Saturday, September 3, 2011

Science Fiction and Religion

Over at Grasping for the Wind, Steve Davidson, who may or may not be my evil twin (or maybe I'm his evil twin, bwahaha) has an essay entitled "Science Fiction and Religion, a Marriage NOT Made in Heaven, Nor Even the Laboratory." That title could lose at least four or five words without harm, but never mind that. Davidson's argument is that science fiction absolutely must be written by atheists, and must either ignore religion or attack it, or it is not science fiction.

He has no good arguments. He assumes that science implies materialism, apparently without realizing that materialism is a metaphysical proposition that cannot be tested empirically. It becomes clear very quickly that when Davidson says "science fiction" in his essay, he means scientistic fiction, that is, science fiction that happens to espouse the same worldview he has.

As soon as he says that Arthur C. Clarke's famous flash story, "The Star," proposes "deep philosophical questions," it's obvious something is wrong. "The Star" is mildly clever, but it is not deep: it features a Jesuit scientist afflicted with doubts and depression because he discovers the Star of Bethlehem was a nova that blew up a benevolent civilization. That's cute, but I can't imagine how anyone could mistake it for deep. "Ha! The Star of Bethlehem destroyed millions of lives! Doesn't that shake your faith, Christian?" Not really, Clarke, considering that you just made that up.

Then there's his take on Dune. I grant him that Dune really is an anti-religious story; that's how I read it, and that's how I think it makes the most sense. But again, it is not deep. "Ha! The apparent fulfillment of religious prophecy is really just the result of clever psychological manipulation by space-witches! Doesn't that shake your faith, Christian?" Not really, Herbert, considering that you just made that up.

But according to Davidson, in Dune, "The author, Frank Herbert, looked for and found the one tool that could manipulate large groups of people into doing crazy, illogical (and often stupid) things." Got that? The one thing. No large groups have done anything crazy, illogical, or stupid because of, say, communism, nor a pseudoscientific (but respected by scientists) human culling and breeding program, nor for any simple human reasons like greed or sexual desire. People never do anything stupid, crazy, or illogical for any reason except religion, got it?

Readers start making objections in the combox, of course, and Davidson's answers are revealing. Somebody points out the mass-stupidity induced by things other than religion, and Davidson answers that those are really religions too if you squint hard. Someone points out non-atheist sci-fi writers like Jules Verne (a Roman Catholic who wrote hard sf), and Davidson laughably answers, "Verne? Verne didn’t write science fiction, he wrote precursor ‘scientific romances’." Ah, that explains it: Fictions about science and romances about science are two very different things!

Tom Simon, in a fine essay you ought to read, "Superversive: The Failure of Subversion in Imaginative Literature," discusses a critic, John Grant, who insists that fantasy literature must be "subversive" or it is not really fantasy, but "commercial fantasy." After delivering this dubious definition, Grant is faced with unenviable task of dealing with The Lord of the Rings. Unable to dismiss it as "commercial fantasy" without being laughed at, he argues that it is really subversive in some way. Simon, who knows his Tolkien quite well, answers:

. . . some foolish and superficial modern people, whose sense of history extends no further back than the remote primaeval dawn of the 1950s, think Tolkien was subversive because he was loudly opposed to ‘robot-factories’ and the destruction of the English countryside. In fact, and this note runs strongly throughout his work, he regarded industrialism and pollution as subversive, the one degrading human nature, the other destroying the order and beauty of nature as a whole. This sentiment became fashionable in the 1960s, and many of those who adopted it were subversives; but their reasons were not Tolkien’s. They opposed industrial civilization because their parents favoured it; Tolkien opposed it because it destroyed the kind of life lived by all the generations of his ancestors. [more . . .]

To describe the error Grant commits in insisting that fantasy is subversive or it is not fantasy, Simon develops a delightful analogy:

At this point, Mr Grant’s bizarre classification system begins to make, not exactly sense, but at least an intelligible form of nonsense. It is as if a man were to say that he liked Soup because it is cold, thick, viscous, and not highly flavoured. Such a man could go to restaurant after restaurant, and to all his friends’ houses, and ask for Soup, and be disappointed every time. . . . When he speaks of Soup, proper Soup and not that nasty Commercial Soup, he means vichyssoise. . . . And so it is with Mr Grant and his avowed taste for fantasy. He does not really like fantasy; what he wants is subversive literature, and when he does not get it, he blames everyone but himself. [more . . .]

