September 5, 2007

CHRISTIANITY -- ANTHROPOCENTRIC OR UNIVERSAL I: God Appears To Have Disappeared From Science Fiction (A)

Five years ago, I started pondering this question and people have clicked on this essay nearly a thousand times, making it the single most-viewed thing I’ve ever posted. I’d like to continue thinking out loud on the issue now that I’m older and the world has changed a bit...

The assumption used to be that once we left the surface of the Earth and go into space, we would leave behind the "religious chains" of outmoded human supernatural beliefs.

We've gone into space. Several times. In fact, we do so with such stunning regularity that space missions barely elicit comment in evening news. At the same time, the last time I looked, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples were still the choice spot for worship of God (and other dieties). Atheism has not swept the world. Atheism hasn't even swept the Hallowed Halls of Science. There are still Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian (and other religious) scientists. Some of them are even making legitimate discoveries while believing in their God:

"The form, and nothing else, is all that is left of the original. On the outside, the hindlimb fossil designated MOR (Museum of the Rockies specimen) 1125 has this appearance.
But when Dr Mary Schweitzer, of North Carolina State University, dissolved away the minerals, she found something extraordinary inside.

"The soft structures move back into position after flexing. She discovered transparent, flexible filaments that resemble blood vessels. There were also traces of what look like red blood cells; and others that look like osteocytes, cells that build and maintain bone."

Mary Schweitzer is also a confessing Christian. (Discover Magazine, April 2006

So, apparently, science and space exploration has yet to destroy Christianity (or any religion for that matter). That might mean that Christianity will make it into space. It might mean that there will be Christians in starships. It might mean that Christians will be colonists on new worlds. It may mean that Christians will greet aliens...

It might mean that SF writers are ignoring Christianity for no other reason than their own personal biases. It might also mean that ignoring Christianity is a prejudice that needs to, perhaps, disappear in all fairness. I find it illuminating that best-selling SF can posutlate other religions. For an excellent example, read Tobias Buckell's CRYSTAL RAIN. He postulates a human colony world predicated on the worship of ancient Aztec gods. Everyone accepts the premise, he advances the premise with skill and elan. But if he had predicated his world on the worship of the Christ, Jesus, I wonder how popular his books would be? He even decapitalizes the word "Bible" when he uses it, obviously referring to the bible of Christianity. Fine. He's a great story teller. I look forward to reading RAGAMUFFIN.

But is there a bias in SF against Christianity?

I say: Yes.


~brb said...


It's a conceit of the bulk of the people working in the field, and can without too much effort be traced back to the John Campbell. Campbellian SF offers its own vision of deity-free transcendance, in which Man pulls himself up by his bootstraps to achieve Godhood. Campbellian SF believes in the Perfectability of Man.

And like most creeds it's jealous, and does not readily tolerate serious rivals. Therefore a culture based on, say, Mayan theology, is safe, because we all know it's just make-believe. But any competing creed that people might take seriously must be cut off at the knees.

Stephen Wrighton said...

I kind of have to agree with you (and ~brb as well). The last SF book that I remember with a distinctly Christian POV in it was the mediocre novel Purgatory by Mike Resnick and the Catholic priest who proselytizes the natives. And that was back in 1992.

The thing is that most folks forget that SF can involve the "soft" sciences (anthropology, theology, etc) as well as the physical sciences.

On the other side of the coin - how much of that is due to the increase in "Christian Fiction" that's out there. I know a young man who I routinely help out in his writing efforts, plot issues, characterizations, grammar, etc. What confounds me slightly is that he's not writing for general fiction - he's writing hoping to get his book in Christian bookstores.

David B. Ellis said...

Many SF books do imagine a future in which religion diminishes or even vanishes. Then again many don't.

I think its perfectly valid to explore both ideas of what the future of religion may be.

As to a bias against christianity, the fact is that most of the top SF writers simply aren't christians (certainly very few of my favorites are).

Its an interesting question as to why there is, compared to the general population, a disproportionate number of nontheists and nonchristians among top SF writers.

I think the answer is pretty simple. SF writers tend to be people deeply interested in science and who have absorbed the perspective natural to science (requiring strong empirical evidence in order to be convinced, valuing skepticism and critical thinking). Therefore, just like in the sciences, there are a disproportionate number of religious skeptics in the field.

If anyone is interested in reading an SF novel that is respectful of both christianity and nontheists I would recommend Michael Flynn's Hugo-nominated EIFELHEIM.

David B. Ellis said...

Oh, and as to the issue of what the future will actually be like.

I suspect that if humans ever colonize other planets and solar systems they will carry a variety of religions and philosophies with them.

Unless, of course, the technological singularity really occurs and the stars are colonized by unimaginably advanced posthumans.

Then its anybodies guess what's going on in their heads.

John Wright said...

I would say that there are two separate things going on here: first, HG Wells was an atheist, indeed a socialist, whose vision of the perfectibility of man could only be painted in Science Fiction because the utopia of the progressives by definition must happen in the future. Wellsian science fiction, and the science fiction of those that follow his footsteps, are a secular myth about how the progress of science will usher in the Golden Age, the age of Saturn, New Eden. Wells used his SF to preach his secular religion. He wrote soft SF, and played hard and fast with scientific fact: his time machine is no more possible than cavorite, the antigravity metal.

