The role of science fiction in questioning faith

Does science fiction have a tendency to make a Christian question his faith? I should hope so. If the Bible can be driven out of your head by Flash Gordon comics, it is only a faith built on sand, a faith that is not faith at all, but merely mental inertia, that cannot stand a little light rain.

Science fiction, even the worst most hackneyed space opera, has the effect of making you lift your eyes up from the newspaper headlines of your day-to-day life and looking at the horizon and realizing things might be different. Your children will not live their lives as your grandfathers lived theirs.

Science Fiction is unique among genre writing in that it has an innate predisposition to pose a question. The world we live in is not the world our ancestors lived in: they lived in a geocentric universe surrounded by rapidly-rotating Ptolemaic heavenly spheres. We live in an Einsteinian universe of quantum mechanics, a place as strange and wondrous as Aladdin’s cave. Science Fiction, whether it means to or not, poses the question that our understanding of the universe might not be the final one. Neither whodunnits nor horse-operas nor bodice-rippers have a question like this hovering behind their every paperback cover. Merely putting a rocketship on the cover automatically raises the question: if that rocket could reach another world, and life were found there, what would it be like?

For your average science fiction reader (and I mean a twelve-year-old boy) he is only interested in whether Deja Thoris wears no clothes or whether a Virginian could defeat a four-armed green Martian in combat. But because it is science fiction, for a man troubled with religious questions, whether the author meant to or not, the book automatically raises other questions. If our Virginian got to Barsoom by dying and being reincarnated, are we sure everyone who dies goes where my Church says he goes? How are the Green Martians to be saved, any more than some aborigine in the antipodes, creatures who cannot possibly ever receive baptism–did God create the Martians merely to consign them to Hell?

A man born and raised in one religious tradition, if he looks at the far horizons, might well be tempted to leave the faith– because he sees that things really might not be the way he was taught that they were. How is the worship of Jehovah and different from the absurd worship of the Great God Finuka on planet Ambroy, where the celebrants hop and jump when they pray? Or if the God Apollo is a space-alien who uses his matter control technology to get a date with Leslie Parrish, what does that say about the God we were taught in Sunday School? If the heavens are filled with bug-eyed Martians, where does that leave room for angels? (Because we know there cannot be Eldil on Malacandra, since we know the Barsoomians worship Iss.)

But by the same token, a man born and raised in the modern secular scientific world view, if he looks at the far horizons, might well be tempted to leave that faith– because he sees that things really might not be the way he was taught that they were. Because if the cosmos is so vast and wonderful and beautiful and intricate, how can it just be a dumb, deadly, machine, winding down to nothing? 

What if the Star Maker of Olaf Stabledon is not the contemptible sadist Olaf says he is? What if Patera Silk is right, and there really is an Outsider? What if the brave, new world promised by Wells and his ilk is nothing but the spiritually dead and blank-eyed Brave New World of Huxley?

Again, the same kind of questions can crop up when a young man travels abroad for the first time, or even travels abroad in his imagination by reading books.

On learning Greek, and reading Socrates and Thucydides, a friend of mine turned apostate, at least in part because he saw the pagans as noble and upright men; and he could not see how his Mother’s religion could be right if the hell-bound pagans were so praiseworthy.

But the same reading can be read the other way: when I converted, it was precisely because I was impressed with the pagans, and the pagans I most admired (Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus) were deeply religious men: when I looked around at the modern world, the only people I saw acting anything like those ancient pagans, were not the modern pagans (of which I know many) but modern Christians. 

If you want to hear about Aristotle, you are far more likely to come across talk of the Cardinal Virtues of the ancient Greek sages in a Christian Church than you are in the Sacred Circle of King of the Wood. If you want to hear about the role of Reason, the ‘Providence’ of the Stoics, or the sinfulness of ‘hubris’. you are far more likely to hear such things mentioned by the Pope in a circular letter than in the Halls of Academia or the Lobbies of the Great and Powerful. Modern philosophers following Nietzsche or Marx certainly have little enough to say about reason or virtue.

I have nothing against questioning one’s faith, if by this we mean thinking seriously and deeply about the issue. I am a convert: and I did not convert for light or frivolous reasons, but only after years of studying and pondering (and, frankly, a miracle). A man in my position theoretically has less to fear than a man born and raised in the faith, because I already know all the questions a skeptic might ask–I used to ask those very questions.

I do, however, object, as all men should, to mere disloyalty hidden under the cloak of skepticism, and for the same reason one objects to a crooked judge or a fixed jury. A kangaroo court goes through the motions of a court of justice, but there is no justice there. A man who leaves the church because he has sincerely intellectual discontent with the theory of what he is being told is not in the same position as a man who divorces his mother church because she tells him to straightened up and fly right. The first man is a skeptic: the second man is someone looking for a way to shrug off a hard duty. The second man is a Pharisee of Skepticism, someone who goes through the motions of intellectual investigation, but he is not intellectually honest. The second man will not accept the result if his verdict finds the theistic position to be more rationally coherent than the alternative.

Serious, sober atheists I respect: men who call themselves atheists because they have merely transfered their mystical religious devotion to some puny worldly cause, Marxism or Environmentalism or some such nonsense, they earn no respect from me. Real atheists should object to bowing toward the Golden Calf for the same reason they do not bow toward the relics of saints: Men of Reason should not bow at all.

(Men of Reason should not bow at all, that is, until or unless they find themselves in a cosmos where they are not the noblest or best thing in it. When confronted by what is objectively superior, and to which one owes a duty of loyalty and subordination, a bow is a perfectly rational, one might say the only rational, response fitted to the situation.)