Faith in the Fictional War between Science Fiction and Faith

Is science fiction innately and naturally inclined to be hostile to religion?

After all, in FOUNDATION, the church of the Galactic Spirit turns out to be a hoax, likewise the messiahship of Muad-Dib in DUNE, likewise the Church of Foster in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, likewise the evil church of evil on GATHER, DARKNESS or RISE OF ENDYMION, likewise the church of the rebels in SIXTH COLUMN. On the other hand, Christians as a whole are pretty hostile to false prophets and heretics, and Americans, like all good Protestant nations, are pretty hostile to organized Churches. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, would like our church to get organized, and we will get around to that real soon. So are these portrayals of false religions innate to science fiction, or are they merely the dramatic inventions of stories who are not necessarily condemning religion as much as condemning falseness?

I would say this question breaks into three questions: (1) is there anything innately hostile in SFF to religion portrayed as a man-made institution? (2) is there anything innately hostile in SFF to religion portrayed as supernaturally-made institution? (3) is there anything innately hostile in SFF to supernaturalism in general?

All of these are difficult and subtle questions, and I am in the middle of writing a Christian Science Fiction book right now, where Mary Baker Eddy teams up with Nikolai Tesla to repel an invasion of the lepers of Mars with the help of a mind-reading lion, called ASLAN IS A SLAN, so I can deal with these difficult and subtle questions in only the most shallow and trivial way.

Let us start with a definition: science fiction is the mythology of a scientific age.

Like all myths, the mythology called Science Fiction must treat with metaphysical questions and questions of the human condition. Being scientific myth, it must cast those questions in terms of a naturalistic idea that scientific progress will open either the box of Pandora or the cave of Wonders of Aladdin, or both, such that if the story does not concern some aspect of a change in society or life brought about by a speculated advance in technology, it is not really science fiction.

This would seem to rule out religion as part of the worldview science fiction used by definition. If you travel into the future using the time machine of HG Wells, you are in a science fiction tale; if you travel into the future escorted by the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, you are in a fantasy. If you turn invisible like Frodo by means of a magic ring, it is fantasy; if by means of chemicals like Griffin the Invisible Man or by cosmic rays like Sue Storm the Invisible Girl, that is science fiction. Your magicians can do everything in science fiction they do in a fantasy, provided only you call your magic ‘parapsychology’ or ‘psionics’ on the grounds that psionics is a natural if unknown phenomenon, whereas magic is a supernatural and unknowable phenomenon (or, technically speaking, a nuomenon).

To craft an SFF book, we use all the same tools and tricks as a mainstream writer, with one difference. The one thing we do that writers of Westerns, Romances, Detective novels or Pirate Stories does not do is world-building. They use a setting the audience already knows: we invent a new one, even if the invention is no more than the tired repetition of a consensus background many other authors has used, such as the generic ‘space opera space empire’ background adopted by STAR WARS.

So the question becomes whether religion can be part of that background? This breaks into two questions: the natural portrayal of religion, and the supernatural.

DUNE, like all SF that portrays a fantastic or futuristic society in some detail, must portray a fantastic or futuristic religion as well, since religion is one of the great constants of human nature: but the nature of science fiction is inherently interested in the variables in human society, not the constants. So in a period of history where most of the readers are Christian, those of us who want to hear sailors stories and travelers tales from fictional travel into other worlds and future eons do not want to hear about our own religion.

We want weird tales. (I suppose if the demographic has atheists outnumber Christians, the atheists who are as imaginative as science fiction readers boast themselves to be will want to hear about Christian worlds, merely because then that to them with have the haunting aura of strangeness.) In sum, fantasy is the weirdness of the Odyssey; science fiction is the weirdness of Einstein.

