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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Godless science fiction writers; godless science fiction

Via Pharyngula I found this slighty odd warning to beware science fiction. Only slightly odd, because it contains a grain of truth: there is a serious tension between the assumptions of science fiction and a worldview based on a doctrine of biblical inerrancy or priestly authority, and it's not surprising that the majority of well-known science fiction writers reject any conventional sort of religion. When Udo Schuklenk and I put together 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, we had no trouble finding people from the science fiction community who were enthusiastic about the project. If there's ever a sequel, we'll find others of equal stature. (It's also true that many or most mainstream authors are atheists, or at least not conventionally religious, but in my experience it is considerably more difficult to find mainstream authors who are prepared to give priority to public criticism of religion.)

The author of this anti-sf screed, apparently one David Cloud, laments that,

Science fiction takes the reader into a strange world without God. Oh, there might be "a god," a "force," but it is definitely not the God of the Bible, and the prominent names in this field are atheists.

He concludes:

Science fiction is intimately associated with Darwinian evolution. Sagan and Asimov, for example, were prominent evolutionary scientists. Sci-fi arose in the late 19th and early 20th century as a product of an evolutionary worldview that denies the Almighty Creator. In fact, evolution IS the pre-eminent science fiction. Beware!

Leave aside the fact that Sagan and Asimov were not evolutionary scientists - Sagan was an astronomer/astrophysicist and Asimov a biochemist rather than an evolutionary biologist. It's true that science fiction arose in response to developments in science and technology, but not just to the theory of biological evolution.

Most of the article is devoted to listing various people who were famously associated with sf, with brief descriptions to warn us of their godless ways. For example, Robert A. Heinlein is described as follows:

Consider ROBERT HEINLEIN, called “the dean of science fiction writers.” He rejected the Bible and promoted "free sex." His book "Stranger in a Strange Land" is considered "the unofficial bible of the hippie movement." Heinlein was a nudist and practiced "polyandry." He promoted agnosticism in his sci-fi books.

This is all slightly odd, particularly the bit about "polyandry" - I don't think the author knows what this word means. I suspect he's looking for the word "polyamory". Still, it's not wildly wrong: Stranger in a Stranger Land was, indeed, a kind of bible for the hippie movement, and somewhat beyond that; and it remains influential on many people for its critique of monogamy (among other things). Mr Cloud gets nuances wrong throughout, but his overall message of warning is not crazy if you buy into his fundamentalist religiosity in the first place. If you are a Young Earth Creationist and a supporter of religious sexual morality, science fiction is not going to be for you. By its nature, science fiction promotes rational thought and subverts traditional religious worldviews.

To understand this, we should see science fiction as a cultural phenomenon produced by distinctive historical circumstances. Even before the era of modern technoscience, human societies had, of course, always experienced change - from wars, famines, and plagues, for example - but the idea of future societies with radically different social and economic organisation was probably unthinkable before the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while the transformation of societies by the irreversible advance of technology became apparent only in the nineteenth (see Robert Scholes's excellent little book, Stuctural Fabulation, for more on this). For the first time, it became possible to think of a future greatly different from the present as a result of continuing changes in technology and scientifically-based knowledge.

As science began to investigate the very small, the very distant, and the long history of the world and its many forms of life, a new understanding of the cosmos emerged during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the end of the eighteenth century, scientists were starting to describe the extreme vastness of space and the astonishing depth of time. A far more precise understanding of the magnitudes involved was worked out through the twentieth century and up to the present day. Humanity's understanding of its own place in the cosmos altered drastically over a period of just a few hundred years. Homo sapiens came to be understood as a product of vast space and deep time, a species with an evolutionary origin and a psychological nature honed by millions of years of Darwinian adaptation. Nothing in this picture refers to a god, let alone to humanity as the focus of a god's concern.

Though the scientific picture of the cosmos remains incomplete, much of it is now well-evidenced and too robust for any reversal to be imagined. The basic propositions of biological evolution, for example, are now so well-supported by evidence that they should be accepted as facts. The scientific picture destroys old concepts of human exceptionalism, while offering marvels more astonishing (if less intuitive to beings like us) than anything found in pre-scientific mythmaking.

