Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Plotbot
  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
January 2017

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 sample.

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 multiple books.

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 and Evolution 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 happen?

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.

REFERENCES

http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/giordano-bruno-cosmos-heretic-scientist

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-thomas-jefferson-created-his-own-bible-5659505/?no-ist

http://ed.ted.com/lessons/what-makes-a-hero-matthew-winkler

http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/religion

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ReligionTropes

http://www.adherents.com/lit

http://www.adherents.com/lit/sf_rel_sp.html

Scroll down to “What’s Missing?”

http://evolution.binghamton.edu/religion/

http://evolution.binghamton.edu/religion/research/afterlife/

http://www.eagleman.com/sum

http://evolution.binghamton.edu/religion/resources/article/

These are more academic.

https://evolution-institute.org/search/

Just click the Religion box and you’ll get magazine-type articles, interviews, and blog posts.

http://www.people.hbs.edu/mnorton/mochon%20norton%20ariely%202011.pdf

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.”

http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(07)60692-8/fulltext?_eventId=login

https://neuroscience.stanford.edu/news/why-do-humans-hallucinate-little-sleep

http://nautil.us/issue/19/illusions/how-your-brain-decides-without-you

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131219-santa-claus-origin-history-christmas-facts-st-nicholas/

Not German, as we have been led to believe, but Greek.

http://www.livescience.com/25779-christmas-traditions-history-paganism.html

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131217-krampus-christmas-santa-devil/

http://www.inf.fu-berlin.de/lehre/pmo/eng/Dawkins-MindViruses.pdf

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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firefly_(TV_series)

http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/the-way-of-cross-and-dragon/

There’s an audio version, too!

http://mentalfloss.com/article/59638/why-do-we-drive-parkways-and-park-driveways

http://billmoyers.com/content/ep-3-joseph-campbell-and-the-power-of-myth-the-first-storytellers-audio/

Ironic that he also thought that translating the Catholic Mass into English was a step backwards.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/12/the-ayahuasca-boom-in-the-u-s

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/09/trip-treatment

Less trendy and more science-y than ayahuasca. Especially notable quote: Small children are “basically tripping all the time.”

http://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/myths-over-miami-6393117

Read more by Randall Hayes


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