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March, 2005 : Essay:

That Hoary Old Chestnut

Religious Themes in Science Fiction

Science fiction is, ostensibly, a twentieth-century invention. Yet, as purveyors of this genre, we know, perhaps more than most, that there is nothing new under the sun. Exotic alien settings and outlandish characterisations merely fudge the core premise of most science fiction—which is an attempt to answer the fundamental questions of life. Why are we here? Where are we going? What are we doing? What’s the purpose to it all? Questions over which the various world religions have had carte blanche up until the beginning of the previous century.

While a minority of stories will address this space-age theology in an overt way, the vast majority go about it via the tried and true methods of parable. Think of your favorite books and movies. For myself, they consist of ubiquitous stuff like War of the Worlds, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Bladerunner, Close Encounters, The Matrix—all movies with aspects of theological parable entwined within their plots. It is true that some celluloid attempts at this do fail miserably, however these are often unsubtle verbatim retellings of doctrine. Movies such as Event Horizon, with its overt Catholic symbolism, should never, in a perfect world, have found the fiscal backing to be made. Mormons in Space…sorry. Battlestar Galactica is another grimace-inducing example that immediately springs to mind—with its twelve colonies, Adama the first man, Seraphs, Count Iblis et al.

Within the world of literature, where an author can more fully explore various religious tenets, there are numerous examples of well-constructed tales which explore the gamut of religious dogma. Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein), Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke), Behold the Man (Michael Moorcock) and Raising the Stones (Sheri S. Tepper) are personal favorites.

While religion demands commitment to particular sets of stories about the world, science fiction invites a more self-conscious examination and sometimes even an ironic suspension of belief. Very occasionally these two fundamental human behaviors intersect: what Manichaeism was two thousand years ago, Scientology is today. It is probably no coincidence that the messiah of Scientology was a best-selling science fiction author. Devotional writers use as many genres as possible in which to hide their message. Let’s face it—no one reads the Bible for fun (do they?!). The underlying question here is the impact of the existence of the universe and science fiction’s attempts to find a place for humankind within it—a vast, mind-blowingly complex reality at once immensely older and scarier than populations generally, and traditional religion specifically, cares to contemplate.

Science fiction, possibly via such influences as Erich von Däniken, has come up with the Aliens as God sub-genre (although Childhood’s End came up with this thesis well before von Däniken). Also pre-von Däniken, Zecharia Sitchin argued for the existence of Nibiru, a planet in a highly elliptical orbit of 3,600 years whence a race of "ancient astronauts" came to Earth (genetically engineering the human species during the course of their visit) hundreds of thousands of years ago (apparently due back in this solar system in 2012, by the way). Of course, this notion has been around as long as humankind has been conscious of the other planetary bodies within our solar system. A full six of the nine known planets (not counting Sedna) have been known to us since prehistory. Venus has always shone brightly in humans’ imagination. Lucian of Samosata wrote True History in 150 AD, working upon the premise that the empire of the Sun and the empire of the Moon fought for the right to colonize Venus.

The Renaissance of new learning caused a relative explosion of speculative astronomy. In 1686, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle wrote Conversations of the Plurality of Worlds in which he says that “my fancy is confounded with the infinite number of living creatures that are in the planets, and my thoughts are strangely embarrass’d with the variety that one must, of necessity, imagine to be amongst them; because I know Nature does not love repetitions and therefore they must all be different. But how is it possible for one to represent all these to our fancy? Our imaginations can never comprehend this variety…”

H.G. Wells debatably started the modern obsession with aliens with War of the Worlds (Orson Welles probably had a hand in it, as well). By combining a knowledge of science with writing techniques incorporated by popular folklore and myth, he morphed the Martians into über-villains. His physical descriptions of the Martians drew upon Darwin’s theory of evolution, so that this highly evolved creature had a disproportionately large brain, big eyes and a small, spindly body, an idea which became a template for the visualization of aliens throughout the twentieth century.