Thus, the last few centuries - since Galileo, say - have seen a breakthrough in conceptualising the cosmos, the past, the future, and ourselves. This has offered new opportunities for storytelling. During the nineteenth century, imaginative writers increasingly speculated about technological devices not yet invented; conceived of diverse possible futures; or filled the immense universe, the imaginary future, and the deep past with exotic locations for tales of adventure and heroism. As the pace of social, scientific, and technological change accelerated during the twentieth century, narratives of technological innovation and futuristic prospects became even more culturally prominent. Science fiction, as the emerging genre came to be known in the 1930s, expanded into new media such as radio, cinema, comics, and television.

That does not mean that science fiction is monolithic in its attitudes to science and technology. While science fiction gives at least nominal assent to the emerging scientific picture off the cosmos, the scientific picture is often presented in a greatly distorted and simplified form. Furthermore, although typical science fiction narratives raise questions about the effects of technological development on individual humans and human society, some are far more optimistic than others. Many sf authors evidently see technoscience as a blessing, many others as a curse. Optimists imagine the development of a more mature, less warlike, humanity, the wise integration of technoscience into society, and expansion into space. Pessimists emphasise the dangers of science and technology, often illustrated by narratives set in unpleasant future societies - and even more often dramatised by the rampages of new kinds of monsters (think, for a start, of Dr Frankenstein's creation, then track forward to the giant reptiles and insects of 1950s movies, and to the many science-based monsters of present-day sf).

With all these differences among individual works and authors, however, science fiction assumes, and thus promotes, the essential truth of the emerging scientific picture. It also assumes that human societies are open to change, including change in such things as religious beliefs. While there are narratives in which such institutions as the Roman Catholic Church prevail into the deep future, the general attitude to religion is a more anthropological one: the various future or alien religions depicted by science fiction writers are not affirmed as true, but are scrutinised for their wisdom or lack of it, used to drive the plot forward, or created simply to give extra depth and detail to fictional societies. The implicit message is that current religions are merely the mythologies of current societies, and they will not necessarily persist in times to come, even if something about human psychology drives us to create religion or myth of some kind or other.

It follows that science fiction really is dangerous stuff from the viewpoint of religious fundamentalists, or even from that of a "moderate" religious person who sees her particular religion, claims about the supernatural and all, as actually true. Science fiction, even when it presents simplified, distorted, or laughably incorrect science, tends to undermine traditional religious pictures of the universe and our place in it. That, of course, need not be a bad thing!


Edited: to pick up a fair point made over at RichardDawkins.net.

25 comments:

JonJ said...

What does this imply about the enormous popularity of fantasy, which has largely taken over from SF in the last two decades? Fantasy worlds are typically set in a static --usually medieval -- location, and their plots rely on mysterious supernatural powers which are never investigated or explained by rational means. Clearly there are links between popular fantasy and the New Age movement, but is there also a deeper link to traditional conservatism and fear of change?

Anonymous said...

I glad you brought this up because after listening to you on Life Matters, I got to thinking about why I was an atheist. And one of principal factors I came up with was that while through Sunday School I was getting a Christian worldview, outside of that I was getting a naturalistic worldview, and a lot of that would have come from SF. Even more so than from any science education I'd got to that point I think. The exposure to all those human futures in which the Christian worldview was irrelevant gave me my conception of the world - one without God.

So the fundamentalist is right.

And following on from what JonJ asks, I wonder what the eclipse of SF by fantasy on the bookshelves might point to.

Russell Blackford said...

The situation with fantasy is more complicated. I'll add it to my growing list of things I promise to post on separately. It's certainly notable that several of the most famous fantasy writers - e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis - were deeply religious. But William Morris, who was largely responsible for the creation of the modern fantasy genre - was decidedly not. Likewise for many contemporary fantasy writers, among whom I number quite a few friends, including some very close ones. Then there's the fact that I've dabbled (with some success!) in writing fantasy myself.

I think that fantasy is motivated, in part, by certain kinds of nostalgia. In particular, it reacted, historically, to the ugly industrial landscapes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But I think its relationship to religion is quite complicated, and it may sometimes be as subversive as science fiction. The last thing that Morris would have wanted to be was an apologist for religion ... and the same applies to many contemporary fantasy writers (including such a major figure as Philip Pullman).

