Faith in the Future, or, Does Religion Have a Place in Science Fiction?

by Jim Clarke

I write this while in lockdown due to the global Coronavirus pandemic, amusing myself by reading Dune and Nnedi Okorafor. Perhaps, when you read this, the lockdowns will have been lifted. This period, stuck at home and making the most of it by catching up on reading what I like, reminds me of being a doctoral student at Trinity College Dublin. What would any sensible person do, if they had access to a copyright library holding millions of volumes, and most of their thesis written? Obviously, borrow and read as many SF novels as possible!

No more than people today can foresee how the world will look or function post-Corona, I had no idea where my policy of bulk-reading science fiction would lead. The human mind is probably the world’s greatest ever pattern recognition system, and I got tripped up when I noticed, in about the third novel in a row, that the protagonist (or antagonist, very often) was a Catholic priest, specifically a Jesuit.

In novel after novel, I found priests in space. Priests converting aliens. Priests condemning aliens. Priests who were scientists and priests who were bitterly opposed to science. There were robot popes. There were alternate histories where the Reformation never happened and the Vatican ruled supreme over the globe. Sometimes they even dominated the entire galaxy. A kernel of an idea formed. Perhaps there might be an academic curio in this, a novelty paper about the prevalence of Jesuits in space, or more broadly on the relationship between SF and Catholicism? I vowed to explore further. I borrowed some more novels. Over seven years later, I published my findings: Science Fiction and Catholicism: The Rise and Fall of the Robot Papacy (Gylphi, 2019).

What began as a side-project, a thin veil of legitimacy to justify reading hundreds of SF novels, had spiralled into a 100,000 word monograph. And even that was highly selective. It could have been three times as long. What surprised me during those years was that almost no one had written about this. Or to put it another way, my own pattern recognition wasn’t astonishing, but the fact that apparently so few other scholars had spotted the pattern was.

There is, of course, a reason for this. Unlike SF writers, who habitually incorporate the existence of religion into their work, SF scholars are often extremely antipathetic. For some, immersed in a tradition of Marxism, SF by definition must be kept pure from the taint of religion, a kind of exercise in Enlightenment values, narrowly defined. Those values are perhaps best expressed by British journalist Francis Wheen in his excellent book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. Wheen’s theme is that the values of the Enlightenment are in retreat in the modern era. He defines those values as “an insistence on intellectual autonomy, a rejection of tradition and authority as the infallible sources of truth, a loathing for bigotry and persecution, a commitment to free inquiry, a belief that (in Francis Bacon’s words) knowledge is indeed power”.

These are of course fine values, indeed firmly intertwined with the Enlightenment period. But concomitant with them, in some eyes anyway, is the idea that they are antipathetical to religion in almost all forms. God, it seems, is unreasonable, and faith in God or Gods all the more so. The perception, however, that the main thinkers of the Enlightenment were atheist is somewhat erroneous. D’Holbach and Diderot certainly were and proudly so. It becomes fuzzier when people ascribe atheism to philosophers like David Hume or Spinoza, however. Both, after all, vigorously defended themselves against the accusation. However, there is a broad perspective, running from the Enlightenment period, or indeed even earlier, through to the critics of contemporary and recent SF, that the Enlightenment and religion are diametrically opposed, because they utilise different methods to pursue similar aims.

In this sense, Enlightenment values such as free inquiry are apparently not possible if an ancient text defines the parameters of research, and there is little point in pursuing knowledge if it has already been delivered in revelatory form. As James McGrath has acknowledged, “Both religion and science fiction tell stories that reflect on the place of human beings in the universe, good vs. evil, humanity’s future, and at times about the very nature of existence itself.” In proposing answers derived from revelation, religion relies upon transcendental authority, whereas science proposes provisional answers derived from the scientific method of observation, investigation, experimentation and analysis.

As a result, religion can be cast as antipathetic to knowledge, and hence to scientific inquiry, and ultimately to SF, the literary form which pursues ideas and which predicates itself on the propagation of science and the emulation of the scientific method in its production. This position is well summarised by the critic Paul Kincaid: “If we recognize SF as a literature forged in the rationalist revolution of the Renaissance and tempered in the secularist revolution of the enlightenment, then … as religion becomes a major issue in the world … a literature espousing rationalism and secularism seems more and more out of step with the world.”

What I’d like to question is whether that is indeed the only way to recognise SF? Certainly it seems to be the dominant way that critics have recognised it. Farah Mendelsohn, in a rare instance of a critic acknowledging religion in SF, notes that “SF is full of stories in which superstition is defeated by explanation; the immaterial is tamed by manifestation.” If religion must appear in SF, it must do so in order to be a whipping boy, a straw man opponent against the march of rationalist progress, as it does in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. But this is not the entirety of SF by any means.

