Wed
Jan 6 2010 12:24pm

Religion and Science Fiction: Asking the Right Questions

I’ve loved science fiction stories for as long as I can remember. Started watching Star Trek at about six or seven, started reading authors like Asimov and Bradbury when I was 10. I did a sixth grade independent study project on the solar system, with which I included a play I wrote called Earthlings on Mars, a Wrinkle in Time-inspired adventure where an Earth family moves to Mars because the father’s job transfers him to the Mars office. Yes, there was a Mars office. Shut up.

From the time I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I’ve been fascinated by science-related topics. Space Camp was one of my favorite movies, and there was a time I wanted to be an astronaut before I realized you had to like and be good at math. Trips to the Hall of Science in New York City was a favorite pastime. I was also a devout Catholic who loved being in the children’s choir, eventually becoming a leader of song and lector in her church, teaching Sunday school, and attending mass every Sunday. Of her own volition. Without her parents. Science and religion always went hand-in-hand in my house, and things like God Creating the World and Evolution weren’t contradictory. They flowed into and out of each other, and that made sense to me. It still does.

It wasn’t until I got to college and beyond that the science vs. religion discussion slapped me in the face. The older I got, and the more involved I became in various arts communities, the more I realized that all of my new, wonderful, intellectual friends thought belief in God about as passé as spandex leggings and slouch socks under a cinched sweater. People who were into science and all things nerdy weren’t into God, and I didn’t understand that. I never believed that one had to cancel out the other. I had always thought that science and religion complemented each other really well.

That still being the case, I tend to be drawn to science fiction that acknowledges that spirituality and belief in a higher power not only has a right to exist, as most sci-fi is about tolerance to some extent, but that it might even * gasp * compete with, or be worthy of standing alongside, science. I appreciate science fiction where characters that have spiritual beliefs aren’t looked down upon as if they don’t know any better, as if they need only see the light of scientific truth to be truly enlightened (which in itself seems dogmatic).

When I was a little girl, I had the Really Old Dude With a Long White Beard view of God. Santa Claus, but skinnier and able to do cooler things like make it rain. I’ve come a long way since then, and my views about God have grown and changed as I have. While I’m no longer a practicing Catholic (I don’t practice anymore, because I got really good at it?), I still believe in what I and many people call “God”, and when I explain my belief in God to people, I find myself using examples out of science fiction.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine tends to be my go-to example for describing how I see God as an adult. As you might already know, DS9 is the story of a group of characters on a Federation-operated space station. The space station stands between the planet Bajor and a wormhole that leads from the Alpha Quadrant to the Delta Quadrant. The wormhole isn’t empty. In it there are beings that have had a relationship with the Bajorans for centuries, and as they are capable of seeing time in a non-linear manner and exhibit a certain level of power they are, to the Bajorans, gods called The Prophets. To Federation officers like Commander Ben Sisko and Jadzia Dax, they are “wormhole aliens”, extraordinary and powerful, yes, but merely another in a list of powerful species throughout the Universe. How to interact with The Prophets/wormhole aliens is a major concern in the series both with regard to Major Kira Nerys’s character development as a reformed Bajoran terrorist, and with Sisko’s, as he becomes The Emissary, the person through which The Prophets/wormhole aliens chose to communicate, and the person who is destined to save Bajor by finding their Celestial Temple. There is debate about whether or not they should be referred to as deities. There is debate as to whether or not Sisko should play a role in the religious lives of the Bajorans. These beings not only gave life, but gave a specific life, in causing Sisko’s birth; then, they passed along the prophecy that he would be instrumental in saving Bajor. They were capable of seeing all of time at once, and so were able to guide the lives of the Bajorans by speaking through chosen people. All of this, in the world of this show, was fact. The question was never “Do these beings really exist?” The questions were “What do we call them?” and "How do we treat them?"

In Battlestar Galactica, religion also played an integral part to the story. Humans were polytheistic, and Cylons were monotheistic, and these two views of God were constantly at odds. That is, for those who acknowledged God(s) at all. Some, like Admiral Adama, thought it was all a bunch of fraking nonsense, and didn’t hesitate to say so. Yet, in the world of this show, it clearly wasn’t entirely nonsense. Both President Laura Roslin and Kara “Starbuck” Thrace are the subjects of prophecies that come true. As it turns out this re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica is not a tale about our future but is, like Star Wars, a story about long ago in a galaxy far, far away. It ended up being a creation story, explaining how Homo Sapiens came to exist on Earth. Does that make God a Cylon? Are the humans that evolved on Kobol our gods?

And speaking of Star Wars….The Force, anyone? It was a source of spirituality for three films, and then it was scientifically explained away by some last-minute crap about midichlorians, which is one of the many reasons why The Phantom Menace sucked.

Anyway, I was one of the last people to see Avatar a couple of days ago, which I enjoyed very much. Aside from the amazing effects, and the familiar story told relatively well (despite some clichéd dialogue from James Cameron), what I found interesting was how religion was handled. It tells the story of a human mining expedition to a planet called Pandora, whose indigenous race, the Na’vi, believe that everything on their planet is connected, and so they treat everything with respect, as if they are a part of everything, and everything is a part of them. Sound New Age and hokey? Thing is, on this planet, it’s true. The Na’vi are literally able to connect to their planet through a network in the tree roots. They are able to connect to other living creatures on Pandora via special tendrils in their hair, mentally and physically bonding with them. They can literally connect with their world, and it not only allows them to go about their day-to-day living, but it feeds them spiritually and shapes their entire worldview. They have given the force that connects everything on the planet a name, Eywa. And, having given it a name, they can express their gratitude for their lives and everything in it to something specific.

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.


Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. She is the NY Geek Culture Examiner at Examiner.com, and she’s also a contributor to PinkRaygun.com, a webzine examining geekery from a feminine perspective. Her work has also been seen on PopMatters.com, on the sadly-defunct literary site CentralBooking.com, edited by Kevin Smokler, and in the Elmont Life community newspaper. She is currently writing a web series for Pareidolia Films called The Pack, which is set to debut Summer 2010! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, Follow The Pack or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.

90 comments
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1. heresiarch
Kings was mostly a god-awful mess, but it handled God in a really interesting way: he was a capricious, demanding, Old-Testament-style God, and had some very contentious relationships with the mortal cast. He definitely existed; the question was whose side is he on? While I don't believe in any such God, it made for an interesting premise.
Ben Wert
2. bennyrex
Very interesting article. I love many of the stories you mentioned for the reasons you gave - their exploration of faith. Some spoiler warnings for BSG would have been nice - I haven't watched it through yet, but whatever. I guess that's the ending that so many people got up in arms about?

I have one qualm about your definitions about 'good science fiction', and what it does and doesn't deal with regarding faith... All of those stories that you mentioned (except possibly for BSG, I can't speak to that,) have hard fast proof within the stories that the spiritual force exists. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - the prophets are real, no doubt about it. They do measurable things. Ditto the Force, Ditto Eywa. Of course there is no question about whether they're real or not... (at least, once the measurable proof is there.) In our world, our dimension, there is no measurable proof that God, or however we think of the being or force- exists. We don't have something like the Bajoran Prophets. We don't have Jedi manipulating the force, we don't have a network of trees that we can connect to our ancestors through.

All we have in *this* world we live in today, is faith, tradition, our cultures and societies ways of understanding the world. I can't just assume God exists with the evidence around me, no one can. So why should I ask my science fiction to make that assumption, if I want it to be science fiction, and not fantasy?

I can get frustrated when reading science fiction only engages faith issues through the question of 'does God exist or not?' but I don't think assumptions should be made that God DOES exist either. I think the best faith based stories are about HOW we interact with the IDEA of God, how people who believe in different things interact with each other.

I'm trying to think of examples of this kind of science fiction, and I'm coming up kind of dry. Anathem, by Neil Stephenson; Eric Flint seems to do this sort of thing quite well in his 1632 series. Any suggestions by others?
Teresa Jusino
3. TeresaJusino
Thank you both for your comments, and bennyrex, I totally get where you're coming from. A part of what I was trying to say speaks to exactly what you mention about there not being "measureable proof" of God. My point is that we should stop looking for it, and maybe realize that when people express belief in God, they're reacting to things they can measure individually - things they've actually felt or experienced. I think a lot of science-fiction comes at it from that angle - that people who believe in God are reacting to SOMETHING that is real. Its origins might be unexplained, and we might not know how to handle it/address it, but that belief isn't entirely from nothing. I think we, in the real world, are looking at what God is all wrong, and that we couldn't possibly find proof of God, because we're framing the search the wrong way. I think we can learn how to frame the search from quality science-fiction.

And now I feel like I'm rambling. :)
Teresa Jusino
4. TeresaJusino
By the way, I, too, would LOVE any recommendations of science-fiction that addresses this stuff. Thanks, bennyrex - I've been meaning to read Neal Stephenson, and now I have a reason to! :)
Jason Ramboz
5. jramboz
For some reason I end up recommending this book an awful lot here lately, but you should definitely read Contact by Carl Sagan. There are numerous reasons, but I can't tell most of them without spoiling the ending. Oh, and don't just see the movie; the movie covers some of the same ground, but the book does a much better job of it.

Another one that I think you'd enjoy is Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer. It takes the "enlightened aliens" idea and turns it on its head. Aliens come to earth and are shocked and amazed to find that the backwards human scientists don't believe in God.
Marcus W
6. toryx
Calculating God is an excellent suggestion for the sort of science fiction we're discussing here. It's particularly good in the context that it's written by the same guy who wrote the Neanderthal books (Neanderthal Paralax or something like that?) which does a little bit of the same thing but on the flip side of the argument.

I admire the hell out of Robert J. Sawyer for that alone; making both sides of the argument with equal measures of persuasion.

At any rate, I have to agree with bennyrex @ 2 in that there's quantifiable proof in the science fiction examples (excepting possibly BSG...I'm on the last dvd disc of the series myself right now)listed in this post that doesn't exist in the same way in reality. Of course, a lot of believers would argue that the proof does exist in a very personal way but I still think there's a significant difference.

