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Willis E. McNellySeptember 13, 2022
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Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May 10, 1980 issue of America as “Science Fiction and Religion.”

Science fiction and religion walking—or jetting—hand in hand? Shades of the Scopes trial or Bishop Wilberforce and T.H. Huxley!

At first glance the two terms seem almost antithetical, yet a close examination of much of the best science fiction of the last decade reveals just the opposite: religion or religious themes have provided contemporary speculative literature with some of its most cogent extrapolations, and, perhaps not coincidentally, with some of science fiction's very best novels and short stories.

Science fiction and religion walking—or jetting—hand in hand? Shades of the Scopes trial or Bishop Wilberforce and T.H. Huxley!

Both religion and science fiction are, in a sense, undefinable, admitting of extreme diversity in approach. Religion in the hands of the creators of speculative fiction may be intransigent religiosity, dominant institutionalism, a simple frame of reference, or serious examination of the role of a new—or old—religion either on earth or some far distant planet in the future. The range of the religious themes as a result of the imaginative projections created by the authors is amazingly extensive. They range from a serious examination of a pre-Vatican II but renascent Catholicism some hundreds of years into the future in Walter Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz to an extrapolative messianism based upon the Islamic mystique in Frank Herbert's Dune.

Such cooperation between these two apparently divergent philosophies has not always been the case, of course. For decades after Hugo Gernsback reinvented science fiction as a ghetto genre in 1926, its writers reflected the traditional antipathy of science toward religion. The pages of the old Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction in the 1930's and 1940's were cluttered with fiction which depicted the church, any church, as narrow, intellectually debilitating and corrosive to independent thought. The writers, perhaps echoing H.G. Wells, depicted scientists as the new saviors of humanity. There was no god but math or science, and Einstein—or his fictional counterpart—was its prophet.

Typical of the novels of this era was Fritz Leiber's Gather, Darkness (1940). Here a rigid, stratified, hierarchical monasticism utilizes the effects of science, which the monks, as sole custodians, maintain as secrets under threats of excommunication and use to enforce their privileged position at the expense of the believing but unlettered masses. In this view, religion becomes superstitious hokum prostituting science to nefarious ends.

That the traditional antagonism between science and religion should surface in science fiction was probably inevitable, considering the personalities of the two editors who were responsible for the growth of the modern American genre, Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell. Both scientifically trained, they emphasized hard core science in the stories they selected for publication. These stories, in turn, deified scientific achievement or an angry humanism extended either into space or the future, and both positions excluded almost any aspect of traditional religion. In this approach writers and editors merely reflected the views that had been started earlier by such mainstream writers as H.G. Wells, Sinclair Lewis, G.B. Shaw, J.B. Priestley and Samuel Butler.

If religion is an opiate, so also is science when it becomes a surrogate religion.

To be sure, many notable science fiction authors such as Isaac Asimov (who holds a Ph.D. in bio-chemistry), Jack Williamson, Robert A. Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke—all of whom were developed in the 1940's under the tutelage of either Gernsback or Campbell—rarely betrayed a specific antireligious bias. Instead they constructed probability worlds or potential futures where science or its off-shoots reigned supreme. Religion was ignored, but in its absence, science of the scientists became the hero.

A few "mainstream" science fiction novels of this era also substituted an evangelistic science for more traditional beliefs. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World carried science so far with its extrauterine typology and soma as a soporific communion substitute that it seems almost a parallel answer to the excesses of religiosity. If religion is an opiate, so also is science when it becomes a surrogate religion. Scientific determinism, Huxley seems to say, is as evil and perhaps as inevitable as religious determinism. So also with George Orwell's 1984 where scientific statism substitutes Big Brother for God.

To be sure, some science fiction writers during this period utilized specific religious myths, such as the Genesis story or the flood myth, as constructs for their fiction. God may appear as Yawa Eloem, Jesus as an astronaut, or Ezekiel's fiery wheel as a space vehicle. However, such a utilization of thematic material often appears merely as accidental rather than integral to the story itself.

