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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.

Science Fiction, Video Games, and Religion

Science fiction and video games have come to the forefront of a new global resurgence, with the popularity reaching record numbers in regards to cinema, and video games. From classic science fiction, to sandbox video games that require hundreds of hours to complete fully, religiosity can be utilised and attached to certain actions, places, characters, and stories. This podcast explores what feature religion plays within an attachment to science fiction and video games, how seekers attach meaning, and seek belief in things that are ‘out of this world,’ as a means of both escapism, and hope of the future.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Skyrim, The Witcher, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Science Fiction, Video Games, and Religion

Podcast with Benn Banasik and Tara Smith (27 May 2019).

Interviewed by Raymond Radford.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Banasik_and_Smith_-_Science_Fiction_Video_Games_and_Religion_1.1

 

Raymond Radford (RR): My name is Ray Radford. I am the social media editor of the RSP. And today we have a couple of my fellow PhD candidates along with me: Benn Banasik and Tara Smith. Hi Guys!

Tara Smith (TS): OK. How’s it going?

Benn Banasik (BB): Hi.

RR: So do you want to tell us a little bit about your dissertations?

BB: Sure! Ladies first!

TS: Oh, OK. Yes, let’s jump straight in. So I’m doing my PhD on science fiction as social fiction. I’m interested in the religious aspect incorporated within science fiction. And I’m doing some interviews in America at the Nebula science fiction conference, which I’m hoping to sort-of see how much writers are incorporating their own social concerns for the future into the work that they’re writing. I did my honours on Frank Herbert’s Dune, focussing on the eco-religious aspects of that. And yes, so I guess religion is incorporated in a lot of different aspects in the work I’m looking at. But so is science fiction as a genre, as well.

BB: Yes. So I did my honours focussing on Origen of Alexandria and the Jewish elements of his work. So I was looking at Jewish and Christian interrelations and interactions within the third and fourth century. That led me into looking at apophatic theory, and getting really deep into that, particularly from the Christian perspective, but also from the Jewish perspective. My PhD topic is taking those elements – unending aspects of theological engagement with God – and investigating video games through that lens. So, looking at the perpetual journey of video games and video gaming as a religious endeavour, and what that actually means for people. So I’m doing some social surveys looking at people’s interactions in video game space, as well as people who interact with religion – whatever that means today, and that’s a negotiated term – and then synchronising their responses to see if there are any similarities. And then doing more of the theoretical work in the background, as well.

RR: I like that it’s a bit of step from Origen to video games!

BB: It’s a negotiated step!

RR: Yeah. It’s very tentative, I like it. In case you haven’t been able to guess, in today’s podcast we’re going to be focussing on religion, video games, science fiction, popular culture and just the way that these are all entwined within . . . those who look for them or seek to get something out of them . . . I guess is a good way of explaining it. Quick question: have you guys read the Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke?

TS: I’ve got it on my bookshelf, but I’ve got a big, big pile and I’m hoping to get to it. I know it’s been on a lot of lists of things to read.

BB: I have not.

RR: Well it’s the . . . I was thinking about it earlier this morning. And it’s basically a group of monks in Tibet writing down the nine billion names of God because they think that when that happens that God will destroy the universe or, you know, everything will become fulfilled and then the universe will end. So they get to a point and they go, “Oh, this is going to take too long. So they rent a computer from a couple of Americans. The Americans come in and three months later it’s done. The Americans are like, “Oh it’s not going to happen. The computer’s not going to write down all these names of God. And then they’ll blame us when nothing happens.” And then it ends with them looking up and the stars are blinking out.

All: (Laughter)

RR: I thought that was a good analogy of how religion and technology can work together, especially in classic science fiction – which is where you’re looking, Tara.

TS: Yes, definitely. There’s a few . . . there are so many works of science fiction, and technology is such a key theme. One of my favourites is HG Wells’ The Time Machine, and just how he develops . . . it’s one of the first mentions of a time machine – a classic science fiction trope – and transporting somebody to the future. And it’s such a good story because you have, you know, the classic inventor and he’s thrown into this world of these two human races which are basically the sort-of English bourgeois class. And it’s taken to the nth degree, where they’ve formed two different species – the Eloi and the Morlocks.

RR: Yes.

TS: And they sort-of . . . it’s just such a funny little quirky exploration of, you know, how races . . . not races, but how some classes could develop in the future (5:00). And I feel like there’s a real little comic element to that as well. But just how . . . what a good story it is.

BB: I think that’s an interesting thing and this is where your and my PhD’s actually interact, here. And that’s the way that we think about religion in general, and how it interacts with other gaming, social media and technology in that regard. So that element of religion inside Sci-Fi, I can see some similarities in that regard for Second Life. Where you have people that are creating elements of a worldly environment inside a digital space. So people purchase off spots of land actually in Second Life. And there’s been lots of words written about Second Life. Probably more words written about Second Life than actual players of Second Life. Because it’s not actually that popular anymore. Nevertheless, it is interesting see that human interaction in an open space. . . and given the freedom, people set up farms, work places and religious institutions. And they are largely representative of things which happen in the real world, or best practices which people try to aim for in the real world. And I see that through Sci-Fi, as well.

TS: Yes, what’s interesting is they opt for quite mundane realities, you know? If you’re given an option to be an avatar you can do anything you want. And what people want to do is they want to keep farming, and they want to just keep living and forming relationships. You kind-of would imagine that they’d choose something a bit more out of this world. The sort-of everyday is what they like to recreate in those realities.

BB: It’s things like FarmVille

RR: Or Farming Simulator. These things that you can get now which are just simulating the real in virtual reality.

BB: So, for me, those elements and Stardew Valley is one of those games that I’m studying as part of my PhD. And I’ve asked people to engage with this survey. And it’s been my most popular survey, as well.

RR: Maybe you just want to explain Stardew Valley?

BB: OK. So for those who haven’t interacted with it, it is a farming simulator. You’re transported to a farm which is in your family, and you’re given the space to do whatever you like. You can construct fences and have animals, or you can till the fields. And there’s different seasons. And you can interact with people in the village that is close by. And you can also do fishing other mundane tasks. It’s this perpetual engagement with this space, though, that I think actually quantitates a religious experience. But that’s outside of what the first grouping of religion and technology is that I see. The first one being religion inside the technology. That aspect of creating a church in Second Life is not the same engagement which someone would have by hoeing the fields in their little farm, inside Stardew Valley. That’s a different experience. And it quantitates a different response. And it’s different. Both of those architectures don’t have ends. So they’re both spaces to involve, but it’s about what the player does in those spaces. Second Life is more of an open field. And games like Elder Scrolls or Sky Room, they’re closed environments. So you have these religions that are actually represented in those spaces, and they may be made up. From that, I think we have Sci-Fi in religion. So it can come outside of the computer.

TS: Yes. And you can really see some example of that in science fiction. Some examples that come to mind is obviously Frank Herbert’s Dune, which is just such a rich tapestry of different religions. I mean, I think he sort-of identified himself a little bit as a Zen Buddhist. So you have these sort-of very clear Zen ideas, but then also very overt references to Islamic religion. You’ve got other eco-religious sort-of aspects to it. And so many different examples. And I think that’s so interesting, as a reader, is you try and navigate the space of so many different philosophies and ideas. And I think Frank Herbert really just wanted you to try and work it out. And I think, in his books, he really tries to get you to question sort-of where you want to take the book, and who you think the goodies and the baddies are. And he doesn’t really spell it out. And I think that’s why they’re such a good series. (10:00) And the other example, of course, is Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which is about the Martian, Valentine, who sort-of comes on earth, and creates his own church – the Church of All Worlds. Which is this very sort-of sixties, free love, sort-of pagan church. Which is such a contrast to the religious, very strict kind-of world he finds himself in. And he kind-of creates this space. And then it’s actually being used and created in religion outside of the novels: Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Morning Glory. I think they’re based in America, and they have concepts they’ve borrowed from books like “grok” kin which is a term in the book used in the water rituals – they do their own sort-of water rituals. And they call themselves water kin. They’re called “Nests” that they group themselves in. And all these sort of things are borrowed from novels, but they’ve obviously taken it as their own, and sort-of brought their own very pagan, probably even more pagan aspects to it, and created their own little religion. I think that’s just so interesting, where you have science fiction directly impacting religion in that. But there’s also, of course, religion in the novels itself. So you’ve got these two ways that it’s diverging.

RR: Let’s just go back to Heinlein, for a second. Because writing something like that, in the 1960s – especially 1960s America, 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 – which a lot of 1960s science fiction was about – apocalyptic, and all that kind of thing. So do you think some social aspects of society influence . . .?

TS: Oh, definitely. Of course. I think that’s a huge impact. You obviously write to what your surroundings are. But I think science fiction uses our social fictions. Because it’s set in the future – and all of these works are set quite far into the future – the writers can sort-of explore new ways of looking at . . . and that’s why you have utopias and dystopias. You can look at completely different, new ways of thinking and taking of the world to a different place. And that’s why I think it’s so powerful. And, in terms of religion, you can imagine different ways of how religion might look in the future. And with technology, you can see maybe how technology could be used, taken to it’s very most extreme view – sort-of as warning and as a guide. That’s why science fiction is so useful. And probably with gaming you see similar aspects of the reality and real life impacting fiction. And the lines are getting blurred. And with technology. Our kind-of idea of having distinct categories is sort-of dissolving.

BB: True. I think and we’re talking about this intermediary space between religion and Sci-Fi, or Sci-Fi, technology and religion. And there are elements that are in both. My thesis looks at the religious endeavour of the technology. So there is actually a third category we can look at. But to flow into that second category, you have elements, now, of technology and Sci-Fi being implemented in religions. And they’re commonly done. We had the Pope App that was launched, which has the “Click to Pray”. And Pope Francis was actually launching the app – he’s a bit of a technophobe, (self-) admittedly, a technophobe – and he asked the priest next to him whether he’d actually done it by clicking the prayer, making sure that he actually prayed at that point. Which is quite jovial I think! There is an android monk who has been created. And you can go, and the monk then offers constant prayers. And you have different elements of technology which is enabling people to practise their religions in unique and different ways. What I think that you can see, and where this crossover is, is the elements of religions that are from Sci-Fi or from technological basis, becoming religions in themselves. So the Church of All Worlds, yes, is a good example. Jedi – I know that there was protest religion for the census four years ago (15:00). The numbers dropped off but there are certain people that do practice what is known as . . .

RR: There are registered temples in the United Kingdom, I believe.

BB: Yeah. And the sociological aspect of . . . I guess our department in a university and Western universities in general, is that we have to take people for what their words are. And if they say they are practising a religion and “We believe that we are practising a religion”, who are we to question that? So they are seen as equal footing. But what I think is interesting is the technological element, or the video gaming element as a religious endeavour in itself. And Sci-Fi actually as religious endeavour, and using those texts as religious texts.

TS: Definitely. Especially if we see science fiction as technology itself. As a definition you could call fiction and science fiction technology, just the reading of it. Because I think the definition of technology is like – we probably should have . . .

RR: I think the definition of technology is the same as the definition of religion. It’s different to whoever’s discussing it, I guess. And that’s the big problem with Religious Studies is that it’s a different meaning to everybody.