I can't really agree that good science fiction is defined by the drive to understand God (or similar kind of spiritual force). A lot of really good science fiction doesn't deal with religion at all. There are times when I love science fiction just for being able to get away from the constant dwelling on religion that saturates so much else. But I do agree that there are times when science fiction presents it in a very effective way and that too can be very enjoyable.
OtterB
7. OtterB
Among the kinds of stories I like to see are ones that address seriously the idea of fidelity to something larger than oneself. Doesn't have to be God by any name or no name (although I enjoy those too).

I find Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion series excellent for grappling with some of the issues about what the gods owe us and what we owe them. Fantasy rather than science fiction, though, and the literal existence of the gods in that universe is clear.

For science fiction, you might look at some of the books that were recommended in the discussion of "A Dazzle of Day" a couple of weeks ago. (Quakers in space.)
Warren Ockrassa
8. warreno
n Earth family moves to Mars because the father’s job transfers him to the Mars office. Yes, there was a Mars office. Shut up.

Aha, he worked for Disney?
Good science fiction doesn’t concern itself with “Does God exist?”, but rather “What is God?”

I'm inclined to disagree; I believe the really good SF doesn't concern itself with any gods at all. There are much larger topics to consider, against a backdrop of infinite distance and wild biological diversity, than the fevered imaginings of a pre-bronze age culture.
Teresa Jusino
9. TeresaJusino
@toryx - ohmygoodness, I SO didn't mean that the only "good" science fiction is that which addresses these questions. That's not what I meant AT ALL, and I'm sorry if it came off that way. What I meant was, in science fiction that DOES address these themes, I think the more quality, effective science fiction is that which is more in a "What is God?" vein than a "Does God Exist?" vein.

Keep the recommendations coming, everyone! I'm making a list! :)
Teresa Jusino
10. TeresaJusino
@warreno - see comment above to toryx. :) I really should've clarified that I'm not saying that sci-fi has to address God at ALL to be of quality. I'm only talking about the sci-fi that chooses to talk about it.

Sorry if I wasn't clear. Let it be known right here and now that I don't think sci-fi has to be about any SPECIFIC topic or theme. Good sci-fi can be about lots of different things. Right now, I'm only talking about sci-fi that addresses faith in one way or another. OK, everyone? :)

Kthxbye.
Cera Shields
11. diony
Thank you for writing this. I, too, become frustrated with the attitude that people only have faith or a spiritual life when they don't know any better.

_Warbreaker_ by Brandon Sanderson is not science fiction, but it addresses this stuff by having one of the viewpoint characters be a god, or something like a god, and I think it does a very good job of engaging with the issues without serving up answers, so I recommend it. And I'll be checking back here for other people's recommendations!
Iain Coleman
12. Iain_Coleman
Of course, there's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, in which religion is exposed as a fake and yet still manages to save the protagonist.
Bill Spangler
13. Bspangler
Teresa:
May I suggest Towing Jehovah by James Morrow? It's the first of three novels in which mankind has to deal with the literal death of God (They've got the body.)
Jason Henninger
14. jasonhenninger
I'm glad Brandon Sanderson was mentioned. I think Elantris and The Final Empire have very intriguing takes on good and evil and metaphysics and prophesy and free will and all that good stuff.
Sacha G
15. Fortune_Prick_Me
Thanks for this article - I remember coming back from Mass on Sundays and reading Heinlein when I was 10 or so... so I'm with you there.

How about Philip K Dick? So many of his stories revolve about the "How do you address this particular reality" question; in his work this may mean God or Aliens or even the eternal "who am I really" question. Radio Free Albemuth (don't remember if that's his last book or if Valis was) is prime example of the protagonist dealing with a higher purpose - is it God or an alien satellite? - and wrestling with what this means for his life and that of his family. I highly recommend it.
Teresa Jusino
17. TeresaJusino
You folks are awesome! I'm definitely going to try and get to some of these this year!

And I've never read Philip K. Dick - only seen movies based on his stories. I need to get on that.
Leigh Butler
18. leighdb
You should definitely read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell if you haven't already.

It's about, basically, Earth detecting proof of an alien civilization, dithering about what do about it, and the Jesuits being all "you guys are lame" and going out to meet the aliens themselves, because as they saw it, that was their job. Philosophical and spiritually contemplative hijinks ensue.

At least, so far as I recall. It's been a while.

Also, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, while it never specifically addresses the existence of God per se, is quite decidedly about religion. In a really depressing dystopian way, of course, but that doesn't make it any less brilliant.

I also seem to recall Dan Simmons' Hyperion series being very into the questions of Life, the Universe, and Everything, though again I'm not sure whether God as an entity is specifically discussed.
Teresa Jusino
19. TeresaJusino
@leighdb -

I've had two people recommend The Sparrow to me on Twitter today, and someone recommended it to me at a seminar once! :) I guess I'm going to HAVE to read that one! All these people can't be wrong!

The Handmaid's Tale is one of my FAVORITE BOOKS EVER! :) It's a huge inspiration for me. I'm actually (trying to) write a novel now that's very much inspired by that and Orwell's 1984. We'll see how THAT goes...

Thanks!
Rob Munnelly
20. RobMRobM
Yes, read Sparrow and its sequel (Children of God?), both of which are excellent. Sophisticated discussion of faith and its limits in extraordinary circumstances. The protagonist Jesuit linguist and his shipmates are beautifully written - funny and poignant. R
Iain Coleman
21. Iain_Coleman
@17

Interested in religion and SF - and never read Philip K Dick? Run - don't walk - to your friendly neighbourhood bookshop and put this right.

Most of Dick's work has an important religious element, but these are the ones I would recommend to you:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Ubik

Valis

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

A Scanner Darkly
david ellis
22. davidellis
Regarding works of science fiction dealing with religion I'd recommend Michael Flynn's 2007 Hugo-nominated EIFELHEIM. It has both nontheist and religious characters and treats both sympathetically.

I'd also recommend the short story "Radical Acceptance" by David W. Goldman:

http://www.davidwgoldman.com/Radical_Acceptance.html

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?
Teresa Jusino
23. TeresaJusino
@21
I'm running, I'm running! Phillip K. Dick and The Sparrow! Got it, got it! :)

Seriously, I love this. It's been years since I've read quality sci-fi - though there's been PLENTY of sci-fi films and television, many of which were based on those sci-fi books - and I'm really looking forward to making 2010 the year I read more sci-fi! :) Woot.

@davidellis @22 -
"To believe religious claims requires that one set the bar artificially low."

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

See, it IS a wonder to me. It's interesting to make this distinction between religion and science, when so much of science is accepting a lesser answer until a better one comes along. So much of what's "accepted science" now will be obsolete in 5-10 years, and so much of what is taught in school is still technically "Theory" even as it is being taught as fact - like The Big Bang, for instance. If God is the name we give what we don't know/understand, then religion, to me, is about giving ourselves the time and space and having the humility to say "I don't know. But I'm grateful anyway." That's all.

Also, it's not as if religions don't change beliefs over time. Granted, it takes much longer to get to something like a Vatican II, for example, but it does happen. I think that science and religion are more alike than either side would like to think.

But like I said, I don't really consider them opposing "sides" at all. :)
OtterB
24. OtterB
"The Sparrow", yes, of course. Fabulous book. I also second the recommendation of Eifelheim.

And, just for the record, I am another who doesn't find faith & science mutually exclusive.
OtterB
25. Bluejay
It's probably redundant by now, but I too recommend The Sparrow. :-)

As far as science accepting lesser answers until better ones come along--Asimov discusses this in an interesting essay called "The Relativity of Wrong," which can be read here...the gist of it being, as he says, that theories are not so much wrong as incomplete (but getting more refined and closer to "the truth" all the time).

I like your definition of religion as the attitude of being humble about what you don't know. But many atheist scientists feel this too: a humbling and awe-inspiring sense of the mysteries of the universe, as well as our deep and intimate connection to it. The difference, I think, is that science strives to delve deeper into those mysteries and figure them out (which increases, rather than kills, scientists' sense of wonder), while conventional religion is content to worship mystery and call it God, and feels threatened when that mystery is explained. (Now that I think of it, most religions usually aren't humble about what we don't know; they insist that their ancient texts explain it all!) Scientists seek truth through exploration, discovery, and evidence, and they reject "received" truth from authority and revelation, which is the preferred method of most religions; which is probably why most scientists are nonbelievers.

That doesn't mean, as I said, that scientists are incapable of feeling wonder and deep connection with the cosmos. If by "religion" you mean the rush that Carl Sagan got when he contemplated the universe; or the feeling Neil Degrasse Tyson gets when he thinks of our chemical connection to the stars; or the exhilaration Richard Dawkins feels when he considers that we are biologically related to every single living thing on earth; then I'm down with that. :-)
david ellis
26. davidellis
"If God is the name we give what we don't know/understand...."

Except, of course, that "God" is almost never used in this way---as a synonym for the unknown. Of course, you are more than free to use the word God in this idiosyncratic sense. But even you seem to be using it to mean more than just the unknown as such--which is why I find your definition rather disingenuous. It sounds like an attempt at avoiding rational criticism of theism by using a definition FAR looser than what even you, judging by the context of your previous statements, have in mind when using the word.

"So much of what's "accepted science" now will be obsolete in 5-10 years, and so much of what is taught in school is still technically "Theory" even as it is being taught as fact - like The Big Bang, for instance."

I really don't mean this as a personal attack (though the following is a criticism and there's really not a nice way to say it) but the statement quoted above mostly just signals a rather low level of scientific literacy--a lack of awareness of how the words "fact" and "theory" are typically used in science and how that usage differs from the vernacular.

"Also, it's not as if religions don't change beliefs over time. Granted, it takes much longer to get to something like a Vatican II, for example, but it does happen."

The problem isn't that religions don't change (obviously they do). It's that, changing or not, there is such incredibly poor grounds for believing the claims made by religions.
OtterB
27. Rob-Whelan
I just thought of a classic Isaac Asimov short story that needs to be listed here: The Last Question.

You can even read it online (original text, or graphic novel!) here: http://www.multivax.com/

It has given me chills, because the "answer" is science fiction straight from Asimov's clever imagination, but the question itself is both sobering and indisputably valid.