For sure, a lot of SF authors have indeed been ardent atheists, or at the least, tended to show a greater faith in science than in any revelatory belief system. H.G. Wells loudly proclaimed his atheism and socialism to anyone who would listen, and this can easily be detected in the forms of utopia he expressed in his less interesting novels. In America, the maturing pulp tradition under the editorial eye of firstly Hugo Gernsback and later John Campbell firmly located the stories they fostered in a milieu that envisioned technological answers to all of humanity’s problems. The atom bomb blew a sizeable hole in this vision, no less than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it was decades later, with the advent of JG Ballard and the New Wave, before SF finally adopted a less than cheerleading position on scientific development.

SF came to prominence as a popular literary genre in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries alongside the rise of professional science, and insofar that it too sought to speculate about ontological possibilities and often featured scientific development and a positive attitude to mechanism and technology in its content, SF allied itself closely to science in any developing cultural arguments. In a culture slowly emerging from the legacy of Christian hegemony, SF came to associate itself with a progressivist, even radical, perception that science could and would supplant religion as the guiding societal and cultural ontology. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), this stance is illustrated by the alien overlord Karellen’s dismissive speech about the religious Wainwright:

“You will find men like him in all the world’s religions. They know that we represent reason and science, and, however confident they may be in their beliefs, they fear that we will overthrow their gods. Not necessarily through any deliberate act, but in a subtler fashion. Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets.”

Even the very title of Clarke’s novel suggests an arrogant progressivism; the scientific miracles offered by mankind’s alien mentors are, rather than simply swapping a faith in one higher power for another, presented as growing up out of a lengthy cultural adolescence that is defined at least in part by its religiosity. And yet, it is curious that in so many of Clarke’s novels, a certain transcendental mode is achieved which, though often argued away as a secular sense of wonder (or sensawunda), often specifically identifies Buddhism as exempt from its inherent antipathy to religion. Even Childhood’s End permits Buddhism to survive as a faith when all others fail in the face of the rational alien overlord. Buddhism too permeates The Fountains of Paradise, the 2001 cycle and many of his short stories too. We lose something important by reading Clarke solely through the prism of atheism. Not for nothing was he praised by the Dalai Lama and once accused of being a canny theologian by the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane.

But not all SF authors are as atheistic as Arthur. And even he, slyly, often referred to himself as pantheist or crypto-Buddhist. Leaving aside the whole welter of consciously religious SF, written by adherents of various faiths, there are reams of SF classics in which religious themes and the issue of faith are not present as mere whipping boys for atheism, but as a central motif and concern. To take three of the greatest mid-60s English language SF novels, Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light may posit advanced humans playing at Gods via technology, but the religious milieu is foregrounded much more so than the techno-explanation. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land introduces the idea of an alien religion, a theme also explored by Philip José Farmer among others. And Frank Herbert’s Dune, the best-selling SF novel of all time, presents a Messiah, syncretically generated from a combination of Jesuitism, Arab Islam and the Zen Buddhism which Herbert himself followed.

One might have thought that these three novels, appearing within a few short years, might have put to bed the idea that SF was intrinsically incompatible with religion. But it seems that every generation must reconsider the carefully policed borderlines of SF. In 1974, Theodore Sturgeon was moved to write in justification of the presence of religion in SF: “religion and science fiction are no strangers to one another, and the willingness of science fiction writers to delve into it, to invent and extrapolate and regroup ideas and concepts in this as in all other areas of human growth and change, delights me and is the source of my true love for the mad breed.”

Sturgeon, writing nearly a decade after Dune, insisted that SF should accommodate what he called the “infrarational”, a supralogical mode which includes religion. The infrarational, he wrote, is “that source of belief, faith, and motive which exists beside and above reason. So conditioned have we been by Aristotle, Kant, and Freud that we tend to believe that any force, object, or problem will yield to rational processes; when they don’t, we blame the process and call up yet more logic. The infrarational, however, is a very large component in us, and while reason calls it ignorance and stupidity (viz, trying to talk someone out of a fear of the dark or of snakes), it is neither. It is the infrarational, source of many of our motivations and the tint reservoir of much of our thinking. We will never succeed in reaching our optimum as a species until we learn the nature of the infrarational. We may fail as a species unless we do.”

