[personal] A stray thought about religion and SF

Was thinking this morning about my anecdotal observation that genre fandom and writerdom skew heavily to the irreligious, far more so than the general population so far as I can tell. (I have no data on this, but if someone does, please do post in comments.) I wonder if this is because of our fascination with the classic “sense of wonder.”

Does sensawunda scratch the same itch that spiritual experiences scratch, at least in some of us? Am I full of it?

What do you think?

39 thoughts on “[personal] A stray thought about religion and SF

  1. I think the sensawunda you describe is a more openness to the unimaginably wide range of our experiences. Most heavily religious folk tend to have a very narrow set of beliefs and don’t question things very much. Those with the sensawunda gene activated have learned to look beyond their horizons and not accept the general folderol that most religions foster as the justification of their existence.

  2. Kai Jones says:

    genre fandom and writerdom skew heavily to the irreligious, far more so than the general population

    Not my experience, but I have no data. I know a lot of Jews and Christians in fandom, and a lot of non-religious people who aren’t SF/F readers or fans.

    Maybe the experience of sensing the numinous is similar to the sensawunda, or hits the same emotional buttons. Maybe it’s all in the label; if you’re inclined to belief in G-d, you label that feeling with a religious term, and if you’re disinclined to such belief, you use a non-religious term.

  3. My sense has always been that a great many SF and F writers, fans, editors, etc, think of themselves as being post-religious. Ergo, having been exposed to religion in some form — typically while young — they’ve “graduated” to the secular world and enjoy the broader epistemological stage afforded by SF and F.

    Me personally, I grew up religious, played at being secular for a couple of years as a teen, concluded I was merely being a poseur, and grudgingly went back to church. Because, frankly, I felt like church is where He needed me to be. Even if I felt like the best place for me on Sunday mornings was at home snoring into my pillow.

    D.D. mentioned the narrowness of many religions, and I think this is part of it, yes. But would add that “narrowness” is also a function of the home of origin. I grew up in a nominally religious household where reading was encouraged and speculations — even on subjects church doctrine already covered — were not frowned upon. I had friends in other households and who were being brought up in the same religion, where such speculation would have been grounds for severe punishment.

    I suspect, therefore, that a certain percentage of the post-religious populace is rejection the stridency of the home of origin, as much as religion itself. I’d probably have been like that had I not met my wife, who made me realize that it was possible to be a church-goer without being a total asshole.


  4. Sundog says:

    No, that doesn’t match my experience at all. I didn’t become an atheist until age 27, but I was a fan of SF from childhood. And I’ve known plenty of SF/fantasy fans who also had religious beliefs. You may not, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

    And please, let’s not start deploying the “religious=narrowminded” (or worse, “religious=stupid”) meme, which D.D. Tannenbaum seems perilously close to doing. That is simply an ignorant stereotype, and those who use it are smug, arrogant bigots. I am not religious, but I know plenty of people who are, and they are just as thoughtful and well-informed as everyone else.

  5. Sundog has a point.

    Being religious does not, by itself, equate to narrowness, or lack of mental ability.

    I think here in the U.S. we have that stereotype because so often the kinds of religious people who show up on the radar are the poorest examples: lying televangelists, hypocritical pastors, molesting priests, etc.

    Because our national awareness is shaped by the media and the media tend to focus on religion only when a notable religious figure screws up, the perception is that religion itself is a thing for screwed-up people.

    I tend to think that people are screwed up all by themselves. Religion is just something they happen to be into, and when they go around displaying their screwed-uppitude AND their religion at once (puts head in hands) it tends to poison the view of religion and the religious et al.

    1. Sundog says:

      Yes, Brad, that’s exactly it. The same is true for atheists: the ones you hear about are the ones who are making headlines because they are obnoxious ANTI-religious jackasses. Lots of people assume that ALL atheists are like that.

      Actually, many atheists (myself included) are pretty quiet about their lack of religion — not because they’re ashamed of it, but because the obnoxious jackasses have created a perception that “atheist” means “loudmouthed anti-religious activist”, and we are not interested in identifying ourselves with that. In fact, that’s why I usually use the term “non-religious”: the in-your-face atheists have ruined the “atheist” label.

