This won’t be as argumentative as the last time I linked to a Mind Meld, but there’s some argumentation here.

The question posed in the Mind Meld is this: “Is science fiction antithetical to religion?”

There are some good answers behind that link. (Also some long answers.) They expose, among other things, the vagueness of that question. You can take it in the sense implied by the lines that precede it: “Two of the most highly regarded fantasy authors – Tolkien and Lewis – were also Christians, whereas the fathers of science fiction were atheists, and SF itself, it could be argued, grew out of Darwinism and other notions of deep time.” In that sense, it seems to be asking whether you can write science fiction while also being religious, and the subsequent answers have comprehensively blown the “SF was founded by atheists” premise out of the water.

But there are other aspects to the question. Are the aims of science fiction incompatible with those of religion? That depends on how one views the aims of both; there are both “yes” and “no” answers at various points in the discussion. Adam Roberts almost seems to equate SF with Protestantism and fantasy with Catholicism. ??? James Wallace Harris’s answer reminds me uncomfortably of the things I was ranting about in “Frazer’s Goddamned Golden Bough” — that you can create that kind of pseudo-evolutionary path for human thought. (At least he allows for the transgression of his categories, instead of assuming we outgrow the older ones.) Several people touch on fundamentalism versus other approaches to religion, and how that relates to religious thought.

Almost all of them, though, assume “religion” = “Christianity” — or, at most, the Religions of the Book. On the one hand, this is fair; most of our genre tradition has been written by Westerners. On the other hand, if we want to talk about the compatibility or lack thereof between SF and religion, we should address the existence of other faiths. John C. Wright’s the only one who really does so (in an answer that is also the longest there, since he discusses three or four novels along the way). He talks about Ursula LeGuin’s Taoist influences and the Zen Buddhism in Spider Robinson’s Variable Star, and speculates interestingly on our different attitudes toward Eastern and Western religion. I’d love to see more discussion of that, especially since I disagree with Wright that swapping out a Buddhist for a Catholic priest is a change of “one detail.” But that kind of discussion requires a good working knowledge of Buddhist theology (or Hindu, or any other non-Book religion) that I don’t pretend to have. (Heck, I wouldn’t even claim my Catholic theology is up to snuff.)

Interesting stuff any way you slice it. And it successfully got my brain to work shortly after waking up, which is in its own right nearly a miracle sufficient to prove the existence of God.

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  1. moonandserpent

    That brings to mind a question I can’t get off my mind:

    “Does Islam have any prohibitions that would prevent cyberware?”

    So far I can’t find any, but I’m not the Islam specialist. And there’s a reason for the question. It involves Transsexuals and Dubai.

    • Marie Brennan

      Hmmm — I have no idea! I actually know very little about Islam. But it’s an interesting question.

    • mindstalk

      Judaism has “don’t mess with the body” rules that make organ donation problematic, I think. Oh, and tattoos are right out, according to some Orthodox I know. Don’t know about Islam.

      GURPS Transhuman Space had an amusing spin, though; the Islamic Caliphate treats AIs as citizens, extrapolating from djinn, but treated ghosts (uploads) as abominations.

    • kurayami_hime

      If you’re talking Dubai, you’re talking a different slice of the Islamic world than what people generally think of (aka Saudi Arabia). Women go uncovered and you can buy alcohol (just don’t walk from the bar to your hotel afterwards or you’ll be arrested for public intoxication/indecency and then my aunt will have to pretend to be your relative so someone can get in and see you to let you know that there are lots of people working to get you out of jail and it sucks about having your head shaved and being here for a month already and all. . . but I digress).

      Erm, that totally didn’t answer your question.

      • moonandserpent

        Not talking Dubai, as such. (I just had an acquaintance get out of there after being held for a month. *shudder*)

        But that was an interesting answer!

  2. moonandserpent

    And really, isn’t that just another way of asking “Is Science antithetical to Religion?”

