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Science fiction author asks, why are atheists who write space operas supposed to know best whether God exists?

Lawyer Hal G.P. Colebatch observes, re atheist science fiction:

A magazine I frequently write for (not this one) recently published a review of a book of essays advocating atheism. The reviewer pointed out with some enthusiasm that a large number of the contributors were science-fiction writers.

This left me somewhat nonplussed. I publish a good deal of science fiction myself, I have also read quite a lot of it, and I am quite unable to see why writing it should be held to particularly qualify anyone to answer the question of whether or not there is a God.

I don’t know if it is an actual requirement for the job, but certainly a number of astronauts are believers and Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, is a lay preacher.

I would be inclined to take their feelings about Cosmology with more respect than those of even the best-published science-fiction writer. (The American Spectator, 10.7.10)

Well, at least the astronauts have been there. It’s not just the Saucer City Chronicles all over again.

I tend to be wary of all genre fiction, and am delighted by examples of non-convention bound writing that prove me too pessimistic. But I’d be curious to know why atheists are attracted to science fiction (not necessarily with happy results, by any means), and why there is so little good science fiction out there from a theistic perspective. Any thoughts? 

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16 Responses to Science fiction author asks, why are atheists who write space operas supposed to know best whether God exists?

  1. It is probably not so much that atheists are attracted to science fiction. Rather scientists and amateur scientists are attracted to both science fiction and atheism.

  2. “Dr Malcolm Jeeves ponders the question why the Greeks never went further in their scientific queries in his book The Scientific Enterprise and the Christian Faith. He points out that a unique blend of Greek thinking with a specific strand of Christianity-namely, the Reformed faith-birthed modern science. Jeeves writes:

    “It was with the rediscovery of the Bible and of its message at the time of the Reformation….that a new impetus came to the development of science. This new impetus, flowing together with all that was best in Greek thinking, was to produce the right mixture to detonate the chain reaction leading to the explosion of knowledge which began at the start of the scientific revolution in the sixteenth century, and which is proceeding with ever-increasing momentum today”[1]

    Not only did science not develop with the Greeks, but it is also true that science would not have originated among the Hebrew people-it did not and would not-for the simple reason that to the Hebrews, as you recall in Psalms, theworld was simply an occaisionfor praise to the Creator. “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork” (ps 19:1).

    Nor could modern science ever have come into existance among the Arabs, because of the Muslim religion. The writings of Aristotle, when lost to the Western world from about A.D. 500 to A.D. 1100, were kept by the Arabs of north Africa and finally reintroduced into Europe in the 1100′s and 1200′s. Aristotle-unlike Plato-had a philosophy that would lend itself to the scientific type of study because it was more inductive than Plato’s deductive kind of reasoning. Plato would get an ideal and deduce all manner of things from it. Aristotle would tend to look at the particulars and induce principles from them. Because of the Aristotelian thought they had access to, the Arabs-including Nestorian Christians-generally made greater scientific and mathematical advances than the Europeans during the Middle Ages.

    But during all of that time the Arabs never introduced nor created any real science. Why? Because of their religion. Because of the fatalism that dominates the Muslim religion. Since everything is fatalistically determined, obviously there is no point in trying to manipulate the natural world to change anything, because all things are unchangeable.

    Science could never have come into being among the animists of central or southern Africa or many other places in the world because they never would have begun to experiment on the natural world, since everything-whether stones or trees or animals or anything else-contained within it living spirits of various gods or ancestors…

    Nor could science have originated in India among the Hindus, nor in China among the Buddhists, for both Hinduism and Buddhism teach that the physical world is unreal and that the only reality is that of the world’s soul and that the greatest thing anyone has to learn is that the physical world is not real. Therefore, there would have been no point in spending one’s life fooling with that which had no reality in the first place.

    It waited for Christianity to come and take several of the different strains and weave them together to produce in the sixteenth century the phenomenon we know know as modern science. It was because of a number of basic teachings of Christianity. First of all is the fact that there is a rational God who is the source of all truth, and that this world is a rational world. This gives rise to the possibility of scientific laws.