BB: That’s true. Whether we’re using mundane tools or super computers creating digital spaces to deal with . . . they are both outside of the human experience, in its unique and abstract from. So if we think of it in that regard. So, myself as a human: how do I interact with the world? And my choice is – me, myself – is to sit at home and play video games, occasionally, when I get time. But involving ourselves in some sort of experience using a tool. That is, in itself, a technology. And I think that’s the boundary. And that’s all we can say about it. Because otherwise you get drawn into, “Well, is a Dolo Matrix computer system actually as equal technology as something as an iphone today?

TS: Yeah. I guess I’d want to just say that science fiction can be used as a tool almost like a form of technology, itself. And if we’re looking at science fiction like that, I think we can connect. We have similarities in our PhD topics and what we’re interested in. And that science fiction can be used both as a guide to these developments of technology . . . in the sense of, when we’re exploring topics like AI and cloning and looking back at the writers who were already thinking about this sort-of fifty years ago, and trying to project that into the future. That’s such a useful tool for us. But also science fiction being used as a way of shifting perception. And this is Darko Suvin’s definition of estrangement. So, good science fiction creates a sense of a new reality, a new perception, a new way of thinking. And that’s what I think is the key for science fiction, is really shifting what we think. And by setting new social realities in the future – whether  that’s exploring different ways of looking at gender, different ways of looking religion – it’s allowing us to really shift our perception, and grow as a civilisation, and that’s what I think the key is.

RR: I think one of the really good things about science fiction is it actually provides us a glossary for terms for technology now. So things like when Arthur C Clarke first used the term satellite, it hadn’t been used before. And now we are all calling these things orbiting the earth satellites. But even things like when Steve Jobs first announced the ipad, or the iphone, he was calling it a “magic tablet”, because you were essentially using your finger like a wand. And sort-of taking these terms from literature and them importing them into technology.

BB: It’s a very . . . that speech which Jobs gave at that Apple conference and there’s the ipod

RR: The ipod – even earlier! Yes

BB: So that was where he pulled out the ipod and is talking about the beautiful cover art and how to actually listen to sounds and everything like that. But that element of talking about the finger touching onto the screen, or touching onto the dial at the time – so the circular dial – and being able to choose different things. And then the glass screen being fitted afterwards. It’s a really charismatic performance which he actually is creating. And it blurs the lines of, you know, a traditional religion, into that regard (20:00). And there’s people that have written on this: the dress code that he’d apply . . .

RR: Oh, the turtle neck?

BB: Turtle neck, the black, and speaking in certain ways, no visible microphones and this sort-of darkened room but a crowded audience, so you have that sense of being drawn into something like a church. It’s very organised. And it’s quite amazing seeing that line of technology almost manifesting itself into a religion and religious experience.

TS: Definitely. It’s like all the geek culture now is becoming like sort-of what we are in science fiction and gaming, the geek culture – not exclusively, but I mean that how we make meaning and how we connect to the world is really changing I feel. And it doesn’t make it any more or less religious. It’s still people still getting sort-of a religious experience doesn’t always have to be what we typically understand religion for. And I think that’s why, as studies of religion students, our definition is constantly trying to change and fit into new paradigms. And I think that’s what – not everyone agrees – but I think that what is important to have different ideas and trying to constantly rethink what we think is technically religion. And not dismiss things that don’t necessarily fit into what we thought.

BB: I agree and that’s a large part of my PhD, actually, is going to engage with, “What is religious experience?” And so William James actually coined that phrase, and uses religious experience in a certain way. And he’s using that on the basis of quoting from people like Tolstoy which then Albert Camus, and later writers, actually engage with as well. I actually think there is a misreading here that we – as people that are studying theology or philosophy or religious studies or religion in general – we’ve actually taken a lot for granted. And it needs to go back and look at what these writers are talking about. So where Tolstoy, in My Confession, he paints the picture of being in the well and hanging from the sides of the well, seeing a snake that is about to bite your hand. And then there’s this little sapling with some sap that’s dripping forth almost a honey. What do you do in that experience? Do you fall? Do you accept that you’re going to fall? Do you try and fight on? Or do you joyously eat the sap and accept that that is going to be your lot in life? Camus and Tolstoy, they’re engaging with these things – this absurdism of accepting your lot in life, and actually engaging with it as much as you can, and doing the best that you can in that space. That’s where I see these similarities of religious experience of somebody who plays that Stardew Valley, as to someone who’s sitting in the church pews, or engaging with pilgrimage and going to the mountaintops. And I can see the same languages being used with these different people. Now it’s not every person that’s going to get that experience. I don’t think that the casual gamer who’s jumping on line to play with their friends, playing Call of Duty or whatever the game is, is going experience that. Nor do I think that games like Mario Parties, which are a social event, may give you those feelings. They may, but it is not necessarily the case that every person that engages with reading Sci-Fi is going to have the divine experiences of questioning what it is to be human and what it is for reality. But some texts definitely do. And some games definitely do.

RR: I think a lot of the text where it comes down to questioning reality, or questioning what it is to be human, comes down to if the book is really well-written you can sortof start thinking about that. But I think it’s something else where the book starts giving you religious fervour. Sort-of like . . ., trying to think of a good example . . .those sort of books where . . . things like Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which gives a good example of the internet, being written in 1993, is sort-of the next precursor to Neuromancer to explore the ideas of virtual reality, and all that kind of thing. But I don’t see any religions being made around it, or it being held up in high esteem as . . . . I think it’s up there with Dune (25:00). It’s one of my favourite books. But that concept of religion and technology is, yeah, I think it’s sort-of . . . people pick and choose what they want to take from that, I think.

BB: Yeah. Well there is curation of course. But I think that if . . . and what my study is finding is you ask people set questions – and I’m asking people the same questions if they’re from this religious experience and they identity as religious, or they identify as players of Elite, or Stardew Valley. And we just copy and paste out the names of religious experience to playing Elite. And you find the responses are very similar. Which means that there is something that people are getting out of this that it is quite religious.

RR: I just want to quickly ask Tara . . .because you haven’t done your research part of it yet. You’re going over to America, as you said, in a couple of weeks to ask people questions. Is there anything in particular you feel that you want to get out of them?

TS: I guess I just want to see some awareness . . . and I think that’s going to be with writers that are writing specular fiction; that they are trying to create a force of social change for the good. I think that there’s a certain . . . and it’s not all writers, but I think a lot of science fiction writers, especially, are trying to create a better world through their writing. And I think that’s a unique aspect of science fiction

RR: People like Kim Stanley Robinson with the environmentalist message.

TS: Exactly, yes. And so what I want to do, there’s a few things that I’m looking at. I’m looking at AI, I’m looking at environment, I’m looking at interplanetary travel, so there’s a few themes that I’m looking at. But I’m just trying to see: if they’re concerned about climate change, is that being reflected in their writing? And I think that obviously it will. But I just want some sort of confirmation that young writers – and I’ll probably get a range a people at Nebula, so all different periods of their writing experience – but that’s like a real . . . . That it’s sort-of at the forefront of their writing. And I think it will be. And that’s why I think it’s such a unique genre. Because it’s concerned with the same questions that philosophies are concerned with: “Who are we?”; “Why are we here?”; and also, making the world better. And I think you’d be hard-pressed to find people who don’t want to make the world a better place. And we’re in such an era the moment where people are feeling very fatigued and very depressed with the kind-of state of affairs. And I feel like that’s why it’s so important.

RR: Do you think things like science fiction and video games give people the hope . . . that they find themselves doing these things in order to better feel better about things, about the world? Give some form of meaning, some form of credence?

TS: You mean like escapism?

RR: Escapism, yeah.

TS: Sort-of, but I also think more of a warning. Speculative fiction that’s set in the future and shows a very bleak . . . where technology’s gone totally terrible, and it’s like this very bleak world, we can go: “Ok. Should we, maybe, alter the way that we’re progressing with artificial intelligence? In reality, can we do some measures to try and, maybe, not get to that place? Or how can we change the way we interact with Facebook or our iphones, to maybe then impact the future? And that’s what I’m hoping science fiction . . . . What I think science fiction does is it also acts as a warning – not just that escapism from reality. That’s definitely an aspect of it, but also a warning in the dystopia of what our realities could become.

RR: Yes. Benn?

BB: Yes! (Laughter) I think . . .

RR: Because I’ve got to admit I’m very much a video game player and I play for a multitude of reasons. None of them are religious – it’s usually to avoid other people.

BB: And that’s, I think, where most people do find themselves engaging with this space. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you cannot get the same experience there that someone who is having an openly religious experience is. So they can be one and the same. I’m not necessarily concerned or even really interested in why people engage with video gaming or religion. Because I think that becomes a whole quagmire of thought, based on family background, social background, and then you have to almost get into the psychology of someone who is engaging that way (30:00). All I’m interested in is flat-lining the approach. So classifying people as: you’re either playing, or you’re not playing these games. And I then asked the question well, “Why are you playing these games? Why are you continually playing a game which is meant to only have a ten or twenty hour engagement? Why have you played that for four or five hundred hours? Why do you continue to play World of Warcraft?” Once you’ve got to the end, you’ve got your character maxed out, and you’re one of the toughest in your group. And, yes, you perform in a certain role in a team environment. But it brings people back. It’s not physically possible to finish every element in a lot of these games. And they are sand boxes, many of them. But some of them aren’t. And this is the interesting thing. There’s people that have played games which are meant to be coin-crunchers – arcade experience games, that you’re meant to only play for two or three minutes, and then you give way to the next person at the arcade to put another quarter in there, and that’s what those games are developed with – people that play those games for eighteen to twenty hours at a time on a single credit. Nibbler for example. It’s not a great game. It’s a snake that is going round a field constantly – same type of field. That’s not a great experience, it looks like, from someone who stands back. But people try and do that because they’re trying to get the world record. But they’re returning to it constantly, because they’re obviously enjoying that experience. Otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. And that, I think, is really interesting. Where you can have what looks like a very mundane task, and it gives that sort-of perpetual feeling of engagement. And it keeps drawing people back, over and over again. If I can share a quote?

RR: Yes, please.

BB: So this started off on a Tumblr site and it’s been copied across to a website. And it’s called Journey Stories. And the user Jitterfish shared this, which I thought was quite interesting. It’s about Journey the video game. So Journey is a game where you are a cloaked avatar. So you’re a cloaked figure that appears in a vast dessert landscape. And you don’t see anything, except for a light on a hill in the distance. And there’s very little actually in the field of play, initially. And it draws you to constantly march towards . . .

RR: It’s very linear.

BB: Yes – very, very linear. You do interact with another person in the game. So it’s not – spoiler alert! It’s a ten year-old game, I think we can spoil it! The other person that appears in the game is actually another user who is playing the game at the same time, somewhere else in the world. So it’s a live experience. And it’s not initially clear that you have that experience. Now, Jenova Chen actually studies flow, studies philosophy, writes a little bit about religious experience in that regard, but not so much. But he was interested in creating this experience where he’d engaged with users in a very limited way. So you only have a set tone, so you can set off this tone. And that’s it in the game. So you can jump, set off a tone and walk. Very, very limited. So Jitterfish writes: “Is it possible to have a religious experience in a video game? Because I just danced for twenty minutes with a complete stranger in the final level of Journey. When we got to the end I learned that the final part of the mountain, just before you walk into the light, if you run into your companion and jump you can fly into the air. We synchronised our jumps until we were floating above the light, twirling and dancing and laughing. And I just – I don’t even know, man. I’m crying. So many feels! Carlos G. Nice, if you’re reading this, you’re amazing.”

