Transhuman and Subhuman Part XI: Faith in the Fictional War between Science Fiction and Faith

Is science fiction inherently hostile to religion? John C. Wright attempts to answer this question in “Faith in the Fictional War between Science Fiction and Faith”:

“…science fiction is the mythology of a scientific age,” says Wright. Both explore the human condition by positing metaphysical changes to the status quo. The difference is that fantasy deals with supernatural interventions and science fiction concerns “…some aspect of a change in society or life brought about by a speculated advance in technology.”

If scientists in sci-fi tales can achieve the same feats as wizards in fantasy yarns, where does the perceived tension between science fiction and the supernatural come from? According to Wright, SF fans want to read about the strange and exotic. Thus, they don’t want stories about anything as familiar as Christianity. “…science fiction is inherently interested in the variables in human society, not the constants.”

Wright points to the fabricated religion of Asimov’s Foundation┬áseries as representative of science fiction’s natural skepticism, which arises from fundamental dramatic needs. “Who wants to read about a benevolent Galactic Empire? We want to hear about Jack the Giant Killer. No one wants to hear about Giant the Jack Killer.”

However, Wright notes that science fiction’s hostility to religion is mostly superficial: “…every genre of science fiction except maybe for military SF deals more often with mythical or religious themes than with mundane or worldly ones. When is the last time you read an SF story about the danger of a Negative Balance of Imports or Deficit Spending?”

Consider the trope of the Chosen One, which perpetually recurs in both science fiction and fantasy. “…the only difference between science fiction and fairytales…is that the sciencefictioneers have to leave unsaid who chooses the Chosen One…”

Having weighed the evidence, Wright returns to his initial question:

…is there anything innately hostile in SFF to religion portrayed as a human institution? Yes, a little, and for the same reason there is an innate hostility to human institutions of business and government…in any story where the Big Guy is the Bad Guy.

Is there anything innately hostile in SFF to religion portrayed as supernatural? No; the matter tends to be ignored by SFF and for the same reason that the supernatural foundations of the Church Militant do not come up in Westerns or in Samurai stories.

Science fiction writers are fond of saying that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but we make this distinction every time we call one book science fiction and another one fantasy.

Wright further contends that SF draws so heavily upon spiritual themes that asking whether science fiction is hostile to religion is no more valid than asking if science fiction is hostile to fiction.

“Most science fiction readers can tell the difference between science and fiction. The war between science and religion is fiction, and apparently an entertaining fiction indeed, as many who believe in it continue to do so.”

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About Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier is a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel. He chose to pursue a writing career despite formal training in history and theology. His journey toward publication began at the behest of his long-suffering gaming group, who tactfully pointed out that he seemed to enjoy telling stories more than planning and adjudicating games.