About this idea: "God is the name we give what we don't know/understand"... the real problem there is that I've never met anyone who actually defines God this way in practice -- only in theoretical arguments. The concept of prayer, of gratitude, of seeing the "actions" of God in everyday life, of finding meaning or purpose in God -- all of these things only make sense if you change from God as "the unknown" to God as a sentient, powerful, mostly-benevolent entity that concerns itself with the affairs of humans.

Obviously anyone who reads traditional religious texts or participates in religious rituals to learn something about God doesn't have anything to do with God-the-unknown.
david ellis
28. davidellis
One a more positive note I'd also recommend PK Dick's novel THE DIVINE INVASION (which I'm currently reading and enjoying quite a bit). And the short story collection THE NEW AWARENESS: RELIGION THROUGH SCIENCE FICTION--which includes one of my favorites in this category: "The Fire Balloons" by Ray Bradbury. Also THE TAKING by Dean Koontz. I wouldn't usually recommend him (many of his books are, in my opinion, horribly written, especially more recently) but this one, as much as I found the twist ending obvious early on and the themes highly at odds with my own views, was interesting. It can be fun reading people with views so completely different from your own.
OtterB
29. cdalek
I prefer Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter to the Towing Jehovah trilogy, but that's probably a result of my preferring to read books where the author is on the side of the characters, and given that Morrow is generally satiric, he often is not on the side of the characters he's created.
Jeff Soules
30. DeepThought
@TeresaJusino #23:
If God is the name we give what we don't know/understand, then religion, to me, is about giving ourselves the time and space and having the humility to say "I don't know. But I'm grateful anyway."

If that is the definition of God, then that would set science and religion as opposed to each other; science is about reducing what we don't know and deepening our existing understandings, which (on these terms) would literally be to chip away at God. I'm not sure that's a turn most believers (or believing scientists) would be ready to take.

I think there's plenty to be amazed at in the universe and in our everyday lives. But amazement can also arise from things we understand; I have a pretty good grasp on the life cycle of trees, but I still find a walk through the cherry blossoms to be what others would probably describe as a spiritual experience.

Or in other words, I think it would be an artificial limitation on the scope of spirituality to say that it applies only to appreciation of things we don't understand, when we can also marvel at the existence of things we do grasp.

There isn't a necessary connection between understanding and a sense of reverence. But reverence is equally available to the non-theist; it only becomes religion when you anthropomorphize it, I'd say.
Jeff Soules
31. DeepThought
@davidellis #28:
The problem isn't that religions don't change (obviously they do). It's that, changing or not, there is such incredibly poor grounds for believing the claims made by religions.

Or, as a corollary, that religions change for entirely different reasons from scientific beliefs. Luther didn't leave the Catholic Church because he had observed new phenomena about God or the world, but because his opinions (about theology, morality, authority, nationalism) differed from the Church's. The debate between, say, transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation happens completely removed from a realm where evidence is relevant, and beliefs are based on opinions (or at best a chain of reasoning from certain axioms) rather than objective fact.

Science has nothing to say about these claims. The question becomes whether to accept or care about non-scientific knowledge claims. In the real world, that's a decision without a rational basis (I mean, one that has to be made before rational analysis can affect it); but in fiction, the author's narrative provides a source of authority that can give us objective/scientific knowledge of all phenomena in the imaginary world, including divine phenomena. Non-theism is patently absurd in a world where anybody can go and visit Belar in his cave; but the gods exist (or don't) in the fictional world based on the author's say-so.

(POTENTIAL-SPOILER WARNING)
To come around, at long last, to a point, I'd recommend a book which is actually quite unrelated to religion but interesting from the perspective of narrative authority and world-building: Steven Brust & Emma Bull's Freedom and Necessity, a Victorian epistolary novel in which many of the characters believe (and act upon their belief) in world-affecting magic, but the authors never actually state whether or not it objectively exists. It's a possible explanation for some of the events, but not the only one. Put Pan's Labyrinth in a similar category; the authorial voice doesn't decide whether the magic world is real, and so we don't know and can just make our own decisions. That's much more the situation in which we find ourselves in day-to-day life.
Marcus W
32. toryx
I want to contribute to the "If God is the name we give what we don't know/understand...." discussion as well.

I think it's likely that there does exist a group of religious (potentially even Christian) people who feel that way. But I think that if such a group exists they're likely a minority.

Many organized religions tend to practice the opposite: that God is not only something a person can know and understand but also relate to. How often do we (even atheists and agnostics) hear about learning to listen to God's words in our hearts? Or the importance of having a personal relationship with God (or any one of the trinity)?

I really like (and agree with) DeepThought's comment @30 that things often become a religion when it is anthromorphized. So many religions demand that God is not only male but innately human and possessed of human values: mercy, jealousy, love, vengeance, etc.

None of these things really have a lot to relate to with science, a discipline that depends entirely on the ability to find answers in observable phenomena. A theory doesn't exist because a scientist thinks it might be true; a theory is developed based on physical evidence that can be applied to how and why something occurs. (To break it down as simply as I can)

Still, there are an impressive number of scientists who agree with TeresaJusino; even my brother, a chemist would say the same thing. Whereas I, a historian and psychologist, completely disagree.

One of the values I've always found in science fiction is that it can be used to help people from opposite ends of an argument (such as this one) understand each other better, even if they don't agree. Kinda like in this thread.
Thiago Leitão
33. kwisatzhaderach
@ 23
"I think that science and religion are more alike than either side would like to think."

How so?

Granted that there need not be a conflict between science and religion (except of course when fringe fundamentalist religious views are contradicted by science, but i'm thinking moderate religions here), but this doesn't mean they're anything like each other.

Their approaches to the human experience (by lack of a better expression), what they expect to achieve through these approaches and the relationship each has with the rest of society and culture is so different I can't see how they're alike at all.
OtterB
34. Bluejay
If that is the definition of God, then that would set science and religion as opposed to each other; science is about reducing what we don't know and deepening our existing understandings, which (on these terms) would literally be to chip away at God.

Still, there are an impressive number of scientists who agree with TeresaJusino; even my brother, a chemist would say the same thing.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson gave a great talk about just this phenomenon--how even the greatest scientists invoked God when, and only when, they reached the limits of their own reasoning powers; everything that was within their understanding they simply explained rationally. The point at which they mention God is the point at which they stop doing useful science, and it falls to others to continue chipping away where they left off.
OtterB
35. jbrecken
Robert J. Sawyer's Neanderthal trilogy posited a theory that Homo Sapiens brains are wired for religion, whereas the Neanderthals from the dimension next door were not.
Gary Schaper
36. Garyfury
I would suggest a few by Terry Pratchett, actually: Nation, which tackles the conflict of science and religion pretty directly, Small Gods, which addresses the relationships between gods and those that worship them, and (of all things) Hogfather, which doesn't much concern itself with religion but has all kinds of things to say about belief.
OtterB
37. Craig Ranapia
I'd also add Dune to your list. The Fremen are intensely religious/spiritual to the extent that they regard the worms a physical manifestation of God. That's not the quote unquote "problem". As Frank Herbert himself said often, the (not very sub-)text of Dune was how very dangerous it is to put unquestioning faith in messiahs -- be they religious, political or the unholy fusion of both Paul Atreides becomes.
OtterB
38. Cambias
Some older works you might not know about:

James Blish's _A Case of Conscience_ and _The Day After Judgement_; and pretty much anything by Gene Wolfe.
Iain Coleman
39. Iain_Coleman
There's something a bit more fundamental going on than science vs. religion. The fact is, there are innumerable ways in which we human beings fool ourselves, some simple, some complex, some trivial, some profound. Religion, by which I include both religious thought and religious practice, is a subset of the ways in which we fool ourselves. Science, on the other hand, is a method designed to stop us fooling ourselves. (It works only imperfectly, but in the long run and in aggregate it is impressively effective.)

There is no pressing need for science to attack any particular religious tenets (except when they make empirically falsifiable claims about things like the age of the Earth), so in that sense science and religion can co-exist. However, a substantial understanding of the ways in which people fool themselves is very likely to lead one to reject religion.

A good book to read is When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger et al. It is not about any established religion, being a socio-psychological study of a flying saucer cult, but its conclusions are brimming with applicability to the religion of your choice.
OtterB
40. DRK
The Instrumentality of Mankind books by Cordwainer Smith. Old but good.
Kermit Rose
41. Kermit1941
My approach to religion is similar to what several have hinted at in their comments.

What answers we get depend on what questions we ask.

I myself do not use the word "God" when talking to myself about religion, although I sometimes do use the word "God" when speaking to "believers".

To me, there is not a strong distinction between religion and philosophy.

One of the wrong turns that religion has taken,
in my opinion, is to stress the inability of humans to live a perfect life.

There are other ills that flow from the way religion has developed. However, I will not mention the others. It is enough that I mention my worry about religion beating people over the head for supposedly un-avoidably behavior.

I once read a short story by an anthropologist,
the main character of the story is attempting to hide from the beings who have stolen his power.
He is found, and told that a place has been prepared for him.
He complains, "But I am God."
He is answered. "Yes, but I am Man."


In interacting with believers in a more concrete or literal religion, I take care to respect their views, and attempt to express my views within their language.


I also see mathematics as a good parallel to religion.

We rarely have cause to ask, "Does the number 1 exist?"

Some mathematicians intuitively feel, as do I, that all the mathematics that has been developed reflects an underlying mathematical reality, in somewhat the same way that every technological invention reflects an underlying physical reality.

Indeed, I myself will go even farther. And this is where I make the point I most wanted to make in this post.

People have pondered the origin of physical existence. We now teach that matter or energy can be neither created nor destroyed. If so, then how is it that matter and energy exist?

Such reflections make it easy to believe in a God that bring the matter and energy into existence. This is the "First Cause" argument.

Now to bring mathematics in the argument.
Since I feel that the mathematics that we do reflects an underlying mathematical reality,
I intuit that that mathematics is self existent,
in much the same way that "God" is supposedly self existent.

Mathematical possibility precedes physical possiblilty.

Final note: Suggest you look for more ways in which views of arithmetic can model views of religion.