RR: It’s kind-of sweet.

BB: And that for me is – it is a very sweet experience. And I have had very similar experience, playing the game, where I walked and played with someone from the beginning to the end of the game. It’s only happened once since I’ve played it, and I’ve played it a number of times through. And then you float back to the beginning and you lose connection with that person. So, yes, there is this interaction that you’re getting which is a divine experience. And that is quite magnificent for a game to actually give you that experience.

RR: I guess that brings me to my last thing I want to talk about, and that is perception of reality within video games (35:00). Because I mean, that’s quite a nice story here. Journey is, what, five hours long?

BB: Not even that. It can be two to three. And that’s if you go all the way through it.

RR: But for that two or three hours, that’s your reality. Where do you see technology, video games, science fiction sort-of leading in regards to reality?

BB: I think with the freedom of human experience now being shaken, and what it actually means to be human, it gives people a place for free expression – this is video games. So the expression . . . I think the narrative is interesting, which is given to players, and given these choices. So if you play Last of Us or something like that, this is quite an amazing experience. But they are somewhat a “choose your own adventure” game. Maybe a little bit more complex, but generally that’s what they are. The experiences where players push that boundary can be in linear experiences, but generally it is in these sandbox, larger games, where people break that narrative and then exist within the space. That’s what I find fascinating. And that I think is something unique to our generations now, where we’re looking at technology, in this regard, as a place where we can go home and interact in those environments –and “be the best that we can”, to take the Pokémon phrase! And that very best that we can may not necessarily mean that I am even known by my name as Benn, anymore. It may be that I’ve taken on a persona, and am existing in this space, and am free to do so because of the limitations being removed. And then that pulls onto things that people like William Bainbridge, who has a background in Theology, looks at world of Warcraft in that regard, actually spoke about how his sister has passed away, and in creating an avatar and naming that avatar after her, and engaging with that avatar, and imagining a persona of her experience in there, that really opens up possibilities of what gaming can actually provide.

TS: Yes. I think science fiction is such a useful way of exploring different realities and new realities and I mean when I was I think about fifteen was when I read Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker and his Last and First Men. And they were just such big perception shifts for me. And I just remember in Star Maker – and I’ve written an essay on it since then – but this massive cosmic journey that you take through all these different universes and worlds, and you meet all these different alien lives, so different from yours. You’ve got these amazing creatures that he creates. And the whole purpose of the journey is to meet the Star Maker and meet who created all this life. And you get this feeling of this real, depressed . . . all these civilisations that can’t quite reach this perfect state. They just can’t quite get there. And this big quest. And you know, towards the end, the actual meaning of the Star Maker is not what you expected. You end up coming back a bit disappointed. And you return back to – the character’s unnamed – but you return to this grassy hill in England in the dark, looking up at the stars. And you sort-of feel this sense of awe, but also a little bit of this sense of loss. And the two things that Stapledon gives you – as a final conclusion, two pillars that we can really rely on – is a sense of community and a connection with people, and the sense of this cosmic awe and the striving to know that, even if we never reach that. And I think that really fits in well, Benn, with your perpetual journeying and also those two elements in Journey that you talked about: doing the Journey with somebody else, and that kind of connection with another person; and also this striving for something that you never really can get. And those two features are just such a sweet little reminder of what, I think, is this way that this profound effect that reading good science fiction and playing good games can have on you as an individual.

BB: Totally.

RR: I think we may have to leave it there. Benn, Tara – thank you very much!

TS: Thank you.

BB: Thank you (40:00)


Citation Info: Banasik, Benn, Tara Smith and Raymond Radford. 2019. “Science Fiction, Video Games and Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 May 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 22 May 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/science-fiction-video-games-and-religion/

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Time Travel and Fictions of Science

In 1856, Edward Burnett Tylor, of inscribed with “Huitzilopochtli the god of war, Teoyaomiqui his wife, and Mictlanteuctli the god of hell” all compiled into a gruesome symbol of Aztec religion.  “There is little doubt,” Tylor opined, “that this is the famous war-idol which stood on the great teocalli of Mexico, and before which so many thousands of human victims were sacrificed.”  The famous sculpture, now surveying its victims in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Chapultepec Park, took on an early identification as a female divinity and passed into common culture as Coatlicue (“She of the Serpent Skirt”).  She is now, so a more recent theory holds, not simply the earth/mother goddess, but a representation of a tzitzimitl, one of any number of female sacred personages of ambivalent powers and actions.  At their worst, the tzitzimime (pl.) could be “star demons” descending to devour humans, but for the most part these female powers, in good Aztec fashion pivoted around duality, a complementarity that balanced threat with surety in their various avatars.

Tylor’s observations about the “war goddess” and Mexico overall, peering into its barbaric past through the residual survivals of a culture he predicted would fall to the United States, is a good mix of science and great deal of fiction.  While not exactly “science fiction” as we have come to know the genre, travelling forward from his time we can see how the spectacle and rudeness of Aztec ritual and human sacrifice aided Tylor in his scientific speculations on the evolution of cultures and the pre-modern human mind at work as it grasped to understand the natural world.  Ever the scientist, Tylor studded his travelogue with the best resources of his time, quoting Lord Kingsborough on Mexican antiquities, Humboldt’s meticulous measurement and mapping on Mexico a half century earlier, and he even provides the reader with a “Table of Aztec roots” to be compared with Sanskrit and related Indo-European forms.  Yet despite his best scholarly efforts, Tylor’s Anahuac is “fiction” in the same way that Europeans have drawn on their vast reservoir of myths, legends, and stories of Amazons and the Lost Tribes of Israel in their mastery of the Americas.  Columbus (in)famously believed he was near the Garden of Eden as he entered the Orinoco in 1498.  So, too, Tylor, while careful to dismiss any number of arguments claiming “supposed Aztec-Bible traditions,” cannot contain his wonder at the similarities between the Aztec and Hindu cosmogonies, and Aztec and Asian calendrics and astronomy (“resemblances in the signs used that seem too close for chance”).

Much, much later, or maybe much, much earlier – we will never know exactly when – Dr. Who and his companions dropped from the stars, landing smack dab in the middle of the great Aztec high priest Yetaxa’s tomb sometime in the 15th century.   We mere humans saw it in 1964, in one of the first serials of what is, arguably, television’s most successful franchises of any genre.  As far as science fiction television goes, Dr. Who is the gold standard for its quirkiness, kitschy but effective visuals, and astonishing insight into humanicity.  For Americans, the enigmatic but ever pragmatic Dr. Who remains the incarnation of British “clever.”

In Aztecs, one of the travellers, Barbara, is mistaken for a reincarnation of the dead priest Yetaxa.  And, never mind that Yetaxa, who was male reincarnates dw50revaztecs3as a woman, for as Barbara/Yetaxa notes, it is the spirit of Yetaxa, not the human form that counts (more on this later).   Because Barbara is a history teacher with, conveniently, a specialization in Aztec history she knows the Spanish will arrive and destroy the Aztec empire.  Thinking that if she can play out her ersatz goddess role she can rid the Aztecs of human sacrifice, preserving only the good in Aztec culture, and thus convince Cortes to spare them from destruction.  “You can’t rewrite history!” warns the Doctor.  “Not one line!”  Ultimately, Barbara/Yetaxa fails to thwart human sacrifice, and as they say, the rest is history.

What the writers of the Aztecs serial couldn’t know was that their fiction turned out to be closer to the idea of Nahua “divinity” than Tylor’s educated view.  Like most scholars of Aztec religion, Tylor believed that Aztec “gods” bore similarities with Indo-Europeans too close to ignore.  Like his comparison of Nahuatl words to Sanskrit and Greek, Tylor continued the common error of classifying the Aztec teteo to the Olympian pantheon.  Science fiction’s imaginative leap away from the pantheon model to Yetaxa’s spirit leaping from body to body is much more in line with our current understanding of how sacred power worked in ancient Mexico.

As scholars of religion engage the thought experiments in science fiction, we are forced to think and imagine beyond the building blocks of the previous generation’s knowledge.  Tylor might have benefitted from taking on the colossal Mexican Coatlicue monolith on its own terms rather than fall back on the work of earlier speculators like Kingsborough.  Maybe, like our ancestor ape-men confronting the black stela in 2001: A Space Odyssey and being catapulted a million years into space-travelling homo sapiens, Tylor would have made the leap from mere scientist into more provocative, certainly more compelling and lyrical interpretations of the stone goddess.  On a number of occasions, reading Tylor’s travelogue suggests that, indeed, he had found his way into Dr. Who’s TARDIS, travelled through time and space and landed in Mexico.  But unlike the curiosity and cleverness of the Dr. Who travellers, Tylor ‘s imagination was limited by his ethnocentrism and stodginess.  For him, Mexico continued its pitiable decline, a “second-hand” culture as he saw it.  Because Mexicans were “totally incapable of governing themselves” as he saw it, it was inevitable and positive that this failed state be swallowed up by the United States.  For Tylor then, travelling back to Aztec Mexico through the archeological remains at Cholula and Xochicalco, the pyramids at Teotihuacan, and displays of ancient objects in museums restored for him the glories of ancient Mexico which at the time were mostly fictions of science.

 

 

Popular Culture, Dr. Who, and Religion

 

It’s a big universe, and sometimes things get lost in time and space. For instance, this 2013 interview with Dr. James F. McGrath was recorded but then fell into a metaphorical black hole (i.e. the potential podcast series never debuted). Fortunately, his discussion of topics including the soul, the religious ethics of artificial intelligence, and the function of science fiction on informing audiences’ spiritual sensibilities all remain (relatively) timeless. To start, he addresses the unique challenges of working across disciplines in pursuit of analyzing popular culture currently, then shifts to an exploration of religion’s study in the future. Along the way, McGrath and interviewer A. David Lewis namecheck famous characters such as Captain Kirk and Doctor Who in the effort to illustrate complex notions of the soul embedded in secular entertainments. Enjoy a trip to the past — that looks to the future!

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Human Consciousness & Religious Reality

It was real to me. There I was, curled into a corner, comforter wrapped around my shaking limbs and sweating torso, twisted in terror in the sinister hours of the morning. The salt of my tears were laced with the visceral reality of a specter, a monster, or some strange creature slowly scratching its course along the hallway outside my bedroom. I never saw the demon. I eventually fell asleep in exhaustion, still crimped into the corner of my room. The memory of those tormenting moments is still forbidding and physical for me, etched forever into my consciousness. Was it ontologically real? That is beyond the purview of my recollection. Was it real in my mind? Damn straight.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal, the RSP talked with the man who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University about his recent works Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011) and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010).

In these works, Kripal shared how participation in what we call “the sacred” is a critical element that undergirds religious understanding and activity. From his perspective, human consciousness qualifies, as well as anything else, as “the sacred” itself, and must therefore be addressed and wrestled with by any self-respecting student of religion.

