Another Perspective

Religious Science Fiction?

Since when do atheism and science fiction go hand in hand?

By 10.7.10

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A magazine I frequently write for (not this one) recently published a review of a book of essays advocating atheism. The reviewer pointed out with some enthusiasm that a large number of the contributors were science-fiction writers.

This left me somewhat nonplussed. I publish a good deal of science fiction myself, I have also read quite a lot of it, and I am quite unable to see why writing it should be held to particularly qualify anyone to answer the question of whether or not there is a God.

I don't know if it is an actual requirement for the job, but certainly a number of astronauts are believers and Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, is a lay preacher.

I would be inclined to take their feelings about Cosmology with more respect than those of even the best-published science-fiction writer.

Historically the contribution of the Catholic Church to astronomy was massive and unequalled. Without it astronomy might very well never have grown out of astrology at all. Cathedrals in Bologna, Florence, Paris, Rome and elsewhere were designed in the 17th and 18th centuries to function as solar observatories. Kepler was assisted by a number of Jesuit astronomers, including Father Paul Guldin and Father Zucchi, and by Giovanni Cassini, who had studied under Jesuits. Cassini and Jesuit colleagues were eventually able to confirm Kepler's theory on the Earth having an elliptical orbit. J.L. Heilbron of the University of California has written:

The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions.

Science fiction is, by definition, fiction, that is, it deals with things which are the product of a writer's imagination and are not literally true. In any event, what is and what is not science fiction is hard to define. Simply to say it is about science is meaningless, and while some science-fiction writers are qualified scientists, many are not. Probably even fewer are trained theologians.

There is a dividing line between science fiction and fantasy that has never been properly marked. No one would call The Lord of the Rings (whose author was a devout Catholic) science-fiction although it deals with strange creatures in an imaginary world, or at least an imaginary phase of Earth's history.

Actually, many science-fiction writers may well be religious believers. The typical themes of science-fiction do not call upon the writer to nail his religious or anti-religious colors to the mast. The number of either religious or anti-religious works of science-fiction is relatively small. C. S. Lewis is probably the best known of the small band of writers who set out to write specifically Christian science fiction with Out of the Silent Planet and Voyage to Venus (also published as Perelanda). His third book in this trilogy, That Hideous Strength, about a University and powerful government department being taken over by devil-worshipers who are finally overcome with the help of Merlin, cannot really be called science fiction. The Man-Kzin Wars, a series to which I contribute, has fierce carnivorous aliens, and at times touches on the problems of their beliefs and of converting them. James Blish also wrote some "religious" stories but these, such as one ending with the conversion of Satan after God hands His job over to him, are really too fanciful to count as serious religious works. There are a lot of stories about deals with the Devil that come into the same category.

The total of "religious" science fiction that is published and also worth reading is small, which is perhaps simply a reflection of the fact that little religious art of high quality is being produced in any area today.

Science fiction it seems is not a particularly suitable vehicle for either religious or anti-religious propagandizing. H. G. Wells wrote one anti-God story, "The Island of Doctor Moreau" -- it could also be read, depending on the reader's preferences, as an anti-Darwinian story -- which he later disparaged as "an exercise in youthful blasphemy," but he also wrote several stories inclined the other way.

To write good religious science fiction, or indeed good religious fiction of any kind, is a challenge but one that it would be worthwhile trying to meet. It seems a pity the field has been apparently abandoned to pernicious rubbish like The Da Vinci Code, though this seems already, mercifully, to have faded away. In this, as in other areas, we could do with another C. S. Lewis to re-state the principles of Christianity in terms to stir the imagination.

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About the Author
Hal G.P. Colebatch's "Immram," Counterstrike, is being published by Australian publisher Imaginites.