy along these terms. A typical fantasy novel: the priest character is so common, he's a cliche (the use of a gendered pronoun was intentional, but not relevant to this topic). Don't tell me that religion is necessary to fantasy: sprites and gnolls, knights and magic -- all these can do just fine without gods. There's no need for religion at all. But pull a random science fiction book off the novel, and do you find the characters praying for their safety before dropping out of FTL? I think not. (And why not?)

Hence my statement that humans in science fiction are rarely portrayed as religions, and my confusion as to why this is so.

Of course, my thesis has been disputed by the commenters (you know who are), but the more I think about it, the more I think I'm right. (After all, nothing can convince a man -- or troll -- faster than someone who tells him he's wrong.)

In this post, I want to offer a very, very brief list of science fiction novels that do directly portray humans as religious. Not surprisingly, the commenters covered all the novels that I am familiar with, and offered some more that I will hopefully read soon. (With apologies for my pathetic attempts at one-sentence teasers.)

Let's start with the ones I was thinking about:

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, Jr.): humans have been nuked back to savagery, but the Catholic monastic orders preserve knowledge for the future of humanity.

  • A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle): Meg is torn by the long disappearance of her physicist father (hey, that's me!) and her concern over her very young brother's social isolation. The curious Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which offer their help, and Meg must do her part in the struggle against evil -- on the other side of the galaxy. (Thanks to Mrs. Billy Goat for reminding me of this fantastic series.)

  • The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood): in a near-future Christian fundamentalistic theocracy, officially-recognized concubines bear children in place of barren upper class women (male infertility is a subversive concept). (Frankly: boring.)

  • Contact (Carl Sagan): the novel itself is not entirely well-known, but you've probably heard of the movie. The main characters in the novel struggle with faith and religion, but this is certainly well into the background of the larger plot.

  • "The Last Question" (Isaac Asimov): this short story focuses on the question of whether entropy can be reversed. I had the opportunity to see a planetarium show adaptationy, and it was brilliant. You could probably get the same effect by reading the story out loud while pretending to be Leonard Nimoy. Try it. Let me know how it goes. (To be fair, short stories in science fiction often address religious themes. I have unconsciously equated "science fiction" with "science fiction novels" for this series of posts, but I like this story so much I have to mention it here.)

  • Space Trilogy (C. S. Lewis): Mr. Lewis' science fiction is garnering a little bit more attention. Like his better-known (and better-written) Narnia Chronicles, the Space Trilogy is a vehicle for Mr. Lewis' Christian philosophies. The first two works, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, read more like late 1800's science fiction, and are not entirely memorable. That Hideous Strength, however, is quite good (and may be read on its own). Science fiction meets World War II England - very, very good.

  • Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein): a wonderful novel, and quite well known. Valentine Michael Smith grows up under the tutelage of Martians, but is returned to Earth and must painfully learn to understand just what brand of monkeys we really are. But still puzzling to me: what exactly is Heinlein trying to say about religion? Does he buy it? Or does he think it's total crap? Am I missing the point, or are his ideas entirely muddled?

  • Dune (Frank Herbert): brilliant (but for the love of all that's dear, don't read the sequels). Dune presents a wonderfully envisioned future of medieval, backstabbing politics. The plots and counter-plots swirl around the House Atreides, which is crushed on the desert planet of Arrakis. The heir, Paul Atreides, survives with the help of the indigenous Fremen.

  • The Hainish Cycle (Ursula K. Le Guin): I'm afraid no one- or two-sentence summary can describe these works. Some deal more explicitly with religion (The Telling), while others merely have religion quietly in the background (humans who belong to the Ekumen appear to have a kind of quiet spirituality). I can strongly recommend The Left Hand of Darkness (yes!) and The Dispossessed (double yes!), although as I mentioned, don't expect overt religious overtones.

In addition, the commenters kindly offered the following: The Sparrow, Children of God, Factoring Humanity, Revolt in 2100, the Riverworld series, Xenocide, The Rise of Endymion, the Long Sun series, The Electric Church, The Mote in God's Eye, Instrumentality, Return to Planet of the Apes, Gather, Darkness!, Players of Null A, Variable Star, and Starmaker.

Hopefully I got 'em all? A few I have already read, but most not; I think Sparrow, Instrumentality, and Gather, Darkness sound most promising.

However, I currently have a request list of approximately 40 books and movies at the public library, so clearly I won't be getting to these books soon. Thank to the readers who shared!

