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.
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
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
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;
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
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.
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
Frank David Kevitt, Chapter 12: “Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz as a Third
J. Michael Straczynski, Babylon 5 (1993-9).
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.
27 Kevitt, The Transcendent Adventure, p. 140.
28 Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, p. 144.
29 Kevitt, The Transcendent Adventure, p. 142.