Particularly, Kripal argued that generally marginalized authors who have attempted to theorize the paranormal be treated as central to the religious project, even though their work deals with marvels deemed outside both mainstream scientific and/or religious parameters. These authors, Kripal contested, are “authors of the impossible,” but that does not make them charlatans or crackpots. Although Kripal does not come to conclusions about the ontological reality of these phenomena, and maintains a scholarly agnosticism, he does insist that the paranormal must be understood on its own terms (Authors of the Impossible, 158). Though these marvels may not be appreciated as “real,” they cannot be simply explained away or dismissed with snark or sarcasm either (all too often the case among “respectable scholars”).

Kripal fleshes this out in Mutants and Mystics, which acts as a case-study of sorts, applying the aforementioned theory to the symbiosis between paranormal believers and the production of superhero pop culture. As Kripal pointed out, many of the most popular science fiction and superhero creators were metaphysicists and New Age apostles. They imbued their fantasy narratives with spiritual themes that revealed that the sacred resides in each one of us and we, ourselves, are the superheroes, the true miracles of the divine world. Yes, indeed, behind the veil of science in the sci-fi genre, there is a touch of the ethereal, he asserted. This perspective lends itself to a “new anthropology” where, in the words of Kripal, “the Human [is] Two (and One),” which, “is the neuroanatomical, cognitive, and spiritual bedrock of the paranormal and its fantastic both-and, physical-mythical, masterful-mental, real-unreal expressions in popular culture.” (Mutants and Mystics, 333)

All-in-all, Kripal’s outlook stands as a corrective to purely anthropological, political, or economic analyses of religion as social construct. Counteracting strictly Durkheimian models, Kripal re-centers “the sacred” — posited as “consciousness” — as not only important to understanding religion, but as its critical point of departure. Essentially, Kripal calls out the religious studies world for not having a sufficient appreciation of the power of imagination and invites scholars and the interested public into a new comparativism that moves away from strict materialism.

As an ethnographer of religion, I appreciate this remedial position. I first encountered Kripal’s work as a journalist covering religion in Houston, the home of Rice University. This led to multiple conversations between the two of us about religion, the study thereof, and academia in general. While we come from two different perspectives and ask critically different questions as we approach the same topic, I value Kripal’s emphasis on the conscious as the seat of “the sacred.” While he readily admits that he is not concerned with the sociological questions of religion, and instead recasts some of the Otto and Eliade perspectives on “the numinous,” his viewpoint impacts me as an ethnographer.

I am often frustrated by the lack of empathy from the perspective of sociologists and ethnographers who study religion (and, for that matter, historians, political scientists, economists, and armchair scholars), but do not take the reality of religious experiences seriously. There are certainly exceptions to this rule (Daniel Levine’s Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism immediately comes to mind), but in general the great swathe of scholars dealing with religion too easily dismiss the complexity of human consciousness, the power of the psycho-social, and the reality of the sacred.

As Kripal intimated in the interview, the applications of his perspective reach beyond New Religious Movements or paranormal phenomena and include historical analyses and contemporary studies of local and global religioscapes. Immediately, I can think of ethnographers working on the use of amulets and talismans in West Africa, the role of dreams in conversion to Christianity and/or Islam, or Pentecostal healing practices in Latin America.

While these cases may be summarily theorized by many as elements of social control, political context, or economic realities there is ample need to appreciate these occurrences as they occur — as real to those experiencing them. Although researchers should not treat them as ontological fact, they can at the very least be approached as “real” in respect to the human conscious.

And yet, the problem occurs when these experiences contradict each other. Take, for example, dreams that lead to conversion (or occur during the process thereof). While not the majority, I discovered in my own research that some Latina/o Muslims convert because of mystical dream experiences. One “revert” related the content of a dream wherein, “Allah spoke to me and told me I have to change.” Another related that she “had the same dream three times” in which she was in Mecca, wearing a hijab, and felt close to her other Muslim sisters there. Soon after she converted to Islam. Interestingly enough, these experiences mirror reports of many missionaries and Christian converts in the Middle East who also claim that dreams are playing a significant role in Muslims converting to Christianity. Furthermore, there is evidence that dreams have frequently played a role in conversions throughout history, including the mass conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the 7th-century. What does the reality of these experiences mean when they seem to lead in different convictional directions?

Further, while Kripal’s points about consciousness and the sacred prove a potent corrective, they cannot stand on their own in the study of religion. Even if Kripal himself is not concerned with religion as a social construct, we cannot neglect the social realities of religion. In fact, rather than treating the human as two (and one), perhaps we should theorize the human as three (and one). First, as a “conscious subject” (which Kripal makes us critically aware of); second, as an “embodied physicality”; and third, as a “socially constructed being” shaped by their social context and a conscience collective (to invoke Durkheim).

Regardless of these critiques and ruminations on my part, Kripal’s theory deserves attention and examination on the part of religious studies scholars. There certainly is no easy answer in dealing with such complex discussions such as human consciousness and religious reality, but that is no reason why we should not pursue it from multiple perspectives and ends, which Kripal worthily invites us to do.

Divine Inspiration Revisited

 

When encountered for the first time, the idea of a fiction-based religion might seem quite ’far out’ and counter-intuitive. How is it possible to mix together religion (that, supposedly, deals with faith and so with a truth of some sort) and works of popular culture, which are clearly created by human imagination, and so are by definition not true?

And yet, this mixing does not seem to be a problem to the adherents of Jediism, Matrixism, and so forth. There are several groups that draw their inspiration from works of fiction, and yet declare religiosity. Apparently, fiction can offer inspiration to spiritual activities just as well as material traditionally regarded as spiritual and religious. What we seem to have at hand is a phenomenon that leaks out of our previous categories of religion, and in doing so poses a challenge to our understanding of religion and especially its connection to wider social and cultural phenomena.

The interview with Markus Davidsen explains comprehensively the basic ideas of a fiction-based religion. Davidsen defines a fiction-based religion as ”real religion in the real world, – which takes much of its inspiration from a fictional text”. Davidsen argues that these movements are more than fandom. For example, even though the adherents to Jediism do recognize the fact that Star Wars is fictional story, they still maintain that it refers to something that is real on some level. They might also argue, according to Davidsen, that all other religions are based on human invention as well, and so make the distinction between ‘real religion’ and their fiction-based religion less clear.

The aspect that interests me the most is the apparent diffusion of different ‘spheres’ of culture and society. In a fiction-based religion, an overlap of two categories is clearly present: religion and popular culture. But there are also other overlaps. For example, the argument that all religions are based on fiction seems like a very ’secular’ statement. So it seems that adherents to these new religious or spiritual endeavors have adopted certain ideas from a society in which traditional religions with their exclusive truth claims have largely lost their plausibility. As this introductory video to Pastafarianism puts it: ”(W)ith so many to choose from, how do we know which, if any, holds the truth?” But even adopting this view does not mean that religiosity would vanish altogether. Apparently, equally false can be inverted to equally true. Furthermore, it legitimizes the use of rather unconventional sources of spiritual inspiration. If all religions are ultimately based on human invention, what divides old prophecies and mythologies from the new ones?

Like many other forms of diffuse religiosity and spirituality of present day, fiction-based religions operate in an environment of open-ended systems, in which individuals are free to combine a view that suits their spiritual needs. Teemu Taira has called this type of religiosity ”liquid”, a term derived from Zygmunt Bauman’s work on liquid modernity. His work emphasizes the fact that we cannot handle religion as a distinct phenomenon separated from the broader societal and cultural context (Taira, 2006, 7-8). Coming closer to fiction-based religions, Carole M. Cusack has worked on what she calls ”invented religions”, which are new religions that openly declare their origin in human creativity. This term encompasses fiction-based religions as well as others, such as Discordianism and Church of the SubGenius, which are usually deemed as parody religions. Cusack also emphasizes the socio-cultural context of these religions, and her monograph Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith shows how these forms of religiosity are a quite logical consequence of modern consumerism, individualism and appreciation for novelty. (Cusack, 2010 8-25.)

Taira describes liquid religiosity as being focused on the self. The experience of the individual is the most important religious authority. This is only logical in a liquid modern world, where great narratives have lost their plausibility, traditional identities are being deconstructed and external truths might prove fragile and change the next day (Taira 2006, 68-71,75). Consequently, what is ‘true’ for an individual is what matters to him or her individually. This is a very pragmatic sense of reality. If it works, it is true – at least true enough. This kind of view is naturally well suited for a highly pluralist situation, where increasing numbers of religious groups and identities exist next to each other. Taira also suggests that in liquid religiosity, there might be a shift in emphasis from intellectual content to the affective side of religiosity: meaningful feelings and experiences of empowerments it brings. (Taira 2006, 47-51.)

Fiction-based religions are a nice example of how different spheres of society and culture are actually tightly interntwined, and that they constantly affect and interfere with each others. Religion among other ‘spheres’ does not develop in a vaccuum. Also, as Davidsen concludes at the end of the interview, religion is ”something that happens in social interaction and negotiation”. Something is not religious per se, but it is made religious by people who claim it as such.

Religion does not disappear, even though some of its traditional forms might lose their value in the eyes of some people. But religion does change. Fiction-based religions are a good example of this change.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

 

References:

CUSACK, Carole M, 2010: Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

TAIRA, Teemu, 2006: Notkea uskonto.  Published in the Eetos julkaisuja series. Turku: Eetos

Fiction-Based Religions

The majority of those who identified as a Jedi on the 2001 UK census were mounting a more-or-less satirical or playful act of non-compliance; nevertheless, a certain proportion of those were telling the truth. How does a religion constructed from the fictional Star Wars universe problematise how we conceptualise other religions, and the stories they involve?  And what makes certain stories able to transcend their fictional origins and become myths?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Markus Altena Davidsen is a PhD candidate at the universities of Aarhus, Denmark and Leiden, Netherlands, and assistant lecturer in the sociology of religion in Leiden. Since 2009, he has been working on a PhD project entitled “Fiction-based Religions: The Use of Fiction in Contemporary Religious Bricolage”. In this project, Davidsen attempts to do three things. Firstly, he maps the various ways on which religious groups since the 1960s have been integrating elements from Tolkien’s literary mythology with beliefs and practices from more established religious traditions. This material is used to develop a typology of forms of religious bricolage (harmonising, domesticating, archetypal etc.) which are also at work in alternative spirituality in general. Secondly, he looks at how Tolkien religionists legitimise their religious practice (to themselves and others) given that it is based on a work of fiction. These accounts are compared with what cognitive theory has to say about narratives and plausibility construction. Thirdly, Davidsen treats how the internet has facilitated the emergence of a self-conscious spiritual Tolkien milieu. Some preliminary conclusions from the project are presented in the forthcoming article “The Spiritual Milieu Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Literary Mythology”, in Adam Possamai (ed.), Handbook of Hyper-real Religions, in the series Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion 5, Leiden & Boston: Brill, 185-204.

You can keep up with Markus’s work on Invented Religions. And you may enjoy Markus and Carole’s contributions to our edited episode on “The Future of Religious Studies“.