    It is interesting to note that science could not originate in the philisophical view prevelant in the world today. The prevailing philosophy of the Western world is existentialism, which is irrational. It would not be possible for science to develop in an irrational world because science is based on the fact that if water boils at 212 degrees today, it will boil at 212 degrees tomorrow, and the same thing the next day, and that there are certain laws and regularities that control the universe. This all stems from the Christian concept of the god who created the world-a God who is rational and who created a rational world.”

    Kennedy, D. James and Jerry Newcombe: What If Jesus Had Never been Born?, pgs 94-95, Thomas Nelson Publishers

    Source cited in the above by Kennedy-Newcombe:

    [1] Jeeves, Malcom; The Scientific Enterprise and the Christian Faith, pg 13, Downers Grove

  3. Hi Denyse

    I think atheists are attracted to science fiction because only in a known, fictional (and naturalistic) scenario can they place their hope that there is no God. For the atheist, science fiction dulls the senses without removing the source of the pain. It’s as therapeutic for the atheist intellect as materialism is for the hedonist.

    In regards to your question of why there is so little theist science fiction; Being theists, perhaps we are so accustomed to truth that anything less is just not interesting.

  4. It is kind of interesting that the science fiction genre is dominated by atheism or at least a very strong and extreme secularism.

    I think the reasons are complex, but in a society where the scientific community is dominated by an antipathy to religion (of course I am generalising and oversimplifying) and attracts people to whom Reason (or what passes for Reason rather) is the new god and all religion is considered mere outworn superstition – throwing the baby out with the bathwater – then science fiction is going to follow in its wake, more or less. As a genre, the writers and fans are going to reflect that self-same outlook that dominates contemporary science. Many science fiction writers are scientists themselves or have a background in the physical or natural sciences, they are science geeks one way or the other and so the genre on average is going to be indicative of the attitudes and weltenschauung of our scientific elite.

    Another thing, science fiction like related genres of imaginative fiction, it could be argued and indeed is argued, predominantly serves as escapism. Whilst serious science fiction writers and fans bristle at these charges – and I would certainly say it is an unkind and not entirely accurate charge – there is a lot of truth to it. It is the science or tech geek’s escapism from a scary and tragic world. The point is in the past, people would turn to solace from our fears and tragedies toward religion predominantly. Religious people of course still do. However if you are an atheist or even agnostic or of a strong secular bent, religion is simply “the opium of the masses”, and so you have to find something else. Man has an innate need for awe and wonder and a sense of the magical (children naturally appreciate the magic of the world and nature before it is drummed out of them by “education”), and if religion is not going to give a man that innate need, he will find it elsewhere, a substitute of some kind, even if a poor one.

    To the person tending to agnosticism or atheism, he has to look for magic and wonder elsewhere outside of religion. In the world of the irreligious (and I mean this in the broadest sense of the word) science and tech geek, science fiction offers a world of awe and wonder and infinite possibilities that he finds appealing given his background or interests, a sense of wonder (the exact phrase employed by SF writers themselves) he does not see in nature and the cosmos, because the wonder and magic of the natural world has all been explained away to him (hello neo-Darwinism and scientific materialism). Science fiction and imaginative fiction fills the gap, it is the escapism of the science and tech geek.

    With that said, there is (at the risk of contradicting myself! Although I don’t think it a contradiction, just a paradox and humanity being very complex.. ) a palpable religious thread running through science fiction. Some notable examples include the posthumously famous Phillip K Dick whose oeuvre had very strong mystical religious themes, especially his last few books. One of the true titans of science fiction was the British writer and philosopher Olaf Stapeldon whose science fiction masterpieces from the 1930s ‘The Star Maker’, ‘Last and First Men’, ‘Last Men in London’ remain among the best ever written in the genre (some critics consider these novels the best ever written in the genre), are overtly religious and surpass in quality the SF stories of many of his far more famous compatriots such as H G Wells and Arthur C Clarke. I read them in my youth and they had a lasting effect on me.

