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Science Fiction and the Para-Religious

Written by Race MoChridhe in response to a podcast by Tara Smith and Benn Banasik, interviewed by Raymond Radford.

The bad news about this episode is that I lost a significant bet by only a few seconds when it took until just after the 10:00 mark for Robert Heinlein to be mentioned. The good news, of course, is the very interesting conversation that unfolds from that point. I am not recapping that conversation here; if you haven’t listened to it yet, go listen!

Instead, I want to follow up on a thread the conversation didn’t follow, based on a comment Mr Radford makes just after Ms Smith invokes Strangers in a Strange Land. He observes that:

writing something like [Heinlein’s work] in the 1960s … was completely antithetical to the standards and practices, if you will, of American society at the time. Which brings us to the idea that science fiction is social fiction. So you know, he’s sort-of writing this idea that in the future, possibly, we have comradery and free love. And we’re not being jack-booted into oblivion by fascist governments or anything like that…

The reception history of Heinlein could be a Ph.D. thesis in itself (if it hasn’t already been). What made me smile about this characterization was that, even as Heinlein was bringing the opprobrium of American conservatism down on himself for the promotion of loose sexual mores and socially instrumental pseudo-churches, he was also calling down the vitriol of American liberalism for populating the future with valorized jackboots (à la Starship Troopers or, even more strongly, Space Cadet) that, in confirmation of Ms Smith’s thesis, reflected his real-world enthusiasm for nuclear weapons testing, the Vietnam War, and Reagan’s SDI initiative (an argument over which permanently clouded his relationship with Arthur C. Clarke). The omnivalent gadflyism of Heinlein has been remarked upon frequently, but its importance to his success has been perhaps most deeply recognized by Brian Doherty, who wrote that “[t]hat iconoclastic vision is at the heart of Heinlein, science fiction, libertarianism, and America.”

What does that have to do with religion? A great deal, if one recalls that Pope Leo XIII characterized “Americanism” as a heresy in his Testem benevolentiae nostrae (1899), understanding by it “the confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, [and] the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world”. What that pope might have thought of Heinlein’s novels may be left to the amusements of the imagination. More to the present point was Leo XIII’s concern regarding the suggestions from some American Catholics that “the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions”.

Even if one takes some umbrage with the other elements identified as “Americanism” by the Holy Father, this last point—the belief that the future is to be qualitatively different from the past such that, in Henry Ford’s famous saying, “history is bunk” and all human life is open to reinterpretation and reimagination from the ground up—is characteristic of the whole wave of revolutionary republics that trace their inspiration to Lexington and Concord. (Americans tend to be somewhat amnesiac about how much of the rich symbology and rhetoric of the Church’s other great 20th century nemesis—Marxism—sprouted on American soil.) It is also foundational to many (if not most) strains of science fiction writing, which not only use “the future” as a tabula rasa on which fundamental reimaginings of the human condition can be inscribed, but justify those inscriptions on the basis of some form of technological or scientific determinism, where the latent possibilities opened by new feats of engineering or new understandings of the physical world compel reconfigurations of society and the psyche by their own internal logic. What these stories designate as “science” thus functions analogously to “fate” in classical literature or “divine Providence” in medieval writing (or, for that matter, “historical dialectic” in socialist realist novels).

Heinlein coined the term “speculative fiction”, which has now come to be used as a catch-all for science fiction, fantasy, and related genres that presuppose orders of reality in which the conditions of life in the world are fundamentally different from those experienced historically and in the present. Notably, however, this is very different from the sense in which Heinlein originally used the phrase, as a means of distinguishing what we now call “hard science fiction”—science fiction that pays scrupulous attention to the scientific plausibility of its envisioned futures, which Heinlein more or less pioneered and was extremely proud of—as against the more fanciful storytelling common to both the pulp “space opera” adventures of the early 20th century and the great 19th century originators of the genre, for whom the “science” in science fiction was more or less interchangeable with “magic” in fantasy works. Heinlein’s careful “speculation”, as distinct from this wild and uninhibited imagining, brought his work out of the realm not only of the cheap entertainment with which pulp novels had been associated but also out of the domain of allegory and parable in which writers from H.G. Wells to Charlotte Perkins Gilman had pioneered science fiction in the first place. Heinlein’s work became not only thought-provoking but plausible. It is no coincidence that, to my knowledge, his was the first fictional religion to cross over into real-world practice through the Church of All Worlds, as Ms Smith notes.