Compare Heinlein’s MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, where the marriage customs, for example, of the Loonies are as odd and uncouth as the marriage customs of Eskimos, early Mormons or Turks, with the marriage of the Gray Lensman to the Red Lensman in GALACTIC PATROL by EE Smith: the marriage customs portrayed in Heinlein’s book are mind-bogglingly unrealistic, but it is very fine science fiction, because it is a speculation that a change in the environment creates a change in social custom. On the other hand, the marriage in Smith’s book is so realistic it is not science fiction at all.

Likewise, the conceit in FOUNDATION that the Scientists of Terminus could simply sit down one day and invent a religion of the Great Galactic Spirit, and use their advanced science to perform tricks to befuddle the yokels of worlds (whose fathers and grandfathers, come to think of it, remembered that selfsame science, and presumably had books or tapes of such things), and that anyone would find such a synthetic religion feasible or believable is itself not believable.

This theme is a favorite of Sciffy writers, and occurs again in GATHER, DARKNESS by Fritz Leiber, and SIXTH COLUMN by Heinlein. Nonetheless, it is perfectly cromulent science fiction, since it is a speculation of a social change caused by a change in technology. (In this case, the tech change must be invention of the Idiot Cap which makes whole populations really gullible in a fashion only atheists are gullible enough to think could ever happen in real life.)

Compare this with the way religion is treated in GALACTIC PATROL, where the Earthmen seem to have some sort of nondemoninational Protestantism, and, again, since nothing is different from the world of the reader, the make-believe world does not dwell on, nor even mention by name, the church that the Civilization of the Lens follows.

That is on the one hand. If the writer wants to argue that the natural needs of drama of science fiction make is easy to portray all cults as deceptive, and all space churches as monstrous, he’ll get no argument from me.

Science fiction is naturally inclined to dramatize and glamorize skepticism. It is easy to write about frauds like those of the ancient shrine of the Serapeum, with its speaking tubes and hollow statues. Using modern technology to fool the yokels is a natural thought to anyone impressed with Hollywood illusions or the cunning of stage magic. So the story in GATHER, DARKNESS proposes a world of illiterate dupes ruled by hierarchy of Hollywoodized technocrats. On the other hand, the merely technical difficulties of writing about fraudulent atheist conspiracies or institutions deceptively hiding the evidence of miracles and resurrections might deter the authors into less difficult projects.

No SF writer to my knowledge has written one of these “mega-conspiracies that fool the entire world” books starring an atheist conspiracy armed with high-tech tricks, even though the technique of airbrushing unpersons out of old photographs was invented by a real-life and still-in-business mega-conspiracy, namely, the international communist movement.

It is easy to pick on evil institutional churches in SF for the same reason it is easy to pick on evil institutional businesses, or evil institutional governments. Who wants to read about a benevolent Galactic Empire? We want to hear about Jack the Giant Killer. No one wants to hear about Giant the Jack Killer. To portray a galactic-wide institution, secular or spiritual, as Jack facing a foe worthy of the name of a giant would require rare skill.

On the other hand, the other hand of the argument is purely definitional. Is STAR WARS science fiction or science fantasy? In that same way that it is abundantly clear that the DC comicverse takes place in a Judeochristian background, with orthodox devils and angels coming onstage in the pages of SWAMP THING or THE SPECTER, it is abundantly clear that STAR WARS takes place in a vaguely Taoist-flavored New-Age-y universe ruled by a mystical ‘Force’. But Taoism is a religion. The materialistic premise that all supernatural beliefs are merely man-made myths and lies and self-deception cannot be true in the galaxy long long ago and far far away. The Force is not portrayed as parapsychology. It is not studied by mind-scientists and stopped by mind-shield-generators: it is practiced by an order of samurai-Templar style knights with distinctly monkish overtones, and stopped by moral evil called The Dark Side.