    I am sure there are quite a few comtemporary science fiction writers who have a religious or spiritual worldview, but I wouldn’t know. There is one Canadian science fiction writer, Robert J Sawyer who isn’t afraid to tackle controversial themes like evolution from an unconventional non-mainstream angle and he doesn’t shy away from the religious implications. I don’t think Sawyer is an ID supporter at all, but he is not as dogmatic in repeating the Darwin mantra as many of his peers and dares to think that people have the right to question the orthodoxy and investigate the evidence for themselves.

  5. zephyr,

    With that said, there is (at the risk of contradicting myself! Although I don’t think it a contradiction, just a paradox and humanity being very complex.. ) a palpable religious thread running through science fiction.

    I’ll go a step further than you: I’m very suspicious of the idea that atheism is a common theme in sci-fi. Many of the themes seem to be of a simply different variety of theism.

    Pretty much any sci-fi where our world is a computer simulation would be a form of deism at the least, unless we’re going to take the greek and other pantheons as atheistic religions.

    Sci-fi where characters within the universe have Godlike powers – the ability to create civilizations and universes, or go back in history and alter time itself, likewise seems downright pagan to me, not atheistic. Again, if a world where Zeus exists is not atheistic, then why should I regard a world where some guy as or more powerful than Zeus exists as atheistic?

    And if we expand the question from mere ‘theism’ of some kind to ‘intelligent design’, then sci-fi is positively rife with it. If I recall right, Star Trek’s universe is based on the assumption that directed panspermia is the majority case for all civilizations come across (if only to explain why so many look like humanoids with weird heads.) Babylon 5 expressly had not just one, but two alien races routinely tinkering with other races’ evolutionary development. To say nothing of the implied teleology in given settings where life is abundantly common, and just about any given planet with life on it is destined to bring forth some intelligent, space-faring civilization.

  6. I always considered the Force and the Darkside to be explicitly religious – albeit with the head removed. I’m not sure that StarWars can be considered serious science fiction, but there is no doubt a generation of youth was impacted by it.

  7. yes nullasalus you make some good points. I think there is a kind of displacement or a return of the repressed in science fiction, religion returning in the garb of science fiction themes, even if unintended or unconscious – in fact if a displacement and a return of repressed feelings/attitudes it can only be unconscious. That is, the super-human of the future or the god-like powers of the supercomputer of the future (think Hal from the film 2001 A Space Odyssey) or the superaliens from a distant civilization that will save us from ourselves or damn us and destroy us for our criminality and barbarity, are obviously religious motifs in their roots (even if unconscious) and dynamics. The advanced aliens from distant stars who make contact with humanity are substitutes for the gods and angels/demons. This is fairly obvious and as such there is a considerable commentary on this aspect.

  8. I think that there are not a lot of science-fiction books written by people who believe in God for at two main reasons:
    1) People who are christians and believe in the bible don’t really believe in evolution. And a belief in evolution is the cornerstone in any story that involve aliens.
    2) In order to write an interesting book about science fiction, you need a future where God doesn’t prevent galactical wars, etc.. Nobody want to write about a paradise, it’s too dull.

  9. But don’t atheists pretend that the ‘science fiction’ that they write is actually ‘science fact’? In other words, isn’t pointing out that those who write ‘science fiction’ as fact and also happen to write science fiction as fiction kind of a redundant claim?

    Dr. Bruce Gordon – The Absurdity Of The Multiverse & Materialism – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/5318486/

  10. Mrs O’Leary:

    Good question.

    My thought is that a lot of science fiction — no, not ever so many origins science scenarios! — serves as the speculative eschatological literature of evolutionary materialist secular humanism.

    “Imagine . . . ”

    (But do not ever mistake imagination and plausibility for reality and soundness.)

    Okay, back to constitutional crises and the like . . .