And finally, any missing books that show a science fiction humanity with religion?


Anonymous said...

I just speed read through your four pieces and John Wrights's lengthy commentary.

The incidence of religious themes in science fiction has more to do with the concerns of the surrounding culture and the times than it does with anything else. (Go back to the 60's, 70s if you want to find more sf & religion. Just off the top of my head, you missed Del Rey's 11th Plague and lots of stories by Farmer - Jesus on Mars, for one, that deal directly with religious themes.)

I'd like to remind Mr. Wright here that satire is used to poke fun at things and/or to hold a mirror up to that thing and let it look at itself. It should be no wonder that human religions are so often satirized in SF.

While Spider Robinson's declaration that all religions will be outlawed is just a little bit over the top, it will ultimately be found that religion and science can't mix and (hopefully) a future inhabited by individuals who don't have to believe unbelievable things in order to get along in society will eventually come to be.

The problem lies in a fundamental truth: accepting religious beliefs requires one to forego logic and sensibility and opens the door to the acceptance of other non-logical belief systems. This is harmful and can grow to become dangerous.

Don said...

There are others that fit the bill, but I must mention one, because it's a classic. James Blish's Case of Conscience (1958) won the 1959 Hugo Award. It's about Jesuit priests who have set up a mission on another planet. The premise and some plot points are similar to The Sparrow, but the stories are quite different. It's a good read.

Billy Goat said...

@anonymous - Thanks for the post, and for reading the whole series! Also, thanks for the examples of religion in Sci-Fi. I've got a bunch of Farmer on my shelf, and I'm sure some of those stories are in my collection.

You have an interesting point about religious beliefs, but I don't think many people will agree with it. "Unbelievable things" is a pretty subjective term. Also, I don't agree that accepting religious beliefs requires one to forgo logic and sensibility. You can be the most logical person in the world, and when it comes to the parts of life that logic doesn't provide answers for, you can turn to religion for your answers. This doesn't necessarily mean that you will be more prone to other "non-logical belief systems."

Now, there may be a correlation between religious people and easily-influenced people, but I don't think there's a causation link there.

@Don - Thanks for the recommendation! I really enjoyed The Sparrow, and am looking forward to Case of Conscience. If it won the Hugo, it must be good, right? :) Also, I noticed your blog and liked what I saw, so I'm adding your blog to my links section.

Mrs. Gruff said...

In my mind, the novel in the L'Engle series that is the most clearly human-religion themed is Many Waters, in which the twins go back to Biblical times. IIRC, they hang out with the son of Noah (of ark fame) as a flood is looming on the horizon. Meg and Charles Wallace are only mentioned in the book in passing, since the book deals almost wholly with Sandy and Dennys' adventures.

I have another comment to make, but it probably belongs more properly in the comments for the 3rd installment. I've enjoyed this thought-provoking series of articles.

Yaron said...

There are a lot more of SF books who mention religious humans. I do feel that it's substantially less than half, but I think the percentage would be significant.

A few more examples that come to mind (some are parts of series as well):
Crossover, by Joel Shepherd.
Dust, by Elizabeth Bear.
The Reality Dysfunction, by Peter Hamilton.
City of Pearl, by Karen Traviss.
The Tomorrow Log, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.
Singularity Sky, by Charles Stross.
Remains, by Mark W. Tiedemann.
An Accidental Goddess, by Linnea Sinclair.
The Risen Empire, by Scott Westerfeld. If you accept that strongly held ideology that includes beliefs on technologically creating forms of godhood are included in religion. In this case you also open the door for a lot more books, since the borders can be thin in SF.
Palace, by Katharine Kerr and Mark Kreighbaum.
The Book of Ptath, by A E van Vogt.
The Memory of Earth, by Orson Scott Card.
Bio Rescue, by S. L. Viehl (None of the active human characters were religious, as far as I remember, but human religions are mentioned as being active and practiced elsewhere). If you want to go read all these books, this one can wait.

Oh, and from your existing list, it's Endymion, not Enymion. And, as long as we're counting, some of the books you mention, like this one, are in a series.

Yaron said...

Err, I think my previous comment may have come off as a bit... aggressive, with me just spewing a list of titles and then going away. That wasn't the intent.

You raise an interesting point, and interesting ideas to think off, but I just think that the facts (i.e. very little human religion in SF) may support it weakly, rather than strongly.