So, if we wish, we could simply define any story which took place in a universe that had a supernatural aspect to it as officially out of bounds and ‘not true science fiction.’ This would call for some nicety of judgment, since the miracles performed by, say, Paul-Mu’ad-Dib or Michael Valentine Smith might be parapsychology as natural as the mind reading powers of a Slan or a Psychohistorian, or they might be a manifestation of the divine as supernatural as the reincarnation of Gandalf the White. This would also eliminate as science fiction books like STARMAKER by Olaf Stapledon, which, while criminally unknown and unread in these days, has had as much influence defining the genre as anything by HG Wells.  Nonetheless, God Almighty comes onstage as a character in the last act of STARMAKER, and, as befits the weirdness of a science fiction story, it is a cruel or Darwinian god, a weird god not at all in keeping with the expectations or experience of the audience.

Now, I cannot use that definition, since I defined science fiction as the mythology of a scientific age, so I cannot rule mythology as out of bounds for the definition of science fiction. Indeed, I would venture to say that every genre of science fiction except maybe for military SF deals more often with mythical or religious themes than with mundane or worldly ones. When is the last time you read an SF story about the danger of a Negative Balance of Imports or Deficit Spending?

Think of any supernatural miracle or magic, and I bet some reader could name a science fiction book that treats with it. Is the resurrection of Spock so different from the resurrection of Alcestis or Aesculapius? For that matter, Gene Autry is brought back from the dead in a resurrection machine in the serial PHANTOM EMPIRE, and so is Klaatu in DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, and so is everyone who ever lived in RIVERWORLD by Farmer.

Tiresias or St. John may have visions of the future, but then again, so does Paul Mu’ad-Dib, or, for that matter, so does Lion-o of the Thundercats. Professor Pinero in Heinlein’s first published story ‘Lifeline’ knows the day and hour of any man’s death, as does the prediction machine in ‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard’ as does the time traveler in ‘Try and Change the Past!’ by Fritz Leiber.

Other miracles such as bi-location and levitation show up in science fiction as often as a Star Trek transporter malfunction or an experiment with cavorite.

The transcendence promised by religions both Eastern and Western happen in SFF so often that there is a name for it: the Singularity, Transhumanism, even though the book that is one of the earliest portrayals of posthuman evolution was purely “parapsychological” (i.e. purely mystical) in nature: CHILDHOOD’S END by Arthur C. Clarke, which seemingly took its inspiration from LAST AND FIRST MEN by Olaf Stapledon.

So, the hostility of SF to supernaturalism, if it exists, exists only in a nominal way. All the supernatural events and themes of mythology are endlessly repeated in Science Fiction, but merely given a different machinery and a different name. A saint healing the blind by means of prayer would not be regarded as a legitimate science fictional speculation in an SF book, but an optic-nerve-regeneration hocuspocusulator invented on the spot by Dr. McCoy at Sector General would be regarded as legitimate, even if it was mere handwavium-powered baloneytronics.

Certainty the things that are the topics and themes of myth appear far, far more frequently in SF than in mainstream literature: I can name seven ‘Chosen Ones’ right off the top of my head (and without sneaking a peak at the TV Tropes webpage) from SFF movies and books (Buffy, Harry Potter, Chandler Jarrell, Aenea, Paul Mu’ad-Dib, Neo, Liu Kang) whereas I defy anyone to name a single Chosen One from a Western, a War Story, a Soap Opera or a Detective Story.

As far as I can tell, the only difference between science fiction and fairytales from elfland, is that the sciencefictioneers have to leave unsaid who chooses the Chosen One, or they call it parapsychology rather than magic or miracle.

So, my answers would be: (1) is there anything innately hostile in SFF to religion portrayed as a human institution? Yes, a little, and for the same reason there is an innate hostility to human institutions of business and government as crops up in any story where the Big Guy is the Bad Guy.

(2) is there anything innately hostile in SFF to religion portrayed as supernatural? No; the matter tends to be ignored by SFF and for the same reason that the supernatural foundations of the Church Militant  does not come up in Westerns or in Samurai stories. Readers of weird tales want stories about weird things, not about the things we know from the fields we know. Only a very rare writer — only GK Chesterton, in fact — can portray ordinary things as if they are weird, and bring out the fantasy and wonder from our own backyard garden.