Kermit Rose
OtterB
42. The Great Turtle
I'm kind of surprised you were apparently drawn to Asimov, considering that he was an atheist and a lot of his works, especially in his more notable works like Pebble in the Sky and Foundation where religions are portrayed as artificial tools of politicians and merchants and run as a branch of the state. In Foundation, the merchant religion is even centered around science (which could be an interesting topic to discuss on its own) and as I recall in one of the later Foundation books, even the concept of religion, let alone deities, is totally foreign to most galactic citizens and only known to ancient historians and anthropologists. Do you still enjoy Asimov to the degree you did as a child, or as you grew and your views developed as you described in the article, did your views on Asimov change also?
Jim Adcock
43. dlairman
Just finished reading CALCULATING GOD by Robert J Sawyer (having just finished reading his FAR-SEER just before that), and it was a intriguing take on the subject, I recommend it highly!

Interestingly, FAR-SEER seems to take the opposite position to CALCULATING GOD.
Teresa Jusino
44. TeresaJusino
Holy crap! I turn my back for five minutes and everyone is chattering away! :) This is good though. I thank you all for your input, recommendations, ideas, and suggestions. I'm actually going to try to at least briefly respond to all of you now that I'm home and in my jammies and don't have my boss looking over my shoulder anymore. Here we go:

@otterB @24 - Yay! And thank you.

@Bluejay @25 - Thank you so much for that Asimov link. I'm looking forward to reading it when I have the time and when it's not after midnight on a worknight. :) However I disagree with your belief that religion is all about being satisfied with what the religious texts tell you and that's it. While that's very true of fundamentalists, and also a bit true as far as the religious establishment, it's hardly true of so many individuals. The establishment will, of course, be the very last thing to change, but not before a bunch of individuals continue to probe and question, trying to reconcile what they see in the world with what they are taught spiritually. I think a distinction needs to be made between religious establishments and religious people.

@davidellis @26 - "Except, of course, that "God" is almost never used in this way" - I just did. And I don't think I'm so special that I'm the only one. It's often the most fundamentalist or extreme segments of any camp that are the loudest, and I think you're assuming that because you don't see this way of thinking on TV or in the papers that it doesn't exist. But it does. Again, there are plenty of individuals who manage to reconcile a belief in God and a belief in science - some of them have even posted here.

I'm not trying to avoid rational criticism of theism at ALL, but it's also not my job to make it easier, is it? Plus, I think you might have misunderstood something - or, rather, I didn't make a clear enough distinction. When I said in my post that "God" is the name we give to what we don't understand, I meant that that's what I think everyone does in a general sense. However, HOW we do that differs from individual to individual. Some people personify it, some don't. Some personify it with more than one person - I'm thinking of religions beyond Judeo-Christian tradition, too. Yes, when I say "God" I personally mean that I believe that there is a sentient force that set existence in motion, and with which we can interact if we choose, etc, etc. That is what I think of when I say the word "God." For others, it's much different.

RE: "the statement quoted above mostly just signals a rather low level of scientific literacy--a lack of awareness of how the words "fact" and "theory" are typically used in science and how that usage differs from the vernacular."

I never said I had a high level of scientific literacy. However, I'm not entirely illiterate either, and when I say things I'm not just pulling them out of thin air. I'm saying them because I've actually read/seen something about it. Rather than just tell me how ignorant I am and leave it at that, why not enlighten me on how you think I'm misusing certain terms? Don't keep all that hot, sexy knowledge to yourself! ;) And thank you for your recommendations @28 - even the Koontz, of which I'm wary.

@Rob-Whelan @27 -
"Obviously anyone who reads traditional religious texts or participates in religious rituals to learn something about God doesn't have anything to do with God-the-unknown."
Absolutely not true! You're assuming that people who read religious texts ONLY read religious texts and stop there for the answers. That seems to be a common thought coming from a lot of people in this thread. As if religious people STOP at the Bible, or the Q'uoran, or whatever.

(cont'd!)
Teresa Jusino
45. TeresaJusino
@DeepThought @30 - I completely agree that spirituality has as much to do with what we do understand as what we don't. I don't think I ever said otherwise - I was just talking about God in relation to one, but I didn't exclude the other. Amazement CAN be found in things we understand, and religion deals with that too. I can only speak to my experience, but when I was going to church, it wasn't just about the afterlife, or about things we can't see or don't understand. Religion also very much deals with the real world and encourages you to learn about it, take care of it, and the people in it, and be grateful for it. I always had priests who encouraged questions, even if they looked at me cross-eyed because of what I came up with. Actually faithful people aren't threatened by "chipping away at God", because they know that God will always be there in whatever form God is supposed to be there. It is people who are afraid of their own lack of faith, or people who want to wield power over others by using religion as a way to control them who are threatened by anything that casts a shadow of doubt. I feel sorry for those people. And I know a couple of priests who feel the same way.

@DeepThought @31 - "In the real world, that's a decision without a rational basis (I mean, one that has to be made before rational analysis can affect it)"
I've actually started reading the Jonah Lehrer book, "How We Decide" right now (and if you've never read his "Proust Was a Neuroscientist", you really should!). In it, he says that the reason why we most effectively make decisions with our emotions as opposed to the rational/logical parts of our brain is because humans and animals have had them longer and they've had more time to evolve. Our emotional decision-making is generally more accurate and better for us than using only rational analysis. I'm paraphrasing HUGELY here, but according to Lehrer, we could make good decisions with just emotions and no logic and still come out well a majority of the time. Whereas with logic alone, we'd be incapable of making a decision at all. That's an interesting idea in this context.

@Iain_Coleman @39 - "There is no pressing need for science to attack any particular religious tenets" - PLEASE tell that to Richard Dawkins, who seems to want to make himself the Jesus of the Atheists. Seriously, he blames religion for the downfall of humanity, when really the downfall of humanity is caused by *drumroll* HUMANITY. Instead of thinking people should take responsibility for the wars they start, the greed they exhibit, etc - he blames religion and belief in God in general. That kind of thinking annoys me.
"However, a substantial understanding of the ways in which people fool themselves is very likely to lead one to reject religion."
I find it interesting that it's so easy for people to reject religion in an attempt to "not fool themselves", but not so easy for people to reject the idea that that comb-over totally makes him look "not bald" or that "My boyfriend's totally not cheating on me!" Why is religion so easily dismissible, but other ways of fooling ourselves aren't? Because it's not as if nontheists never fool themselves...I think it's to do with it being easy to dismiss something that's going to make you follow a lot of rules. Religions have rules, and rules are hard to follow. So better to chuck the whole thing than to try and wrestle with it and figure it out.

@Kermit @41 - I wish I were better at math! :)

@The Great Turtle @42 - Just because a writer doesn't believe what I believe doesn't mean I can't enjoy his work, does it?

Once again, THANK YOU ALL - particularly for your recommendations. I'm creating a reading list for this year FROM THIS THREAD. So, if anyone else has any recommendations, let me know. Also, I'm sorry if my responses are a bit rambly...It's 1:30-something in the morning, and I'm sleepy. :)
Iain Coleman
46. Iain_Coleman
@45:
I find it interesting that it's so easy for people to reject religion in an attempt to "not fool themselves", but not so easy for people to reject the idea that that comb-over totally makes him look "not bald" or that "My boyfriend's totally not cheating on me!" Why is religion so easily dismissible, but other ways of fooling ourselves aren't? Because it's not as if nontheists never fool themselves...I think it's to do with it being easy to dismiss something that's going to make you follow a lot of rules. Religions have rules, and rules are hard to follow. So better to chuck the whole thing than to try and wrestle with it and figure it out.

It is evidently not so easy, given that only a small proportion of the world's population are atheists. And of course we all fool ourselves about things every day - some big, some small. The point is that the more one understands how we fool ourselves, and the more one tries not to do so, the more one will be inclined towards rejecting religion.

Science is a professional method for not fooling oneself when it comes to natural phenomena. To the extent that this approach colours other areas of scientists' lives, scientists will be less religious than average (and they are). To the extent that a rigorously critical mindset is an asset in science, more successful scientists will be less religious than less successful ones (and they are). But this is not (in general) because particular scientific theories rule out particular religious beliefs, but because of the mindset of the scientists involved.

As for rules making it easy to dismiss something, I think this is quite wrong, and really a bit naive. A lot of people find rules very comforting: they reduce doubt and uncertainty, and give reassurance that appropriate actions will lead to desirable results. This is most obvious among the bible-thumpers who loudly proclaim that their holy book contains a complete guide to life, but it can be observed much more widely. Certainly the Catholic community in which I grew up was home to a great many people who found life a lot easier to cope with because of the rules and procedures that they believed to be divinely ordained.

Believe me, there is a great deal more "wrestling with it and trying to figure it out" when you've rejected those rules than when you're trying to live within them.
OtterB
47. miafan
One book that really ought to come up in any discussion of sf and religion, even though it's almost prehistoric by now, is Olaf Stapledon's "Star Maker." Published in the 1930s, a HUGE influence on writers from Arthur C. Clarke to Greg Bear. Tough to summarize, but basically about a group of humans and aliens searching throughout the universe for signs of a creator -- the "star maker" of the title. Stapledon invents an amazing number of alien planets and cultures, shows whole galactic civilizations rising and falling; earth's history is barely a footnote. It was reissued a few years ago with a new introduction by Freeman Dyson.
OtterB
48. Bluejay
@Kermit1941: But as Sagan has argued, if you posit God as a First Cause, the obvious next question is, who created God? (I.e., why is he the first? Why not a cause before him as well?) And if the answer is that God has always existed, then why not save a step and say that matter and energy have always existed? Why bring in an extra, unprovable step?

@Teresa: "I think a distinction needs to be made between religious establishments and religious people." That's a very fair point, thanks for making it! Of course, religious people themselves run the gamut from fundamentalist to cafeteria-style to, well, skeptics in disguise, so I recognize that it's hard (and probably undesirable) to make a blanket statement about anyone. (And that should apply to generalizing about atheists too.) I suppose my attitude towards religion partly derives from my own experiences with Catholicism, and from heated arguments with my mother. :-)

To take your distinctions a bit further--and I'm just writing off the top of my head here--I think we should distinguish between at least three things: (1) the impulse towards spirituality/awe/connection, which can be shared by believers and nonbelievers alike; (2) ethics and morality, which can be arrived at with or without the aid of faith; and (3) formal religion itself, with its codified laws and claims. I think my issue is really with number 3, and how it can lead to some bad ideas in number 2, as well as how it generally resists the scientific enterprise.

