Sci-fi enables us to think about science and religion as mutually supportive elements of what it means to be human.
BY AMANDA REES – Amanda Rees is a historian of science at the University of York.
In 1948, L. Ron Hubbard is reported to have said, “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” Two years later, he did just that. His short story, “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science,” which appeared in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, laid the foundation of what evolved into the globally significant (and very wealthy) Church of Scientology.
Hubbard’s deeply materialistic approach to faith took for granted the notion that religion is for suckers: those who are guided by their emotions as opposed to their intellect, those who can’t or don’t want to see the snake-oil sales pitch behind the shamanic ceremony. In the modern West, after all, efforts by the church to exert control over political and intellectual life had been successfully repulsed. Critical to that battle were the weapons provided by science, rationality, the scientific method or even just the figure of Galileo, heroic in his opposition to the iniquities of the Inquisition.
But science and religion are not inevitably in conflict.
There are many science-fiction writers who, like Hubbard, invent religions that seek economic gain or political control as the backbone for their narratives. Robert Heinlein, a noted and highly influential author who wrote extensively in his fiction on the social role of religion, explicitly argued in his 1973 novel, “Time Enough for Love,” that “religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help.” His Hugo Award-winning “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961), which was named in 2012 by the Library of Congress as one of the “books that shaped America,” is set in a fictional United States where drinking, gambling and fornication are blessed acts — just so long as the Fosterite Church of the New Revelation, which dominates society, got its cut of the profits.
H.G. Wells had provided an earlier version of this idea in “The Sleeper Wakes” (1899), describing a future London festooned with psychotropic advertisements broadcasting a “deafening scream of mercantile piety”: “Put your money on your maker,” “All the brightest bishops on the bench tonight and prices as usual,” “Brisk blessings for busy businessmen.” “But this is appalling!” says the story’s time-traveling Victorian protagonist. “Surely the essence of religion is reverence.” “Science and technology have an important role as handmaidens of theology, although not always in particularly positive ways.”
The role played by religion in science fiction — and science fiction’s exploration of the relationship between science and theology — is, however, not confined to the desire of prophets to make profits. Science and technology also have an important role as handmaidens of theology, although not always in particularly positive ways.
Encapsulated in the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous three laws (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) is an important corollary: Sufficiently advanced technology will enable its user to play God. In his 1940 novella, “If This Goes On —,” Heinlein describes a future in which technology and knowledge of the natural world are used to create spectacular “miracles,” which convince the American population that their theocratic, corrupt and totalitarian government is divinely inspired.
The other side of that coin — religious belief supporting scientific activity — is also an important theme within the genre. Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series (1942-1950), for example, involves scientists presenting themselves as missionaries for the “Church of Science.” The theology and rituals of this church enable a relatively small and isolated community of researchers to exert control over, and thereby avoid extermination by, their less well-educated neighbors.
Both stories treat religion as a con — but a con worked with scientific connivance, and on which the survival of science can be seen to depend. Other stories, particularly those exploring post-apocalyptic societies, such as Walter Miller’s “Canticle For Leibowitz” (1959) or Pierre Boule’s “Planet of the Apes” (1963), also show religion and religious institutions as key sources for the perpetuation and protection of knowledge in chaotic times.
But science fiction’s entanglement with theology goes far deeper than these somewhat old-fashioned tales. Writers in this genre explore the consequences of technological innovation for human communities and individual human lives, whether those consequences are intentional or accidental, emotional or economic. They consider the impact that scientific theories and concepts have had on our understandings of what it means to be human, and on the limits of individual human identity. They examine how the characteristics that make us human (big brains, tool-making hands) might also lead to the end of humanity, either with a bang (“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”) or a whimper (“Day of the Triffids”) or both (“Threads,” “The Day After”)…