Mister Troll said...

@ anonymous:

Thanks for the suggestions. Your point about the "culture" of literature (is zeitgeist the right word here?) is well-taken. (Ah, Del Rey: haven't read anything by him in ages, but I still remember Marooned on Mars as one of the first science fiction books I ever read -- I can still see the ratty old faded cover. I probably don't dare re-read it as an adult, since it's only bound to disappoint me...)

I think - and I tried to make this point earlier - that the idea that science and religion can't mix is really eyebrow-raising. To put it politely :-) Science and some-specific-religion perhaps can't mix. Or perhaps science and religion won't mix.

Even if I concede your point, I still think there ought to be plenty of interesting science fiction set in the time of the conflict of religion and science. So science "wins" and in time humanity is essentially a-religious? Well... how did that conflict play out? I think that could make for some really interesting novels.

Mister Troll said...

@ Don -

Thanks for bringing up A Case of Conscience! I actually read it, oh, five or six years ago. I have almost completely forgotten it.

Here's what I wrote at the time (it's always amusing to read something that you cannot at all remember writing):

A Case of Conscience by James Blish won the 1959 Hugo Award. After reading it, I can't say that I know why. It does seem very different from the rocket-jockey science-fiction typical of that decade; perhaps the novel's intellectualism was its
appeal (note the brain-food winners of the following three years: Starship Troopers, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and A Stranger in a Strange Land; the latter two, like A Case of Conscience, also examine science and religion).

The novel appears to begin with a kind of trial of an alien species. A handful of human observers must decide whether to exploit or isolate the planet and its intelligent species. At first glance the aliens appear perfectly good and rational creatures, the acme of social progress, and yet the observers have wildly different opinions as to the necessary fate of the planet.

A Case of Conscience begins with a wonderful mystery novel feel. Do you believe this man's testimony? Do you believe the other's arguments? But then - the trial is over halfway through the book, and then the cerebral party is over, and things just get weird. Certainly the novel is not bad; I just don't think it could have been better than all the other novels that year.

You see I had a fairly tepid opinion of the novel :-)

Interestingly, this supports the point "Anonymous" about the "times" of the 60s.

Mister Troll said...

@ Mrs. Gruff,

Thanks for posting! I find it pretty cute that both our wives are checking up on our little blog :-) Personally I thought Many Waters was a bit too much like Family Bible Story; Wrinkle and Wind were, in-my-own-trollish-opinion, much better.

@ yaron,

Not aggressive at all! A fairly impressive list - I've heard of some of the authors, but I'm pretty much uniformly unfamiliar with the books. I'll add them to the list (that non-existent "list" of things I plan to read). (Spelling mistake has been corrected.)

John Wright said...

Anonymous: "I'd like to remind Mr. Wright here that satire is used to poke fun at things and/or to hold a mirror up to that thing and let it look at itself."

This is Mr. Wright. I don't think I said anything to the contrary of this, so I am not sure of your point. Science Fiction certainly offers a better vehicle for satire than other genres, because SF can so easily exaggerate some current trend to an absurd extreme.

I was not even saying there is anything wrong with satirizing religion, or politics, or anything else. Like anything, satire can be used rightly or wrongly.

"The problem lies in a fundamental truth: accepting religious beliefs requires one to forego logic and sensibility and opens the door to the acceptance of other non-logical belief systems. This is harmful and can grow to become dangerous."

HAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHHHHAAA. (pauses to wipe his eyes, giggling). Oh, you don't actually know any religious people, do you? Go read Thomas Aquinas, and tell me how you can give him lessons in formal logic. Go read Pascal. Go read Descartes.

My friend, you have not seen real lapses in logic in action until you spend some time debating some of the non-religious ideologies current in the world today, like Behaviorists who try to use reason to convince you that men are not convinced by reason. Political Correctness can not only not reason, it cannot even define terms, without "doublethink".

Compared to that, saying that every effect must have a cause, and that the chain of causes cannot be infinite in actuality, ergo there must be a first cause which is not an effect of a prior cause, is a paradigm of logic.

Billy Goat: "Now, there may be a correlation between religious people and easily-influenced people, but I don't think there's a causation link there."

With all due respect, that has not been my experience with religions nor with religious people. Look at the Roman Catholic Church, whose stance on abortion and birth control has not changed one iota since the days when Roman eagles flew over the Tiber, and then look at a modern ideology like socialism, which changes its mind about fundamentals every 75 years or so (compare Marx and Gramsci, for example).