If I may recommend another book: Carl Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience--this one isn't SF, but deals with many of the issues brought up in this thread, in Sagan's typically open, generous, and even-handed manner. And I second the earlier recommendation of his novel Contact.
david ellis
49. davidellis
"@davidellis @26 - "Except, of course, that "God" is almost never used in this way" - I just did. And I don't think I'm so special that I'm the only one."

To repeat what I said earlier:

Except, of course, that "God" is almost never used in this way---as a synonym for the unknown. Of course, you are more than free to use the word God in this idiosyncratic sense. But even you seem to be using it to mean more than just the unknown as such...

And you confirmed this when you said:

"Yes, when I say "God" I personally mean that I believe that there is a sentient force that set existence in motion, and with which we can interact if we choose, etc, etc. That is what I think of when I say the word "God."

So it doesn't seem that I misrepresented you at all. Perhaps you didn't mean the God=unknown as a way of insulating the concept of God from criticism. But I'm still far from convinced that wasn't it's tacit purpose. Such a definition certainly functions that way and doesn't seem to have any other use besides obfuscation.

"Rather than just tell me how ignorant I am and leave it at that, why not enlighten me on how you think I'm misusing certain terms?"

My apologies. I could have stated the criticism more diplomatically.

The problem with what you said is essentially the same as what we frequently hear from people who reject evolotion: the refrain of "it's just a theory, not a fact".

Wikipedia has a pretty good overview of the issue:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_as_theory_and_fact

A few of the highlights:


Evolution has been described as "fact and theory", "fact not theory", and "only a theory, not a fact". This illustrates a terminological confusion that hampers discussion.

The application of the terms "fact" and "theory" to evolution is similar to their use in describing gravity.

The word "gravity", therefore, can be used to refer to the observed facts (i.e., that masses attract one another) and the theory used to explain the facts (the reason why masses attract one another). In this way, gravity is both a theory and a fact.


And that will be my final word on that topic since (due, admittedly, to my own less than tactful way of stating my point) things have become acrimonious and I have no interest in a flame war.
david ellis
50. davidellis

I'm paraphrasing HUGELY here, but according to Lehrer, we could make good decisions with just emotions and no logic and still come out well a majority of the time. Whereas with logic alone, we'd be incapable of making a decision at all. That's an interesting idea in this context.


Yes, a very interesting idea. I'll just point out a few of the more important caveats:

This probably works well only in regard to a limited set of circumstances. I hear a noise in the darkness while out in the woods and I feel a sudden fear and wariness. This emotional response is probably evolutionarily hardwired---its survival benefit is obvious.

And in regard to other things that directly pertained to the survival of hunter-gatherer societies Lehrer's idea is probably a fairly reasonable hypothesis.

In other contexts it very quickly breaks down. We're probably also naturally evolutionary inclined to ingroup thinking---distrusting and fearing those different from us. Which is one of the things that lead to racism and social injustice in the context of modern societies.

I'm curious as to how (or whether) you think this idea of Lehrer's should be applied to religion.


Instead of thinking people should take responsibility for the wars they start, the greed they exhibit, etc - he blames religion and belief in God in general. That kind of thinking annoys me.


I would state it more broadly: much of the evils of this world are the direct product of irrational thinking. Religion is merely one variety of irrationalism. Obviously, there can be purely secular varieties of irrationality (we can probably all think of many examples; the dogmatism and lack of evidence for many its tenets found in communism is a popular example) and these are as much worthy of criticism as religion.
Heather Johnson
51. HeatherJ
I’m a bit late to the party but I had to say that I LOVED this post – very thought-provoking and enjoyable, as are most of the comments.

As for recommendations, I’d definitely go with Warbreaker (Brandon Sanderson) and The Sparrow, and Children of God (Mary Doria Russell). I realize both have been mentioned already but I wanted to reiterate that they are great choices, though for very different reasons. In The Sparrow, the big question is “what do you do when your belief in God is challenged to the core?” I LOVE that book. I’m still in the middle of Warbreaker so I can’t give you any specifics, but it does deal with the interpretation of religion and the combination of religion and politics.

Also, I’ll be cohosting a read-a-long of The Sparrow in March/April on my blog – you are more than welcome to join in. The goal of the read-a-long is to introduce this fantastic book to a crop of new readers and encourage discussion about it.
Joseph Blaidd
52. SteelBlaidd
Kemit1941@41 is inderectly referencing Godel's incompleteness theorems, which state
any consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by a computer program is incapable of proving certain truths about arithmetic. This means that any consistent computable formal theory which can prove some arithmetic truths cannot prove all arithmetic truths.


In short any system of reasoning requires some starting asuptions that can not be proven by that system, and as Old Ben says, "Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view."

Human beings are, after all, designed to over notice patterns (if the sound you just ran away from is not a tiger you are more likly to survive than if you don't run when it is.) and subject to a large number of cognitive biases, even when doing science.

Enrico Fermi once related (to Freeman Dyson) that John von Neuman told him “Give me four parameters, and I can fit an elephant. Give me five, and I can wiggle its trunk.”

On the idea of fooling ourselves, Engineer, SF Author, and Agnostic James P. Hogan has writen a facinating book on how the human tendency toward Dogma is just as prevelent in science as anywhere else.

The great benifit of fiction especialy Speculative Fiction is that we can use it to examine our asumptions and get a view of "the back of our heads."

On the subject of Faith in SF I highly recomend Gorden R. Dickson's Childe Cycle comenly called the Dorsai series. One of the priciple theams of the series is the necesity of Faith (the quality) as a component of psycologicly whole individuals.

I especialy recomend Soldier Ask Not and The Final Encyclopedia.

On the subject of orginized religion, I would say that one of the chief benificial functions is teaching ethical behavior, especialy to children when it is most likly to "take". Even if ethical standards can be arived at by logical agument, large portions of humanity don't base their behavior on rational argument and logical choice but on convinience and habit. Even then, while logic can construct a decision tree, examination of people with damaged emotional centers has determined that emotion is what weights the branches of the tree. Without it we can construct Pro/Con lists all day but never actuly pick an option.
OtterB
53. Scott Messinger
The examples that you give in Science Fiction movies aren't really 'religion'. That's because they have real physical effects on the real world inside the story.

The gods of DS9 are real aliens, a measurable entity.

The Force in Star Wars is a measurable force, that the Jedi can demonstrate, over and over .

The Na'vi actually make a physical connection with natural plants on their planet. This could be measured and studied. They don't just sit still and pray and then claim that God spoke to them.

It's not what most people would call religion, because it's real.
Teresa Jusino
54. TeresaJusino
@Scott Messinger @53 - That's very true. The point of my post, though, is that we should possibly reframe what we call "God" and what we call "religion" and reframe how they fit into a discussion about science. That you can have this one thing, and that it's definition only changes based on a person's perception, but the thing remains the thing.

@HeatherJ - I would LOVE to participate in your read-along! Thank you for mentioning it! I will be checking out your blog post-haste!

@davidellis - I'm totally not upset or anything, and EVERYTHING seems to sound snarky when typed out. I appreciate your points of view, and had no problem with you disagreeing with me, I just wanted you to explain how I was wrong/misusing terms, because I really, genuinely wanted to know. Thanks for your participation in all this! If the world were full of people who agreed, it'd be a really boring place. :)
Heather Johnson
55. HeatherJ
Teresa - the details haven't been posted yet, but if you shoot me an email through my Blogger profile I'll be sure to let you know when they are (I'm still working out the specifics w/ my 2 co-hosts).
david ellis
56. davidellis

On the subject of orginized religion, I would say that one of the chief benificial functions is teaching ethical behavior, especialy to children when it is most likly to "take"



The problem is that when you base morality of irrational belief systems you also tend to end up with things like homophobia, sexism, and a host of other social evils defended as Divine Moral Truth.

I'm not saying that I disagree with the idea that we need social institutions like, or at least similar to, church and religion (I'm perfectly fine, on the whole, with Unitarian Universalism---a large percentage of UU members are atheists and humanists, in fact). I just wish more of these sorts of institutions taught the moral value of rationality and critical thinking and weren't so blatantly superstitious.
Marcus W
57. toryx
Religions have rules, and rules are hard to follow. So better to chuck the whole thing than to try and wrestle with it and figure it out.

That very statement is the crux of a position that bothers a lot of people who do not belong to a religious or spiritual organization. What do rules have to do with it? Non-believers have rules that they follow too, ideals that they struggle to uphold and maintain. I for one didn't leave religion to live an easier life free of all those annoying little rules and expectations.

It's similar to the off-repeated statement that without religion we (ergo, humanity) wouldn't have morality. That without the threat of hell for the evil and the promise of heaven for the good we'd have no reason to be kind and understanding to each other, or that anarchy and chaos would rein. I (and other non-believers like me) respect the law and the rights and opinions of others for the very sake of those rights and laws. I don't need a book and/or an omnipotent, omnipresent God to tell me that I should live a good life and be kind to friends and strangers.

I realize that my comments may sound all offended and upset and that's not my intention; my point is that there seems to be an assumption that without religion and/or faith the rest of us have some sort of freedom from things that the religious have to deal with, be it rules or morality. That's not the way it is and I think assumptions like that are one of the things that leads so many to be dismissive of faith.

As Iain_Coleman @ 46 said, without religion to guide you it can actually be more work to figure out what the right choices are and what rules toward living (and dying) should be followed. And in that it's very much more like science: One experiments, learn from one's mistakes and seek to come to a rational approach to how things should be dealt with based on experience. That's very different from living a certain way because one's family and priest taught that one must live a certain way or "By God you'll suffer for it!" (I realize that only applies to certain groups and not to all. But with religion there always seems to be something.)