Podcasts

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.

Science Fiction, Video Games, and Religion

Science fiction and video games have come to the forefront of a new global resurgence, with the popularity reaching record numbers in regards to cinema, and video games. From classic science fiction, to sandbox video games that require hundreds of hours to complete fully, religiosity can be utilised and attached to certain actions, places, characters, and stories. This podcast explores what feature religion plays within an attachment to science fiction and video games, how seekers attach meaning, and seek belief in things that are ‘out of this world,’ as a means of both escapism, and hope of the future.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Skyrim, The Witcher, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Science Fiction, Video Games, and Religion

Podcast with Benn Banasik and Tara Smith (27 May 2019).

Interviewed by Raymond Radford.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Banasik_and_Smith_-_Science_Fiction_Video_Games_and_Religion_1.1

 

Raymond Radford (RR): My name is Ray Radford. I am the social media editor of the RSP. And today we have a couple of my fellow PhD candidates along with me: Benn Banasik and Tara Smith. Hi Guys!

Tara Smith (TS): OK. How’s it going?

Benn Banasik (BB): Hi.

RR: So do you want to tell us a little bit about your dissertations?

BB: Sure! Ladies first!

TS: Oh, OK. Yes, let’s jump straight in. So I’m doing my PhD on science fiction as social fiction. I’m interested in the religious aspect incorporated within science fiction. And I’m doing some interviews in America at the Nebula science fiction conference, which I’m hoping to sort-of see how much writers are incorporating their own social concerns for the future into the work that they’re writing. I did my honours on Frank Herbert’s Dune, focussing on the eco-religious aspects of that. And yes, so I guess religion is incorporated in a lot of different aspects in the work I’m looking at. But so is science fiction as a genre, as well.

BB: Yes. So I did my honours focussing on Origen of Alexandria and the Jewish elements of his work. So I was looking at Jewish and Christian interrelations and interactions within the third and fourth century. That led me into looking at apophatic theory, and getting really deep into that, particularly from the Christian perspective, but also from the Jewish perspective. My PhD topic is taking those elements – unending aspects of theological engagement with God – and investigating video games through that lens. So, looking at the perpetual journey of video games and video gaming as a religious endeavour, and what that actually means for people. So I’m doing some social surveys looking at people’s interactions in video game space, as well as people who interact with religion – whatever that means today, and that’s a negotiated term – and then synchronising their responses to see if there are any similarities. And then doing more of the theoretical work in the background, as well.

RR: I like that it’s a bit of step from Origen to video games!

BB: It’s a negotiated step!

RR: Yeah. It’s very tentative, I like it. In case you haven’t been able to guess, in today’s podcast we’re going to be focussing on religion, video games, science fiction, popular culture and just the way that these are all entwined within . . . those who look for them or seek to get something out of them . . . I guess is a good way of explaining it. Quick question: have you guys read the Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke?

TS: I’ve got it on my bookshelf, but I’ve got a big, big pile and I’m hoping to get to it. I know it’s been on a lot of lists of things to read.

BB: I have not.

RR: Well it’s the . . . I was thinking about it earlier this morning. And it’s basically a group of monks in Tibet writing down the nine billion names of God because they think that when that happens that God will destroy the universe or, you know, everything will become fulfilled and then the universe will end. So they get to a point and they go, “Oh, this is going to take too long. So they rent a computer from a couple of Americans. The Americans come in and three months later it’s done. The Americans are like, “Oh it’s not going to happen. The computer’s not going to write down all these names of God. And then they’ll blame us when nothing happens.” And then it ends with them looking up and the stars are blinking out.

All: (Laughter)

RR: I thought that was a good analogy of how religion and technology can work together, especially in classic science fiction – which is where you’re looking, Tara.

TS: Yes, definitely. There’s a few . . . there are so many works of science fiction, and technology is such a key theme. One of my favourites is HG Wells’ The Time Machine, and just how he develops . . . it’s one of the first mentions of a time machine – a classic science fiction trope – and transporting somebody to the future. And it’s such a good story because you have, you know, the classic inventor and he’s thrown into this world of these two human races which are basically the sort-of English bourgeois class. And it’s taken to the nth degree, where they’ve formed two different species – the Eloi and the Morlocks.

RR: Yes.

TS: And they sort-of . . . it’s just such a funny little quirky exploration of, you know, how races . . . not races, but how some classes could develop in the future (5:00). And I feel like there’s a real little comic element to that as well. But just how . . . what a good story it is.

BB: I think that’s an interesting thing and this is where your and my PhD’s actually interact, here. And that’s the way that we think about religion in general, and how it interacts with other gaming, social media and technology in that regard. So that element of religion inside Sci-Fi, I can see some similarities in that regard for Second Life. Where you have people that are creating elements of a worldly environment inside a digital space. So people purchase off spots of land actually in Second Life. And there’s been lots of words written about Second Life. Probably more words written about Second Life than actual players of Second Life. Because it’s not actually that popular anymore. Nevertheless, it is interesting see that human interaction in an open space. . . and given the freedom, people set up farms, work places and religious institutions. And they are largely representative of things which happen in the real world, or best practices which people try to aim for in the real world. And I see that through Sci-Fi, as well.

TS: Yes, what’s interesting is they opt for quite mundane realities, you know? If you’re given an option to be an avatar you can do anything you want. And what people want to do is they want to keep farming, and they want to just keep living and forming relationships. You kind-of would imagine that they’d choose something a bit more out of this world. The sort-of everyday is what they like to recreate in those realities.

BB: It’s things like FarmVille

RR: Or Farming Simulator. These things that you can get now which are just simulating the real in virtual reality.

BB: So, for me, those elements and Stardew Valley is one of those games that I’m studying as part of my PhD. And I’ve asked people to engage with this survey. And it’s been my most popular survey, as well.

RR: Maybe you just want to explain Stardew Valley?

BB: OK. So for those who haven’t interacted with it, it is a farming simulator. You’re transported to a farm which is in your family, and you’re given the space to do whatever you like. You can construct fences and have animals, or you can till the fields. And there’s different seasons. And you can interact with people in the village that is close by. And you can also do fishing other mundane tasks. It’s this perpetual engagement with this space, though, that I think actually quantitates a religious experience. But that’s outside of what the first grouping of religion and technology is that I see. The first one being religion inside the technology. That aspect of creating a church in Second Life is not the same engagement which someone would have by hoeing the fields in their little farm, inside Stardew Valley. That’s a different experience. And it quantitates a different response. And it’s different. Both of those architectures don’t have ends. So they’re both spaces to involve, but it’s about what the player does in those spaces. Second Life is more of an open field. And games like Elder Scrolls or Sky Room, they’re closed environments. So you have these religions that are actually represented in those spaces, and they may be made up. From that, I think we have Sci-Fi in religion. So it can come outside of the computer.

TS: Yes. And you can really see some example of that in science fiction. Some examples that come to mind is obviously Frank Herbert’s Dune, which is just such a rich tapestry of different religions. I mean, I think he sort-of identified himself a little bit as a Zen Buddhist. So you have these sort-of very clear Zen ideas, but then also very overt references to Islamic religion. You’ve got other eco-religious sort-of aspects to it. And so many different examples. And I think that’s so interesting, as a reader, is you try and navigate the space of so many different philosophies and ideas. And I think Frank Herbert really just wanted you to try and work it out. And I think, in his books, he really tries to get you to question sort-of where you want to take the book, and who you think the goodies and the baddies are. And he doesn’t really spell it out. And I think that’s why they’re such a good series. (10:00) And the other example, of course, is Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which is about the Martian, Valentine, who sort-of comes on earth, and creates his own church – the Church of All Worlds. Which is this very sort-of sixties, free love, sort-of pagan church. Which is such a contrast to the religious, very strict kind-of world he finds himself in. And he kind-of creates this space. And then it’s actually being used and created in religion outside of the novels: Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Morning Glory. I think they’re based in America, and they have concepts they’ve borrowed from books like “grok” kin which is a term in the book used in the water rituals – they do their own sort-of water rituals. And they call themselves water kin. They’re called “Nests” that they group themselves in. And all these sort of things are borrowed from novels, but they’ve obviously taken it as their own, and sort-of brought their own very pagan, probably even more pagan aspects to it, and created their own little religion. I think that’s just so interesting, where you have science fiction directly impacting religion in that. But there’s also, of course, religion in the novels itself. So you’ve got these two ways that it’s diverging.

RR: Let’s just go back to Heinlein, for a second. Because writing something like that, in the 1960s – especially 1960s America, 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 – which a lot of 1960s science fiction was about – apocalyptic, and all that kind of thing. So do you think some social aspects of society influence . . .?

TS: Oh, definitely. Of course. I think that’s a huge impact. You obviously write to what your surroundings are. But I think science fiction uses our social fictions. Because it’s set in the future – and all of these works are set quite far into the future – the writers can sort-of explore new ways of looking at . . . and that’s why you have utopias and dystopias. You can look at completely different, new ways of thinking and taking of the world to a different place. And that’s why I think it’s so powerful. And, in terms of religion, you can imagine different ways of how religion might look in the future. And with technology, you can see maybe how technology could be used, taken to it’s very most extreme view – sort-of as warning and as a guide. That’s why science fiction is so useful. And probably with gaming you see similar aspects of the reality and real life impacting fiction. And the lines are getting blurred. And with technology. Our kind-of idea of having distinct categories is sort-of dissolving.

BB: True. I think and we’re talking about this intermediary space between religion and Sci-Fi, or Sci-Fi, technology and religion. And there are elements that are in both. My thesis looks at the religious endeavour of the technology. So there is actually a third category we can look at. But to flow into that second category, you have elements, now, of technology and Sci-Fi being implemented in religions. And they’re commonly done. We had the Pope App that was launched, which has the “Click to Pray”. And Pope Francis was actually launching the app – he’s a bit of a technophobe, (self-) admittedly, a technophobe – and he asked the priest next to him whether he’d actually done it by clicking the prayer, making sure that he actually prayed at that point. Which is quite jovial I think! There is an android monk who has been created. And you can go, and the monk then offers constant prayers. And you have different elements of technology which is enabling people to practise their religions in unique and different ways. What I think that you can see, and where this crossover is, is the elements of religions that are from Sci-Fi or from technological basis, becoming religions in themselves. So the Church of All Worlds, yes, is a good example. Jedi – I know that there was protest religion for the census four years ago (15:00). The numbers dropped off but there are certain people that do practice what is known as . . .

RR: There are registered temples in the United Kingdom, I believe.

BB: Yeah. And the sociological aspect of . . . I guess our department in a university and Western universities in general, is that we have to take people for what their words are. And if they say they are practising a religion and “We believe that we are practising a religion”, who are we to question that? So they are seen as equal footing. But what I think is interesting is the technological element, or the video gaming element as a religious endeavour in itself. And Sci-Fi actually as religious endeavour, and using those texts as religious texts.

TS: Definitely. Especially if we see science fiction as technology itself. As a definition you could call fiction and science fiction technology, just the reading of it. Because I think the definition of technology is like – we probably should have . . .

RR: I think the definition of technology is the same as the definition of religion. It’s different to whoever’s discussing it, I guess. And that’s the big problem with Religious Studies is that it’s a different meaning to everybody.