Jules Verne was a practicing Catholic, who felt no need to preach in his books; and so he wrote perfectly worthwhile Hard SF books based on technologically possible inventions, moonshots and submarines. Hard SF has a shorter shelf-life than soft-SF, since the technology either comes into being, or is proved impossible. (The moonshot did not shoot men out of Barbacane's cannon circus clown style, for example).

So the first thing is that there has been a tradition of using SF to preach a secular vision of hope and progress since even its first days: not just religion, but everything traditional falls by the wayside in that vision, since science fiction readers want to read about what will be different in the Shiny World of Tomorrow, not in what stays the same.

The second thing is that science fiction is really about clean limbed fighting men from Virginia rescuing Space Princesses from Space Pirates. Religion simply does not come up as an issue. If you want to read about how Seldon's Plan will save the Galaxy from the Dark Ages, or if you want to read about how a boy wins a spacesuit in a soap contest, the question of their religion is a distraction from the narrative point.

Religion deals with the whole of life: science fiction deals with the daydreams of how science might change our children's lives. Religion is often left out of Science Fiction, and I mean this with no offense, because SF is limited by its axioms to a certain type of tale.

How often does religion crop up in romances, Westerns, or murder mysteries? I can only think of one whodunnit sleuth whose stories make a religious point: Chesterton's Father Brown stories. Why should Space Stories be different from Crime Stories?

John C. Wright
(yes, I am a real SF author. Almost won a Nebula, once!)

David B. Ellis said...

Hi, John. I wonder, since you are a writer who wrote a heavily transhumanist SF novel (and one of my favorites in that category---right up there with Stross and Egan, which is high praise in my book), what do you think of christianity and transhumanism.

Transhumanist ideas seem so central to what (to me at least) is the most interesting and challenging SF being written today.

Can one write christian transhumanist SF? I haven't seen it done yet but I think you'd be the one to give it a go. I'd love to see how you do transhumanism in your post-atheist days.

Any plans to do anything along those lines?

Al said...

Why not ask where the Jewish Science Fiction is? Or the Muslim? Or the Hindu? Or the Buddhist?

Most of the world is, after all, either Buddhist, "Hindu" (which isn't really one religion) or Muslim, not Christian.

Why does Christianity deserve a special place in a science fiction future?

GuyStewart said...

I didn't say it SHOULD have a special place. The question is just as legitimate for any belief system. Where are the Buddhist colonists? Where are the Muslim starship captains? Where are the Hindu asteroid explorers?

My point is that a person's faith is INTEGRAL. All decisions will proceed from that faith. I DO NOT ADVOCATE HERE THE TELLING OF CHRISTIAN/BUDDHIST/TAOIST TALES WITH STARSHIPS INSTEAD OF CRUCIFIXES. What I want to see is Christians (please feel free to replace "Christian" with your personal religion) making decisions that spring from their faith. I'm not talking about lectures, diatribes or said bookisms. I'm talking about people making choices based on RELIGIOUS beliefs rather than out of moral relativism...

GuyStewart said...

I did some checking and discovered that you honor me with your appearance here! As I said above, I am not advocating that Christianity should be the point of a story -- I want to see Christian characters making decisions that are consistent with their faith. You hit the nail exactly on the head when you say, "Religion deals with the whole of life". It does, and going into space will be the whole of life for some Christian, some where, some day -- I'd like to explore what that means now. Not in stories that are pedantic, allegorical, thinly veiled Bible tracts; rather thoughtful explorations of what meeting a Kzin might mean to a Christian -- or what thoughts might the world-spanning ocean mind of Stanislaw Lew's SOLARIS spark in a woman who loves and serves the Risen Lord?

By the way, I think you really meant to say that, "science fiction is really about clean limbed fighting men from MINNESOTA rescuing Space Princesses from Space Pirates."


David B. Ellis said...

I'm talking about people making choices based on RELIGIOUS beliefs rather than out of moral relativism...

One can be nonreligious without being a moral relativist.

Unknown said...

I know this thread is old but I like such annotating...

No-one here has mentioned James Blish, Peter F. Hamilton or Iain M. Banks.

Blish in 'After such knowledge' presents a narrative based on the premiss of a Jesuit encountering the 'perfect' secular Alien utopia, an unfallen world. Blish also delves into theological material elsewhere, in Dr Mirabilis (about a scientific monk, no less, Roger Bacon - himself inspired by the scientific writings of the Muslim world), and through Black Easter/Faust aleph-null and The Day After Judgment, which focuses on the counterpart of Heaven.

Peter F. Hamilton's genre-splicing Night's Dawn Trilogy has a distinct Christian presence against a back-drop of true space opera.

Iain M. Banks, a very secular writer, dips his toe in these waters by sending up alien races that are monotheistic and belligerent.

Transhumanism and Christianity is a theme close to my own heart, and it's a topic that is beginning to find a niche for itself (see for one idiosyncratic but compelling interpretation of this space). If any progress has been made on this front since this thread was first started in terms of new fiction, I hope someone will post news!