Religion and Science Fiction

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Over a decade ago, I was asked to sit on a panel at WisCon. The subject of the panel was whether religion and science-fiction are antithetical. One of my fellow-panelists and authors was a woman who thought that they were. I suppose it’s no secret that I disagree. On a side-note, I was rather surprised, because I had read one of her stories, wherein an alien becomes a devotee of Thomas a Beckett. It was quite well-done and I’d be grateful if anyone could let me know what the title of the story and the name of the author was. It was published in either F&SF or Asimov’s between 1997 and 2004. All my research has failed to turn it up.

Essentially, this woman’s argument was that religion is inherently antithetical to science-fiction, because religion professes to know all the answers to humanity’s questions, and is a closed system. Science-fiction on the other hand, is the literature of exploration, and deals with what we do not know. Thus, religion was for people who were not curious about the universe and refused to explore it, lest they find answers that conflict with received revelation.

The really sad part is that while part of me was horrified, part of me also knew exactly what kind of religion this author was reacting against. Doubtless, she had encountered the same breed of Christian that my little sister’s sixth-grade teacher belonged to. This was the woman who, in a Christian school, told my sister that she wasn’t allowed to read Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books in school because there was a dragon on the cover, and dragons were a symbol of Satan. And of course, the infamous reaction of certain Christians to the Harry Potter books because magic (even ridiculous, obviously-not-intended-to-be-real-on-any-level magic) is Evil. Therefore, Christians don’t like the spirit of science-fiction, even when they’re the ones writing it. There’s some real evidence for this charge, I’m afraid. Love him as I do, and love the novel as I do, the one thing that struck me as abhorrently wrong about C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra was his statement that since Christ’s Incarnation, all sentient beings would henceforth have to be humanoid, or risk dishonoring the Image of God. (As humans are explicitly forbidden from making an image of God per the Second Commandment, I pretty much always assumed it was understood that that “image of God” referred to spiritual, not physical, matters).

The fact is that her charge has some truth to it: there is a real and saddening tendency in the Church to want solid answers for everything, and, if those answers do not appear in Scripture, to “house rules” them in, and so we get doctrines of the Church that are at best vaguely (if ever) mentioned in Scripture, such as Purgatory, Limbo, an apocalyptic Anti-Christ, and many others. But I would argue that the Bible leaves immense amounts of room for unanswered questions, which the Christian God is simply uninterested in explaining to us. Perhaps – shocking thought – because He figured that we could find out the answers for ourselves? God’s challenges to Job, such as “By what way is the light parted, or the east wind scattered upon the earth? Who hath cleft a channel for the waterflood, or the way for the lightning of the thunder?” (Job 38:24-25), stripped of all their metaphorical content, basically boil down to, “you don’t know any of this [in retrospect, very basic stuff] and you think you can figure out really complicated stuff like Divine Justice?”

Fortunately, there has been room for some truly amazing science-fiction that was related to religious themes. In Speaker For The Dead, Orson Scott Card imagined aliens so different from humanity that the only way of understanding their life cycles was to explore it in terms of an afterlife, which is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one, for both his Catholic and his atheist characters. Going even further, Dan Simmons explicitly explored the possibility of godhood in the Hyperion series, as the TechnoCore decides to try to build its own Ultimate Intelligence: a machine god with power to challenge the Human Creator. Perhaps most explicitly, and Mary Doria Russell used Jesuit priests as her first-contact specialists when humanity detects intelligent life around Alpha Centauri in The Sparrow and Children of God. Her characters go exploring specifically because of their faith in God. And I would argue that the torturous spiritual and physical paths her characters tread display an awesome comprehension of the mysteries of the Christian faith. While not all these writers were Christians (Russell was, when I had the privilege of meeting her, Jewish by conversion), the Christian faith certainly informed and shaped their exploration of vast imagined universes. And if this does not show that Christian thought cannot be capable of exploring the universe, then I confess I am not sure what would, and can only imagine that argument descending into tautology.

The chief flaw I see in my fellow-panelist’s argument is that she wants to see Christianity as a wall, closing us off from exploration. Because Christianity professes that the nature of God is known: that He is One, and He is Three, but He is not many. That while He understands and creates the Female, He does not identify as Female. That He declares that there is good, and there is evil, and dares to tell us which is which. But the very science that makes science-fiction possible is also about limits: the gravitation constant is not open to debate, nor is the mass of the proton. The boundaries that God and physics set are quite literally as big as the universe, and as small as a lifetime: there is always, as Heinlein said, time enough for love. What more can we ask of any philosophy, or any religion?

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

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G. Scott Huggins
G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern”. If you like to laugh, “Phoenix for the Amateur Chef” is in Sword and Sorceress 30. Scott's regular non-fiction column for Sci Phi Journal is entitled The Mote in God's "I". In the column Scott explores the nature of SF&F genre writing from the perspective of a committed Christian. When he is not teaching or writing, Scott devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

3 Comments

  1. The argument is well made, though I have to question why such a thoughtful author has chosen to equate religion with Christianity throughout this piece. In this respect, he makes a similar mistake to his interlocutor at WisCon. She equates all religion with a certain kind of exoteric Christianity. Any esoteric form of religion would confound her arguments, as esoteric religion must emphasize the personal exploration required to discover hidden (or unknowable) truths. Christianity can have an esoteric dimension, but the sense that the world is mysterious and we need to embark on a personal journey to reach enlightenment is much more obviously apparent in Eastern religions.

  2. It’s pretty sad that a science Fiction and “philosophy” Journal needs to muddy the waters so much as to explain away the barbaric nature of abrahamic religions. The reason that science fiction is interesting to so many people is that it provides us a way to think about concepts that would either completely be unaddressed or censored in most “ascetic” and mainstream religions anyway. It can be argued that science fiction allows us to move away from such flawed mythologies of “sacred” and dogmatic religions providing us ways to talk about creation and other concepts in any meaningful thats away from theocratic and outdated mythologies of people who had no understanding of anything close to science let alone morals and ethics. This problem is even further compounded when the above author tries to be an apologist and obscure christianity or any of the other thousands of harmful religious ideologies into things completely ignore the texts and the general teachings of these mainstream religions. Please do the world a favor and read some Christopher Hitchens before trying to intellectualize and do mental and philosophical gymnastics with your harmful and outdated ideology that is not only the antithesis to what science fiction is but what it can be.

    • I find it ironic that you cite Christopher Hitchens whilst attempting to dogmatically dictate what science fiction is, and what it is not. You don’t own science fiction, though you’re like many people who want to assert ownership because you’re unwilling to hear different points of view, and so seek to stifle them. It’s pompous to stipulate “the” reason why science fiction is interesting, as if you have some (god-given) power to speak on behalf of a (supposedly diverse) community. Of course “it can be argued” that SF is some kind of alternative to religion, just as it is possible to argue that up is down and black is white. Make that argument if you want; others don’t have to respect it, and I find it a lousy doctrine with no merit. L Ron Hubbard founded a religion, Arthur C Clarke was a crypto-Buddhist and HG Wells considered himself a brother to Christians, but whether their works belong to the SF cannon has nothing to do with whether their ideological opinions conformed to your arbitrary point of view.

      SF ultimately exists as entertainment, irrespective of whether you, Christians, or anybody ascribes a higher purpose to it. Stories about space crustaceans meeting God might appeal to some, others may prefer stories about space crustaceans mathematically proving there is no god. But if you want to claim that your superior understanding of science entitles you to dictate which stories should be excluded from SF then the most obviously faulty belief system is your oppressive pseudo-morality, not the differing faiths of others.

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