BB: That’s true. Whether we’re using mundane tools or super computers creating digital spaces to deal with . . . they are both outside of the human experience, in its unique and abstract from. So if we think of it in that regard. So, myself as a human: how do I interact with the world? And my choice is – me, myself – is to sit at home and play video games, occasionally, when I get time. But involving ourselves in some sort of experience using a tool. That is, in itself, a technology. And I think that’s the boundary. And that’s all we can say about it. Because otherwise you get drawn into, “Well, is a Dolo Matrix computer system actually as equal technology as something as an iphone today?

TS: Yeah. I guess I’d want to just say that science fiction can be used as a tool almost like a form of technology, itself. And if we’re looking at science fiction like that, I think we can connect. We have similarities in our PhD topics and what we’re interested in. And that science fiction can be used both as a guide to these developments of technology . . . in the sense of, when we’re exploring topics like AI and cloning and looking back at the writers who were already thinking about this sort-of fifty years ago, and trying to project that into the future. That’s such a useful tool for us. But also science fiction being used as a way of shifting perception. And this is Darko Suvin’s definition of estrangement. So, good science fiction creates a sense of a new reality, a new perception, a new way of thinking. And that’s what I think is the key for science fiction, is really shifting what we think. And by setting new social realities in the future – whether  that’s exploring different ways of looking at gender, different ways of looking religion – it’s allowing us to really shift our perception, and grow as a civilisation, and that’s what I think the key is.

RR: I think one of the really good things about science fiction is it actually provides us a glossary for terms for technology now. So things like when Arthur C Clarke first used the term satellite, it hadn’t been used before. And now we are all calling these things orbiting the earth satellites. But even things like when Steve Jobs first announced the ipad, or the iphone, he was calling it a “magic tablet”, because you were essentially using your finger like a wand. And sort-of taking these terms from literature and them importing them into technology.

BB: It’s a very . . . that speech which Jobs gave at that Apple conference and there’s the ipod

RR: The ipod – even earlier! Yes

BB: So that was where he pulled out the ipod and is talking about the beautiful cover art and how to actually listen to sounds and everything like that. But that element of talking about the finger touching onto the screen, or touching onto the dial at the time – so the circular dial – and being able to choose different things. And then the glass screen being fitted afterwards. It’s a really charismatic performance which he actually is creating. And it blurs the lines of, you know, a traditional religion, into that regard (20:00). And there’s people that have written on this: the dress code that he’d apply . . .

RR: Oh, the turtle neck?

BB: Turtle neck, the black, and speaking in certain ways, no visible microphones and this sort-of darkened room but a crowded audience, so you have that sense of being drawn into something like a church. It’s very organised. And it’s quite amazing seeing that line of technology almost manifesting itself into a religion and religious experience.

TS: Definitely. It’s like all the geek culture now is becoming like sort-of what we are in science fiction and gaming, the geek culture – not exclusively, but I mean that how we make meaning and how we connect to the world is really changing I feel. And it doesn’t make it any more or less religious. It’s still people still getting sort-of a religious experience doesn’t always have to be what we typically understand religion for. And I think that’s why, as studies of religion students, our definition is constantly trying to change and fit into new paradigms. And I think that’s what – not everyone agrees – but I think that what is important to have different ideas and trying to constantly rethink what we think is technically religion. And not dismiss things that don’t necessarily fit into what we thought.

BB: I agree and that’s a large part of my PhD, actually, is going to engage with, “What is religious experience?” And so William James actually coined that phrase, and uses religious experience in a certain way. And he’s using that on the basis of quoting from people like Tolstoy which then Albert Camus, and later writers, actually engage with as well. I actually think there is a misreading here that we – as people that are studying theology or philosophy or religious studies or religion in general – we’ve actually taken a lot for granted. And it needs to go back and look at what these writers are talking about. So where Tolstoy, in My Confession, he paints the picture of being in the well and hanging from the sides of the well, seeing a snake that is about to bite your hand. And then there’s this little sapling with some sap that’s dripping forth almost a honey. What do you do in that experience? Do you fall? Do you accept that you’re going to fall? Do you try and fight on? Or do you joyously eat the sap and accept that that is going to be your lot in life? Camus and Tolstoy, they’re engaging with these things – this absurdism of accepting your lot in life, and actually engaging with it as much as you can, and doing the best that you can in that space. That’s where I see these similarities of religious experience of somebody who plays that Stardew Valley, as to someone who’s sitting in the church pews, or engaging with pilgrimage and going to the mountaintops. And I can see the same languages being used with these different people. Now it’s not every person that’s going to get that experience. I don’t think that the casual gamer who’s jumping on line to play with their friends, playing Call of Duty or whatever the game is, is going experience that. Nor do I think that games like Mario Parties, which are a social event, may give you those feelings. They may, but it is not necessarily the case that every person that engages with reading Sci-Fi is going to have the divine experiences of questioning what it is to be human and what it is for reality. But some texts definitely do. And some games definitely do.

RR: I think a lot of the text where it comes down to questioning reality, or questioning what it is to be human, comes down to if the book is really well-written you can sortof start thinking about that. But I think it’s something else where the book starts giving you religious fervour. Sort-of like . . ., trying to think of a good example . . .those sort of books where . . . things like Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which gives a good example of the internet, being written in 1993, is sort-of the next precursor to Neuromancer to explore the ideas of virtual reality, and all that kind of thing. But I don’t see any religions being made around it, or it being held up in high esteem as . . . . I think it’s up there with Dune (25:00). It’s one of my favourite books. But that concept of religion and technology is, yeah, I think it’s sort-of . . . people pick and choose what they want to take from that, I think.

BB: Yeah. Well there is curation of course. But I think that if . . . and what my study is finding is you ask people set questions – and I’m asking people the same questions if they’re from this religious experience and they identity as religious, or they identify as players of Elite, or Stardew Valley. And we just copy and paste out the names of religious experience to playing Elite. And you find the responses are very similar. Which means that there is something that people are getting out of this that it is quite religious.

RR: I just want to quickly ask Tara . . .because you haven’t done your research part of it yet. You’re going over to America, as you said, in a couple of weeks to ask people questions. Is there anything in particular you feel that you want to get out of them?

TS: I guess I just want to see some awareness . . . and I think that’s going to be with writers that are writing specular fiction; that they are trying to create a force of social change for the good. I think that there’s a certain . . . and it’s not all writers, but I think a lot of science fiction writers, especially, are trying to create a better world through their writing. And I think that’s a unique aspect of science fiction

RR: People like Kim Stanley Robinson with the environmentalist message.

TS: Exactly, yes. And so what I want to do, there’s a few things that I’m looking at. I’m looking at AI, I’m looking at environment, I’m looking at interplanetary travel, so there’s a few themes that I’m looking at. But I’m just trying to see: if they’re concerned about climate change, is that being reflected in their writing? And I think that obviously it will. But I just want some sort of confirmation that young writers – and I’ll probably get a range a people at Nebula, so all different periods of their writing experience – but that’s like a real . . . . That it’s sort-of at the forefront of their writing. And I think it will be. And that’s why I think it’s such a unique genre. Because it’s concerned with the same questions that philosophies are concerned with: “Who are we?”; “Why are we here?”; and also, making the world better. And I think you’d be hard-pressed to find people who don’t want to make the world a better place. And we’re in such an era the moment where people are feeling very fatigued and very depressed with the kind-of state of affairs. And I feel like that’s why it’s so important.

RR: Do you think things like science fiction and video games give people the hope . . . that they find themselves doing these things in order to better feel better about things, about the world? Give some form of meaning, some form of credence?

TS: You mean like escapism?

RR: Escapism, yeah.

TS: Sort-of, but I also think more of a warning. Speculative fiction that’s set in the future and shows a very bleak . . . where technology’s gone totally terrible, and it’s like this very bleak world, we can go: “Ok. Should we, maybe, alter the way that we’re progressing with artificial intelligence? In reality, can we do some measures to try and, maybe, not get to that place? Or how can we change the way we interact with Facebook or our iphones, to maybe then impact the future? And that’s what I’m hoping science fiction . . . . What I think science fiction does is it also acts as a warning – not just that escapism from reality. That’s definitely an aspect of it, but also a warning in the dystopia of what our realities could become.

RR: Yes. Benn?

BB: Yes! (Laughter) I think . . .

RR: Because I’ve got to admit I’m very much a video game player and I play for a multitude of reasons. None of them are religious – it’s usually to avoid other people.

BB: And that’s, I think, where most people do find themselves engaging with this space. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you cannot get the same experience there that someone who is having an openly religious experience is. So they can be one and the same. I’m not necessarily concerned or even really interested in why people engage with video gaming or religion. Because I think that becomes a whole quagmire of thought, based on family background, social background, and then you have to almost get into the psychology of someone who is engaging that way (30:00). All I’m interested in is flat-lining the approach. So classifying people as: you’re either playing, or you’re not playing these games. And I then asked the question well, “Why are you playing these games? Why are you continually playing a game which is meant to only have a ten or twenty hour engagement? Why have you played that for four or five hundred hours? Why do you continue to play World of Warcraft?” Once you’ve got to the end, you’ve got your character maxed out, and you’re one of the toughest in your group. And, yes, you perform in a certain role in a team environment. But it brings people back. It’s not physically possible to finish every element in a lot of these games. And they are sand boxes, many of them. But some of them aren’t. And this is the interesting thing. There’s people that have played games which are meant to be coin-crunchers – arcade experience games, that you’re meant to only play for two or three minutes, and then you give way to the next person at the arcade to put another quarter in there, and that’s what those games are developed with – people that play those games for eighteen to twenty hours at a time on a single credit. Nibbler for example. It’s not a great game. It’s a snake that is going round a field constantly – same type of field. That’s not a great experience, it looks like, from someone who stands back. But people try and do that because they’re trying to get the world record. But they’re returning to it constantly, because they’re obviously enjoying that experience. Otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. And that, I think, is really interesting. Where you can have what looks like a very mundane task, and it gives that sort-of perpetual feeling of engagement. And it keeps drawing people back, over and over again. If I can share a quote?

RR: Yes, please.

BB: So this started off on a Tumblr site and it’s been copied across to a website. And it’s called Journey Stories. And the user Jitterfish shared this, which I thought was quite interesting. It’s about Journey the video game. So Journey is a game where you are a cloaked avatar. So you’re a cloaked figure that appears in a vast dessert landscape. And you don’t see anything, except for a light on a hill in the distance. And there’s very little actually in the field of play, initially. And it draws you to constantly march towards . . .

RR: It’s very linear.

BB: Yes – very, very linear. You do interact with another person in the game. So it’s not – spoiler alert! It’s a ten year-old game, I think we can spoil it! The other person that appears in the game is actually another user who is playing the game at the same time, somewhere else in the world. So it’s a live experience. And it’s not initially clear that you have that experience. Now, Jenova Chen actually studies flow, studies philosophy, writes a little bit about religious experience in that regard, but not so much. But he was interested in creating this experience where he’d engaged with users in a very limited way. So you only have a set tone, so you can set off this tone. And that’s it in the game. So you can jump, set off a tone and walk. Very, very limited. So Jitterfish writes: “Is it possible to have a religious experience in a video game? Because I just danced for twenty minutes with a complete stranger in the final level of Journey. When we got to the end I learned that the final part of the mountain, just before you walk into the light, if you run into your companion and jump you can fly into the air. We synchronised our jumps until we were floating above the light, twirling and dancing and laughing. And I just – I don’t even know, man. I’m crying. So many feels! Carlos G. Nice, if you’re reading this, you’re amazing.”

