Glad Tidings of Great Joy and Ongoing Research
This column was supposed to be published in December, hence the reference to that month. IGMS apologizes for the delay.
I spent last month beating up on
politics and political SF. For December, because it’s
Christmas, I’d like to take a more celebratory shot at
religion. Not at creating one, like L. Ron Hubbard. Not at
reforming one, like Thomas Jefferson, going through his Bible
with a razor blade and cutting
out all the miracles, which he assumed must have been added after
the fact by dishonest human clerics. No, I simply want to pull back
and examine religion as portrayed by SF, and as studied by
scientists as an example of human cooperative behavior, going beyond
the mythic insights of Joseph Campbell and George Lucas, the basics
of which seem pretty well assimilated into the genre already.
Obviously, people were writing about
religion long before there was a genre labeled science fiction,
and this article
from the Encyclopedia of SF lays out themes and highlights in more or
less chronological order, starting with theist provocateur Giordano
Bruno as the first person to write about “an infinite
universe filled with habitable worlds.” It seemed pretty
comprehensive until I wandered over to tvtropes.com,
which has over a hundred religious tropes across different media. And
then—jackpot!—I found Adherents.com, which has a database
of over thirty-four thousand
references to 796 specific religions, philosophies, and ethnic groups
in science fiction & fantasy stories. Also, as a challenge to the
writers out there, Adherents.com has a short list
of religions that have never appeared in any story in their
Databases are useful to scientists
because they allow for comparisons and hypotheses. Consider a similar
research effort by the Evos
Consortium, to map out all existing conceptions of the afterlife.
This would allow hypotheses, such as: Under what social or economic
or historical conditions do beliefs in reincarnation arise, as
opposed to a permanent heaven? What is the average number of
compartments to the afterlife in different religions
(Heaven/Hell/Purgatory/that waiting room from Beetlejuice),
and how does that relate to the physical environment where the
religion is located?
Databases can also be tools for
creativity. SF writers are used to generating their own hypotheses
from their imaginations and personal experiences. But what if an SF
writer were to download the Evos afterlife protocol
and questionnaire and then answer all the questions in deliberately
new ways? One might get a spray of short stories, like David
Eagleman’s Sum. Or by combining all those answers,
one might generate a new religion worth exploring in detail across
Besides the comparative databases,
there is a growing theoretical and experimental literature on
religion, trying to bridge the gap between biology, social science,
and the humanities. The Evos
Institute sites are good starting places, but a Google Scholar
search for “religion and evolution” pulls down almost 2
million other results, with a substantial number of them freely
available. “Religion and benefit” gives about the same
number. The academic writing style is not much fun, but the ideas are
intoxicating. Religion creates or reinforces cooperation during peace
and especially during war. Religion potentially
makes people healthier and happier—just as being lonely and
outcast, or terrified
to die, makes people sick and mean. There are tons of studies
specifically devoted to whether
prayer works, which are a fascinating digression, especially if
you happen to be interested in the overlap between science and magic,
as many SF writers are. Specific brain circuits, activated under
specific conditions such as sleep
deprivation, cause us humans to see faces and supernatural agents
not just in cases of sensory
ambiguity, but everywhere—mechanisms that might operate
entirely differently in artificial intelligences or alien lifeforms.
In other words, can robots hallucinate?
One big thing to remember in any
evolutionary system is that not all features are adaptive.
Some will be fixed in the population by sheer dumb historical luck,
what biologists call genetic drift (or in this case, memetic
drift). Take, for example, a now obscure
Greek saint, famous during the Middle Ages for resurrecting
dismembered (and pickled!) children, going on to become the
blue-eyed, flannel- and fur-covered embodiment of Christian
generosity across the world, AND somehow coinciding with the same
solstice time window when pagan
cultures used evergreen trees to celebrate the death of the year and
the promise of the new one. And don’t even get me started on
the god-cop/bad-cop relationship between Santa Claus and the Krampus.
That’s just weird.
British biologist and atheist
provocateur Richard Dawkins made a big deal out of these supposedly
irrational circumstantial details in his famous essay “Viruses
of the Mind,” where he refers to Santa as “Father
Christmas.” According to people like Dawkins, there are no
benefits of religion. Zero. Religious meme-plexes are purely
parasitic ideas, and humanity would be better off without them.
There’s a strong vein of this general sentiment in SF’s
treatments of religion as well, as documented in the article from
Clute’s encyclopedia that I mentioned above:
In virtually all
late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century speculative
fiction the antagonism of the scientific and religious
imaginations—sharpened by controversies regarding Darwinian
Evolution, socialism and humanism—is evident, whether the
thrust of the narrative is toward reconciliation or conflict.
which surprisingly does not reference
possibly the most entertainingly cynical religious SF story of all
time, George R. R. Martin’s “The
Way of Cross and Dragon.”
To me, the fact that we park in a
driveway and drive on a parkway, which makes sense historically
but in no other way, is not the point of studying either religion or
language. Diversity requires difference. Besides, language’s
function is not simply to convey factual information, to label
physical objects as consistently and literally as possible. Language
is plastic; it is a tool, out of whose substance you can make other
tools. Likewise, we can use religious tradition as an overstuffed
tool closet. Maybe even a shed.
Joseph Campbell was adamant
that the vehicles of religious and other cultural transformation are
not priests but artists, and that, like with languages, a
static religion is a dead religion. If you as an SF writer have a
problem with the religion of your birth, just change it in
your stories. Replace the communion wine with ayahuasca.
Use virtual reality to enhance a shamanic journey. Grow your own
pantheon out of a childhood urban
legend. Knock yourself out. What’s the worst that could
Randall Hayes, Ph.D., wears
flame-resistant pajamas everywhere he goes, just in case. When not
dodging the Inquisition, he blogs at Steemit.com and writes grant
applications for Agnosia Media, LLC.
Scroll down to “What’s Missing?”
These are more academic.
Just click the Religion box and you’ll get magazine-type articles, interviews, and blog posts.
The benefits of religion are high for those whose beliefs are stronger. For those with weak beliefs, the benefits may become costs.
A Terror Management Analysis of the Psychological Functions of Religion
Personally, I just love the phrase “terror management theory.”
Not German, as we have been led to believe, but Greek.
Though I think Dawkins misses the forest for the trees, there are some great ideas in here, including software ecosystems and the
distinction between “straight” and “outlaw” DNA, which reminds me of Firefly.
There’s an audio version, too!
Ironic that he also thought that translating the Catholic Mass into English was a step backwards.
Less trendy and more science-y than ayahuasca. Especially notable quote: Small children are “basically tripping all the time.”
Read more by Randall Hayes