by Andy Dibble
Strange Religion: Speculative Fiction of Spirituality, Belief, & Practice, which I recently edited—part of the Strange Concepts series put out by TDotSpec—was conceived with the goal of helping readers engage with religion meaningfully through science fiction and fantasy. The reasons for this anthology are diverse. Some editors have reservations about publishing stories that engage with real religious traditions because they worry such content will offend segments of their readership. I and other editors at TDotSpec wanted to give a platform both to stories that dig into ideas that surround and comprise religion and stories that engage with religious traditions as they are actually found in the real world. There have been speculative publications dedicated to particular traditions—Wandering Stars (1974, Harper & Row), an anthology of Jewish science fiction and Mysterion, which publishes Christian speculative fiction, come to mind—but I know of no anthology that aims to cut across religious traditions.
Connecting Religious Traditions With Science Fiction and Fantasy
One of the goals of Strange Religion is to synergize science fiction and religion, to help readers imagine religions of the future. “Al-Muftiyah” by Jibril Stevenson follows a Muslim man, who seeks to undermine an AI capable of settling all disputes involving fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. “The Rebbetzin Speaks” by Daniel M. Kimmel is a series of Dear-Abby-style questions and answers that engage with points of halakhah (Jewish rabbinical law) in a future where humans have populated the solar system. “The Fireflies of Todaji” by Russell Hemmell centers on two women—one Japanese, the other South Indian—whose families have migrated to the Moon as they consider the meaning of a traditional Japanese water festival in a community that has to conserve water to survive. Set further in the future is “Before the Evolution Comes the Smoke” by Terri Bruce, in which an orphaned woman performs rituals to gain access to AI witches in order to bring her parents back to life, and “Bio-Mass” by Mike Adamson, in which a jaded galactic tourist reassesses the value of his long life.
On the other hand, Strange Religion also seeks to immerse readers in the worldview of religious persons of particular traditions, which is primarily the province of fantasy. The characters of “Shattered Vessels” by Robert B. Finegold and Kary English are cut from the ten sefirot of Jewish mysticism (kabbalah). “The Gods Also Duel” by Andrew Majors imagines two conflicts in parallel: a dispute over temple taxation and divine justice on one hand and feuding Daoist gods of sun and rain on the other. My own story “Deep Play” considers how an American college student reassesses his Cambodian Buddhist heritage after the hells of all the world’s religions are thrust upon him during a clinical study. “*lr*d” by Doug Hawley, considers the difficulty of accessing religious worldviews that are far removed from historians in time and space.
Countering Misconceptions About Religion
Strange Religion is a counterpoint to some of the biases and misconceptions about religion found in speculative fiction. There’s a segment of speculative fiction that envisions religion on the model of Christianity or on a particular view of Christianity. This is where the mistaken notion that religions are “belief systems” comes from. Outside of Christianity, and especially Protestant Christianity, it’s much more common for religion to be about what you do or how you identify yourself than what you believe.
To counter this misconception, Strange Religion includes stories that engage with a variety of religious traditions, including Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Humanism, Chinese religion, Hinduism, and indigenous traditions. Additionally, the several stories that engage with Christianity help readers understand it from new perspectives. “Dying Rivers and Broken Hearts” by Gabriella Buba centers on a Filipina witch, who identifies as Catholic. A Nigerian-Igbo man, who is also a convert to Protestant Christianity, brings charges of homosexuality against his American friend in an Igbo court of law in “The Man Who Misused His Manhood” by Chukwu Sunday Abel. “The Devil is a Shape in the Brain” by Joachim Glage explores universal Christian salvation, drawing upon the occult, nineteen-century psychology, and cosmic horror. “The Other War on Terror” by Michael H. Hanson is set in an alternative history where the United States is a Muslim nation and the terrorists are Christians. There are stories in Strange Religion with a theological bent—stories focused on clarifying or interrogating orthodoxy—but the bulk of stories are about people acting, using the tools available to them, religious or otherwise, to bring about change in themselves, their communities, and the cosmos.
Also from Christianity and modern secularism, we have the idea that religion is only the vocation of clergy or an activity limited to certain parts of life—what we do when we aren’t “rendering unto Caesar.” But in many cultures and traditions, especially in the developing world, religion is integrated into every aspect of life. About half of all languages don’t even have a word for religion. Religious studies scholars have largely given up trying to define “religion,” and some following J. Z. Smith, believe the term shouldn’t even be used by scholars.
To counter this misconception, we selected several stories that show people solving everyday struggles, that demonstrate religion isn’t just for certain times of the week: A software developer teams up with a rabbi on a metaphysical programming project in “Fate and Other Variables” by Alex Shvartsman—but his goal is to save his brother from addiction and drug dealers. In “Samsara” by J. A. Legg, a Bangladeshi Hindu teen struggles with an absent father and demanding relatives as she grapples with a corporate tycoon seeking to reincarnate as her unborn child. “The Life That Comes After” by Lauren Teffeau follows an overworked hospice nurse trying to protects a secretive organization from oversight by new administration.
Some writers coming at religion from an atheist or secularist perspective, characterize religion as world-denying, oppressive, doctrinal, backward, and the like. These labels fit—some of the time—but when thinking about religion it’s crucial to keep in mind the tremendous diversity that characterizes the world’s religions. Beyond what can be said about humans in general, it’s very difficult to say anything at all about religion in general. We can interrogate our concept of religion, but we should be careful about how and when we apply that concept to real people and communities.
To counter such labels, Strange Religion helps readers think about religion as scholars do. Following each story are discussion questions written by a scholar. These questions aim at wider themes in religious studies—e.g. syncretism (borrowing between and merging of religious traditions), tradition vs. modernity, theodicy (justifying God’s goodness in the face of evil), the afterlife, and others—or the religious tradition(s) the story engages with. Sometimes these questions pry at weaknesses in the story and encourage readers to question a line of argument made by an author or draw in considerations the author may not have addressed. In a similar way, stories in Strange Religion sometimes take a critical or even humorous stance toward particular religious traditions, but criticisms are aimed at specifics and particulars rather than a product of the hasty characterizations we make about traditions before we’ve acquired a depth of understanding. Criticisms of religious traditions—or better yet particular movements, people, or actions within traditions—do not always have to be appreciated by religious insiders, but they have to account for what people are actually saying and doing.
Andy Dibble is a healthcare IT consultant who believes that play is the highest function of theology. His work also appears in Writers of the Future Volume 36 and Space & Time. He is Articles Editor for Speculative North. You can find him at andydibble.com.