RR: It’s kind-of sweet.

BB: And that for me is – it is a very sweet experience. And I have had very similar experience, playing the game, where I walked and played with someone from the beginning to the end of the game. It’s only happened once since I’ve played it, and I’ve played it a number of times through. And then you float back to the beginning and you lose connection with that person. So, yes, there is this interaction that you’re getting which is a divine experience. And that is quite magnificent for a game to actually give you that experience.

RR: I guess that brings me to my last thing I want to talk about, and that is perception of reality within video games (35:00). Because I mean, that’s quite a nice story here. Journey is, what, five hours long?

BB: Not even that. It can be two to three. And that’s if you go all the way through it.

RR: But for that two or three hours, that’s your reality. Where do you see technology, video games, science fiction sort-of leading in regards to reality?

BB: I think with the freedom of human experience now being shaken, and what it actually means to be human, it gives people a place for free expression – this is video games. So the expression . . . I think the narrative is interesting, which is given to players, and given these choices. So if you play Last of Us or something like that, this is quite an amazing experience. But they are somewhat a “choose your own adventure” game. Maybe a little bit more complex, but generally that’s what they are. The experiences where players push that boundary can be in linear experiences, but generally it is in these sandbox, larger games, where people break that narrative and then exist within the space. That’s what I find fascinating. And that I think is something unique to our generations now, where we’re looking at technology, in this regard, as a place where we can go home and interact in those environments –and “be the best that we can”, to take the Pokémon phrase! And that very best that we can may not necessarily mean that I am even known by my name as Benn, anymore. It may be that I’ve taken on a persona, and am existing in this space, and am free to do so because of the limitations being removed. And then that pulls onto things that people like William Bainbridge, who has a background in Theology, looks at world of Warcraft in that regard, actually spoke about how his sister has passed away, and in creating an avatar and naming that avatar after her, and engaging with that avatar, and imagining a persona of her experience in there, that really opens up possibilities of what gaming can actually provide.

TS: Yes. I think science fiction is such a useful way of exploring different realities and new realities and I mean when I was I think about fifteen was when I read Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker and his Last and First Men. And they were just such big perception shifts for me. And I just remember in Star Maker – and I’ve written an essay on it since then – but this massive cosmic journey that you take through all these different universes and worlds, and you meet all these different alien lives, so different from yours. You’ve got these amazing creatures that he creates. And the whole purpose of the journey is to meet the Star Maker and meet who created all this life. And you get this feeling of this real, depressed . . . all these civilisations that can’t quite reach this perfect state. They just can’t quite get there. And this big quest. And you know, towards the end, the actual meaning of the Star Maker is not what you expected. You end up coming back a bit disappointed. And you return back to – the character’s unnamed – but you return to this grassy hill in England in the dark, looking up at the stars. And you sort-of feel this sense of awe, but also a little bit of this sense of loss. And the two things that Stapledon gives you – as a final conclusion, two pillars that we can really rely on – is a sense of community and a connection with people, and the sense of this cosmic awe and the striving to know that, even if we never reach that. And I think that really fits in well, Benn, with your perpetual journeying and also those two elements in Journey that you talked about: doing the Journey with somebody else, and that kind of connection with another person; and also this striving for something that you never really can get. And those two features are just such a sweet little reminder of what, I think, is this way that this profound effect that reading good science fiction and playing good games can have on you as an individual.

BB: Totally.

RR: I think we may have to leave it there. Benn, Tara – thank you very much!

TS: Thank you.

BB: Thank you (40:00)


Citation Info: Banasik, Benn, Tara Smith and Raymond Radford. 2019. “Science Fiction, Video Games and Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 May 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 22 May 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/science-fiction-video-games-and-religion/

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Time Travel and Fictions of Science

In 1856, Edward Burnett Tylor, of inscribed with “Huitzilopochtli the god of war, Teoyaomiqui his wife, and Mictlanteuctli the god of hell” all compiled into a gruesome symbol of Aztec religion.  “There is little doubt,” Tylor opined, “that this is the famous war-idol which stood on the great teocalli of Mexico, and before which so many thousands of human victims were sacrificed.”  The famous sculpture, now surveying its victims in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Chapultepec Park, took on an early identification as a female divinity and passed into common culture as Coatlicue (“She of the Serpent Skirt”).  She is now, so a more recent theory holds, not simply the earth/mother goddess, but a representation of a tzitzimitl, one of any number of female sacred personages of ambivalent powers and actions.  At their worst, the tzitzimime (pl.) could be “star demons” descending to devour humans, but for the most part these female powers, in good Aztec fashion pivoted around duality, a complementarity that balanced threat with surety in their various avatars.

Tylor’s observations about the “war goddess” and Mexico overall, peering into its barbaric past through the residual survivals of a culture he predicted would fall to the United States, is a good mix of science and great deal of fiction.  While not exactly “science fiction” as we have come to know the genre, travelling forward from his time we can see how the spectacle and rudeness of Aztec ritual and human sacrifice aided Tylor in his scientific speculations on the evolution of cultures and the pre-modern human mind at work as it grasped to understand the natural world.  Ever the scientist, Tylor studded his travelogue with the best resources of his time, quoting Lord Kingsborough on Mexican antiquities, Humboldt’s meticulous measurement and mapping on Mexico a half century earlier, and he even provides the reader with a “Table of Aztec roots” to be compared with Sanskrit and related Indo-European forms.  Yet despite his best scholarly efforts, Tylor’s Anahuac is “fiction” in the same way that Europeans have drawn on their vast reservoir of myths, legends, and stories of Amazons and the Lost Tribes of Israel in their mastery of the Americas.  Columbus (in)famously believed he was near the Garden of Eden as he entered the Orinoco in 1498.  So, too, Tylor, while careful to dismiss any number of arguments claiming “supposed Aztec-Bible traditions,” cannot contain his wonder at the similarities between the Aztec and Hindu cosmogonies, and Aztec and Asian calendrics and astronomy (“resemblances in the signs used that seem too close for chance”).

Much, much later, or maybe much, much earlier – we will never know exactly when – Dr. Who and his companions dropped from the stars, landing smack dab in the middle of the great Aztec high priest Yetaxa’s tomb sometime in the 15th century.   We mere humans saw it in 1964, in one of the first serials of what is, arguably, television’s most successful franchises of any genre.  As far as science fiction television goes, Dr. Who is the gold standard for its quirkiness, kitschy but effective visuals, and astonishing insight into humanicity.  For Americans, the enigmatic but ever pragmatic Dr. Who remains the incarnation of British “clever.”

In Aztecs, one of the travellers, Barbara, is mistaken for a reincarnation of the dead priest Yetaxa.  And, never mind that Yetaxa, who was male reincarnates dw50revaztecs3as a woman, for as Barbara/Yetaxa notes, it is the spirit of Yetaxa, not the human form that counts (more on this later).   Because Barbara is a history teacher with, conveniently, a specialization in Aztec history she knows the Spanish will arrive and destroy the Aztec empire.  Thinking that if she can play out her ersatz goddess role she can rid the Aztecs of human sacrifice, preserving only the good in Aztec culture, and thus convince Cortes to spare them from destruction.  “You can’t rewrite history!” warns the Doctor.  “Not one line!”  Ultimately, Barbara/Yetaxa fails to thwart human sacrifice, and as they say, the rest is history.

What the writers of the Aztecs serial couldn’t know was that their fiction turned out to be closer to the idea of Nahua “divinity” than Tylor’s educated view.  Like most scholars of Aztec religion, Tylor believed that Aztec “gods” bore similarities with Indo-Europeans too close to ignore.  Like his comparison of Nahuatl words to Sanskrit and Greek, Tylor continued the common error of classifying the Aztec teteo to the Olympian pantheon.  Science fiction’s imaginative leap away from the pantheon model to Yetaxa’s spirit leaping from body to body is much more in line with our current understanding of how sacred power worked in ancient Mexico.

As scholars of religion engage the thought experiments in science fiction, we are forced to think and imagine beyond the building blocks of the previous generation’s knowledge.  Tylor might have benefitted from taking on the colossal Mexican Coatlicue monolith on its own terms rather than fall back on the work of earlier speculators like Kingsborough.  Maybe, like our ancestor ape-men confronting the black stela in 2001: A Space Odyssey and being catapulted a million years into space-travelling homo sapiens, Tylor would have made the leap from mere scientist into more provocative, certainly more compelling and lyrical interpretations of the stone goddess.  On a number of occasions, reading Tylor’s travelogue suggests that, indeed, he had found his way into Dr. Who’s TARDIS, travelled through time and space and landed in Mexico.  But unlike the curiosity and cleverness of the Dr. Who travellers, Tylor ‘s imagination was limited by his ethnocentrism and stodginess.  For him, Mexico continued its pitiable decline, a “second-hand” culture as he saw it.  Because Mexicans were “totally incapable of governing themselves” as he saw it, it was inevitable and positive that this failed state be swallowed up by the United States.  For Tylor then, travelling back to Aztec Mexico through the archeological remains at Cholula and Xochicalco, the pyramids at Teotihuacan, and displays of ancient objects in museums restored for him the glories of ancient Mexico which at the time were mostly fictions of science.

 

 

Popular Culture, Dr. Who, and Religion

 

It’s a big universe, and sometimes things get lost in time and space. For instance, this 2013 interview with Dr. James F. McGrath was recorded but then fell into a metaphorical black hole (i.e. the potential podcast series never debuted). Fortunately, his discussion of topics including the soul, the religious ethics of artificial intelligence, and the function of science fiction on informing audiences’ spiritual sensibilities all remain (relatively) timeless. To start, he addresses the unique challenges of working across disciplines in pursuit of analyzing popular culture currently, then shifts to an exploration of religion’s study in the future. Along the way, McGrath and interviewer A. David Lewis namecheck famous characters such as Captain Kirk and Doctor Who in the effort to illustrate complex notions of the soul embedded in secular entertainments. Enjoy a trip to the past — that looks to the future!

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Human Consciousness & Religious Reality

It was real to me. There I was, curled into a corner, comforter wrapped around my shaking limbs and sweating torso, twisted in terror in the sinister hours of the morning. The salt of my tears were laced with the visceral reality of a specter, a monster, or some strange creature slowly scratching its course along the hallway outside my bedroom. I never saw the demon. I eventually fell asleep in exhaustion, still crimped into the corner of my room. The memory of those tormenting moments is still forbidding and physical for me, etched forever into my consciousness. Was it ontologically real? That is beyond the purview of my recollection. Was it real in my mind? Damn straight.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal, the RSP talked with the man who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University about his recent works Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011) and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010).

In these works, Kripal shared how participation in what we call “the sacred” is a critical element that undergirds religious understanding and activity. From his perspective, human consciousness qualifies, as well as anything else, as “the sacred” itself, and must therefore be addressed and wrestled with by any self-respecting student of religion.

