religion in SF linkage

I’ve had this open in a tab for long enough that I no longer remember who I got the link from, but: back in 2009, the blog Only a Game did a series of posts on religion in various science fiction texts. Not invented religions, but real-world faiths (though sometimes in future-adapted forms), and the ways in which books or TV shows or movies either represent the practice of faith, or grapple with the concepts behind those faiths.

The series starts here with an introduction (which as a second part a few posts later); the first actual discussion of a text is here, tackling Frank Herbert’s Dune. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a good way to link to the series specifically; the only tag they have is “serial,” and since the blog seems to do a lot of serial discussions, that pulls up a whole swath of more recent posts. But if you start at one of those two points, there are links at the bottom leading you onward to later installments, so you can skip the intervening entries on other topics.

I’ve touched briefly on the subject of religion in science fiction before, noting that the dominant message sent by SF as a whole seems to be that we’ll have gotten over that religion thing by the time the future arrives. There are exceptions, of course, texts that don’t assume the future will mean jettisoning faith, but they do seem like exceptions to me. And I suppose that view makes sense if you assume the primary cause and purpose of religion is the need to explain why the world works the way it does, and if you also make the corollary assumptions that 1) eventually science will be able to explain all of those things much better and 2) we are inevitably moving toward more science, not less. But I take issue with all three of those assumptions: contra Frazer, I think religion isn’t just for explaining the world’s functioning; I also think there are issues (like ethics) that science is poorly-equipped to handle*; and I know way too much about historical instances where scientific knowledge was lost to assume we’re just going to keep climbing that hill. If you define SF narrowly as featuring more advanced tech than we have now, then sure, clearly the future as seen in SF will not have to deal with the question of a new Dark Age. But I still think it’s facile to assume the impulse toward religion will have vanished along the way.

It will have changed, certainly. I never read more than the first Dune book, so until I read these posts I didn’t know Herbert had explored “Mahayana Christianity” and “Zensunni Catholicism” as speculative fusions of current religious traditions. I’d love to see more books that do something like that, imagining futuristic Buddhism or the Church of Christ Digital or what have you. So if you know of any, please recommend them in the comments.

*Please note that I don’t think religion is the only source of ethics. Atheists are perfectly capable of coming up with reasons not to steal from or murder one another; philosophers have been hashing out the issue of ethics for ages, and not always from a religious starting point. But if people have continue to have questions about why evil exists, or what their obligation is to their fellow man, I don’t think they’re likely to find satisfactory answers in string theory.

0 Responses to “religion in SF linkage”

  1. mrissa

    There is only one Dune book.

  2. beccastareyes

    Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents are about (in part) the founding of a new religion by the main character, but the latter also deals with the response of a US increasingly embracing a nastier form of fundamentalist Christianity as a result of economic and ecological collapse. But it’s not a particularly positive look on future Christianity, though Butler makes it clear (at least tangentially) that moderate/liberal Christians are still present (and occasionally being attacked for not being ‘Christian’ enough), though her focus is on the new Earthseed religion. It’s also a sort of ‘Next Tuesday’ book, in that it is set in the near future. For that matter, Mira Grant’s Feed is also a ‘Next Tuesday’ book that keeps the American Religious Right post-zombie apocalypse*, but notes that many people practice all the non-crazy and crazy forms of worship (or non-worship — the narrator is an atheist) they did in the past. But neither are terribly speculative, in that I can see exactly where both come from. While there is some reaction — in Feed, the Catholic Church declared that all deaths by zombie were martyrs, to eliminate the need to perform last rites on someone who may be about to bite your arm off — both are not terribly far off from modern religion, probably because both are set in the near future.

    Robinson’s Mars trilogy also dealt with Islam, various neo-paganism (and burgeoning aero-neo-paganism) and Buddhism on Mars, though Robinson also wrote a lot about Islam in general — he had an alt-history all-of-Europe-dies-in-Black-Death and a modern environmental thriller that I didn’t finish because it got too preachy even for my seat from the choir. The manga series Planetes — or a side story, since most of the story was focused on four characters who operated a garbage ship — touched on what an Islamic man on Mars did to pray.