But I need to consider this a bit more. It's a while since I've specifically focused on this issue.

Are any of my fantasy-writer friends reading this?

Alan said...

I'm not a direct friend of yours, but I am a fantasy writer! And a sci fi and horror writer. For one thing, I question the claim that fantasy is taking over from SF. There's been a lot of talk about that lately, but no really convincing evidence. The current success of Avatar alone should point that out to some degree.

Also, I write urban fantasy/horror stuff mostly and my stuff is heavily influenced by religious themes and the exploration thereof - it's excellent fodder for stories. I think a lot of fantasy explores religious themes, but a lot also explores magic and the supernatural without themes that we would recognise as religious.

Then there's the concept of what's actually SF and what's fantasy (Star Wars, which is both, being the primary example - spaceships and the Force). I don't think it's so easy to categorise.

ephman said...

not all sci-fi writers are atheists.... didn't l. ron hubbard invent his own religion. now how many writers get to do that huh?

SaintStephen said...

Interesting read, Mr. Blackford.

Are any of your science-fiction stories available online?

If so, and if freely accessible, can you provide a link or two?

If so, thanks, and if not thanks anyway!

Russell Blackford said...

My website (see the links on the left of this blog) has some extracts, but I'm afraid that none of my works of fiction are available free, in their entirety, online.

SaintStephen said...

Well, I already purchased (and am still enjoying) 50 Voices Of Disbelief, so don't think I'm a cheapskate or nuthin'... ;-P

I'll look for your Sci-Fi paperbacks (?) at Barnes & Noble or Borders.

James Sweet said...

When I was a young Mormon boy (in another life, on a distant planet) I read a fair amount of Orson Scott Card. Even at that age, being too young to have really questioned my parents' faith, the tension between Card's need to cling to Mormon doctrine and the fantastical implausibility of it in any sort of halfway-interesting sci-fi setting was palpable. It reached it's peak in the rather bizarre short story collection Folk of the Fringe, about wandering Mormons in a post-apocalyptic future. Yes, really.

Lemniscate said...

I would have to credit SF in my journey towards uncompromising atheism. SF was the first genre of fiction I took a personal interest - other books had been foisted on me by parents. Reading Arthur C. Clarke and Olaf Stapledon as a young teen really had a profound impact on my view of humanity's place in the cosmos. After that, I'm not sure if the parochial worldview of traditional religious belief would seem anything other than a historically contingent and man-made myth.

Brian M said...

Great website! (Discovered via Ophelia Benson)

One of my favorite relatively recent sci fi novels was the Golden Transcendence trilogy, by John C. Wright. A little clunky in writing style, but what an amazing world he created. Sadly, I discovered the man believes he literally met the Virgin Mary and is now a bit of a right-libertarian crank, but...what a trilogy!

Shatterface said...

'Still, it's not wildly wrong: Stranger in a Stranger Land was, indeed, a kind of bible for the hippie movement,'

Charles Manson for one!

Still, I agree SF tends towards skepticism towards religion.

I think it was Michael Moorcock who coined the term 'Shaggy God Stories' for SF stories which provide rational explanations for religious myths. These tales can't be regarded as 'religious' since they provide 'natural' rather than supernatural explanations - even if 'natural' is stretched by the inclusion of time travel or ESP.

Dave Cake said...

While the quote about Heinlein enjoying 'polyandry' is confused, it is certainly the case that Stranger in a Strange Land in particular was heavily influential on the modern polyamory movement, particularly via Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart of the Church of All Worlds.

sazerac said...

Regarding Heinlein and polyandry, i'm not convinced the fundy was mistaken. Heinlein seems like such a weirdo that wife sharing would appeal to him more than your vanilla sort of polyamory. I was disappointed that in demonizing Heinlein, the fundy forgot to mention rank misogyny.

Regarding fantasy, sci-fi and religion, I offer that fantasy provides one further degree of freedom. Though the particulars may remain undefined, sci-fi necessarily holds SOMETHING sacrosanct. This is akin to dogma. If the emotional drive of atheism is against dogma more than deity, the potential for science fiction to present a tension may be relieved by removing all that is sacrosanct. What remains is fantasy.