Davidson has a similar problem: he does not really like science fiction. He likes atheist science fiction, and when he does not get it, he calls it "scientific romance" or else he spins it until it's atheist, as he does with his curious reading of A Canticle for Leibowitz, for example. In fact, his interpretation of that book is so bizarre it prompts a humorous parody in the comments that is worth repeating even though it means a third block quote:

A reinterpretation of several well known works, using the Steve Davidson method:

Brideshead Revisited. A heart breaking tragedy, in which a free spirited intellectual is seduced by the illogical insanity of a decadent Roman Catholic Family, and eventually succumbs to their poison.

Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship strive to destroy the Ring, which represents the never ending cycle of religious control and oppression. Sauron, the All Seeing Eye, represents the tyrannical God-figure, who must be destroyed to liberate a maturing species.

The Book of the New Sun. Severian wishes to reignite the Sun (which represents the fires of rationality, burning away the dregs of religious behaviour from the Urth) and build a strictly logical future.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Innocent children are abused by a religious figure- they are brainwashed into keeping Narnia from growing out of it’s infant stage by slaying it’s foremost advocate of reason, the White Witch.

The fiction of Flannery O’Connor. A dispassionate look at the horrific effect religion has on the South.

John C. Wright, being enormously prolific and too tempted to write on the Internet when he should be finishing his next novel for me to read, has written no less than three lengthy essays in response to Davidson: "Life is Short, Manuscripts Are Long," "Faith in the Fictional War between Science Fiction and Faith," and "A Question I Never Tire of Answering." He pulls apart every claim of Davidson's and then some. Most interesting is his contrast between the aforementioned Catholic Verne, who wrote hard sf and used a cannon to send people to the moon, and atheist H. G. Wells, who wrote less scientific fiction and sent people to the moon with anti-gravity metal.

According to Davidson, "Religion on the other hand, putting the best possible face on it, wants us to believe that science has its place (is even useful at times) but is subordinate to some higher power that can flaunt science’s reason and logic whenever and wherever it so chooses, without requiring explanation." I don't know what religion he's talking about; it's certainly not Christianity, which describes a God who created a universe that operates on consistent principles. Christians insist on a realist metaphysics that posits the universe is as it appears to be and is not an illusion, and on a consistent physics that stems from that. These beliefs in reality and consistency makes science possible.

Wright gives us what will be the final block quote:

Since, as regular readers of this journal have heard me argue before, the scientific world view is not only part of the Christian world view, it cannot exist without intolerable paradox outside it, and since both the idea of the romance is an unique invention of Christendom, and since systematic investigation of natural philosophy called physics is likewise an unique invention of Christendom, to argue that the novel form of the scientific romance is incompatible with Christendom is like arguing that the Samurai story is incompatible with Japan, or the Cowboy story is incompatible with the Western frontier. [more . . .]

I would like to make a suggestion: since science fiction and fantasy are supposed to be about strange things, otherworldly landscapes, and exotic peoples from beyond the stars, the worldview of the modern liberal, or of the New Atheist, can only harm science fiction and fantasy, because if there is one thing that defines the liberal or New Atheist, it is an extremely rigid, close-minded parochialism. Anyone who gets indignant if he sees religion in his science fiction cannot possibly be mentally prepared to explore strange worlds, see strange sights, or hear of strange cultures. Likewise the liberal, who with all his talk of "multiculturalism" screams in indignation if he hears of such ordinary things as chastity or heroism, cannot be prepared for fantastic stories of love or daring-do. That is why, even as technical expertise in sf may become more refined, the stories and the characters they depict are degenerating.

Take, for example, the original Battlestar Galactica, which for all its shoddy world-building at least makes an attempt at depicting an alien civilization on the move and has fun in the process. Because it is Mormon (more-or-less), it contains a worldview--a religious worldview--that is exotic to most of its viewers, and for those viewers who like strangeness, as an sf fan should, that exotic worldview is part of the appeal. Now compare it with the remake of Battlestar Galactica, which is merely Sleazy Modern America IN SPACE and involves no fun whatsoever. Even with its sharper writing and better special effects, its dull familiarity makes it less believable than the original. I suppose the refugee space people in the remake may look and act and think exactly like we do because the show is supposed to be tackling current issues, but I secretly (or not so secretly, since I write about it on the Internet) believe it's because the writers didn't dare go against current fashions in mores and politics because it would bring the PC-Nazis down on their heads if they created a show about Mormons in space.
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