    I’m trying to think about more futuristic SF. I can think of some from TV — Babylon 5 had an order of Catholic monks who came to the station to study alien beliefs on God (and who made their living as computer scientists — as their leader put it, monks had always dealt with preserving knowledge), and dealt with a character being a more cultural than religious Jew. Elizabeth Moon’s series usually had religions, though little I can remember pinning directly to any one Earthly faith (except the crazy space Texans and the not-crazy space Texans). Elizabeth Bear’s Carnival mentioned that one main character was born on a matrilineal (maybe matriarchal) colony founded by Gnostic Christians, and that the planet most of the story happened on had a sort of neo-Pagan pantheism (Earth itself was mostly Christian, Hindu and Muslim).

    * Of the viral sort, rather than the magic sort, so counting it as SF.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, for the purposes of this discussion, “next Tuesday” SF doesn’t quite apply; it would be far weirder if those books didn’t have religion in them, as they’d have to explain why it suddenly vanished.

      Robinson sounds interesting; I may try to check some of his work out.

      • beccastareyes

        He’s also a bit next-Tuesday in that his Mars trilogy starts with the first human colony to Mars, but it lasts 200 years, through several revolutions and settlement of most of the Solar System. (It’s dense set of books, but something I’ve found a lot of my fellow SF-fan astronomy grad students have read. A tiny bit out of date, since it was written before the current array of Mars orbiters and rovers came out, but still good.)

        • Marie Brennan

          Robinson is on the list of authors I’ve always meant to try — but that list is so absurdly long, and I read less SF than fantasy, so he’s never actually made it to the top of my stack. Knowing he speculates about religion helps bump him up a few places, though.

  3. Anonymous

    I haven’t read that set of essays — and I’m stuck on a slow waiting-room connection so I can’t do so at the moment — but I will note one of my major gripes about speculative fiction up front:
    The set {mystical beliefs and philosophy} is not coextensive or congruent with the set {religion}
    Fiction that understands this, and therefore manages to make its portrayal of religion make some sense (to someone whose “cultural anthropology fieldwork” was warped by that fieldwork’s overt purpose: the management of violence), includes, in no particular order,
    Harlan Ellison, “The Deathbird”
    Dan Simmons, The Hyperion Cantos (particularly the last two volumes, flawed as they are in other respects)
    Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow and Children of God
    Arthur C. Clarke, “The Star”
    Ursula K. LeGuin, three of the four pieces collected in Four Ways to Forgiveness
    Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun
    Keith Roberts, Pavane
    … and notably absent from this list would be Dune and its misbegotten progeny.

    • Marie Brennan

      You’re right that those two sets aren’t the same thing. (Then again, it’s not like we even have a clearly-settled definition for what “religion” is in the first place . . . .)

  4. pentane

    I think there’s a fair amount of Science Fiction that has a more nuanced view toward religion, but there is a large element of the golden bough in the field.

    I think part of the problem about religion is that the author has the option to answer the questions we take as/on faith, so it makes the current uncertainty about the existance of God harder to pull off.

    “If this goes on” (Heinlein from “Past through tomorrow”) is an interesting study of the supposed future of religion in the US (and pretty creepy to read after Bush the younger was in power).

    Along those lines, I can think of some “meta religion” where there are those who manipulate religion or believers are discussed.

    Dune is a brilliant work on many levels (one of the best books on leadership I’ve read), and the reading the appendices, especially on the writing on the OC Bible, is worth it. The whole pseudo-feudal idea seems to echo the “less advanced” theme, but as you read deeper, you discover that the people in charge of the Universe are some pretty smart and subtle people who keeps things are they are Because They Work(tm). Which leads me to think Herbert is speaking against the whole Golden Bough thing… unless he’s for it, who can say.

    I find the emphasis on middle eastern religion very interesting too, especially in the later books (none of which are up to the standards of the first book).

    “Snow Crash” is an interesting book for the religious viewpoint, though all the discussions of Sumeria make my head hurt.

