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Why Science Fiction Embraces Religion… and Science Doesn’t

Much has been made of the mash-up of religion found in Avatar, with most of the criticism coming from conservative Christians. A question that hasn’t been asked, as far as I know, is simply the predominant role religion plays in the film.  Sure, the religion is a composite of New Age, pantheistic, Native American beliefs. What’s being overlooked is that Avatar is a deeply religious movie.

The topic of religion has always been fair game in the sci-fi genre. Of course, orthodoxy is usually jettisoned in favor of speculation. But whether it’s Lucas’ Force or Avatar’s Eywa, Dune’s messiah or E.T.’s transcendent aliens, science fiction has boldly explored the divine. Which leads me to this question: Why is it that while most scientists appear to be agnostic or atheist, so much science fiction employs and embraces religion?

Over at the Tor website, Teresa Jusino inadvertently answers that question. Her post, Religion and Science Fiction: Asking the Right Questions, notes the proliferation of religious themes in sci-fi. Not only does she not have a problem with it, she thinks it’s quite normal for us to go there.

What all of these stories do well with regard to religion (with the exception of The Phantom Menace, which did nothing well) is capture what I think the discussion should really be about. Most people who debate science vs. religion tend to ask the same boring question. Does God exist? Yawn. However, the question in all of these stories is never “Do these beings really exist?” The question is “What do we call them?” It’s never “Does this force actually exist?” It’s, “What do we call it?” Or “How do we treat it?” Or “How do we interact with it?” One of the many things that fascinates me about these stories is that the thing, whatever it is—a being, a force—always exists. Some choose to acknowledge it via gratitude, giving it a place of honor, organizing their lives around it and allowing it to feed them spiritually. Others simply use it as a thing, a tool, taking from it what they will when they will then calling it a day. But neither reaction negates the existence of the thing.

Good science fiction doesn’t concern itself with “Does God exist?”, but rather “What is God?” How do we define God? Is God one being that created us? Is God a race of sentient alien beings that see all of time and space at once and is helping us evolve in ways we are too small to understand? Is God never-ending energy that is of itself? And why is it so important to human beings to define God at all?  To express gratitude to whatever God is? Why do people have the need to say “thank you” to something they can’t see and will probably never understand? To me, these are the important questions. They’re also the most interesting. (emphasis mine)

I think Ms. Jusino’s angle is the right one. The question is not whether God exists, but what is he/it like. But conceding the existence of God or some Super Intelligence, is precisely what hangs up “true” proponents of science. So while many accept that a hunger for God (or Something numinous) is fundamental to human nature, hardcore materialists refuse to go there. Why?

The following comment to that post (#22) is indicative of the going theory:

As to science and religion being complementary, though, I have to say I disagree. Critical thinking and rigorous standards of evidence are at the core of science. Religion seems to be at the opposite end of the spectrum–employing the weakest conceivable criteria and standards of evidence.

I think that’s why so many of us who are interested in science come to be nontheist even when, as in my case, they were raised religious. To believe religious claims requires that one set the bar artificially low. As one commenter noted, this didn’t have to be the case. In so many of the science fictional worlds described there is clear evidence for the supernatural forces and being at work in the world.

In the actual world though we have to settle for rather weak philosophical arguments, miracle claims that never seem to be verifiable, claims of prophetic foreknowledge about as dubious as the latest newspaper psychic’s predictions for the new year, and, most of all, “I just feel it in my heart” (and here we hear the bar hit the ground with a resounding thud).

Is it any wonder that so many who are scientifically literate are nonreligious?

The argument against religion that it is scientifically illiterate and without “clear evidence” seems obligatory (especially when you consider the growing number of believing scientists and the vast evidence of “order” and “design” in the Universe) and often employed with “dogmatic” fervor (by those who are notably cautionary against the blinding nature of zeal). The  profound complexity of organic Life (primarily, our own), the balance of conditions necessary for the existence of organic Life, and the statistical improbabilities of those conditions spontaneously generating without a “guiding” principle, all conspire to foment possible “religious” conclusions.  Of course, none of this “evidence” requires we believe in a god. But who would be fool enough to say that it doesn’t, at least, provoke questions about the possibility?

Answer: Those who know that even the question about God’s existence begets the possibility.

To concede the premise that God, or something like God, may exist, is to undermine the entire atheistic presupposition of so much science. It’s the same reason why many scientists and thinkers reject Intelligent Design. It’s not because there isn’t evidence for intelligent design in the Universe, but because by conceding the possibility of a Designer, scientists get a step closer to conceding the possibility of the Judeo-Christian God. And this is the big no-no.

So if real science drives science fiction, and real science has NOT uncovered significant proof of God, then why does science fiction continue to gravitate back to the question of God’s existence? Because THERE IS external evidence for the possible existence of God, and THERE IS internal resonance with that possibility.

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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Johne Cook January 11, 2010, 6:00 PM

    Great post, Mike.

    Steve Davidson takes a hard look at this issue (and a bunch more) in a post on his blog:

    I have a couple of posts in the thread that sum of my thinking on SciFi and belief.