Where does all this leave theological explanations of reality? New ways of thinking as exemplified by such genres as science fiction seem more and more at odds with the attempts of organized religion to justify their dogma. As our universe expands, God’s hiding places become fewer. Perhaps He lives in the interior of a black hole? Perhaps in a derelict spaceship floating at the edge of the universe? For the believer, however, blind faith always has a way of solving these apparent dichotomies. Hoary old chestnuts are conveniently drowned in a torrential flood of devotion.

So the question is this— what was it that Ezekiel really saw? Also—was it really Leonard Nimoy’s suggestion to use the gesture of Aaronic Benediction as the Vulcan salute or is this merely a ruse by Star Trek's nervous writers to keep the public from learning the truth—i.e. perhaps they do know something we don‘t about the origins of universal species? Even—are there really alien bases full of orange Reticulans under Antarctica? Good theology asks questions, but no longer has the power to answer them. Good science fiction does all it can to fill this void. In a way, L. Ron Hubbard was right—there is an answer to theology’s questions if we examine them through the mediums of different genres, like science, and fiction, but we are perhaps still too young a species to exhibit wisdom enough to see the complete picture.


Copyright © 2005, Lisa Agnew. All Rights Reserved.

About Lisa Agnew

Lisa Agnew is a freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction based in Auckland, New Zealand, where she has lived for well over thirty years. She has just released a new book - The Overman's Folly - the story of a time-travel experiment spanning several generations. Visit her website at www.writingrealm.com

COMMENTS!

Feb 28, 19:33 by Bluejack
More examples, links, and disputes are, of course, welcome.

(Lisa Agnew's article is here.)
Mar 1, 21:50 by Nora Bencsics
Ms Agnew's mention of Ezekial in the last paragraph reminded me of one of the most illuminating experiences of my early (and brief :-) academic career.

I was an archaeology major, and studying biblical archaeology. Fascinating stuff. Because at the same time (early 80s) I'd spent years devouring the plethora of Von Daniken-esque books, I too wondered - what had Ezekial really seen? (Around that time "Spaceships of Ezekial" had been published, complete with engineering diagrams of those spaceships.)

So I chose to do my groundbreaking essay on Ezekial, planning to turn those stuffy academics on their ears, blazing a new light of wisdom upon old knowledge.

It was a devastating yet inspiring experience. I read thousands of pages by careful, honest scholars, most of them focused on those few paragraphs describing the wonders Ezekial saw.

And what I learned was: the bible, an ancient document, has been edited and re-edited, and re-purposed, so many times, that in Ezekial's book, for ex., Ezekial sometimes was referred to as 'I' and sometimes as 'he'. And ... well, to make a long story short, the images he supposedly saw were in fact Persian symbols transmogrified by the Hebrews into a visitation by God. And that Ezekial's book was a propaganda piece to remind the Hebrews of the power of God as they languished in foreign captivity.

Ok, so in a paragraph I've described a conclusion that took me weeks to discover, and left me with no reason to think that Ezekial saw a spaceship. And every reason to believe how dangerous shoddy scholarship driven by pet beliefs can be.

Similarly, my research on witchcraft in a later essay - my thesis to prove that witchcraft really encapsulated the last remnants of the 'old faith' - a popular trope nowadays. To sum up in an example - no, William Rufus (William the Conquorer's son) had likely NOT gone to his death as part of a ritual to sacrifice the king to the land..

As for the bible? Its two greatest mysteries for me are: who WAS Jesus Christ - who changed a world? There are only 2 known (and that not for sure) historical references to him.

And what DID Abraham encounter in the desert, that turned an ancient polytheistic people into believers in the One God? And not the multi-faceted supra-mundane 'one' god of Egypt (Phah) or India (Brahma) either. Whatever he experienced, it kick-started a religion that still survives today, 4-5000 years later.