    David Drake has the via stellarium in the Hammer’s Slammers books, but it really doesn’t get more than a 5 page “interlude” outlining it. One of the stories in the first book also has an interesting bit on religion encountering mercenaries.

    In some science fiction that I’m having problems remembering now, religion is also seen as a sign of “enlightenment”, where more civilized societies have more evolved religions.

    I’d really need to dig through my collection to refresh my memory.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think part of the problem about religion is that the author has the option to answer the questions we take as/on faith, so it makes the current uncertainty about the existance of God harder to pull off.

      I find this particularly true in fantasy, which is more likely to grapple directly with metaphysical issues, and therefore has an even harder time leaving anything open to interpretation. (Particularly in what I think of as the Forgotten Realms brand of fantasy-religion, where gods can and so show up in person to mess around with things.)

      • diatryma

        One of my peeves about Valdemar is that its state stance on religion is, “There is no One True Way.”

        Um, yes there is. Demonstrably so. Here is your Goddess, here is your God, here are people who have interacted with them, and by the way, it’s written in the books that Karsites have to worship differently in Valdemar so no one can tell they’re worshipping the Sunlord, oh Valdemar, you are so easy to pick apart.

        • Marie Brennan

          I must have missed the book in which the Karsites are forced to hide their religion.

          My take on the “no one true way” thing was always that there are also other gods people have directly interacted with, so nobody is allowed an official leg up on the whole “my god is real; your god is a false idol” thing that drove a lot of Western religious history.

          • diatryma

            Worshipping a Lord of Light or something like that instead of Vkandis Sunlord is in the Alberich books.

            I would like the other gods interacting thing better if more of them were clearly *different* gods. But it’s too easy (though absurdly fun) to pick apart Valdemar and that entire world.

  5. Anonymous

    The only books I can think of that I’ve read were mentioned above. Dan Simmon’s Hyperion Cantos, specifically the last two books. Religion is dealt with a bit in the first two books, but the last two books have a big, giant, huge amount of Catholicism of the future in them. Specifically, what happens when the Catholic church finds an organism that can actually resurrect people, and said organism is already shaped like a cross.


  6. aliettedb

    Seconding the Russell recommendation–The Sparrow was an awesome book that tackled Jesuit priests in space and first contact. The science was rubber, but I was so happy to finally find religious SF that I didn’t care. There’s also A Canticle for Leibowitz, and I’ve got an anthology of Catholic SF that includes James Blish.

    I actually disliked the Hyperion cantos’s treatment of religion, which for me fell squarely in the “we need a fanatical villain, let’s demonise the Catholic church/Inquisition”, which I see way too much of in SF.

    My main gripe with religion in SF is that a lot of writers assume religion and science to be mutually incompatible, which is so not true. As you say, it sort of might make sense if you assume the only purpose of religion is to explain stuff (provided you assume that everything has one and only explanation), but otherwise I don’t see where it says that explaining the material world is going to invalidate the existence of a numinous, mystical being.
    (amusingly, the husband and I checked, and there’s something like 50% of astrophysicists or theoretical physicists, I can’t remember which, who declare themselves either religious or agnostic).

    Don’t get me started on religion in fantasy either: a heck of a lot of it is just plain wrong.

    • Marie Brennan

      I loved The Sparrow, in part because it addressed religion so closely, rather than doing an atheist or agnostic version of the same encounter. (And I almost never care about the science being made of rubber, if the story’s good enough.)

      Demonizing religion is a pretty common approach, yeah — especially in SF, I think, where it’s pitted against rationalism and science. At least when there are evil priests in fantasy, there are usually good priests, too. Which isn’t to say fantasy does religion well all the time, but that’s another post . . . .

    • beccastareyes

      The number I’ve seen listed is about 30% agnostic and 34% atheist* (according to Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think), with another 8% believing in a higher power that isn’t God (for comparison, 9% had a certain belief in God, while 14% believed but had doubts). I saw this in a blog post where the blogger was trying to figure out how S vs. R’s author got the 50% figure from, given the quoted survey — it seems to be a debate about where you put the agnostics (or I guess the 8% who believe in something but not God — polytheists or pantheists, perhaps, or some kind of metaphysical law, like karma).