Whether it's science or religion, science fiction or fantasy a common theme always seems to be the search for knowledge. The difference is that atheists (and agnostics) often rely a lot more on empirical evidence than faith and when you look closely at stories in science fiction (even the examples in the original post) that's ofen true there too.
steve bass
58. sazerac
I am amazed at how intensely scientific people can minimize the importance of sociology. Also, although I am a Christian and partial to that tradition, I get annoyed at atheistic arguments that don't address the cosmology of other faiths.

In terms of culture, science and religion are not that different. The most important aspect of each involve shared abstractions. Strictly dogmatic religiosity that particularly conflicts with science is a marginal portion of religious thought. It is easy to over-generalize when discussing religion, but don't forget it's a political phenomenon that fundamentalist monotheism is so popular currently.

There is an incredibly diverse world of religious thought. Much of this thought tends to have a more balanced relationship with dogma. Many traditions acknowledge the limitations of religion with respect to absolute knowledge. Traditions really aren't about that. They are about what brings people together to form a functional community.

Quark theory is probably pretty weak when it comes to establishing the social bonds that are going to help you find support in trying times. Boyle's law will not give you the confidence to overcome crippling anxiety in a moment of crisis. On the other hand having practiced for years a mantra that tells you the entire universe is on your side might do just that and save your life when you need to compose yourself for a split second decision in a life or death situation.

How much does it matter if something's true as long as it's helpful? In this way, science and religion are also so very similar. We quit believing Newton's law, but we will never stop using it.
Marcus W
59. toryx
davidellis @ 56:

The problem is that when you base morality of irrational belief systems you also tend to end up with things like homophobia, sexism, and a host of other social evils defended as Divine Moral Truth.


Man, that was well said. Thank you.
OtterB
61. Bluejay
@Teresa @54: "If the world were full of people who agreed, it'd be a really boring place. :)

On the other hand, people probably wouldn't kill each other. :-)

(Not sure whether that thought is relevant to anything...)
Jeff Soules
62. DeepThought
@davidellis #50 --
Not trying to disagree with most of what you say, but this:
much of the evils of this world are the direct product of irrational thinking.
I think this is actually untrue. If we look at things like the Crusades or the Inquisitions, they're the product of specific rational political decisions, which the common person is convinced to participate in due to preying upon irrational thinking. I think it is unfair to make "religion" (read: aggressive, single-idea-of-perfection organized religion) take the rap as the cause of these things; it's an enabler rather than a prime mover. IMHO.

@Sazerac #58 --
although I am a Christian and partial to that tradition, I get annoyed at atheistic arguments that don't address the cosmology of other faiths.
Fair enough; and although I am an atheist, I get annoyed at apologetics that don't address the cosmology, theology, or claims to historicity of other faiths. But, in most cases, we're talking to some specific audience, and we make assumptions about who that audience is, or we'd never finish talking.

I think your point is well taken that religion has many effects which are independent of the actual semantic content of its doctrines or the status of its truth-claims. However, it feels like you're giving religious organizations a privileged position here that I'm not sure is warranted; I would argue that the Linux Kernel Mailing List can establish a community just as effectively as Marble Collegiate Church. Moreover, I suspect that plenty of communities split, using religious differences as an excuse or an afterthought to justify the split; and there are lots of examples of religious differences keeping communities apart.
Similarly, ritual is powerful and important (as in the mantra you mentioned) almost regardless of its semantic content. But that doesn't really bear on what people should believe.

I also think that a great deal of the hostility to (certain kinds of) religion among non-theists is a result of the power religious communities have always held in Western society, and particularly hold today -- a "marginal part of religious thought" that "strictly dogmatic religiosity that particularly conflicts with science" may be, but it's one that has great political power in the US, and is understandably seen as threatening to many who disagree.


On a mostly unrelated note, one of the things that I find interesting in this discussion, and in religion/gods in SFF generally, is the readiness/fluency with which non-theists typically take to the fictional portrayals of fictional religion, and how well they play in those sandboxes. I think this bears strongly on Toryx's point in #57 -- atheists are often characterized as monsters incapable of understanding morality or loving their families because they don't believe in God(s), but their reading and writing shows they can function perfectly well in a world in which divinity is an objectively observable truth; they simply don't think that ours is such a world. And discussions of the details of theology and the logical implications of x or y divinity are just as interesting in imaginary worlds as the real world!
steve bass
63. sazerac
@56 and 59, I would offer that perhaps the expression of social evils has more to do with the political structure associated than the underlying irrational belief system. Jihadists and Sufis alike subscribe to Islam.

There is a notion that the person who creates a myth has no idea what it means. The meaning is accreted through use. When you throw a dinner party, it's not really about the food. It's about the experience of the food with other people. The harmony of the party really has nothing to do with the food. Irrational beliefs may be the red herring used by awful people to manipulate the behavior of the weak minded, but they probably serve more often to protect cultures and society from bad behavior through the power of taboo, tradition and even fashion.

The necessary thing is harmony. There are infinitely many way to have disharmony, but few ways to have harmony. Eliminating irrational beliefs will not eliminate bad behavior when the beliefs are simply an expression of the underlying problem.

Discussing faith in terms of irrational beliefs is rather short sighted. Why should life be devoid of metaphor? Why should the most distasteful metaphors (violet fundamentalism etc.) cause so much unproductive generalization?
david ellis
64. davidellis

Not trying to disagree with most of what you say, but this:

"much of the evils of this world are the direct product of irrational thinking."

I think this is actually untrue. If we look at things like the Crusades or the Inquisitions, they're the product of specific rational political decisions, which the common person is convinced to participate in due to preying upon irrational thinking.


I said "much". Not "all". Not even "most".

And I don't think it can be denied by any sensible person that irrational thinking causes an enormous amount of suffering in our world. From the impact of the Catholic Church on the spread of HIV because of its policies about condoms in places where its influential to the suffering caused to fundamentalist wives who won't divorce their husband because it's against their religious beliefs (even when both they are aware that their husband may well end up killing them---I've personally know, here in the Bible Belt, several women in this unfortunate circumstance).

From Uganda's passage of laws calling for the death penalty for homosexual acts (homophobia being, almost always, religiously motivated; its extremely rare among atheists) to the elderly man who's swindled out of thousands of dollars he can ill-afford to lose by a medium claiming to be able to contact the spirit of the beloved wife who has passed away.

One could go on all day but you get the point.

And, again, to be clear, I'm not saying only religion and supernaturalism are a source of irrationality. Irrationalism can be found elsewhere as well; perhaps most destructively in political ideologies and nationalistic fervor.
Joseph Blaidd
65. SteelBlaidd
davidellis @ 56:

The problem is that when you base morality of irrational belief systems you also tend to end up with things like homophobia, sexism, and a host of other social evils defended as Divine Moral Truth.

This asumes two things, one that the belief system is irrational and two that a certan set of behaviors are universaly considered social evils.(note that I am not saying homophobia or sexism are not wrong just that the determination that thy are is based on certan asumptions which may not be shared by all people).

That some thing is "rational" only means that it is "consistent with or based on or using reason". In otehrwords it defines a way of coming to a conclusion. Showing that a conclusdion is rational just demonstrates that it folows logicly from stated first principles not whether it is corect or not. Therfore given a different set of assumptions people can rationaly come to different conclusions.

For my second point I direct you to the study of Moral Psychology, partticulary Johnathan Haidt's Five Moral Principles namely harm/care, Fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, purity/sanctity.

Alot of liberal western ethics are based on the first two values. Other cultres emphisisze other pillers as having primary importance. Mutch of the rest of the world, China for example, base their culteral ethics mutch more hevily on notions of ingroup, authority, and purity. These diferent assumptions about what is important lead to very different conclusions. Witness the homosexuality laws recently propsed in Uganda, and the way that bullying is expresed in Japan( i.e. extreamly prevelent and seldomly condemed).

I have done a good bit of anthropology and one of the things I have observed is that Taboo is constant in amount. you can't reduce the total number just trade them. For example it is much more acceptable in the US to swear in public than to smoke.

It is extreamly arogant to assume that our own set of moral valuations are inherently superior to some one elses, without considering why those valuations have been made.
david ellis
66. davidellis

Discussing faith in terms of irrational beliefs is rather short sighted. Why should life be devoid of metaphor?


I'm not saying it should. As a lover of myth, fantasy, science fiction and imaginative literature/art in general that would be a ridiculous and self-contradictory position to hold.

One can value metaphor and stories that resonate strongly with the human heart without believing the stories to be factually true.
steve bass
67. sazerac
arrrrg NINJA'D by 62! I agree so much about the politics and the religious divisiveness, but hold that it is the cause and not the result of bad religion.

some interesting discussion is also going on here.

your comments about the imaginary religions conceived by non-theists seems to bear on the point toryx was responding to in 57. However, I think it might be more productive to talk in terms of metaphors instead of rules.

It is exciting to me that you have noticed non-theists enjoy playing with metaphors too! That they may not have found an existing community of metaphors whose metaphors are tasteful to them is sad to me because I find this resource particularly helpful. I can identify with the challenge of finding a tradition whose metaphors are tasteful, but creating a meaningful coherent body of metaphors inside a novel is rather challenging... outside a novel? Perhaps a cummulative tradition at hand is worth two in the... nevermind, I'm sworn off all discussion of Bushes.

@66 only those obsessed with dogma care whether the metaphors are absolutely true
david ellis
68. davidellis

That some thing is "rational" only means that it is "consistent with or based on or using reason". In otehrwords it defines a way of coming to a conclusion. Showing that a conclusdion is rational just demonstrates that it folows logicly from stated first principles not whether it is corect or not.


I think, actually that you're confusing the "logical" with the "rational". The latter, as I'm using it, has a broader meaning.

An utterly irrational thinker can think in a very logical way (in the sense that his beliefs follow as a logical consequence of his first premises--no matter how nutty those first premises might be).

For example, I could start from the assumption that the Harry Potter books are historical fact and weave an intricate network of justifications and answers to any objections that maintain complete logical consistency. I could say the lack of evidence for the wizarding world is due to the policy of erasing the memories of encounters of muggles with magical things (as described in the books). I could say that the books were published in order to introduce the next generation of muggles to the idea of the wizarding world in such a way that it would be less a shock when the wizarding world decides to reveal itself (as it plans to do, according to my insane fancy, in the near future). I could say the enormous, unprecedented popularity of the books was due to a magical enchantment being placed on the books.