However, we may still be failing as a species. In late April, Nnedi Okorafor took to social media after reading one too many well-meaning tweets that praised her novel Lagoon: “I wake up to someone saying Lagoon is an ‘amazing fantasy story’. Whyyyyy is it so hard for people to say my name and science fiction?? What is that? “Unfamiliar cultures” does not equal fantasy. “Different spiritual worldview” does not equal fantasy. Check yourself. If the story has aliens in it invading Lagos, it’s science fiction. And that’s my TED Talk for today.” Does the presence of aliens alone designate SF? Even according to Marxist critic Darko Suvin, aliens would qualify as a novum, his defining characteristic of SF. Yet there appears to be confusion among Okorafor’s fans. This is, perhaps, understandable, since mainstream critics like Gary Wolfe and Alexandra Alter have firmly, and perhaps sloppily, located Okorafor within the fantasy genre. Clearly Okorafor, quite legitimately, sees herself as writing in both genres, or perhaps even across them.

Her earliest novel, The Shadow Speaker, is set in a post-apocalyptic future with alien planets, but also has a peace bomb made with magic, and features many religious references. Zahrah the Windseeker, which won the Wole Soyinka prize in 2008, features magical children who express some of the myths of West Africa. Who Fears Death, her first adult novel, won the 2011 World Fantasy Award and obtained nominations for the Locus and the Nebula, despite its post-apocalyptic setting. Again it features magic and African mythology strongly. Akata Witch, as the title suggests, again features a magical female child protagonist. It is arguable, therefore, that Lagoon’s appearance in 2014 was a paradigm shift of sorts for Okorafor, from fantasy to more science fictional material. Certainly, the Binti trilogy which followed, with its space travel, tentacled aliens and Hugo and Nebula awards, is indisputably SF.

She is hardly the first writer to move seamlessly between fantastical sub-genres, and she has recognised in the past that she writes on the borders of cultures, which perhaps inspires her ability to traverse those carefully-policed genre borders also. She told NPR in 2016: “That’s very much a part of my identity, and it’s also very much a reason why I think I ended up writing science fiction and fantasy because I live on these borders – and these borders that allow me to see from multiple perspectives and kind of take things in and then kind of process certain ideas and certain stories in a very unique way. And that has led me to write this strange fiction that I write, which really isn’t that strange if you really look at it through a sort of skewed lens.”

That skewed lens seems to be throwing some of her fans, who seem incapable of acknowledging a SF novel from an author who had previously delivered fantasy novels inspired by the mythology of her Nigerian heritage. However, they are in good company, no less purblind to the obvious than those critics who insist that religion is misplaced in SF. Perhaps the critics are the more culpable because theirs is a willing blindness to the necessity of the infrarational. It is a necessity that has been explored by Frank Herbert, and Nnedi Okorafor, and a myriad other SF writers. SF inflected not only by Catholicism, but by Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Islam, Judaism and any number of indigenous belief systems has existed for a very long time and continues to thrive today.

The origin myth of SF told by many of its critics is erroneous. The Enlightenment was mostly the product of religious minds, and was not antipathetic to religion, though religion was often antipathetic to it at times. The scientific method is a method for closing in on truth, not a faith-based belief system in itself as so often misunderstood. And insofar as SF emulates that method, it is not the in-house literature of ardent atheists, but of all future-focused readers interested in speculation and ideas.

It’s time for the logical fallacy to come to an end. SF is not only the legacy of HG Wells but also of CS Lewis. At its best, in novels like Dune or Lagoon, it embraces the infrarational which Sturgeon wrote about, the “different spiritual worldview” which some of Okorafor’s readers, and many SF critics, find uneasy. Yet religion is an inherent part of SF – not its totality, but far from something to be denied or excluded. It’s okay to have some faith in the future.

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Bibliography:

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End, London: Ballantine, 1953.

Arthur C. Clarke, The Fountains of Paradise, London: Gollancz, 1979.

Jim Clarke, Science Fiction and Catholicism: The Rise and Fall of the Robot Papacy, Canterbury: Gylphi, 2019.

Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 1961.

Frank Herbert, Dune, Boston: Chilton Books, 1965.

Paul Kincaid, “Fiction since 1992”, in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, London: Routledge, 2003.

Farah Mendelsohn, “Religion and Science Fiction”, in Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, Eds. Edward James and Farah Mendelsohn, Cambridge: CUP, 2003.

Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014.

Theodore Sturgeon, “Science Fiction, Morals, and Religion”, in Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow, Ed. Reginald Bretnor, New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Francis Wheen, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, London: Fourth Estate, 2004.

Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light, New York: Doubleday, 1967.

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Bio:

Jim Clarke is a Senior Lecturer in English and Journalism at Coventry University, where he teaches SF. He is the author of The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess (2017) and Science Fiction and Catholicism (2019). He has written on Anthony Burgess, JG Ballard, Iain M. Banks and many other SF authors, and is also co-investigator of the Ponying the Slovos project, which explores how invented literary languages function in translation and adaptation: www.ponyingtheslovos.wordpress.com/

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