  6. Matt H says:

    The way I see it, SF as a genre is historically rooted in “science”, which by nature tends to preclude “religion”. The settings of SF tend to be congruous to test tubes in a scientific experiment wherein environments must remain sterile. If you inject a religious element to the SF story as anything other than background setting, you risk losing the reader’s suspension of disbelief via deus ex machina.
    On the flip side, I think that readers who would be most open to deus ex machina tend to read religious books. I think it would be hard for blatantly fictional books to compete in the religious genre since readers of religious books typically seek out stories they can believe are real.
    Final thought; despite all this, I find it interesting that many SF settings fail to note religion altogether, since it is certainly a part of the cultural fabric of our world as it is and at least as far back as we can remember, and people in past and present cultures were/are motivated by religious beliefs and experiences.

    1. Sundog says:

      Actually, science does not preclude religion. Science only addresses notions that are falsifiable, such as “heavy objects fall faster that light ones” or “the Moon is made of cheese”. Religion generally concerns itself with notions that are NOT falsifiable, such as “God exists” or “people have souls”. Because these notions are not falsifiable, they fall outside the scope of scientific inquiry, and science has nothing to say about them one way or another.

      Where science SEEMS to conflict with religion, it’s generally in reference to particular interpretations of religious doctrine. For example, notions like “the Earth is six thousand years old” and “Evolution does not exist” are the way some people interpret certain passages in the Bible. But the Bible does not directly say those things, and many Christians do not agree with them.

      1. Matt H says:

        You and I are saying the same thing.

  7. Not to hijack the thread, but I wanted to ask sundog a question.

    As a self-identified ‘quiet’ atheist, do you agree or disagree with the notion that atheism — lack of theism or lack of religious adherence — is its own form of “religion,” albeit of the secular variety?

    Is lack of belief, its own kind of belief?

    NOTE: this is not a loaded question, I just want to know your opinion.

    1. Sundog says:

      No, the assertion that atheism is a kind of religion is silly. It makes as much sense as claiming that an empty glass is just another kind of beverage.

      Believing and disbelieving are not the same thing.

      1. M. H. Bonham says:

        Sundog, that may be. But many in the nontheistic communities work with the same fervor as one who does believe in a god.

        And I would argue that nonbelieving is still the same as belief. Just a different form.

    2. Jay says:

      I’ll swing at this one as well. I’m not a “quiet” atheist in Sundog’s sense, but I am what I only somewhat jokingly call a “Low Church” atheist. Which is to say I personally find the existence of God not only unprovable, but impossible to prove, and therefore empirically irrelevant outside the personal experience of individual faith holders. That does not translate to a dismissal of the beliefs of others — however silly or irrelevant they may strike me as — but it does translate to a fierce opposition to the imposition of religious belief into educational, civic and political structures. A highly secularized society is the *best* possible protection for religious freedom, something which seems to escape many American Christians who appear to assume that a natural form of exceptionalist majoritarianism pertains to them.

      But I don’t find lack of belief its own kind of belief, at least not in the “leap of faith” sense. Do I “believe” there is no God? Yes, the way I “believe” that 1 G accelerates at 9.81 m/s². That’s not a faith-based belief, it’s a judgment based on available empirical evidence, or lack of same.

      At the same time, even as an atheist I believe the human spirit is gloriously irrational, obsessed with miracle and wonder, and quite capable of nonempirical transcendence. I just don’t require an outside agency to which I can ascribe those impulses.

      Also, as an atheist, I deeply resent the assumption that a number of religious people seem to bear that those without faith are incapable of morality. That strikes me as the worst sort of poverty of spirit, not to mention a profound personal weakness in requiring a larger outside authority to create moral force.

      1. Sundog says:

        I agree with virtually everything you say, Jay — except for one point. I can think of a number of ways that the existence of God can be conclusively proven. They all involve obvious and undeniable miracles that are observed and recorded in detail by scientists throughout the world. But nothing like that has happened yet. And, in fact, religious people would tell me that God won’t do anything like that, because it would preclude faith. Which is perfectly logical, really.

        I don’t think the NON-existence of God can be proven. I conclude that no God exists because I see no evidence for His existence, but that conclusion is subject to revision if new evidence (one of the aforementioned miracles) becomes available.

      2. Matt H says:

        So as far as your original question regarding genre fandom/writerdom, how do you see it? Is it only the “sensawunda”, or the science-based nature of the material, the reading preferences of religious folk? Combination? Something else entirely?

        Also from a writer’s perspective, do you factor in your perceptions of the fanbase when writing your stuff, of do you just let the creative juices do their thing and work with whatever happens?