The currents here seem to hold sway beyond the literary. If atheism removes the religious foundation of culture, what must take it's place? Secular humanism has been offered, but there are huge challenges in making up a new religion. One of these involves social glue. The power of myth is the power to connect through imagination. Secular humanism withers the myth of the past. Only the future can be vital.

Returning to the literary, fantasy can suffer from a similar challenge to connect. Fantasy offers more freedom to suspend disbelief, but when fantasy loses it's relevance to reality, it loses some power to connect. When fantasy makes great use of balance in this regard, the result often resembles ancient myths. It is beautiful and highly compelling. People are tempted to dispense with disbelief altogether.

John Cowan said...

Tolkien was a Catholic, yes, but the religiosity of its work is in strong tension with, thought not outright contradiction to, Catholic thought. In particular, as Shippey and others have pointed out, Tolkien goes to great pains to leave it ambiguous whether evil in the form of the One Ring is just a negation of good (as the Church would insist), or whether it has a reality/mentality of its own. Similarly, the whole idea of the Elves as finite rational beings who are reincarnated serially after death doesn't actually oppose any specific Catholic doctrine, but it's certainly a weird idea from a Catholic perspective.

David B. Ellis said...

One point that I noted at my blog:

http://dbellisblog.blogspot.com/2010/01/dangers-of-science-fiction.html

And which Cloud entirely neglected is that there actually are quite a few Christian science fiction writers out there (even if they are a minority) and someone who wants to avoid reading anything by people who don't share their beliefs (sounds boring to me, but, hey, it that's your thing...) can still read a pretty huge number of works of SF.

From CS Lewis' OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET to, more recently, Michael Flynn's EIFELHEIM.

sean williams said...

Just dipping my oar in, briefly. Great post, Russell. The discussion about fantasy is fascinating too, and well worth going into more detail.

I can't speak for all writers in the genre, of course, but I find no conflict between being an atheist and fantasy. I read fantasy novels the same way I'd read the bible: as a fabulous story set against an impossible background. Only in the case of fantasy, no one is trying to convince me that it's true.

My last series for adults, the Books of the Cataclysm, was in part built upon my attempt to create a pantheology that operated on Darwinist principles. So there's that, too.

Keep up the good work!

Theo Bromine said...

quoth sazerac:
I was disappointed that in demonizing Heinlein, the fundy forgot to mention rank misogyny.

It has been a while (like maybe 30+ years) since I read any Heinlein, but if by "misogyny" you mean that his writing displayed an attitude towards women as being useful mostly as sex objects, as well as being inferior (intellectually and otherwise), I don't see why a fundamentalist preacher would disagree in principle.

sazerac said...

I don't see why a fundamentalist preacher would disagree in principle.

i'm admit that i'm being intensely cynical here but i'm suggesting that a fundy would not spend his political capital against misogyny because doing so might confuse his audience. that sort of talk usually comes from the left. also, he might have to answer some tough questions if gender equality became the topic of conversation

Theo Bromine said...

A fundy would see no reason to bother spending his political capital speaking against misogyny, since Heinlein's views in this area are not at all inconsistent with the Christian right.

sazerac said...

even mike huckabee?

Theo Bromine said...

quoth sazerac:

even mike huckabee?

I don't know what Huckabee's views are on gender issues. Most fundamentalists would likely hesitate to explicitly use the term "inferior".

Does Huckabee believe that the primary role of a woman (as ordained by God) is to bear and raise children? If not, he is diverging from standard fundamentalism. I suggest that it is impossible to hold such a view while also supporting the goals of gender equality and equal opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it healthy to engage with reasonable people who disagree with you? I would hope that would be a basic tenant no matter what bent you're coming from. I realize lots of people eschew that which they know they won't agree with, but that ain't the way to do it. It's critical to hear what the "other" has to say. And to truly hear them out. Whether you're a theist reading Stapledon or an atheist reading Lewis or an agnostic reading both, how will you ever be content with your life's perspective without having taken someone else's seriously?

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