(3) is there anything innately hostile in SFF to supernaturalism in general? Yes, definitely. Science fiction writers are fond of saying that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but we make this distinction every time we call one book science fiction and another one fantasy.

Yarns with “science-flavored” magic in them, such as the parapsychologists, prognosticators or telepaths crowding the worlds of STARSHIP TROOPERS or DUNE or FOUNDATION or CHILDHOOD’S END or SLAN or STAR TREK, technically speaking, are fantasy, because the author has presumed a supernatural background, not a change brought about by technology or the scientific method.

But we science fiction types, despite our love of technology, do not speak technically, and we consider magic to be fair game even in so called hard SF like the books listed above, provided someone somewhere in the book clears his throat and drops the hint that the magic powers were discovered by psychiatrists rather than by witches, or that they developed by Darwinian evolution or eugenics rather than were granted by hidden powers of heaven or hell or elfland.

For that matter, an author like Frank Herbert can call his magic-users ‘Witches’ and get away with being shelved as science fiction, and Sheri S Tepper can call her mind-readers ‘Demons’ and get away with being being shelved as science fiction, just as long as someone in the book drops the hint that their magic is caused by genetics rather than consorting with spirits, because ‘genetics’ sounds nice and scientifrriffic, whereas spirits smacks of spiritualism.

Science fiction in fact is so seeped with religions ideas and ideals, themes and myths and mysticism, that we should pause in astonishment to consider why anyone is even talking about an alleged hostility. One might as well ponder whether science fiction is hostile to fiction.

The clue is not in the question but in the questioner. Some gullible folk in the last century were persuaded by a book called something like THE WAR BETWEEN SCIENCE AND RELIGION (I am not willing to google the title and look it up) and it made the case that Protestants were the Sons of Light and Catholics were the Children of Darkness, and therefore the Catholic Church and her most remorseless Inquisition drove all scientists to England, where they invented everything ever. These evil Inquisitors no doubt included Nicolaus Copernicus, Gregor Mendel, Georges Lemaître (!!), Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Pierre Gassendi, Roger Joseph Boscovich, Marin Mersenne, Francesco Maria Grimaldi, Nicole Oresme, Jean Buridan, Robert Grosseteste, Christopher Clavius, Nicolas Steno, Athanasius Kircher, Giovanni Battista Riccioli, William of Ockham, and their familiars among the laity Galileo Galilei,Rene Descartes, Louis Pasteur, Blaise Pascal, André-Marie Ampère, Charles-Augustin de Coulomb, Pierre de Fermat, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, Alessandro Volta, Augustin-Louis Cauchy, Pierre Duhem, Jean-Baptiste Dumas not to mention Pope Sylvester II .

NOTE TO THE HISTORICALLY ILLITERATE : If you do not recognize more than half the names on the list given above, you are not allowed to have an opinion on any question regarding the history of science, so shut up and sit down.

My guess is that the attempt by the International Roman Catholic Church and our albino monk Opus Dei assassin squads of antiscientific antiscientists to suppress science would be more effective if the Roman Catholic Church would only stop founding schools, universities, and producing top-notch physicists whose work is the foundation of the the heliocentric theory, genetic theory, the Big Bang theory, and so on.

Meanwhile, the pro-scientific scientists of the League of Science are busily promoting real science with real scientific advancements, such as the ‘materialistic dialectic’ theory of Karl Marx who discovered the scientific basis of history; the theory that everyone who criticizes Freud suffers from Oedipal Complexes who discovered the science of not having to produce predictions or results; and the theory of Lysenko that grain inherits characteristics from the environment by means of class struggle in dialectic opposition to other grain-seeds.

For those of you unfamiliar with the name, Lysenko was the Soviet Master Scientists under Stalin. “Scientific dissent from Lysenko’s theories of environmentally acquired inheritance was formally outlawed in 1948, and for the next several years opponents were purged from held positions, and many imprisoned.”