        1. Jay says:

          Well, as pointed out on the LJ comments to this post, the phrasing of my question appears to presume that the religious lack a sense of wonder. I commented to him that this was poor phrasing rather than an intentional comparison, and that in fact religion at its best seems to invoke an amplified sense of wonder, albeit not in the same technical/critical sense we use that term in genre.

          And no, I don’t worry about the fanbase when I’m writing. Not at all. I’ve written some unapologetically religious work, and I’ve written some aggressively atheistic work, and everything in between. That’s in service of the story. Caveat lector. And for that matter, caveat scriptor.

          1. Sundog says:

            Well, I think some religious people DO lack a sense of wonder. I’m thinking of the straitlaced folk who fear things like Harry Potter books or Dungeons & Dragons. If I understand their worldview correctly, anything supernatural can only come from God or Satan, so nonreligious fictional characters who use magic must be agents of the Devil.

            To me, the sense-of-wonder thing boils down to a single question: do you fear new and unconventional things, or do you embrace them? There are plenty of arguments for either position; machine guns and Spanish influenza were new things in 1918, but that didn’t make them wonderful. But SF and fantasy fans are, by and large, embracers of the new and unfamiliar. (We wouldn’t read the stuff if we were not.) So we have trouble understanding people who don’t feel the same way.

      3. M. H. Bonham says:

        I’m a bit of a skeptic and an agnostic, depending on the time of day.

        I feel that most science fiction is empty of religion largely in part because the writers are either atheist or if they believe in a religion, they don’t put in religion because they don’t feel its relevant to the story or they don’t want to offend, or something. But this doesn’t ring true with societies — I don’t know of any human society in the past, short of communism, that had no religion. (Even then, pockets of religion still remained). I would put to you that humans and alien societies would all have various religions just as we have now. They could be at war at various times — some for the most silliest reasons.

        That being said, I’ve found that atheism is almost a religion in and of itself and some of those on the forefront of nontheism push as hard on their agenda as some of the most oppressive religions. I agree with some positions and disagree with others. And yeah, I find it remarkably short-sighted of some religious folks to think that I have no sense of right or wrong because I’m not of a particular religion.

        Actually, my moral compass is just fine, thank you. I don’t need a god to impose a punishment to force me to do the right thing. I believed in doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing.

      4. I concur entirely with you on all the above. Having been raised (oddly, for an English chap from London) in a quite bizarre cult of evangelical Christians, I have seen plenty of what believers are capable of both in a positive and negative light. Extremism in any religion is a crazy concept, but the thing that frustrates me the most is the inability to have an intelligent conversation with these people.

        I had the pleasure of chatting to this guy recently: http://is.gd/2c4F9 – he has a new show called The God Collar, but this tickled me in particular (from the above clip):

        “Christians! You and your churches don’t get to be millionaires while other people have nothing at all – they’re your bloody rules, either stick to them or abandon the faith. And stop persecuting and killing people you judge to be immoral. Oh, and stop pretending your celebate as a cover-up for being a gay or a nonce.”

        Seeing as I’m writing an entire novel about the subject at the moment, I’m going to abstain from going into further detail! Fascinating topic, though.

        I hope all’s well, Jay – I follow the blog randomly, but I just came to this thread from Facebook. I am trying to follow the health issues too. Hope to see you in San Jose this year.

      5. Laura says:

        Jay, just a question: if the existence of God is impossible to prove, as you say, isn’t it also impossible to disprove?

        1. Jay says:

          Sure, the existence of God is impossible to disprove. But likewise the existence of fuzzy pink unicorns is equally impossible to disprove. This lack of disproof does not logically imply their existence, or God’s. (That’s what the leap of faith is all about, insofar as I understand it. At least so far as God goes. I can’t speak to fuzzy pink unicorns in that respect.)

    3. Ieva says:

      I’ll poke in on this.
      There’s atheism and there’s atheism.
      I am, well, agnostic (I think quite alike to Jay Lake: convinced that God’s existence isn’t proved and very likely can’t be proved, much less the “rightness” of any path). I have been raised in society where atheism *was* a religion with its saints and martyrs, and holy scriptures. I think it was only when we moved that we finally threw out the 20+ tomes of writings of Lenin (that everybody was required to have) and I grew up with affectionate/overzealous stories of “most human of humans”, the brilliant child with golden hair (again, Lenin) and only by sheer luck escaped the collective idolizing of “martyrs” like Pavlik Morozov (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pavlik_Morozov).