I will be curious to see the survey results from Ms Smith’s interviews of Nebula attendees, and specifically what they might suggest about authors’ religious affiliations and beliefs. I don’t pretend to any encyclopedic knowledge of science fiction authors, but the only “big name” writer I can think of who is deeply involved in a “formal” religion is Orson Scott Card. (A much less famous example, but notable to me as the subject of some of my own recent research, is Annalinde Matichei, who incorporates the new religious movement with which she is identified—Filianism—directly into the world of her novellas.) I am sure there must be others, but it is notable how infrequently religion appears as a major theme in the personal lives of famous science fiction authors and how many, including those for whom religion is a major theme in their work, are themselves either atheists or practitioners of idiosyncratic or unorganized alternative spiritualities—a phenomenon made all the more notable by the powerful presence of formal religious identity and belief among foundational figures of modern fantasy writing, such as J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Could this be, I wonder, because many forms of science fiction fundamentally depend upon quasi-religious attitudes toward science itself?

Although he came to publicly embrace the term later in his life, Isaac Asimov always retained a certain discomfort with labelling himself an “atheist” because, he said, it was a statement about what he didn’t believe rather than what he did. He often went by “humanist” instead. Is it possible that the general intellectual commitments from which the bulk of science fiction springs—to an iconoclastic questioning of society, a vision of history as qualitatively transformative, and an understanding of scientific knowledge and technical invention as carrying teleological consequence (either in their own right or in their interaction with the known qualities of the human psyche)—are manifestations of a kind of humanism, scientism, or both (depending on one’s emphases and perspective) that is commonly incompatible with majority religious beliefs or else functions cognitively as a substitute for them?

That is, perhaps, where my digression rejoins the main conversation, as Mr Benasik goes on to discuss parallelism in the way avid video game players conceive their experience and the way that religious adherents understand their spiritual engagement. To what extent those parallels could be the result of para-religious aspects of modernity underlying gaming culture and game development (as I have suggested they may underlie science fiction as a genre), versus the extent to which they reflect similarities in the cognitive processing of experience as Mr Benasik explores in the interview, I will leave, with the anticipation of a sci-fi fan awaiting an author’s next release, to his future research.

Navigating the Religious Worlds of Science Fiction and Video Games

Written by David McConeghy in response to Ben Banasik and Tara Smith, interviewed by Raymond Radford.

This episode of the Religious Studies Project is a wide-ranging discussion with Ben Banasik, Tara Smith, and Raymond Radford. All are doctoral candidates in the University Of Sydney’s Department of Studies in Religion. Sweeping from Arthur C. Clarke’s story The Nine Billion Names of God to the video game Journey or the Church of All Worlds (CAW) that was inspired by Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, you may feel out of your depth at times with colleagues at ease in sharing multiple references to sources in their studies on religion in Science Fiction and video gaming.

Maybe you’ve had the pleasure of reading Leo Tolstoy “A Confession” but not Frank Herbert’s Dune. Or you’ve been lost for hours in the video game world of Skyrim but not Stardew Valley. Perhaps you’ve heard of Jediism but not CAW. There’s always another thing to see as data for religious studies, but widening the boundary for what counts as data comes with a price. Every new category is a multiplication. When your choices are infinite, then explaining your choices becomes an obligation.

To free readers and listeners from the burden of initiation into complex canons of works, I want to discuss instead the way that investigations of imagined worlds lend themselves to scholarship in religious studies. Why do scholars choose expressions of popular culture amid the array of data options? What do they hope to gain from this sort of data that is inaccessible elsewhere? What’s in it for you if you can’t tell Herbert from Heinlein or Skyrim from Starcraft?

For its part, the RSP has been a fierce advocate for the value of studying religion and/in culture, covering topics from comic books to video games, music, clothing, consumerism and more. Ben, Tara, and Raymond all agree with the claim that “Science Fiction is social fiction.” Video games, too. They are always products embedded in time and space and made for the society in which they were produced. Cultural products reveal a society’s culture(s), just as they seek to change the culture(s) that produced them. Observing this discourse is bread-and-butter work for many in our field.