Or better yet, you go talk to my wife, and try to talk her into something she won't buy, and come back and tell me how "easily-influenced" she is.

All this time, I thought the main complaint about religion was that we religious zealots were too non-empirical: that we did not change our minds or let ourselves be influenced by such "scientific" and "logical" thinkers as Marx and Nietzsche and Margaret Sanger (eugenics) and Peter Singer (infanticide).

Accept my apologies since this is off topic, and I ask you to forgive me for my little bit of satire here.

I am not trying to start an argument, but, honestly: you nonreligious guys really need to be more skeptical. I urge you to think, to think clearly and carefully, to define your terms and examine your axioms--nothing else will allow you to discover if there is an impurity in your reasoning.

John C. Wright

Yaron said...

@Mister Troll - The thing is, I took a quick look at my library this morning, and just from a quick glance, limited to the few books in the visible areas, I spotted more titles that I'm sure contain futuristic SF with religious humans.

Sometimes the religion may be a main issue in the plot, and sometimes just a part of the background. It may be emphasized, or may be downplayed. But very often it's there.

Which isn't very surprising. Most writers would try to make a world which 'feels' real. So whatever is different from our reality would usually have a reason, an explanation, or a purpose. And since religion is very popular in the real world, it's easier to write it into a book than to remove it. If religion isn't mentioned, in many cases it may be just because it wasn't important enough to the plot for the author to explicitly write it in, rather than because the author intentionally wanted to remove it.

Regarding A Case of Conscience, Blish wrote some very good books, but I agree that this isn't one of them.

@ Anonymous / Mister Troll / John Wright - I don't really see how science is supposed to make religion disappear. It hasn't so far, meaning that more of the same won't cause any difference.

We already have enough scientific knowledge about astronomy, geology, biology, physics (etc), to directly contradict many myths and points of faith from many religions. This doesn't stop anyone from holding to these religions, and feeling quite good about it.
As an atheist myself I may not like it much, and would personally be happy to see all religions taken less seriously, but it's still the case so I have no intention of denying it.

Religion requires faith, not knowledge (cue discussion on whether if you have complete faith in something it means you 'know' it or not). And you can't really stop it by providing contrary facts. Even less so by just claiming that the faith isn't based on facts, or at least not on scientifically measured facts.
What scientific facts we may have that contradict a religion belief may get ignored, or may just cause the belief to be described as an interpretation. To pick a commonly discussed example from a few common religions, the six/seven days of creation are not literal, but metaphors, or maybe God created the world to contain fake evidence.

You can't fight that with merely improving science and learning more. So I see no reason to assume that merely improving science will have that much of an impact on religion. The explanations, interpretations, and attitudes, may change, but it won't impact the faith of people who want to believe.

I can't rule out the possibility of things reaching some sort of an explosion and violent fights. Especially as a possible setting for SF books. I do expect, though, that if it happens it will be over a specific issue, with a specific scientific discovery, or religious belief, as a trigger, and not as a general science vs. religion thing.
But People just deciding over time that the science they see is advanced enough that they don't need or want their religion? Not going to happen.

Yaron said...

@ John Wright -

you nonreligious guys really need to be more skeptical. I urge you to think, to think clearly and carefully, to define your terms and examine your axioms--nothing else will allow you to discover if there is an impurity in your reasoning.

I do like your sense of humor, or at least your irony.

Hey, just because many cats have tails, doesn't mean that many dogs don't have them either.

Billy Goat said...

@John - Yeah, I was wondering if that statement would come off wrong. I'll step quietly away from that generality. I wrote it, thinking, "Well, many people are easily influenced. Just look at the influence of everyday marketing. Look at the televangelist charlatans of the past and the people who followed them." However, that doesn't imply a correlation, because it can apply to lots of people, not just religious ones. There are lots of suckers in this world, ready to be taken for a ride.

Anyway, I didn't mean to impugn religious people. I consider myself religious (raised Catholic), although I sometimes have issues with organized religion.

@Yaron - I agree with you about religion sticking around. There are just some answers that science cannot give a person, and there are many options each of us has when it comes to deciding those answers for ourselves.

(Pardon me for the post edit. I thought my spiel about Catholicism was a little off-topic, and didn't add to the discussion.)

Yaron said...