Ah! And let me not fail to mention the scientists at East Anglia University who hoaxed their data concerning anthropogenic global warming in a scientific attempt to scientifically fool the unwashed masses into accepting the inconvenient truths of scientifically sciencified science.

I believe the same scientists who discovered that the Piltdown Man was the missing link confirmed these findings which were then peer-reviewed by the magnificent Rachel Carson Institute for the Abolition of Bird-Egg-Destroying Chemicals, that bastion of scientifically integrity.

Naturally, the chief of the League of Science (all of whom have vowed to destroy the evil science-hating anti-scientists of the Roman Catholic Church) is Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov. He was involved in a controversial attempt to create a human-ape hybrid for the Soviet military. Unfortunately, Ivanov attempted to organize the insemination of human females with chimpanzee sperm in Guinea, but the French Government interfered, no doubt under orders from the Vatican.

That is real science for you! SCIENCE! It can do ANYTHING! It is AWESOME!

NOTE TO THE HUMOR IMPAIRED: Ilya Ivanov and his man-ape experiments are real. I am not actually writing a book about Christian Scientists and Mad Scientists and Mind-Reading Lions fighting Men from Mars, even though that is a Way Cool idea. There is no Anti-science cabal of Catholic Jesuits and Inquisitors out to kill scientists, and there is no League of Science who use their rocket packs and rayguns to hunt down and burn up Inquisitors and Jesuits even though that would also be Way Cool if it happened. Rachel Carson is actually a scientific fraud, as is Freud, as is Marx, as is Lysenko, as is anthropogenic global warming.

NOTE TO THE SCIENCE IMPAIRED: Real science is about physical things you can measure, observe, and repeat the observation. Physical things, like ballistics, astronomy, chemistry, and so on. Speculations about Id and Superego and scare-stories about Ozone Layer depletion are no more scientific than speculations about Morlocks and scare-stories about Frankenstein’s Monster. They are stories with a scientifical decor to them. The number of people who have seen an Id and the number of people who have seen an Eloi is exactly the same: zero.

All kidding aside, the sad fact is that secularization of the scientific community has arguably decreased the rate of the advance of science. Universities founded by or run by the Church study real knowledge and produce real science, because they believe God is Truth, and the cosmos was made by Him to be studied and understood. Institutions funded by the government study government-approved science, which, if not correct, is politically correct. They understand where their grant money comes from.

So where did the idea of a War between Science and Faith arise?

With apologies to my fundamentalist brethren in Christ, all that happened is that one small group in schism with the Roman Catholic Church, militant fundamentalist Christians who reject the authority of the Magisterium to interpret and teach scripture, has decided on a literal interpretation of Genesis, and insist on a six-day timeline of creation that does not fit geological, astronomical, or biological evidence.

Meanwhile, another small group in schism with the Roman Catholic Church, militant fundamentalist atheists who reject the authority of science to say what is and what is not science, has decided on a mystical, Shavian, Hegelian or Marxist misinterpretation of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and insist that scientific learning gives them the right to decree that abortion, eugenics, euthanasia, and the sterilization or genocide of those they deem unfit is licit, whereas the condemnation of fornication, abomination, or polygamy is illicit.

(These Utopians do not consider themselves cultists nor heretics, but their beliefs are mystical and religious in character, even if not in name, and copy Christian eschatological models.)

These two groups, neither of whom represent mainstream Christianity or mainstream scientific thinking, have decided that there is a war going on between science and Christianity. It is an article of faith with them, and no evidence to the contrary, scientific or historical, can persuade them otherwise.

The solution I propose is that both groups return to the Church, say confession, get shrived, make peace. I cannot imagine a less popular solution, but neither can I imagine any other that will work.

Most science fiction readers can tell the difference between science and fiction. The war between science and religion is fiction, and apparently an entertaining fiction indeed, as many who believe in it continue to do so.