And so on and so on.

Rationality is a much broader concept. It includes (but is not limited to) thinking objectively, of being very careful about what first premises one accepts so that one doesn't, while maintaining logical consistency, err none the less. It includes an effort to understand the psychology of belief formation such that one recognizes common cognitive errors.

And I am still quite confident in my belief that people who sincerely make an effort to be as rational as they can in this broad sense are far less prone to the vices of sexism, racism, xenophobia and the like.

Maybe I'm wrong. I'd be glad to hear your case if you think otherwise.


It is extreamly arogant to assume that our own set of moral valuations are inherently superior to some one elses, without considering why those valuations have been made.


And I'm more than happy to hear what rational justification a person might have for, for example, thinking a person who engages in a homosexual act should be killed.

Let's not just assume I'm right. Let's reason it out together. By all means, a big part of my point is that making a sincere, concerted effort to think rationally and critically about values, both one's own values and those of others, will tend to have positive benefits on ourselves and our cultures.
Jeff Soules
69. DeepThought
@67 Sazerac --
Were you responding to me in metaphors instead of rules...discussion of Bushes? I had only two points:
1) religion doesn't have a privileged place in establishing community; and
2) non-theists 'get' religion & are happy to imagine worlds with gods; they just don't believe ours is one.

Personally, for me it isn't about finding a metaphoric tradition I'm comfortable with; I say in all sincerity that I would probably be happier if I believed in a God, if I only thought one existed. But when I describe myself as an atheist, I'm making a statement about the world, not about myself or my preferences. I just would not be comfortable with the amount of self-convincing it would take me to believe. Or, one can't simply take Pascal's Wager; in the unbeliever it's hypocrisy, professing to believe what one does not for the sake of getting rewards, the worst form of intellectual dishonesty.

As to your last, I'm not sure I follow; I don't think of myself as obsessed with dogma, but I certainly don't want to build my life around beliefs that aren't true! But I also think that 'metaphors' is pretty abstract and there's a good chance I would mischaracterize what you're saying if I tried to respond to it just yet.
Jeff Soules
70. DeepThought
@davidellis #64 --
Again, I mostly agree with you. I think I'm just more inclined than you are to believe that Powers-That-Be always have a Hobbesian view of religion, that they're just using it as a tool. Ferinstance, I see the Ugandan gay-bashing legislation as callous politicians manipulating the prejudices of the population to encourage loyalty, with the "cause" being the politicians and the religious prejudice being a contributing factor -- same with the spirit medium, where the fraudster is the cause and the irrationality of the victim is a contributing cause only -- but I suspect that's as much a matter of taste as anything else, and obviously irrationality bears substantial guilt in any case. The Catholic stance on condoms is probably the best example of religion being the "primary cause" rather than a "contributing factor" but even there I think there are power-benefits to encouraging procreation among the faithful that are at stake, over and above slavish adherence to doctrine.

#68 --
And I am still quite confident in my belief that people who sincerely make an effort to be as rational as they can in this broad sense are far less prone to the vices of sexism, racism, xenophobia and the like.
This is a statement about my perspective on human nature; but I suspect there are plenty of cases in which people can make a rational decision to promote irrational beliefs in others (racism, xenophobia, etc) to achieve some specific material aim. For instance, I can see the leader of a nationalist movement intentionally encouraging xenophobia to increase his power base, e.g. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen intentionally promoting anti-Manchu sentiment to create an anti-Qing rebellion. It'd be nice if rationality always promoted tolerance, but sometimes intolerance is a calculated move; rationality is contingent/circumstantial.
OtterB
71. m127
Orson Scott Card's Homecoming series deals to a large extent with man's relationship to the divine, and what constitutes divinity.
david ellis
72. davidellis

For instance, I can see the leader of a nationalist movement intentionally encouraging xenophobia to increase his power base, e.g. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen intentionally promoting anti-Manchu sentiment to create an anti-Qing rebellion. It'd be nice if rationality always promoted tolerance, but sometimes intolerance is a calculated move;


And his efforts to promote intolerance for personal gain would be utterly unsuccessful when attempted on a populace with sufficient critical thinking skills and devotion to rational thinking to see through his tactics.

So I really don't think these points you're making, true as their basic premise may be, actually contradict my position in any substantial way.
Marcus W
73. toryx
@ 71:

OSC's Homecoming series is essentially Mormon doctrine put into a sci-fi/ fantasy wrapping. That's a whole other type of genre story from what we've been discussing so far and capable of opening up an entirely separate can of worms.
david ellis
74. davidellis
I don't see how its essentially different from the things we've been discussing. It's more blatantly SF as religious allegory than most books so far discussed perhaps (I wouldn't know---I didn't like the series and didn't get far into it; and what little I did read of it was so long ago I barely remember it).

But still, its a good example of the intersection of religion and science fiction.

The whole other can of worms is the nonfiction Card's written in the past few years. His anti-gay rights essays and editorials and how they're shaped by his Mormonism.

But there were signs of that way back. In his book SCIENCE FICTION IN THE REAL WORLD, mostly about literary criticism and SF, Norman Spinrad rather presciently argued that ENDER'S GAME has anti-gay themes. I didn't buy it at the time I first read Spinrad's book but I've since come to think he was reading Card more insightfully than I was.
Jeff Soules
75. DeepThought
@davidellis #72 --

Indeed; contradicting your position isn't really my aim. Like I said, I think these are differences of style rather than of substance.

That said, what good's an atheist if he's only worried about perfect worlds? A perfect world would have a benevolent God. In our world, though, irrational thinking is widespread, and rational thinkers must take it into account, and can manipulate that irrationality for their own ends. Possibly even for "the greater good" (whatever that's purported to mean) and possibly even on a broad scale.

It'd even be possible for an entire group to embrace a kind of hatred for rational reasons. To take an arbitrary sci-fi example, Bajoran resistance against the Cardassian occupation. If it's true that the most effective resistance fighters are those who show no mercy and completely hate their Cardassian occupiers. Then if the Bajoran population is committed to expelling their Cardassian occupiers, then hating Cardassians & embracing xenophobia might be the correct, rational decision for all Bajorans.

Obviously this is not a pretty conclusion. But the point I'm trying to make here is that rationality is a tool. We have to judge it in every circumstance by how it is used, acknowledging that in some circumstances the rational decision may be to embrace values that we (for pre-existing, pre-rational reasons) don't like. Rationality creates a better world and I would absolutely see it more widely applied, but it isn't automatically rosy or perfect. Moreover, I wouldn't be a very good skeptic if I didn't take even my own preferences with a grain of salt.
Joseph Blaidd
76. SteelBlaidd
davidelis@68

Excelent questions

I point you to the response of the Chair of the Ugandan Taskforce that proposed the law Pastor and AIDS Activist Martin Ssempa PhD.

Most relevent to your question:

Some people have asked about the rationale of a death penalty mentioned in the Bill. There has been a lot of misinformation about this matter with headlines such as: “Gays face death penalty in Uganda”. These headlines are deliberately misleading. This penalty applies only in special cases termed “aggravated homosexuality”, which include, those convicted of unlawful homosexual rape of a child or handicapped invalid; This is a conviction of paedophilles! As highlighted in the problem of “virgin rape cures HIV/AIDS” the offender can be a person living with HIV; a parent or guardian of the victim where there is abuse of authority! Finally is the use of drugs to stupefy the child so that they can rape them!. Clearly, the intent of this penalty is to protect weaker members of society from being victimized. Please note that for over 15 years Uganda has had the same penalty for persons who have carnal knowledge of minors heterosexually, mainly to protect against sexual abuse of girls by men. This time, this provision intends to provide equal protection of boys, among others.

In the early 1990s, at the height of the HIV Crisis, Uganda sought to protect children, principally girls, from sexual abuse by adults and infection with HIV. There was troubling concern over some people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWA) who raped and infect girls with HIV/AIDS in a grotesque belief of a “virgin sex cure” prescribed by some witchdoctors. Since 1997, Section 123 of the Penal Code only provided protection against defilement (sexual abuse) of girls under 18 years of age. Section 123(1) states that: - “Any person who unlawfully has sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of eighteen years is guilty of an offense and is liable to suffer death." Sub-section 2 of Section 123 of the Penal Code provides for attempts to defile a girl under the age of eighteen years. It states that: "Any person who attempts to have unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of eighteen years is guilty of an offense and is liable to imprisonment for eighteen years with or without corporal punishment". This has and continues to be the law which no one has complained that it is unchristian or a human right violation. Many boys have been violated without legal protection leaving their evil oppressors to get away with no law enforcement protection. The current draft law, simply aims at providing equal protection of the boy child and other vulnerable persons, as currently exists for the girl child. The question for you is this; does the sexual abuse of a boy constitute a lesser crime than the rape of a girl?


More generaly, while for many people in the industrialized west, the primary purpose of government is the protection of the rights and well being of the individual, in other cultures the the protection of and good of the community takes precedence over the individual. Combine this with a rejection of the premises that homosexuality is inate and unchangable and accepting the premiss that it causes harm to the community, and you get the Ugandan law as proposed.

