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Religion and Godless Science Fiction

 One of science fiction’s main tasks is to tackle the salient questions of today,
and...
One exception is the dystopian utopia depicted in Brave New World. In the
World State everyone follows the religion of Our...
Albertian Order of Leibowitz is tasked with not only with keeping the spiritual
heritage of pre-Flame Deluge mankind but a...
the Seldon Plan removes individuality and free will in order that mankind can
progress21. However, stories concerned with ...
nature remains unchanged. This is the reason that science has not dispensed with
religion as many predicted, nor the rever...
Bibliography
Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-9).
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932).
Robert A. H...
Notes
7
1 Another common method of avoidance is to use religious concepts in a way that completely strips
them of all reli...
8
27 Kevitt, The Transcendent Adventure, p. 140.
28 Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, p. 144.
29 Kevitt, The Transcendent ...
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SF Essay

  1. 1. Religion and Godless Science Fiction One of science fiction’s main tasks is to tackle the salient questions of today, and one that can be traced throughout its history is the dichotomy of science and religion. Both are comprehensive worldviews, offering change to society based upon a set of ideals, and both are inherently cultural and social ideologies, with wide- ranging political implications. But while the scientific worldview is based upon rationalism, logic and mathematics, the religious worldview is based upon faith, tradition and God. However, science fiction very rarely explores religion as a serious ideology. It ignores it entirely or treats is as something unimportant (as in Star Trek); deconstructs it so that it is entirely explainable by scientific fact (such as Brave New World); or trivialises it to the point of superstition (as in Foundation).1 A notable exception is A Canticle for Leibowitz, a rare science fiction book that is inherently religious in themes, content and ideology. As different as these worldviews can be, A Canticle proves that science fiction has much to gain from comparing the two sides in a way that engages seriously with both. A prevailing view in science fiction is the assumption that religion is ephemeral: a symptom of humanity’s current plight. Most 20th century science fiction operates under this assumption, arising from the widespread disillusionment with religion that occurred during the 19th century. It is expressed commonly in utopian works, most iconically in popular culture in Star Trek. The relentlessly rational Federation, have created a scientific utopia, thus eradicating many causes of dissension, including religion (secular utopian fiction rarely considers that religion can be a powerful way of uniting diverse groups). As Frederick A. Kreuziger argues, ‘science fiction utopias and future history have served too often as mechanisms for exonerating the guilt of... scientific saviors, who have declared war on the poor (instead of diseased institutions), on ethnic identity and pride (instead of racial prejudice)’2. Eradicating religion to make utopia possible, in Kreuziger’s view, misses the point of the human story. 1
  2. 2. One exception is the dystopian utopia depicted in Brave New World. In the World State everyone follows the religion of Our Ford, and it is a force that contributes to ‘universal happiness’. The reader can see immediately that this religion is a fake—an unsatisfying and meaningless worship of industrialisation— even though it gives the citizens ‘a rich and living peace’3. ‘“Religious sentiment is superfluous”’ in the World State because God arises from humans dealing with suffering, and so without suffering, humans are ‘“independent of God”’4. Though when questioned on the existence of a God, the Controller conjectures that ‘“there quite probably is one”’—a very telling admission that belief in God is indeed something vital to human nature, but denied to the people as something that ‘“isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness.”’5 Religion as a meaningful ideology has been completely stripped by the World State in the name of stability. The overall impression is that religion is no more fundamental or ‘natural’ than ‘“to do up one’s trousers with zippers”’. As Mustapha Mond concludes, ‘“people believe in God because they’ve been conditioned to”’6. Foundation shows clearly the view that religion is no more than superstition. Salvor Hardin inspires a ‘“religion-controlled commercial empire”’ to ‘“increase the security of the Foundation”’7. As in Brave New World, this is no more than a method of control—a way of subtly absorbing worlds into the Foundation. The characters are very clear that this religion is for the foolish, uneducated masses—that they believe it but we don’t8. In order to achieve this territorial sleight of hand, the Foundation uses its superior technology to simulate divine miracles; a treatment for cancer, ‘radioactive synthetics’, is referred to by Foundation priests as ‘Holy Food’9. In Foundation, ‘religious commitment of any kind is superstition maintained by the self-interested fraudulence of a ruling power’ and is simply ‘designed to mislead mankind’10. With many science fiction works shying away from maturely approaching religion, it is a wonder that A Canticle for Leibowitz succeeds so spectacularly. It is clearly a religious Catholic work, emphasised by its tripartite structure. The 2
  3. 3. Albertian Order of Leibowitz is tasked with not only with keeping the spiritual heritage of pre-Flame Deluge mankind but also its scientific knowledge; the scientist- turned-Cistercian father Leibowitz sets the tone for the contents. ‘Miller does not see religion and science as in any way antithetical’11, writes Frank David Kevitt, and in fact makes them partners. It is in Fiat Lux where the two callings of the Order first come into conflict. Secular science, personified by Thon Taddeo, is emerging and takes an interest in the knowledge kept and venerated by the monks. Immediately he clashes with Abbot Dom Paulo, as he is only interested in the rule of ‘“men of understanding, men of science”’12. This view is strongly countered when Taddeo wonders how the earlier civilisation could have possibly destroyed themselves, to which Marcus Apollo responds ‘“by being materially great and materially wise, and nothing else.”’13. To the monks of Leibowitz, ‘the scientists’ definition of what constitutes good use of knowledge has failed’14 and only high (religious) moral standards can ensure that science is used for good. Taddeo specifically refuses to make moral judgment when challenged to do so by Dom Paulo, which the abbot views as