This is from a different context, but I just saw it today, and I think it does a very good job of illustrating my point of why more scientific knowledge won't do anything to convince anyone that their religion may be wrong.

From the What's New list, by physicist Robert Park:

I was invited this week to join a panel of "experts" on "It's Your Call with Lynn Doyle," an Emmy Award-winning, viewer-interactive news talk show on the Comcast Cable Television Network. The subject was "Are we alone?" The object was to increase advertising revenue by pandering to a public that lives in a mythical world. I was the token scientist; Ted Schick, a philosophy professor from Muhlenberg, was the other rationalist. Then there was a delusional M.D. who saw lights she couldn't explain over Phoenix, and the delusional head of the Paradigm Research Group, devoted to exposing the imaginary UFO cover-up. But the "experts" hardly mattered; the stars were the callers, with tales of strange lights and space aliens who can walk through walls. Is that really possible? "Of course it is," a caller explained, "quantum physics has proven it." The aliens, another cautioned, may be in another dimension - "there are eleven you know." What have we done?



Billy Goat said...

Funny stuff!

People will believe what they want to believe. You can rationalize almost anything, if you try hard enough. This applies to so many ideas.

UFOs: Now THERE's a topic that might be fun to explore in future articles. ;)

Jamie C said...

One science fiction novel you missed in which humans are portrayed as religious is Eifelheim by Michael Flynn.

Billy Goat said...

@Jamie - Thanks for the rec!

Anonymous said...

Right on, Mr., uh, Wright. It is a common misconception that religious people aren't logical. Logic is not a position on anything. It is a method for teasing out the implications of a premise. An atheist and a theist could both be completely logical and yet come to different conclusions because they start with different premises. The only way logic helps determine whether something is true is to see if the final result tallies with observable facts. And if it doesn't, then you have to go back over the logical steps and see if they are valid inferences before declaring the premises wrong. This is not only how science works but theology as well.

Elliot said...


Interesting posts! I haven't read every last comment, so I apologize if I repeat what someone else already said.

You may want to check out the excellent SF Gospel blog, by Gabriel McKee - he's published an interesting book on religion in sf too. My own Claw of the Conciliator blog has lots of posts on related topics as well, though I've often focused on sf/f authors who profess a particular religion, usually Christianity. I find the Adherents page for SF/F authors is a gold mine of information on this sort of thing. Though you may not want to pursue it so exhaustively.

Most of the classic novels and stories have already been mentioned in your comments. I would just want to note Gene Wolfe, Connie Willis, Elizabeth Moon, Michael Bishop, Orson Scott Card, Susan Palwick, Louise Marley, David Morse, and of course Mary Doria Russell, as some living authors who both practice a particular religion and who have imagined future- or alternate- religions in their work. (I'd include Tim Powers but he tends to be fantasy, or science fantasy at best.)

Wolfe's a personal favourite - his whole Sun corpus dwells on religion a lot. But he's an obvious choice. If I could speak up for some lesser knowns:

Cordwainer Smith's work (the Instrumentality) is terribly underrated but is strange and marvelous stuff, and was much imitated by Frank Herbert in Dune.

Two interesting & relevant books I read recently were Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn, and Mainspring, by Jay Lake. The first has aliens pondering theological questions with a sharp medieval priest, and the latter (maybe not strictly sf) plays with the 'clockwork universe' metaphor. James Blish's Doctor Mirabilis is mostly forgotten (as opposed to the celebrated A Case of Conscience) but is a great read - kind of historical-biographical science fiction about Roger Bacon. It goes well with Eifelheim since both deal with medieval natural philosophy.

The more I've dug into the topic the more I'm surprised just how much sf material does deal with religion in one way or another. It does seem to come in waves though, with some eras mostly ignoring it and others exploring it thoroughly.

Anyways, I hope this rambling comment is of some interest. Happy reading!

Mister Troll said...

Thanks for stopping by!

I had recently noticed your blog (Claw of the Conciliator) in Billy Goat's blogroll, but I confess I have not had the time to read it more than cursorily.

I appreciate the additional suggestions: long-lost works are particularly intriguing to me, so I'll be sure to check out Doctor Mirabilis.

Åka said...

Many comments here!

A science fiction humanity with religion? Jupiter by Ben Bova. Shelter by Susan Palwick.
Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve.

Just three I happened to think of.

Anonymous said...

Warhammer 40k has religion in it.