Integration of the themes of science and religion finds major expression in the works of the late C. S. Lewis. Lewis was a brilliant polymath: theologian, fantasist, Milton scholar, linguist and science fiction buff. Out of the Silent Planet, the first novel of his famous trilogy, begins with a rocket trip to Mars, or Malcandra, and ends with a similar return to earth after the hero, significantly named Ransom, has been transformed in his quest for knowledge and freedom. Ransom, although a famed philologist on earth, is a child in the widely different Malacandrian environment. He gradually discovers that Earth is a "bent" planet, cut off from celestial communication by the default of its guardian angel. Ransom's spiritual insights, coupled with some rather obvious rites of passage, provide much of the subtle character development that entrances readers. In the next two works, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength, Ransom gradually comes to appreciate the significant meaning of his own name as he confronts the Evil One who has brought about the fall of Earth, the silent planet. Much more could be said about this trilogy, of course, but what is most important to realize is that without the solid substructure provided by the religious motifs the novels would be little better than action-adventure or pure fairy stories. Lewis, then, early showed how religious themes, transmuted myths and theological insights can be integral to what he called the "spacetime" story.

C.S. Lewis showed how religious themes, transmuted myths and theological insights can be integral to what he called the "spacetime" story.

Integration of these themes with those of conventional science fiction gadgetry might not have been surprising coming from Lewis whose lifelong addiction to the "spacetime" story he chronicled in Of Other Worlds. However, when a similar integration appeared in a brilliant sequence of novels by James Blish, the science fiction world stakes out a major new lode of subject matter. Blish, another ostensibly hard core writer discovered by Campbell, began first with A Case of Conscience (1950). Here a small investigative team of space explorers must assess the planet Lithia to determine if it should be asked to join a league of worlds. One of the scientist-explorers, a Jesuit named Ruiz-Sanchez, gradually comes to believe, as a result of his scientific analysis, that Lithia is an actual creation of the Adversary. Thus Father Ruiz-Sanchez is trapped by his scientific knowledge into the heresy of Manicheanism. Blish's novel, unfortunately for him, came a decade and a half before interest in the Devil created many less well-written best sellers.

The religious constructs of A Case of Conscience are clear, as is its rigid scientific determinism. The very structure of the novel itself, which includes a satanic avatar or incarnation, is dependent upon the theological-scientific tension. Ruiz-Sanchez, in fact, sets forth the metaphysical or ethical premises of Lithia, all of which he feels are diabolically inspired: reason is always a sufficient guide; the self-evident is always the real; good works are an end in themselves; faith is irrelevant to right action; right action can exist without love; peace need not pass understanding; ethics can exist without evil alternatives; morals can exist without conscience; goodness can exist without God.

How the problem is resolved is deliberately made ambiguous by Blish who also combines an analogous problem from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake with that of Lithia. In addition he includes the eternal question of evolution, for the Lithians, reptilian in origin but highly intelligent, have complete extrauterine recapitulation.

Blish’s preoccupation with theological themes found further outlet in three other significant novels. Dr. Mirabilis, a study of Francis Bacon; Black Easter, a novel of the diabolic circumstances leading to Armageddon; and The Day after Judgement, a brilliant theological tour de force. Throughout these books Blish is careful not to reveal an identifiable personal position. Rather he utilizes his themes and chiliastic vision almost as if he were trying to disassociate himself, and hence his readers, from identification with either position so that they may distance themselves to gain objectivity.

This ability has become a prime characteristic of contemporary science fiction. In Robert Scholes's words, "Speculative fiction offers us worlds clearly and radically discontinuous from the one we know, yet [it] returns to confront that world in a highly cognitive and stimulating way."

The religious worlds offered by science fiction are often radically discontinuous from the ones we know, yet sufficiently similar to cause us to pause and question our own. If science fiction or speculative literature is extrapolative, then the apparently disparate conjunction of science and religion should come as no surprise. Both religion and science, after all, deal with the substance of a value beyond rational comprehension. They engage one another constantly, and to find them providing the substance of qualitative novels and short stories in the hitherto much-maligned genre of science fiction should appear inevitable, not jarring. The discoveries of science raise endless theological speculations: Darwin questions the theory of special creation; the awareness of billions of stars and millions of galaxies posits a theory about the nonuniqueness of Jesus' Incarnation on this minor planet of a third class sun at the edge of a relatively small nebula; has Christ, the writers ask, incarnated Himself more than once, perhaps even billions of times?