      So yes, atheism can be a religion in its worst sense.

      But, much like zen buddhism, it can be simply a way one perceives the world, not a dogma. (There the similarity ends, I think.)

  8. Junglemonkey says:

    Some of the biggies (notably Orson Scott Card) are very religious, but because it doesn’t show up in their work, people assume that their beliefs aren’t necessarily deeply-held. Fiction is fiction. It’s made up. It’s not necessarily a reflection of the authors spiritual beliefs or morals or opinions, but an author exercising the power of “what if?”

    I think that the whole “is God in space” conversation is entirely separate from the “is God in the kind of people who write about space” conversation.

  9. Sundog, My comments were not meant to be taken as stereotypes. When I speak of narrow-mindedness, I speak from experience. I was raised Roman Catholic. My mother read to me from the Bible every night. When I started Catechism classes at the Catholic grammar school I attended, I noticed what they taught me was contradicting what my mother was reading to me. For my inquiries, I was slapped around and had a note sent home to my mother, that told her to stop reading me the Bible, as it was interfering with my Religious upbringing.

    All this to say, formalized religion is just that: a formal, structured belief system that in most cases becomes more intent on retaining control of its’ congregation than the salvation of their souls or the furtherance of their spiritual education.

    1. Sundog says:

      In that case, I’m sorry I overreacted. Narrow-mindedness is a pernicious thing, as your experience demonstrates. But I’ve encountered plenty of narrow-minded atheists, too. I apologize for thinking that you might be one of them.

  10. tetar says:

    Sundog in particular: How does one tell the difference between an advanced ETI and a god? How does one tell the difference between advanced technological effects and a miracle?

    Epistemology dictates we cannot know, which demands our stance be agnostic. We’re not equipped ever to know.

    Even worse, logic dictates one cannot prove a negative. This means one can never prove a god is NOT there.

    We occupy the grey area.

    1. Sundog says:

      I suppose it’s a matter of definitions. If sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from miracles, then there IS no difference. If you set the bar high enough, any entity that can perform the required miracles is, by definition, a god.

      Epistemology may say that we can’t know anything with perfect certainty, but that’s irrelevant to science, which is about finding hypotheses that are consistent with the evidence so far. Certainty is not required. If you insist on that, you’re on a slippery slope to solipsism.

      And logic doesn’t actually tell us that we can’t prove a negative. I can think of plenty of negative statements that are provable. Example: “Elvis is not dead.” Easy to prove — just produce a living Elvis whose fingerprints, dental records, and DNA all match, and whose memories and demonstrable talent are clearly authentic.

      It isn’t useful to focus on whether an assertion is negative, because that’s just a matter of phrasing. “Elvis is not dead” and “Elvis is alive” are equivalent, but one is negative and the other is not.

      You’ll find it more productive to focus on whether an assertion is falsifiable. For example, “Unicorns exist” is not falsifiable; no matter how diligently you look for unicorns and fail to find them, there might still be some out there. On the other hand, “That animal over there is a unicorn” could be falsified; if you examine the critter and determine that it’s a horse with a papier-mache horn attached with Super Glue, you’ve done it.

      The key concept here is that science doesn’t actually try to prove anything true. It tries to prove them false and, in some cases, fails. But if an assertion cannot logically be proven false, then it’s outside the scope of science.

  11. tetar says:

    To answer Jay’s initial question, I’ve always found SF highly open to the religious as a genre, much more willing than any other genre to tackle questions that arise out of religion, and to address questions of faith, experience, and belief.

    I’d say if it skews it’d be toward the open minded, not the skeptical or atheistic, end of things.

    And to equate literary sense of wonder with agape or religious awe strikes me as a tad tongue-in-cheek, at the least. Surely an inspirational epiphany strikes harder and deeper than the frisson of reading a good little SF gimmick story. One is life-changing, the other is experiencing Pop-Rocks for the first time.

  12. The way I was raised, questions or unknowns weren’t automatic threats to doctrine. Seems to me that for a lof of U.S. religious people, any time they run up against something that invokes a question or reveals and unknown, it’s panic time — because they can’t reconcile these things with their absolute belief that All Answers Possible come from scripture.