Ahem. I CAN tie this into the article - religious themes in sci-fi. Remember the Raiders of the Last Ark movie? And where, in that famous last scene, the Ark finally landed?
Mar 2, 07:12 by David Eland
By definition, an essay may be a collection of personal opinions on a topic. Ms Agnew's essay is certainly that. Unfortunately, it is also rambling and incoherent much of the time. For example,

While religion demands commitment to particular sets of stories about the world, science fiction invites a more self-conscious examination and sometimes even an ironic suspension of belief. Very occasionally these two fundamental human behaviors intersect: what Manichaeism was two thousand years ago, Scientology is today.

Huh? What two behaviors? Is she referring to "demanding commitment to particular stories, "self-conscious examination, or "suspension of belief?" And what do any of these have to do with Manichaeism or Scientology?

(Question: does the phrase, "very occasionally" make any sense? Answer: Frequently never.)

Maybe she had a point somewhere in this meandering piece, but I couldn't find it.
Mar 9, 10:09 by David Gardner
Good theology asks questions, but no longer has the power to answer them. Good science fiction does all it can to fill this void.

I don't know if I agree with this, at least the second part. Good theology certainly does ask questions. Good literature (including good science fiction) does the same thing, I think. Anything which purports to answer those questions is likely some form of propaganda.
Mar 9, 10:42 by Bluejack
I don't know if I agree with either of the original claims, or your answer, Number6:

(1) I think good theology asks questions, and proposes answers, which can be tested by human experience.

(2) I don't think there's much science fiction that is tackling the questions of faith, human purpose, or existential meaning. There may be some, but I don't think many people would posit that as the central purpose of science fiction as a genre, or much science fiction that is written. But literature as a whole does this, and it proposes answers in much the same way theology does: to be tested by human experience. The difference is that in theology answers are in the form of claims which can be approached philosophically or even scientifically, while in literature answers are in the form of stories, which get at truth through the back door. Or the windows.

(3) But to say that anything that purports to answer questions is likely to be propaganda... I disagree. Sure, any dogmatic assertion by which proponents attempt to enforce their views onto the opinions of others can be considered propaganda, but I don't think that will ever be considered good literature... or good theology.

Merely asking the questions, though, is not sufficient. Proposing answers, exploring them in story, imagining them in action, envisioning the ramifications, consequences, and impact on human nature: that, I would say, is what good literature does. And good science fiction, too, except that the questions that science fiction generally explores are less the primal mysteries and more the particulars of humanity's relationship to science, nature, technology.

Good fantasy, on the other hand, may take a more direct approach on the numinous, the mystical, the mythological inner experience.
Mar 18, 05:08 by Anna Davour
Really well said, Bluejack! I'll have to think about this.

The original article was not deep enough to really contribute anything to the complex questions it tries to discuss. I did not learn anything now from it, and I think it lacked something in the understanding of what role religion (or spirituality if you prefer that word) plays in peoples lives. It is somehow reduced to searching for the secred hiding place of God.
Mar 18, 15:39 by Bluejack
Well, I'm not sure the original article was really trying to discuss complex questions, so much as having fun with them. In that capacity, and also the strange and wonderful collection of links it presented, I thought it was enjoyable stuff.

Mar 27, 17:28 by Elizabeth Larios
I thought it was enjoyable stuff, too, but it left me hungering for something meatier. I hope IROSF will revisit the Hoary Old Chestnut and give us some essays with a little more oomph to them.

SF often does ask, "How should we live?", and that's been a theme of religious thinkers for a very long time. I'm not quite willing to restrict religion to the primal mysteries anyway. Some SF seems to me to be fairly straightforwardly applicable to more practical matters of a modern-day religious life. <i>Ethan of Athos</i>, for example, reminds me of the situation that a person from a modern American restrictive religious society might well have.

A parting snark: "Think of your favorite books and movies. For myself, they consist of... all movies..." Ouch.

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