If science fiction is extrapolative, then the apparently disparate conjunction of science and religion should come as no surprise.

Science fiction provides no answers, of course, but it does and can indicate possibilities or at least speculative hypotheses or alternatives. Frank Herbert's Dune is a case in point. Set on the desert planet Arrakis some ten thousand years in the future. Dune is concerned with the appearance of a genuine avatar who, because of the incredibly inhospitable conditions which rack the planet, must choose as his methods of redemption not the traditional ones of mercy, love and charity, but violence. The savior's recognition of the tragic necessity of his mission provides cogent commentary upon the crucial tensions of love-hate, mercy-violence, mission-futility. Dune is in many ways a science fiction epic, not only in size and scope, but in mythic corollaries as well. Jungian archetypes dominate the action, ranging from the great mother, virtually a goddess mother, to communion rituals achieved through consciousness-arousing drugs. In sum, it's a rattling good story whose religious constructs provide depth to a distinguished ecology-based science novel. It is a major achievement.

So also is John Boyd's The Last Starship From Earth. Boyd's targets are Skinnerian psychology and analogous intransigent religiosity—all those "who come to us with persuasive smiles and irreproachable logic in the name of mental hygiene, social duty, come with their flags, their Bibles, their money credits, to steal our immortality." Boyd sets his story, one rich with Miltonic overtones, on an alternate universe, a probability world, where the Pope is a computer, Henry VIII a leading sociologist, Abraham Lincoln has delivered a "Johannesburg Address” and miscegenation between rigidly stratified Skinnerian classes of society is punishable by exile to a peculiarly dismal prison planet named Hell. The hero is forced to commit deicide by assuming the identity of Judas and thus to derail history in an attempt to break the power of the Department of Sociology and "set free the human spirit on earth."

Has Christ, the writers ask, incarnated Himself more than once, perhaps even billions of times?

Boyd's novel is social commentary, of course, but its acerbic statement of contemporary problems is both heightened and distanced by his use of the science fiction genre. It is a story, in other words, that could not have been told except by enabling us to confront our world both discontinuously and cognitively.

Robert A. Heinlein, too, transmuted religious myth in Stranger in a Strange Land. As one of the first genuine best sellers in the science fiction field, at least in its paper back version, Stranger embodies such religious notions as a genuine miracle-producing avatar, ritual cannibalism, a sacrament of water-sharing and an energetic deism illustrated by the greeting: "Share Water. Thou Art God." While the novel as a novel has its structural flaws—it breaks apart in the middle, and after some 200 pages of fast-paced action, witty dialogue, and passable character development, Heinlein mounts the pulpit for the next 200 pages to extol the religion he has invented in the first half of the novel—it nonetheless once more demonstrates the viability of religion as a serious science fiction theme.

Roger Zelazny has also transformed the religious myths of varying cultures into fictional form. One of his books is based on Egyptian religious cults; another on Nordic myths, and Lord of Light, one of his very best, written long before he lost himself in the sword and sorcery of the Amber series, is based upon Hinduism with a hero named Sam Atman, to indicate only one of many correspondences.

Many other authors and works could be cited, ranging from Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man! to Robert Sheckley's Dimension of Miracles. In fact, so rich are the offerings of religiously oriented science fiction works that they are impossible to list. However, Mayo Mohs's excellent anthology of science fiction short stories, Other Worlds, Other Gods, a 1971 Avon paperback still in print, includes such fine stories as Tony Boucher's "The Quest for St. Aquin," Arthur C. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God," as well as Ray Bradbury's fine poem, "Christus Apollo."

Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz is also rich in theological speculation. Indeed, the boldness of his conception at the end of the novel is remarkable. Two points particularly require some attention. The theologically rigorous moralism of the various abbots, particularly Abbot Zerchi in the last section, is countered, not by a diabolic villain, but by the best in secular humanism in the person of Dr. Cors. Science vs. religion. Miller clashes his fictional reality against the hard rock of the imagination in this section, but never becomes sermonic. And finally, his creation of a new unfallen race of humans who are freed from the effects of original sin and strengthened by the preternatural gifts of the first parents in Eden as personified by Rachel is integral to the many themes he has been utilizing in the novel. In the end, the meek inherit the earth.

