Synthetic Religions in Sci-Fi

A reader with the nasal but labial name of MM writes:

“This is the idea that the philosopher-king should encourage the masses to embrace religion, while eschewing it for the philosopher-king. At least I remember reading this somewhere. It may have been in Thomas More’s Utopia, but I think the idea goes back at least to Plato.”

My comment: Myself, whose education came more from science fiction books than schoolbooks, encountered this idea first in the old pulps, circa 1939.

Science fiction writers are enamored of the idea of false religions erected by rulers to control the masses, religions the rules spread but do not themselves belief, starting with the ‘Synthetic Religion’ attempted by the tyrants of spiritual darkness in Olaf Stapledon’s DARKNESS AND LIGHT.

In the pulps, the religion of the Therns and the First Born in GODS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs features not one but two false religions, the perpetrators of the first being the victims of the second.

Heinlein’s SIXTH COLUMN was a rewrite of John W Campbell Jr’s (writing as Don A Stuart) short story “All”, but this time it was the revolutionaries, not the tyrants, disguising their movement as a religion, attempting to seize power, not retain it. The miracles of the religion were supertechnology controlled by the superscientists to gull the cowardly and superstitious Pan-Asian invaders.

Fritz Leiber’s GATHER DARKNESS did the concept one better, by having the Evil Catholic Church be frauds operating a high-tech version of the hollow statue of Serapis, if you catch my reference, but opposed by revolutionaries disguised as Satanists.

The best version of evil priestcraft at its worst, however, comes from NIGHTSIDE THE LONG SUN by Gene Wolfe, where the ghosts or mental recordings of the long-dead emperor and his wicked family had been recorded into the computer mind running the artificial O’Neill Colony starship in which the story takes place. The brain-recording technology operates through the optic nerve, so that any one of these ghostly memory-beings, who indeed built the world in which the protagonists are trapped, and control the environment, can posses the body of any of their worshippers staring at any still-working computer screen found in the decaying cylinder-world. Since, in the real past, everyone from Pharaoh to Caesar has insisted on divine honors being paid him, it is no stretch to imagine high tech tyrants of the future doing so as well.

The worst version of priestcraft proposed in science fiction, that is, the least feasible or convincing, was the “Great Galactic Spirit” that appears briefly in one period on the future history of Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION. In one of the short stories later made into a fix-up novel, the engineers of Terminus, the sole world in the outer reaches retaining technical knowledge of atomic energy, decides to gull their neighbors by pretending the atomic technology is a magic power granted by a “Great Galactic Spirit” not otherwise described. Of course there is a hierarchical priesthood serving the atomic god, called “The Church of Science” because no progressive writer of that day or this could imagine anything other than the Catholic Church as the model for an oppressive fraud.

The fake clerics of the religion overawe aggressive neighbors basically by switching off the lights and cutting power to their war fleet via an fake exorcism ritual.

In real life, a new religion would be carried on by the culture that birthed it, because cults represent the worldview and asperations of the culture. One would have to grasp the meaning of religion to know this. Asimov is innocent. In the story, the science religion is the centerpiece of one short story in the sequence, renamed “The Mayors,” mentioned briefly in the next, “The Merchant Princes” then forgotten. Even Asimov must have seen this as an absurd idea.

This is not the only atomic religion in science fiction, by the bye. In Jack Williamson’s THE LEGION OF TIME, the savage and tyrannical dystopia of Gyronchi ruled by the busty blonde warrior-queen of evil Sorainya worships a dark hurricane of atomic power that hovers over her dark citadel of dark science. Likewise, in EMPIRE OF THE ATOM by A.E. van Vogt, the Atom Gods served by the Empire of Linn are machines whose workings have been forgotten, but whose maintenance is diligently maintained by religious ritual. I did not list these two as “synthetic” however, since, as far as I can recall, the tyrants  ruling these empires themselves believe their own snake-oil religion they propound.

Likewise for the Church of the Sleeping God of A.E. van Vogt’s unfairly forgotten PLAYERS OF NULL-A, where the evil chief priest of the evil religion believes his own religion, so much so, that when the idol wakes and condemn him, he is reduced to comatose insanity.  This we might count as a counter-example of synthetic religion: the priestcraft here is a trick played by the hero, acting as puppeteer to make the “god” (actually an prehistoric extraterrestrial traveler visitor in suspended animation) stand and talk.

Idols can be carried off by Roman, or cleverly equipped with speaking tubes to utter false oracles. An invisible god is better.

And, of course, in real life, the whole of Leftism is a synthetic faith, one not believed by the Inner Circle who promote it. The various makes and models of this unified attempt include Marxism, Cultural Marxism, which includes Critical Race Theory, BLM, DEI, Project Mockingbird, Critical Gender Theory, Environmentalist Marxism, Feminist Spiritualism, Feminist Witchcraft, Satanism, Aborticidal Moloch-Worship, Child Castration, and Progressive Christianity.

The five dogmas of the Left have remained unchanged since the days of their first secret societies for social reform where hatched in the Eighteenth Century: abolition of hierarchy, abolition of private property, abolition of national borders, abolition of the family, abolition of Church. In its place, an egalitarian socialist world-commonwealth based on Plato’s Utopia, where all children are state-owned helots raised communally, and the state religion worships the state.

So anyone reading the science fiction of 1939 onward might well have have seen our current clownish world of smiling nanny-tyrants coming.