Particularly, Kripal argued that generally marginalized authors who have attempted to theorize the paranormal be treated as central to the religious project, even though their work deals with marvels deemed outside both mainstream scientific and/or religious parameters. These authors, Kripal contested, are “authors of the impossible,” but that does not make them charlatans or crackpots. Although Kripal does not come to conclusions about the ontological reality of these phenomena, and maintains a scholarly agnosticism, he does insist that the paranormal must be understood on its own terms (Authors of the Impossible, 158). Though these marvels may not be appreciated as “real,” they cannot be simply explained away or dismissed with snark or sarcasm either (all too often the case among “respectable scholars”).

Kripal fleshes this out in Mutants and Mystics, which acts as a case-study of sorts, applying the aforementioned theory to the symbiosis between paranormal believers and the production of superhero pop culture. As Kripal pointed out, many of the most popular science fiction and superhero creators were metaphysicists and New Age apostles. They imbued their fantasy narratives with spiritual themes that revealed that the sacred resides in each one of us and we, ourselves, are the superheroes, the true miracles of the divine world. Yes, indeed, behind the veil of science in the sci-fi genre, there is a touch of the ethereal, he asserted. This perspective lends itself to a “new anthropology” where, in the words of Kripal, “the Human [is] Two (and One),” which, “is the neuroanatomical, cognitive, and spiritual bedrock of the paranormal and its fantastic both-and, physical-mythical, masterful-mental, real-unreal expressions in popular culture.” (Mutants and Mystics, 333)

All-in-all, Kripal’s outlook stands as a corrective to purely anthropological, political, or economic analyses of religion as social construct. Counteracting strictly Durkheimian models, Kripal re-centers “the sacred” — posited as “consciousness” — as not only important to understanding religion, but as its critical point of departure. Essentially, Kripal calls out the religious studies world for not having a sufficient appreciation of the power of imagination and invites scholars and the interested public into a new comparativism that moves away from strict materialism.

As an ethnographer of religion, I appreciate this remedial position. I first encountered Kripal’s work as a journalist covering religion in Houston, the home of Rice University. This led to multiple conversations between the two of us about religion, the study thereof, and academia in general. While we come from two different perspectives and ask critically different questions as we approach the same topic, I value Kripal’s emphasis on the conscious as the seat of “the sacred.” While he readily admits that he is not concerned with the sociological questions of religion, and instead recasts some of the Otto and Eliade perspectives on “the numinous,” his viewpoint impacts me as an ethnographer.

I am often frustrated by the lack of empathy from the perspective of sociologists and ethnographers who study religion (and, for that matter, historians, political scientists, economists, and armchair scholars), but do not take the reality of religious experiences seriously. There are certainly exceptions to this rule (Daniel Levine’s Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism immediately comes to mind), but in general the great swathe of scholars dealing with religion too easily dismiss the complexity of human consciousness, the power of the psycho-social, and the reality of the sacred.

As Kripal intimated in the interview, the applications of his perspective reach beyond New Religious Movements or paranormal phenomena and include historical analyses and contemporary studies of local and global religioscapes. Immediately, I can think of ethnographers working on the use of amulets and talismans in West Africa, the role of dreams in conversion to Christianity and/or Islam, or Pentecostal healing practices in Latin America.

While these cases may be summarily theorized by many as elements of social control, political context, or economic realities there is ample need to appreciate these occurrences as they occur — as real to those experiencing them. Although researchers should not treat them as ontological fact, they can at the very least be approached as “real” in respect to the human conscious.

And yet, the problem occurs when these experiences contradict each other. Take, for example, dreams that lead to conversion (or occur during the process thereof). While not the majority, I discovered in my own research that some Latina/o Muslims convert because of mystical dream experiences. One “revert” related the content of a dream wherein, “Allah spoke to me and told me I have to change.” Another related that she “had the same dream three times” in which she was in Mecca, wearing a hijab, and felt close to her other Muslim sisters there. Soon after she converted to Islam. Interestingly enough, these experiences mirror reports of many missionaries and Christian converts in the Middle East who also claim that dreams are playing a significant role in Muslims converting to Christianity. Furthermore, there is evidence that dreams have frequently played a role in conversions throughout history, including the mass conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the 7th-century. What does the reality of these experiences mean when they seem to lead in different convictional directions?

Further, while Kripal’s points about consciousness and the sacred prove a potent corrective, they cannot stand on their own in the study of religion. Even if Kripal himself is not concerned with religion as a social construct, we cannot neglect the social realities of religion. In fact, rather than treating the human as two (and one), perhaps we should theorize the human as three (and one). First, as a “conscious subject” (which Kripal makes us critically aware of); second, as an “embodied physicality”; and third, as a “socially constructed being” shaped by their social context and a conscience collective (to invoke Durkheim).

Regardless of these critiques and ruminations on my part, Kripal’s theory deserves attention and examination on the part of religious studies scholars. There certainly is no easy answer in dealing with such complex discussions such as human consciousness and religious reality, but that is no reason why we should not pursue it from multiple perspectives and ends, which Kripal worthily invites us to do.

Divine Inspiration Revisited

 

When encountered for the first time, the idea of a fiction-based religion might seem quite ’far out’ and counter-intuitive. How is it possible to mix together religion (that, supposedly, deals with faith and so with a truth of some sort) and works of popular culture, which are clearly created by human imagination, and so are by definition not true?

And yet, this mixing does not seem to be a problem to the adherents of Jediism, Matrixism, and so forth. There are several groups that draw their inspiration from works of fiction, and yet declare religiosity. Apparently, fiction can offer inspiration to spiritual activities just as well as material traditionally regarded as spiritual and religious. What we seem to have at hand is a phenomenon that leaks out of our previous categories of religion, and in doing so poses a challenge to our understanding of religion and especially its connection to wider social and cultural phenomena.

The interview with Markus Davidsen explains comprehensively the basic ideas of a fiction-based religion. Davidsen defines a fiction-based religion as ”real religion in the real world, – which takes much of its inspiration from a fictional text”. Davidsen argues that these movements are more than fandom. For example, even though the adherents to Jediism do recognize the fact that Star Wars is fictional story, they still maintain that it refers to something that is real on some level. They might also argue, according to Davidsen, that all other religions are based on human invention as well, and so make the distinction between ‘real religion’ and their fiction-based religion less clear.

The aspect that interests me the most is the apparent diffusion of different ‘spheres’ of culture and society. In a fiction-based religion, an overlap of two categories is clearly present: religion and popular culture. But there are also other overlaps. For example, the argument that all religions are based on fiction seems like a very ’secular’ statement. So it seems that adherents to these new religious or spiritual endeavors have adopted certain ideas from a society in which traditional religions with their exclusive truth claims have largely lost their plausibility. As this introductory video to Pastafarianism puts it: ”(W)ith so many to choose from, how do we know which, if any, holds the truth?” But even adopting this view does not mean that religiosity would vanish altogether. Apparently, equally false can be inverted to equally true. Furthermore, it legitimizes the use of rather unconventional sources of spiritual inspiration. If all religions are ultimately based on human invention, what divides old prophecies and mythologies from the new ones?

Like many other forms of diffuse religiosity and spirituality of present day, fiction-based religions operate in an environment of open-ended systems, in which individuals are free to combine a view that suits their spiritual needs. Teemu Taira has called this type of religiosity ”liquid”, a term derived from Zygmunt Bauman’s work on liquid modernity. His work emphasizes the fact that we cannot handle religion as a distinct phenomenon separated from the broader societal and cultural context (Taira, 2006, 7-8). Coming closer to fiction-based religions, Carole M. Cusack has worked on what she calls ”invented religions”, which are new religions that openly declare their origin in human creativity. This term encompasses fiction-based religions as well as others, such as Discordianism and Church of the SubGenius, which are usually deemed as parody religions. Cusack also emphasizes the socio-cultural context of these religions, and her monograph Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith shows how these forms of religiosity are a quite logical consequence of modern consumerism, individualism and appreciation for novelty. (Cusack, 2010 8-25.)

Taira describes liquid religiosity as being focused on the self. The experience of the individual is the most important religious authority. This is only logical in a liquid modern world, where great narratives have lost their plausibility, traditional identities are being deconstructed and external truths might prove fragile and change the next day (Taira 2006, 68-71,75). Consequently, what is ‘true’ for an individual is what matters to him or her individually. This is a very pragmatic sense of reality. If it works, it is true – at least true enough. This kind of view is naturally well suited for a highly pluralist situation, where increasing numbers of religious groups and identities exist next to each other. Taira also suggests that in liquid religiosity, there might be a shift in emphasis from intellectual content to the affective side of religiosity: meaningful feelings and experiences of empowerments it brings. (Taira 2006, 47-51.)

Fiction-based religions are a nice example of how different spheres of society and culture are actually tightly interntwined, and that they constantly affect and interfere with each others. Religion among other ‘spheres’ does not develop in a vaccuum. Also, as Davidsen concludes at the end of the interview, religion is ”something that happens in social interaction and negotiation”. Something is not religious per se, but it is made religious by people who claim it as such.

Religion does not disappear, even though some of its traditional forms might lose their value in the eyes of some people. But religion does change. Fiction-based religions are a good example of this change.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

 

References:

CUSACK, Carole M, 2010: Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

TAIRA, Teemu, 2006: Notkea uskonto.  Published in the Eetos julkaisuja series. Turku: Eetos

Fiction-Based Religions

The majority of those who identified as a Jedi on the 2001 UK census were mounting a more-or-less satirical or playful act of non-compliance; nevertheless, a certain proportion of those were telling the truth. How does a religion constructed from the fictional Star Wars universe problematise how we conceptualise other religions, and the stories they involve?  And what makes certain stories able to transcend their fictional origins and become myths?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Markus Altena Davidsen is a PhD candidate at the universities of Aarhus, Denmark and Leiden, Netherlands, and assistant lecturer in the sociology of religion in Leiden. Since 2009, he has been working on a PhD project entitled “Fiction-based Religions: The Use of Fiction in Contemporary Religious Bricolage”. In this project, Davidsen attempts to do three things. Firstly, he maps the various ways on which religious groups since the 1960s have been integrating elements from Tolkien’s literary mythology with beliefs and practices from more established religious traditions. This material is used to develop a typology of forms of religious bricolage (harmonising, domesticating, archetypal etc.) which are also at work in alternative spirituality in general. Secondly, he looks at how Tolkien religionists legitimise their religious practice (to themselves and others) given that it is based on a work of fiction. These accounts are compared with what cognitive theory has to say about narratives and plausibility construction. Thirdly, Davidsen treats how the internet has facilitated the emergence of a self-conscious spiritual Tolkien milieu. Some preliminary conclusions from the project are presented in the forthcoming article “The Spiritual Milieu Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Literary Mythology”, in Adam Possamai (ed.), Handbook of Hyper-real Religions, in the series Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion 5, Leiden & Boston: Brill, 185-204.

You can keep up with Markus’s work on Invented Religions. And you may enjoy Markus and Carole’s contributions to our edited episode on “The Future of Religious Studies“.