Several short story writers not included in the Mohs anthology also deserve to be mentioned. Harlan Ellison's special genius seems to be his ability to revivify old myths, to make them germane for the modern audience, and by shock and terror, to effect surprises of compression and condensation. One of his most anthologized stories, “‘Repent, Harlequin,’ Said the Ticktockman," combines the sacrificial jongleur with the theme of the joking or jesting Jesus in a savage attack on a time-serving, mechanistic civilization. Ellison's Harlequin is a salvific figure, dying that man might live, but resurrected, even in the body of the Ticktockman. We find a similar theme in “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" where the machine god, significantly named AM (derived from Allied Mastercomputer) is frustrated by the sacrificial act of the flawed hero. "The Deathbird" echoes the Gilgamesh legend, and finally, his most lauded story, "A Boy and His Dog," even includes ritual cannibalism, although the religious overtones in the story are muted rather than explicit.

Many authors who rank among the very best that science fiction has yet produced also use religious concepts in a muted, almost distorted fashion.

Many authors who rank among the very best that science fiction has yet produced, also use religious concepts in a muted, almost distorted fashion, using them not as directly as do either Miller or Blish. Two such are Ursula Le Guin and Philip K. Dick. Most science fiction readers would agree that Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and Dick's The Man in the High Castle are two of the finest works yet produced in science fiction. However, integral to the Jungian concept of reconciliation of opposites both explicit and implicit in The Left Hand of Darkness is Le Guin's utilization of the Tao and in her descriptions of Meshe, the Avatar of her ice-age planet. The religious construct is not that of Christianity or Islam or Judaism, but of the Tao. "Meshe is the Center of Time…One center, one seeing, one law, one light. Look now into the Eye of Meshe."

Le Guin extends the Taoist principle even further in The Dispossessed. While this recent book is ostensibly a political novel—an ambiguous utopia, she terms it—what is most important to realize is that the ethical anarchy that Le Guin creates on the "moon" Annares is solidly based upon Taoism. Le Guin permutes Taoism subtly, yet cogently, to permit us not only to view both an ethical, quasi-religious anarchy and/or capitalism, extrapolated, with some modicum of objectivity, but to examine our own inchoate unexpressed Utopian dreams. If some new and better worlds posit the concept of God, as Miller implies in A Canticle for Leibowitz, for example, others can be equally utopian without the consideration of the existence of God, and Taoism permits Le Guin such theological speculation.

As science fiction and the mainstream increasingly merge, the artificial dichotomy between science and religion will fade.

Finally, I would like to turn to Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle as the last example of religion's playing a major role in science fiction. To those who have read this novel, it may come as somewhat of a surprise to hear it spoken of in religious terms. After all, the book is apparently a straightforward probability-worid novel in which Japan and Germany have won World War II. Yet a careful examination of the text will reveal that Dick based the book upon the ancient Chinese book of wisdom, the I Ching, which hardly requires defending as a book of great religious wisdom and philosophical insight. What we should realize about The Man in the High Castle, however, is that Dick wrote it by consulting the Book of Changes. Everytime Dick had one of his characters in the novel consult the I Ching, he actually cast the coins himself, looked up the appropriate hexagram, incorporated it into the text, and then proceeded with the action indicated by the answer. If other hexagrams had presented themselves, the novel naturally would have laken a different turn. In fact, Dick gives his secret away on the last pages of the book as Hawthorne Abendsen, the man in the castle who had written a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavily in which Japan and Germany won World War II, tells Juliana Frink that the Oracle had dictated the book to him as he cast the coins. Dick was actually describing his own method of composition.

Here then we have religion become something more than mere artistic material. Religion—specifically, the I Ching—provides not only the surface structure of the book, but the substructure as well. It is the very rock upon which the book is based.

What of the future of religion and science fiction? I would like to venture one quiet, modest prediction, very quietly and very modestly. As science fiction and the mainstream increasingly merge—and we see this happening in such writers as Nabokov, Lessing, Pynchon, Durrell, Barth and many others—the artificial dichotomy between science and religion, indeed, between science fiction and "Literature," with a capital "L" will fade, or to use a scientific term that I find particularly applicable here, deliquesce.

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