a denial of responsibility15. He simply cannot understand the abbot’s viewpoint, arguing ‘“If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise... the world will never have it.”’16 This highlights a basic misunderstanding for secular scientists of religious ideology, that science is not the whole of ‘man’s nature and inheritance’17 but only a part. Both arguments are presented with merit and both are treated with respect (particularly the discussion on euthanasia in Fiat Voluntas Tua18), showing Miller’s mature approach to both ideologies. These central conflicts in A Canticle for Leibowitz can be understood in terms of Kreuziger’s terminology of emancipation and redemption19. Science fiction stories about emancipation (which includes utopian fiction) vindicate ‘the wholesale sacrifice of humankind’ for ‘freedom, equality, justice, economic success or intellectual awakening’20. These are based on the principle that the individual is not as important as the whole—a view shared in Foundation by Seldon’s phychohistory; 3
  4. 4. the Seldon Plan removes individuality and free will in order that mankind can progress21. However, stories concerned with redemption like A Canticle believe the individual to be of equal importance as the whole—every person is ‘“the image of Christ”’22. Redemption, and what Kreuziger calls the “we are not alone” trope, grounds ‘the unfolding of history in the successive affirmations of the dignity of all human persons’23, which is Miller’s view. The dying Abbot Zerchi observes the least of God’s creatures, the mutant woman Mrs. Grales, to be the answer to original sin and the birth of a new hope for humanity in the form of Mrs. Grales’ withered sister- head Rachel24; the one is the salvation of the whole. Thus are fundamentally religious concepts of God’s plan, suffering, apocalypse and original sin explored to fruition in Miller’s science fiction. It was assumed in the 19th century until the mid-20th that scientific discovery would continue unabated, that technology would eventually emancipate everyone, thereby eliminating the need for religion altogether. However, history and current predictions have shown this is unlikely to be the case, especially after the ‘great age of disillusionment with science and technology’ following ‘the mechanized slaughter of World War II’25 (and of particular importance to Miller, the development of the atomic bomb). This would explain why so many science fiction works are reluctant to ever explore religious ideology—instead it is ignored (Star Trek), deconstructed (Brave New World), or outright ridiculed (Foundation). Religious material generally is restricted to ‘the level of ethical and practical considerations rather than on the translation of revelation’26, trapping science fiction in emancipation rather than freeing it into redemption. Frank David Kevitt calls A Canticle a ‘Third Testament’: a novel that ‘interprets religious truth in a way that makes it more real and immediate’27, a genuine dialogue and exploration of religious ideology in a scientific setting. It is representative of a shift in the science fiction worldview (seen by comparing Star Trek to Babylon 5), from religion as transitory to religion as fundamental. Miller argues in the voice of the Jew Benjamin that ‘“the children of the world are consistent”’28 and scientific achievement is irrelevant as long as human 4
  5. 5. nature remains unchanged. This is the reason that science has not dispensed with religion as many predicted, nor the reverse, and in fact they ought to be ‘equally cultivated and cherished’29. More to the point, science fiction needs religious concepts to avoid being merely literature of emancipation and allow it to maturely and comprehensively deal with the fundamentally human—and substantially more hopeful—theme of redemption. Without the promise of redemption, without the knowledge that “we are not alone”, science fiction loses its greatest asset. 5
  6. 6. Bibliography Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-9). Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932). Robert A. Heinlein, Sixth Column (1941). Isaac Asimov, Foundation (1953). Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959). Frederick A. Kreuziger, Apocalypse and Science Fiction: A Dialectic of Religious and Secular Soteriologies, American Academy of Religion (1982). Robert Reilly, The Transcendent Adventure: Studies of Religion in Science Fiction and Fantasy (1985). Alexander J. Butrym, Chapter 4: “For Suffering Humanity: The Ethics of Science in Science Fiction” Frank David Kevitt, Chapter 12: “Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz as a Third Testament” J. Michael Straczynski, Babylon 5 (1993-9). 6
  7. 7. Notes 7 1 Another common method of avoidance is to use religious concepts in a way that completely strips them of all religious meaning—often creation and original sin in the context of AI and Frankenstein, or messianism and eschatology in the context of scientific apocalypse, like I Am Legend. 2 Kreuziger, Apocalypse and Science Fiction, p. 224. 3 Huxley, Brave New World, p. 74. 4 Huxley, Brave New World, p. 203. 5 Huxley, Brave New World, p. 206. 6 Huxley, Brave New World, p. 207. 7 Asimov, Foundation, p. 119. 8 Asimov, Foundation, p. 87. 9 Asimov, Foundation, p. 76. 10 Butrym, The Transcendent Adventure, p. 45. Also note Heinlein’s attitude in Sixth Column where religion is “‘wonderful advertising”’ (p. 112) and little more, as ‘no one expected a god to climb down off his pedestal and actually perform’ (p. 182). 11 Kevitt, The Transcendent Adventure, p. 141. 12 Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, p. 175. 13 Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, p. 106. 14 Butrym, The Transcendent Adventure, p. 50. 15 Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, p. 176. 16 Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, p. 185. 17 Kevitt, The Transcendent Adventure, p. 142. 18 Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, p. 241. This is a prime, pertinent and controversial example of how the scientific and religious (Catholic) worldviews can come to contradictory conclusions, and it is handled by Miller brilliantly. 19 Kreuziger, Apocalypse and Science Fiction, p. 219. 20 Kreuziger, Apocalypse and Science Fiction, p. 224. 21 Butrym, The Transcendent Adventure, p. 48. 22 Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, p. 106. 23 Kreuziger, Apocalypse and Science Fiction, p. 224. 24 Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, p. 276. 25 Kevitt, The Transcendent Adventure, p. 141. 26 Kevitt, The Transcendent Adventure, p. 140.
  8. 8. 8 27 Kevitt, The Transcendent Adventure, p. 140. 28 Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, p. 144. 29 Kevitt, The Transcendent Adventure, p. 142.

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