  • Merrie January 11, 2010, 10:17 PM

    I think one reason for the possible difference in approach is because we are really dealing with two types of people: the scientifically literate person and the science fiction writer. I don't think they are necessarily the same person. I'm continually enchanted by science, but I'm not a scientist. Still, I love to take the threads of science and weave them into my stories using the "what if" factor. I think you could almost come to the same conclusion if you pit the Fundamentalist Christian reader against the average science fiction reader. Science fiction isn't very popular in CBA because many people feel it goes against end times prophecy in the Book of Revelation. How could that "what if" happen if this whole ball game is going to be over within 20 years or 40 years or fill in your favorite number here? Thing is, we don't really know how many innings we've got left. And the "what if" posed in most sci fi is supposed to make you think, like a cautionary tale. I loved the "what if" posed in the 2001 movie, The Body: What if a man of devout Christian faith found a crucified body that proved Jesus wasn't raised from the dead? It was an awesome premise that sounds almost heretical, until you've seen the entire movie. I've probably gotten off track from your original question, but just wanted to add my meager two cents. My solution? Read more science fiction. 🙂

  • Mike Duran January 11, 2010, 10:38 PM

    Wha–? Is that THE Merrie? Her of the Zombie book and the upcoming EOS best-seller? Yes, I think there is a significant gap between the "hard science" folks and those who simply like speculative stuff. Although, if sci-fi-ers are tethered to the "sci" of their fiction, you'd think they would have a marginal interest in staying true to their "worldview". Unless, maybe, it's the scientific community that has drifted, become dogmatic, and become a bubble unto themselves. Merrie, thanks for the rare, but welcome, visit.

  • Jay January 12, 2010, 12:51 AM

    "To believe religious claims requires that one set the bar artificially low."

    What an atrocious statement to make. Science deals with collecting data on the observable universe and making educated conclusions based on that data. Rejecting religious belief because it doesn't pass through science's hoops is like throwing a table away because water doesn't pour out of — we'd call that person mad because most of us know that plumbing and carpentry solve two very different problems.

    The whole argument has a non sequitur premise to it. Skeptics can be the dumbest people on the planet.

    Sorry, this doesn't really compliment your post, Mike. This sort of thing riles me up something fierce.

  • steve davidson January 12, 2010, 7:07 PM


    you said "The profound complexity of organic Life (primarily, our own), the balance of conditions necessary for the existence of organic Life, and the statistical improbabilities of those conditions spontaneously generating without a “guiding” principle, all conspire to foment possible “religious” conclusions. Of course, none of this “evidence” requires we believe in a god. But who would be fool enough to say that it doesn’t, at least, provoke questions about the possibility?

    Answer: Those who know that even the question about God’s existence begets the possibility."

    And unfortunately those statements are kind of supporting the 'lowest common denominator' contention of another commenter.

    the statistical improbabilities you refer to are not hard and fast (are you talking about the chances on a single planet around a single sun, or the entire universe, for example? Given what we now know, the chance of life NOT "spontaneously generating" somewhere in the universe over the course of the past several billions of years is what becomes statistically improbable.

    If I question god's existence, does the question itself beget the possibility that it doesn't?

  • Mike Duran January 12, 2010, 11:36 PM

    While the statistical improbabilities are not "hard and fast," they present a genuine obstacle to those who believe complex organic life arose by chance. Sure, that doesn't mean life hasn't spontaneously generated elsewhere. It means that the degree of complexity generated on earth ups the improbablity factor into the stratosphere. So just saying organic life can begin under certain conditions does not let you off the hook concerning the enormity of multiple life forms on a perfectly balnaced earth.

    And, yes, the fact that we have to ask "Does God exist?" suggests the possibility that He doesn't. Which is why, I think, we're having this discussion. Thanks for your comments!

  • Mike Duran January 12, 2010, 11:36 PM

    Steve, thanks for stopping by. However, other than disparaging my post by suggesting it is evidence of "the lowest common denominator," I'm afraid you've added nothing to the conversation. I understand that these issue are huge and can't be answered in blog discussions. Nevertheless, I think your response says a lot about your tactical approach. Frankly, you believe I'm an imbicile. (Unless you meant something gentler by refering to my thoughts as "the lowest common denominator.")


  • Michael A. Bowie August 31, 2010, 6:58 PM

    then tell me about religion in science fiction. Call me anytime.

  • Ali Woolwich November 22, 2010, 4:33 AM

    What a load of hooey.
    One can experience awe at beauty or vastness without religion.
    The rest of all those allegories are just our pattern-seeking brains looking for trends, or our unresolved unconscious parent-issues seeking a variety of outcomes:
    1. avoidance of punishment through figuring out rules
    2. gaining rewards or praise
    3. receiving (false) security or comfort
    The development of conversion as a moral and social imperative (from both Christianity and Islam) continue to permeate all our scientific and civic methods.
    Enough. Have your gods.
    There’s lots of us who don’t need those concepts.
    Accept that and move on.

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