      The blogger also notes that biological, physical and social scientists were surveyed, but not mathematicians.

      Then again, I’ve found that whether someone identifies as agnostic or atheist is a matter of semantics — I’ve seen people profess the same things when asked ‘does God exist?’ then some identify as agnostic and some as atheist, so I never know what to make of those words. (Basically the debate over people who say ‘I don’t see evidence in favor of God’s existence, so I don’t believe in God’ with the implication that should evidence appear, they would reevaluate, with a side of if ‘I don’t believe in God’ and ‘I believe in no God’ are semantically identical.)

      Sorry for the tangent. Just remembered I saw the statistic and had to post the reference.

      * Exact survey questions: “I don’t believe in God” and “I do not know if there is a God, and there is no way to find out”.

      • novalis

        The numbers of religious scientists go way down when you look at highly regarded scientists. Wikipedia tells me that members of the National Academy of Sciences, for instance, are 72% atheist, 20% agnostic.

      • aliettedb

        Ha, no, glad you found the ref (my husband couldn’t remember where he’d read this). I found another survey which concluded that chemists were the most likely to believe in God:, but now that I’ve looked a little more, I’m sceptical that those studies are worth anything, since they seem to yield such divergent results (I’ve seen another survey which pointed out doctors were more likely to believe in God than anyone else). Also and for what it’s worth, they’re just surveying US scientists, but it’s probably the results wouldn’t be the same in France or in the UK… (to say nothing of India…)

        My philosophy teacher used to say that a real atheist abhorred the idea of God (and presumably wouldn’t reconsider if fresh evidence appeared), whereas an agnostic was a little more apathetic in the “I haven’t made up my mind yet”. But I’ve always found the distinction tricky in studies. People who actually identify as atheists by my teacher’s definition must be fairly rare.

        • beccastareyes

          I suppose the same thing happens in theistic circles — arguing whether sub-group X are Christian* (or ‘real’/’true’ Christians).

          * Example chosen because I’m from a majority-Christian region. I’m sure it exists elsewhere too, because people are like that.

        • mindstalk

          This atheist says your philosophy teacher is very wrong.

          • aliettedb

            I think he was trying to explain that atheism is a form of belief just the same as religion, but yeah, it’s a little odd
            (and he had some other odd opinions, so I didn’t really trust him on a lot of things).

  7. sartorias

    Trowbridge and I dealt with these questions in the Exordium space operas, if you can stomach self-referencing.

    (And our motivation was largely because we were so sick of the religion vs science shtick, with the religious people always being knuckle dragging reactionaries who molested children and were devoted to evil politics.)

  8. mindstalk

    “But if people have continue to have questions about why evil exists, or what their obligation is to their fellow man, I don’t think they’re likely to find satisfactory answers in string theory.”

    Bit of a Straw Scientist, there. If I were going to try to answer those questions ‘scientifically’, I’d look to psychology (possibly evolutionary), game theory, economics/sociology particularly in measuring what behaviors lead to happier and healthier societies, etc.

    • Marie Brennan

      It being a footnote, I was speaking slightly tongue-in-cheek; “string theory” was meant to stand in for a broader range of things. I don’t disagree that social sciences might contribute to a discussion of ethics; on the other hand, those usually aren’t the sciences people have in mind when they talk about the science-fictional future.

      • mindstalk

        Biological ones are, though. At least I give more credit to Darwin than to Newton or Einstein for the rise in open atheism. And to PBS neuroscience programs as a kid for strengthening my own atheism.

  9. Anonymous

    Bear McCreary is awesome. I should try these; I’m used to struggling through Jackson Berkey arrangements sounding terrible the first several times I have to play them slowly.

  10. Anonymous

    I have a feeling that it’s to some degree an amalgam of several authors, but the description of her favorite themes and the format of her pen name made me think of CJC instantly.

  11. Anonymous

    I like it, too; that’s why I wish there was more of it. 🙂

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