Why Does Science Fiction Invent So Many Foreign Gods?

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The defining moment for my interest in science fiction came when I was in seventh grade and found a copy of David Pringle’s Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction on a bookshelf at a Mr. Paperback store near my grandparents’ home in Maine. I had already long loved the speculative genre, but Pringle’s book — which gave capsule summary reviews of over 3,000 novels, collections, and anthologies — proved an almost inexhaustible resource in my hunt for new titles to explore. I carried it with me to book stores, and though I’m generally meticulously careful with my books, I tore through it and marked it up so much that it is barely intact today.

In my exhaustive reading of the text, I began to notice what seemed at the time a curious pattern: Pringle’s subtle but evident inclination against religious belief. For instance, he gave 3 out of 4 stars to C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, but concluded his review by saying:

It’s clearly a religious allegory, but it’s nevertheless hauntingly effective as SF. Unfortunately, the novels which follow become steadily more fantastic, religiose and anti-scientific.

This casual dismissal of Lewis’ Perelandra and That Hideous Strength brought into focus for me a broader animus toward religious belief manifest in much of the genre. Indeed, at Christ and Pop Culture, we have explored before the question of the extent to which the Christian faith can operate within the parameters of science fiction.

In a recent post at The Guardian, science fiction columnist and author Damien Walter addresses the issue from a slightly different angle. Walter himself is a skeptic and largely seems to toe the party line in considering religious belief and science fiction to be in the main incompatible; he opens the column with the question, “If SF is grounded in hard scientific fact, and science is killing God, then what place does that leave for divine intervention in the pages of SF literature?” The assumptions inherent in this statement clearly demonstrate his own perspective on the relationship of God and science. Yet he also helpfully notes several instances in which science fiction writers have essentially introduced some reinvention of the notion of deity into their works. For Walter, such reinventions are part of genre’s contrarian DNA:

If there’s one thing SF writers like to do, it’s argue. Tell them God is good and they’ll prove why he doesn’t exist. Show them there is no God, and they’ll invent one just to… prove you wrong. Science fiction isn’t so much about science as it is about the quest for new ideas that will smash apart the old ones.

Ironically, however, none of the innovations Walter describes are really new at all. Rather, they’re as old as faith itself. People have been denying God’s existence or setting up their own alternatives to God all along. Of course, in science fiction, the mechanisms for creating surrogate deities are often new. They may include:

However, such attempts ultimately run the risk of falling back into the same very biblical category: idolatry.

I don’t mean to single out science fiction in calling its materialistic apotheoses idolatrous. On the contrary, the desire to replace the true and living God with created substitutes is a desire that inhabits the heart of every person, atheist and Christian alike. Romans 1 famously and explicitly observes the manner in which humans estranged from a relationship with God instead turn toward their own willful perversions. Every time we Christians value any aspect of God’s creation over Him, we are participating in a form of idolatry — and if we’re honest, we do this far more often than we would like.

What makes science fiction’s idolatry most intriguing is how surprisingly stark it can be, how many examples the science fiction aficionado could list that deny God but set up foreign — indeed, truly alien – gods. Flannery O’Connor famously asserted that the American South in which she lived was Christ-haunted; science fiction, it often seems, is God-haunted. If He is dead (as Damien Walter seems to assume), His spectral images still lurk at the margins or between the lines of countless speculative works. And if there is no God, as many science fiction writers would readily assert, why the fascination with godlike entities? To some degree, it could be a form of reverse proselytizing, i.e., atheist authors feeling the need to rebut religious beliefs that so many cling to despite the apparent evidence to the contrary. But such motivation does not explain the idolatry.

It is one thing to kill God off polemically, as does, say, James Morrow in Towing Jehovah. But the need to bring Him back in some other form — e.g., alien, synthetic, human, transhuman — may speak to a deeper recognition that the human psyche is desperately seeking transcendence. Perhaps that is merely an evolutionary adaptation, but whatever it may be, it is certainly not new. It is what the faithful have been saying all along.

About Geoffrey Reiter

Geoffrey Reiter is Assistant Professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida. He holds a B.A. in English from Nyack College and a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University, along with an M.A. in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

  • Keith

    I find this analysis to be very interesting. I wonder if the nature of sci-fi fantasy doesn’t lend itself to dealing with issues of faith and origins more than other genres. I also wonder what CS Lewis might be writing if he lived today. In going through Dr. Who episodes, it has occurred to me that the Doctor at times has very much a sense in which he portrays an incarnate deity who acts as savior. One particular episode also portrayed the energy within the Tardis as being a life form with a personality and volition that guides events, almost giving hints at similarities with the Shekinah glory of a sovereign God. I find the similarities interesting, while realizing it is far removed from the reality. At the same time, the Doctor is very openly a skeptic and often antagonistic towards religions and religious practices as primitive superstitions based on people mistaking as supernatural what was only science that could not be understood. Certainly, a philosophy of religion is being presented, though not in alignment with Biblical theology in the form of authors like C.S. Lewis.

  • John W. Morehead

    Thanks for this. A good observation for discussion. And as Keith ponders in a comment here below, science fiction, fantasy, and even horror are genres that do indeed lend themselves well to reflection on a variety of cultural and religious topics. I just argued in a forthcoming essay for Cultural Encounters out of Multnomah University that theologians should use science fiction as a tool for theological and cultural reflection. And on my blog TheoFantastique.com I regularly use these genres to explore religion as well as other aspects of culture and society

  • wisdomhunter

    Great article, Geoffrey.

    I think that some of the SciFi preoccupation with divinity is fairly mundane, and wholly compatible with an atheistic framework: they want to demonstrate what we have called “God” or the “gods” are just sufficiently advanced creatures. They are not all-powerful, just sufficiently more powerful than us to invoke awe; and they are not (usually) viewed as creator of the cosmos. “Primitive” man called them “gods” because they had supernatural explanations for natural things.

    Lots of “Star Trek” episodes involve this views: “The Return of the Archons”, “Who Mourns for Adonis?”, “For the world is hollow and I have touched the sky”, “The Apple”, etc. Kirk was the god-killer, the destroyer of illusions–and destroyer of paradise.

  • wisdomhunter

    Oh yeah, and how could I forget the abomination of Star Trek V…it seems as though Gene Rodenberry really had a thing for killing gods.

  • dbellis

    “But the need to bring Him back in some other form — e.g., alien,
    synthetic, human, transhuman — may speak to a deeper recognition that
    the human psyche is desperately seeking transcendence.”

    Yes, we atheists can love the transcendent, the awe-evoking, the numinous every bit as much as religious people do. We simply have different views about it. For writers like Arthur C. Clarke (and readers like me who find his work inspiring), transcendence, some higher state of being, is a goal. One alien species may have already achieved (as in 2001) and one which the human species can aspire to.

  • Ethan B

    Just a fwiw: Gene Wolfe, Michael Flynn, John C. Wright and Tim Powers are well-known, currently-publishing science fiction authors who are Christians (all of them happen to be Roman Catholic, I believe). Each one has taken on the God question in interesting, sometimes indirect ways.

    Robert Sawyer took on this issue also in Calculating God, which in my completely humble opinion is a travesty of a novel, both artistically and philosophically.


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