    I will say I absolutely reject Biblical literalism. Mostly because if the Biblical literalists are correct, and the Earth is only about 6,500 years old, then God is a Trickster God who laced the entire cosmos with evidence of far greater age and complexity, simply to test our faith.

    To me, that’s a Malevolent Deity construct and I’m not down with that sort of thing.

    Speaking of Sense-o-Wunda, I tend to believe that much of the Old Testament scripture in Genesis — which is derived from ancient texts through translation — is metaphor. In an extremely loose sense, the Genesis story of Earth’s creation is a simplified version of how we currently, in our time, believe the Earth came into being. It’s no exact, but I suspect Genesis attempts to explain a very complex process in language that could be understood by a very simple people, who lacked any notion of physics or Keplerian laws.

    Speaking of Kepler, I think it’s worth noting that there have been several outstanding scientific pioneers who pursued their science — often in the face of persecution — because they believed science was a window on the mind and plan of the Divine.

    I tend to believe this too. That as science unravels the onion of the universe, it reveals complexities and interworkings that speak — to me — of the genius and sublime architecture of God.

    Alas, there’s a heap load of folk who think science is the enemy of God. This imposed antagonism — that any science which contradicts scripture is automatically false and therefore a product of evil — is something we see a lot lately in debates about Creationism and the teaching of same as an ‘alternative’ to evolution in the schools.

    All I can do is shake my head and conclude that a lot of American Christians are missing the point, becoming hopelessly fixated on a literalist, foreshortened worldview, when I happen to believe that part of the magic of our existence as human beings is coming to know and properly understand our universe, via the gift of our consciousness and our intellect.

    1. K. Harbaugh says:

      I wonder if the science is evil idea amongst some Christians is a reaction to the long-held civil, though nevertheless felt, contempt non-believing scientists have had for those who believe. A sort of…oh, verbal blood feud that has been going on for about 100 years or so. “You’re evil!” “Well, you’re stupid!” “Evil is worse than stupid!” “No, stupid IS evil!” And so on. There’s just so much contempt one can put up with, Christian or not, before one starts spoiling for a fight. Who knows who started it first, but at this late date, figuring out who is rather meaningless.

      As you say, Brad T., there have been more than a few innovative scientific pioneers who have seen science as a window to the mind of God. Isaac Newton was highly religious, certainly.

  13. D’argh, sorry for the typos.

  14. One aspect of the narrow-mindedness of some people: They put limits on what God can do. They state that He did things this way, and that’s the way is has to be.

    Throwing my own two cents in: If I was the Almighty, Omniscient and Omnipresent, I wouldn’t waste my time laying out a Universe just because. I’d set up some initial rules and push the Big Red Button. I think what God wants most is surprise!

  15. And yet, the Quantum sciences are making new strides every day in the how and why of creation. Things we could never before measure are not almost in sight. And most Physicists are seeing the hand of intelligence in the underpinnings of creation. And I’m NOT talking about intelligent design. The laws of physics are being sussed out more and more, even as we tweet.

    And that’s just the laws of THIS universe. Soon we’ll be able to find out what other universes are like. Hopefully in the next 20 years…

    1. This statement:And most Physicists are seeing the hand of intelligence in the underpinnings of creation. is the kind of assertion that requires some hard data to back it up. I spend a lot of time with physicists–my wife’s a physics department chair and I go to the annual meetings of the AAPT and occasionally of the APS–and I’ve met very few physicists who believe in any kind of intelligent creation of the universe. I think that your “most” would read much better as “some” unless you have actual survey data to back it up.

      1. Kelly,

        I should have qualified that: Quantum Physicists. One of great note is Dr. Michio Kaku. He is bringing Quantum Physics to the masses. And again, please understand I am not talking about a Creationist-based philosophy.

    2. Replying here since my browser is doing something funny with your reply to my post. Fair enough, though I’d still say “some” would be more accurate than “most” as I know a fair number of folks who deal with quantum both in experimental and theoretical ways and that’s not something I’m hearing from more than a small subset.

  16. tetar says:

    Certainly lack of disproof does not imply evidence or proof. Lack of disproof was cited to demonstrate that it is impossible for us to know such things. Epistemology 101. We’re not equipped to deal with certain things. Gods and heavens and fuzzy pink unicorns are among such things. Zen monks eschew dogma for this reason. They also don’t bother with discussion of such abstract concepts; useless. Better to chop wood and carry water, before and after enlightenment. Tend your ox.

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