One major premise of studying fictional worlds is that they are immensely powerful forces in human lives. They are capable of replicating many of the moves commonly associated with religion including myth-creation, textual authority and canonicity, the elevation of sacred objects, ritualization and commemoration, pilgrimage, and much more. In the depiction of the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ Time Machine we are compelled to see things racially. In the obsession with tending a virtual farm in Stardew Valley we can investigate ritualization but also the meditative “flow” players enter in long gaming sessions. In the complex mélange of Islam and Buddhism in Dune we can ask about religious syncretism. We can look at Comic Conventions as pilgrimage sites for devoted fans. All of these comparisons are likely to use terms like religion or religious experience, but when we do the terms don’t come without the weight of their origins and contexts. Just as the world religions paradigm is haunted by religions outside of regular order of six or so traditions, each new fictional world is a chance for us to remove the ghosts from the terms. They are laboratories for testing our assumptions about how things work, or, more often, how they might work differently if we understood the stakes in a different way.

Since Science Fiction and video games are data worth considering for religious studies, I’d argue that this reorientation of our field’s shared terms is a major effect of their inclusion on the state of the field. Gamers or readers aren’t blank slates. They’re brimming with a mix of meanings and attitudes about religion already. Scholars also bring the weight of prior studies. If we go looking for religious experiences and mean one kind of experience distinct from all others, then we have quickly moved into essentialism and may find few experiences that match our ideal. The alternative that I’m sure we’d prefer is to assert that some experiences are produced in relation to what we already call religious for some other reason (including that they produce these experiences). They are religious by relation, comparison, or convention to other previously-agreed upon religious data.

This alternative emerges as mode of investigation in our field whose goal is self-definition. We’re left asking, what exactly do players find religious about their experiences in the game Journey? This then reinforces or adjusts the operative definition of religion. It’s a test to make sure an object isn’t “really” religious and is instead reproducing similar experiences, beliefs, actions, or moods. We can then explain such effects and their meaning by relating them to religious ones. Perhaps the experience qualifies as religious but fails to meet the standard for a religion. Similar conclusions emerge when we ask what Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and the CAW have to say about religion. In such cases we may offer our reading or present another’s reading and then use the new perspective to engage the model of religion we came in with. It’s still a test of our category–even if it is under the cover of explanation (for whom, about what, and why).

These are the scholarly moves, right? Work in the discipline is always work about the discipline.

Whether we search for the hopes creators embed in their works of Science Fiction or the responses people have to gaming experiences, one of the benefits for religious studies is that in both instances we can see enormous overlap between the categories of religion and technology. Both apply knowledge to solve problems. This operationalizes Science Fiction, for instance, because it becomes a way to ask questions about the future. This is a dynamic process, as we know well, because creative fictional worlds have consequences on our actions and thoughts that change the world that produced them. We think of simulations as merely reproducing the world, for instance, but our engagement in virtual worlds changes the world, too.

Presented in this way, Science Fiction, video games, and religion can all be seen as “existence” technologies. They provide meaning and context for life. Not to all or in every instance, but reliably enough to be studied using observation, surveys, and interviews. This is what we hear Ben claim about his surveys with gamers on their perpetual journeys. This is what Tara says about her upcoming interviews with Nebula writers and Science Fiction fans and how the genre aims for social change.

One of the great challenges of religious studies today is that most of us are convinced religion isn’t a commodity neatly held within conventional boundaries of religious traditions. All the voices in this podcast agree. Religious experiences are likewise not bound to religious traditions. Nor is religion the sole source of experiences and communities we may have formerly said were exclusive to religion. As a technology, Science Fiction “cracked” many of the trade secrets of religion. It didn’t do it intentionally. Science Fiction, like religion, isn’t a thing out there waiting to be found or with independent motives. It is the result of creative effort, communities of reception, marketplaces for production, and so much more working for the last century or more without any distinct plan or concerted agenda. Nevertheless, Science Fiction has forced us to reconsider what we mean when we say “religious experience,” since many of its most notable works have imagined ways of being religious that draw upon but are not exclusive to the cultures that generated them.

Like all technologies, Science Fiction became a posture, an attitude, for certain ways of world-viewing. Video games, too, will have their due as they increasingly find ways to engage gamers through mixed-media immersion, world-building, and simulation. The question must always be: to what end are we comparing Science Fiction, Science Fiction fans, or video games and their gamers? What does it show about how we navigate our world? What does this say about “religion” or how we talk about the category of religion? Can we do it without “religion” or are these subjects “religious” in an inescapable way? I look forward to seeing these bright young scholars complete their work and show the value of looking carefully at popular culture’s connections to religious studies.