  3. mindstalk

    That’s actually John C. Wright going on about Verne and Le Guin and Variable Star. Poorly formatted webpage…

    the subsequent answers have comprehensively blown the “SF was founded by atheists” premise out of the water

    Did they? Asimov and Heinlein were atheists, Clarke wandered between atheist and Deist, Wells was atheist, Verne allegedly wasn’t. Don’t know about Doc Smith. That’s certainly a set far more atheist than the general population. Then there’s atheist Lovecraft, straddling three genres.

    But yeah, vague question.

    • Marie Brennan

      Oops. Thanks for the correction; I’ve fixed it in my post.

      As for the atheists . . . well, it depends on who you’re claiming as the founding fathers, doesn’t it? But my phrasing is sloppy anyway, since what I really mean is that the answers comprehensively show that there are plenty of non-atheist SF writers, throughout the history of the genre, including many who might be called founding fathers. So certainly one can be religious and still write SF.

      • mindstalk

        I don’t think anyone was saying religious people can’t write SF (or even good SF) though; if so, the question is trivial and over. If the “fathers” of SF were mostly atheist, though, then that could set the default mood and expectations of the genre, regardless of who came later (or even regardless of CS Lewis, writing early but perhaps not taken as a model by anyone.)

        And there’s “okay, the author is religious, but does their religion inform their fiction — and if so, how? — or are they compartmentalized, with even religious authors writing in a de facto materialist universe?”

        That’s one big difference between fantasy and most SF, I think: the fantasy can easily have gods, ghosts, or souls on-stage, and religious truths undeniable. SF slides toward psionics (with some after-death survivals) and weakly godlike “energy beings”, and I think has been sliding away from both more recently. Having a naked god, let alone God, in an SF novel would automatically mark it as highly unusual.

        • ninja_turbo

          Having a naked god, let alone God, in an SF novel would automatically mark it as highly unusual.

          For this reason especially, I am anxious to see the last season of the new Battlestar Galactica. How the Cylon God is/isn’t depicted/explained will be a telling point in determining how BSG acquits itself in this discussion.

          • moonandserpent

            I’m with you re: the Cylon God.

            Speaking of other media, though, I think it’s interesting that I can think of lots of Sci-Fi films that invoke religion and the naked God right off the top of my head.

            Hell, I’ve got Southland Tales playing as we speak.

  4. prosewitch

    Feminist spirituality and (neo)paganism seem pretty well represented in speculative fiction, in my view. Janice Crosby’s book Cauldron of Changes: Feminist Spirituality in Fantastic Fiction documents this trend and analyzes some of the ideological underpinnings of neopagan notions such as certain types of spell/energy-work, arrangements and names of deities, matriarchal Goddess-worshiping prehistories, and so on.

    …though the interesting thing is that a lot of these feminist-spirituality-influenced stories also rely upon something based on Christianity to provide antagonists for their goddess-worshipers, so is that really escaping/subverting the presence of religions of the Book?

    • Marie Brennan

      You’re mostly talking about fantasy, though, and the setup of the question pretty clearly establishes that it’s addressing science fiction. Setting aside all the usual difficulties with dividing the two, there is still a difference there.

      • prosewitch

        All the same time, there are at least a few sci-fi examples of feminist spirituality in action, such as Bradley’s Darkover series (of which I’ve read a little) and Joan Vinge’s… Winter or Snow Queen, is it?

        • mindstalk

          Those might be feminist — I forget details of the Snow Queen, sorry Swan — but how are they feminist spirituality? Or particularly pagan, Darkover’s “Hastur” notwithstanding?

          • prosewitch

            Read Crosby’s Cauldron of Changes for a more precise analysis.. from what I recall of Croby’s book, both authors incorporated ideas–not necessarily literal images–from the feminist spirituality movement, including notions about the immanent nature of the divine and the utopian function of goddess-worship.

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