It’s a topic that comes around time and again: Religion and Science Fiction. While some argue the two are antithetical, others, even Atheists, strongly disagree. SFSignal had such a case in their Mind Meld on the subject in which such known Agnostics and Atheists as Mike Resnick, Ben Bova, Michael A. Burstein and L.E. Modessit, Jr. argue that the two are not antithetical. In my own guest post at SFSignal, I cited 15 Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy with Religious Themes and readers listed many more in the comments. Wikipedia has a 26 page listing of Religious Ideas In Science Fiction citing all kinds of classics and popular novels stretching back through the history of the genre. So it would seem such generalizations are hardly appropriate, and in fact, I’d argue that faith itself is such a key motivator of humans that to world build without recognizing it is to teeter on the edge of believability.
In his famous series on The Change, author S.M. Stirling uses The Church Universal and Triumphant, a real group, as antagonists. In an interview, I asked him if this reflected his own feelings about organized religion and he answered as follows: “Oh, certainly not. The Church Universal and Triumphant is an actual theosophical cult, but even they aren’t evil in the real world (weird, yes, evil, no). I’m an atheist myself, but plenty of extremely smart people have been and are religious in various flavors; I don’t think that belief makes you stupid or bad. In fact, I also don’t think that atheists will ever be the majority of humanity, as religion serves genuine needs.”
To me, religion is a core element of societies as we know them. While there may be societies on Earth with no religion, I’ve not heard of one, and thus, when writing worlds, readers expect there to be elements of faith and belief in some higher power. That’s not to say they expect such themes to dominate the narrative, although they can when done well, but some reckoning with it is a natural element we expect in realistic worlds.
Not all of this should or need be done in the name of the conflict between faith and science. In the classic Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, the setting and protagonists are monks in a Catholic monastery fighting to preserve knowledge after an apocalypse. James Blish’s A Case Of Conscience and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow deal with Jesuits whose faith is shattered by their discoveries in visiting alien planets. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and Silent Planet series deal with people finding faith, as does my own novel The Worker Prince. God-machines are common themes in series like Asimov’s Foundation, Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and William Gibson’s Neuromancer, amongst many. Authors such as H.G. Wells, Tim Powers, Gene Wolfe, Dan Simmons and even Carl Sagan have wrestled with religious themes in various ways in their works.
For most of us, faith in something or someone is a core motivator for our daily lives. There’s a reason idolatry is so common in many incarnations. From the ultimate incarnation-fest that is American Idol to car commercials and even the Oscars, we find plenty of people and things to inspire our envy: If I was only just like so-and-so, life would be perfect. If only I just had such-and-such, everything would be ideal. And our dreams of those perfections can drive us in our careers, marriages and every aspect of our lives with the desire to obtain them and discover if our belief is true or not.
Having characters who wrestle similarly gives power to our narratives. After all, just as writers’ lives are a constant journey of self-discovery, so are most characters’ lives, and part of the discovery is analyzing who we are in context of what we believe and how that directs us to respond to the people and events around us. Even if the end result is faith only in ourselves, there’s a drive there to believe in something bigger, some reason for our existence or some hope for a better tomorrow.
Thus, I think the wrestling with faith in our Science Fiction and Fantasy worlds is inevitable and appropriate. In fact, I always chuckle when people bother to use Christianity and Islam as religious models but just change the name. Why bother? People know they exist and wrestle with them in one form or another. To me, the literature of discovery that is Science Fiction and Fantasy, asking “what ifs” about the world, is the perfect place for such examinations to occur.
In fact, if characters wander through life without such higher goals, I find them hard to relate to. Are they purely driven by selfishness or ego? Are they interested in making a better world or just bettering things for themselves? I find anyone without the desire to make a better world hard to admire or respect. But that doesn’t mean they’re not driven by faith. Self-confidence and the belief in one’s self can be incredibly powerful as a motive. Even when they do have a larger goal, self-faith can be the driving force that keeps a character going. Tom Cruise’s character in Jerry Maguire has a strong sense of faith in himself. He is pushing for a higher goal for his industry, despite being laughed at and fired for his faith in it. Yet he doesn’t give up. He presses on. And he triumphs.
When I read a novel, one of the questions I continually ask is “What drives this character?” i.e. “What does this character believe in?” It speaks heavily to motive and faith is one of the greatest motives of all. In a world with so many things we struggle to explain with science and which seem so beyond human understanding, it seems natural for people to wonder if a higher power might exist that created them. This can only lead to questioning and even a drive to explore and discover the truth: Does God exist?
Asking such questions makes not only your characters relatable but your world as well, because these are questions so many people ask every day. We often ask them of ourselves.
Scientists operate on faith at a certain level as well. It takes faith to believe science can provide the answers. It takes faith to believe you can find a solution through scientific method. You have to believe in your skills and knowledge as a scientist to propose a theorem and follow it up with the hard work necessary to prove it as scientific fact. You have to believe in scientific method to hold to anything in science as fact. All of this is a form of faith.
So no, I don’t believe religion and science fiction are antithetical. In fact, I believe there are more compatibilities than we often recognize. The driving force behind both, in any case, is one of them: faith. People need something to believe in. We crave it in our inner beings. Although it can take many forms, positing a world without such motives risks alienating readers. Would they ever accept the validity of such a place? Would they relate to it? For this reason, I think Faith is an important element in realistic Science Fiction and Fantasy worldbuilding. What are your thoughts?
Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s latest release, “Rivalry On A Sky Course” is an ebook short story prequel to his Saga Of Davi Rhii novel series. His debut space opera novel The Worker Prince, received a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and short stories in Tales Of The Talisman and the anthologies Of Fur and Fire and Wandering Weeds: Tales Of Rabid Vegetation(forthcoming 2012). The editor of the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales 6 from Flying Pen Press, Bryan’s second novel, The Returning, and third novel, The North Star: An Episodic Novel, are forthcoming in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.