If purity of the comunity and social stability are the greatest goods than xenophobia is quite rational. China has been xenophobic for mutch of it's 3000 year history. The idea that one should treat people from outside your group with the same degree of consideration and justice as some one from your "family, tribe, nation" first shows up in the Mosaic Law and is still uncomon on a practiacal level. Most people will trust or defend their group over an other whether the devision is ethnic, national, religious, political, corperate, or sports team. xenophobia is only irrational if the benifits of diversity are considerd grater than the benefits of conformity.
steve bass
77. sazerac
deepthought, the bushes thing was definitely not directed at you. i am sometimes an angry and over-animated person mostly in regard to politics. unfortunately i expressed this in a snarky non-sequitur. please accept my apology. neither was the "dogma obsessed' comment directed towards you or even atheists in general. rather, i had the fundamentalists in mind here.

i really like your thoughts in general and particularly post #69, but i argue that this intellectual hypocrisy is overblown. maybe like the hypocrisy of answering the question, "does this dress make me look fat?" to an extent, it's a matter of context. if you are really discussing atheism intellectually, you might as well go ahead and consider this a subset of comparative religion.

another yardstick for hypocrisy: if you can't ever answer the question of whether there is a God or not, how important can this be? denying the knowledge of God may be called agnosticism, but there is another way of thinking that I think most people do that lies between fundamentalism and agnosticism. it involves exploring the shape of things based on a premise. at some point, doesn't everyone pick a premise whether it's atheistic, agnostic, fundamentalist or otherwise? if so, what's left besides the shape of the story, it's direction and how much it moves you and other people?
OtterB
78. punx
I didn't give this thread a through lookthrough to see if anyone else mentioned it, though I doubt it....My father had a 1974 paperback collection of religious themed sci-fi called "Other Worlds, Other Gods" edited by Mayo Mohs. Clarke's Nine Billion Names of God is in it, which I figure you may already have read, plus a selection from Christus Apollo from Bradbury, but most of the stories, when I was a kid and pulled by science and religion in opposite directions (and eventually losing the faith :) in my own way), I still find myself drawn back to on occasion (I eventually sought out my own copy on eBay) as I feel for the most part that, like 9BNOG and also Asimov's Last Question, the religious aspect(s) are not delivered so much as blunt as subtle and in some cases the religion is almost unimportant.

Just my suggestion, thanks for reading!
Torie Atkinson
79. Torie
@ 76 SteelBlaid

Let's leave political issues like that out of this discussion. Link if you must, but the topical discussion here should be (broadly) related to science fiction and religion.
John Massey
80. subwoofer
Phantom Menace etc had Jar JarNo redemption after that.

Woof™.
John Massey
81. subwoofer
As for the rest, I am Christian first and foremost. Belief in God for me is what faith is about. But that is me.

Woof™.
steve bass
82. sazerac
jarjar binks? seriously, way to nuke a thread woof!
OtterB
83. Luke Shea
This article was a joy to read! I, too, am a Roman Catholic with an interest in science and science fiction. I've been arguing the "There Is No Versus Between Science and Religion" line for a long time. It's a relief to see someone else doing it, too.

Science Fiction's tendency to approach The Big Questions has always been what endeared it to me. Here are a few really lovely faith-and-science stories I've read:

--The Space Trilogy, (Sometimes called The Ransom Trilogy) by C.S. Lewis. Lewis uses the concept of original sin and fallen-ness as an SFnal piece of worldbuilding: What if The Fall only effected Humans on planet earth? What would it be like for us to meet an unfallen race on a perfect, Eden-like world? Hilarious and moving.

--Abandon in Place, by Jerry Oltion. Oltion takes the Belive-it-hard-enough-and-make-it-so system that has become so popular since The Secret and turns it into the basis for a jolly, brainy thriller. If will-powered physical manifestations were possible, how would they work? Plus, lots of cool NASA history and a Pope in Bermuda shorts and shades.

--Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. One of my favorites. An alien craft crash-lands near a small town in the Black Forest just before the black plague hits. It is a heart-wrenching and tragic story, but filled with the kind of curious joy found only in lively philosophical discussions. It is wonderful to watch the protagonist, a catholic priest, attempt to understand alien life and interdimensional travel using the only tools he has: Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.

--The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell) and A Case of Conscience (James Blish) as mentioned by several others.

And, in the world of Comics:

--Hellboy, by Mike Mignola. The art is gorgeous and the oddly moving story of a reluctant anti-christ is unique and inspired. Don't let the awful first movie deter you from checking Hellboy out.
John Massey
84. subwoofer
@sazerac, meesa thinks yousa no looking at the OG blog. Teresa was complaining that the midichlorians is what killed the pre-quals. I contest that it is the pandering to kids to mass market toys that killed Phantom Menace. The potential was there- jedi school, Force, balance etc. Just needed to be made adult, skip the G rating and go for at least an M or R.

Terminator is an interesting study. Man created Machine to help and imaged it after him. Machine turns on Man as it was superior. Man fights for survival.

Classic example would be CS Lewis for books. Strong religious themes there, as CS was a Christian by faith. How about his Ransom trilogy? Out of the Silent Planet. A very good read.

A more modern spin would be Dragonlance. Look no further than the books based on the D&D gaming. Lawful Good to Chaotic Evil for alignment. Pillar of the community vs. Destuction of all. Huma the Knight of Solamnia vs the forces of Takhisis. There is a code of conduct called the Oath and the Measure. I have always liked the clear path the authors chose.

Woof™.
OtterB
85. Ammusionist
Wow.
What an amazing thread.

I believed myself to be reasonably intillectual until this very moment!

Teresa, can I encourage you to take a look at Babylon 5. It covers a great many religious topics - from traditional to fundamentalist faiths as well as near-god like aliens and those who worship them.

I can see that my own point of view is being put by others in this discussion so I won't fan any flames, except to throw in a couple of points:

* Science fiction is essentially not about science. Not the good stuff. It's about people. Ultimately I cannot see how it is possible to write stories about people without sometimes addressing issues of faith, religion, excistentialism and the influence of "God". If this causes readers to ponder these issues then sci-fi does not stifle, rather promotes faith. Whatever form that faith may take.

* (For Kermit1941)I believe mathematics was originally created to tell if you have more goats than I do. From that point on it has become more and more complicated as we try to use it to explain the universe around us. Nature resists science. Science is not capable of describing something as simple as a circle without having to adjunct a special number that can only be truly described in terms of itself and I don't believe mathematics will give humankind the answers to the universe, or if it does, no-one beyond the mathematical elite will be able to understand them so it matters not. Might as well be 42.

Better go - I have a small italian bistro to fly off in!
Joseph Rego
86. jarego2
OK, here's my two cents.

I, too, am a lapsed Catholic, or as I like to refer to it "a victim of a Jesuit education"--and I mean that in the best possible way. To my wife's Jewish family I simply claim to be extremely reformed.

Also a lifelong sci-fi geek, I grew up reading my dad's Analog and F&SF magazines, countless paperbacks and library books, and majored in engineering in college.

I've never had any reason to question the existence of God. After all if God created the universe he is by definition outside of it, and therefore beyond our perception. Whether we are beyond his perception or influence is an open question. My beef with the "revelations" of organized religion is that it doesn't seem right that a loving god would only enlighten certain segments of humanity with his messages while ignoring the rest.

On the other hand, the desire to believe in something greater than ourselves makes a great deal of sense in evolutionary terms. It allows for the development of a sense of community, altruism, the belief in the greater good, etc. It also leads to tribes,gangs, armies, etc.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," said Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote Childhoods End. Could that apply to religion as well? Does anyone remember Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein? Philip K. Dick wrote extensively about religion. His last efforts, collected in The Valis Trilogy postulated an earth somehow cut off from God, as in C. S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet. But Dick also postulated the possibility of an insane (jealous?) god who was actively trying to prevent us from knowing him, knowing the "truth" about the universe.

Science fiction is a unique genre that lets us explore the cosmos, try on alien skins, and contemplate the vast variety of creation. It's all about possibility. Why can't we allow for the possibility of God as well?
Joseph Blaidd
87. SteelBlaidd
Torie@79

Gomen nesaii~~^-^;

I didn't mean to get so far afield and going back over my comments I realize that I didn't make explicit that my point was that, as jerigo2 said, speculative fiction allows us to "try on alien skins" and thus understand how different people can reasonably see the world differently.

I agree that B5 is an excellent exploration of many concepts religious and philosophical. I especially enjoy the end of "Parliament of Dreams" with the long line of representatives of earths different philosophies and religions.

JMS on "Passing Through Gethsemane"

"The themes of faith and forgiveness were worthy of a theologian. Are you sure there isn't something you'd like to tell us?"

Never shoot pool at a place called Pop's. Never eat food at a place called Mom's. The difference between horses and humans is that they're too smart to be on what *we'll* do.

And I have lost people. Too many people. Lost them to chance, violence, brutality beyond belief; I've seen all the senseless, ignoble acts of "god's noblest creature." And I am incapable of forgiving. My feelings are with G'Kar, hand sliced open, saying of the drops of blood flowing from that open wound, "How do you apologize to them?" "I can't." "Then I cannot forgive."

As an atheist, I believe that all life is unspeakably precious, because it's only here for a brief moment, a flare against the dark, and then it's gone forever. No afterlives, no second chances, no backsies. So there can be nothing crueler than the abuse, destruction or wanton taking of a life. It is a crime no less than burning the Mona Lisa, for there is always just one of each.

So I cannot forgive. Which makes the notion of writing a character who CAN forgive momentarily attractive...because it allows me to explore in great detail something of which I am utterly incapable. I cannot fly, so I would write of birds and starships and kites; I cannot play an instrument, so I would write of composers and dancers; and I cannot forgive, so I would write of priests and monks and minbari....
steve bass
88. sazerac
OtterB
89. Gabriel Mckee
If you're looking for suggestions for SF books about religion, you could do worse than my book, The Gospel According to Science Fiction, to find a dozen or five titles to check out. And then there's my website, SF Gospel.

More specifically, I wholeheartedly second the recommendations of The Sparrow, Eifelheim, VALIS (and everything else by Philip K. Dick, Calculating God (among other Robert J. Sawyer books), and Childhood's End. I'd also recommend Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, which you'll love if you liked Handmaid's Tale.
OtterB
90. MikeK.
I loved this article. But the one thing that I didn't see mentioned was Stargate?! The whole idea of Stargate came from the the question "Are these aliens gods, and are they worthy of our worship?" Some of the gods were good and some were evil and some just stood by and watched. While the ultimate goal of the humans seemed to be to evolve (or ascend) to a higher plan of resistance and BECOME gods.

I would recommend the Circle series by Ted Dekker, it isn't the best example of great sci-fi but it some interesting views.
Thomas Simeroth
94. a smart guy
Okay, I'm really late to the party on this one. I had never even heard of Tor, when this article was published. However, I am a devout Catholic and a fan of Science Fiction. One short story that I would recommend is "The Quest for Saint Aquin," by Anthony Boucher. Here's the link. http://facstaff.uww.edu/carlberj/aquin.htm

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