    GEM of TKI

  11. I always thought that science fiction must be hard to write for Christians because if it is too far in the future then it usually assumes that the Second Coming of Christ has not occurred. Most Christians probably assume that He will come sooner than a thousand years into the future or before mankind travels to the stars. Correct me if I’m wrong.

  12. Good comments here e.g. the two previous. I noticed ca. 1975 when I entered graduate school at UT Austin, many in the large contingent of libertarians on campus there were atheist, former leftists that woke up from statism-worship. Science fiction seemed to me the native mythology of libertarianism. Since many of these folks were also a bit libertine in outlook, this aspect tended to conflict with many of these folks coming back to spirit. So a substitute mythology for them was Sci Fi, taking the place of statism and spirit.

  13. For an interesting Christian take on life on other planets, read C. S. Lewis’ “Out of the Silent Planet”, and the following two books in “the space trilogy” series as well. Some of the best books I’ve ever read.

  14. Y’know, Denyse, I can hardly hold UD blameless for the lack of good theistic sci-fi. To toot mah own horn for the umpteenth time, my latest novel, Jake Killjoy, P.I. fits this bill rather well, but when I point this out to you good folks, the response I get is phlegmatic at best.

    Yet, if it’s not Paul Nelson musing about how ID is still looking for its Orwell, it’s you pondering the whys and wherefores of the lack of good science fiction from a theistic perspective. Still, here I am, manuscript in hand, waving it high in the air and whistling like crazy for your attention. SHEESH!

    Killjoy is set in the mid-26th century, in a dystopia in which Darwinism has been elevated to State Religion. The story has a bit of everything: humor, suspense, excitement, mystery, even romance, and is one of the most biting examples of anti-Darwinian satire ever written. It makes, I think, an effective modus tollens argument against the Darwinian account of non-theistic evolution. And it’s a dandy read.

    In short, my novel is quite good. I have made numerous appeals to members of the ID community to lead me to an editor who can help me make it great. This includes Bill Dembski, the members of Phil Johnson’s Phylogeny gmail community, and yourself. (Bill sent emailed me a suggestion that I contact you to see what you might charge to edit; I did, but am still waiting on your reply.) The only headway I have been able to make so far has been to sit down with UD’s Johnnyb, who is currently reading the manuscript but has only read about half and is currently having trouble finding the time to finish it.

    Believe me, I get it—everybody’s just SO gawrsh-darned busy! But let’s not scratch our heads in wonder why there’s so little good theistic sci-fi. There is, after all, the obvious: BECAUSE IT’S NOT GETTING INTO PRINT.

    Donnerwetter!

  15. 15

    I’m a theistic science fiction witer, or to be more accurate I’m a theist who writes science fiction, among other things. There seems to be nothing intrinsically atheistic or theistic about science fiction that would lead me to see why one group would be more attracted to it over the other, if, indeed, that is the case, I don’t know. I suppose if I were to have to make a choice I would say that the allure of “science” or the air of “science,” what Ken Wilber calls “narrow science,” is appealing to atheists because it serves as an alternative to God and gives them a sense of authority. “Science” (hardcore materialism) has become the sort of gatekeeper of all that is real in the modern world, for various complicated reasons too many to go in to here. Without a belief in God (used as broadly or narrowly as you choose) one still has to believe in something, and that something might as well be “science” as the new world authority.

    Moving on to the fiction part, well, humans are remarkable storytellers. Everything is a story, built up around facts. Facts in themselves are just pieces floating around waiting to be attached to a story that explains how they all fit together. For an atheist instead of writing about God why not write about the new authority, “science?”

    Of course all this is speculation; the ramblings of a man with too much to say and too small an audience.

  16. Being a “Golden age’ fan of the genre, I cannot really speak to current trends in books and authors, but in the more popular forms of this field, discussions concerning God, faith and religion in general could not be more central. Just take, for example, this current (started this week) blog on the theological issues and ramifications raised by Ronald D Moore’s prequel to Battlestar Galactica, Caprica:
    http://forums.televisionwithou.....&st=0

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