Flight of the Vajra: Belief System Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-01-26 01:14:21 No comments

Theological Science Fiction - Reason Magazine (Gregory Benford)

The point of speculative ideas and science fictional treatments is not to foster propaganda (though many do so, usually obviously and unsuccessfully), but to make us think. As a literature of change driven by technology, science fiction presents religion to a part of the reading public that probably seldom goes to church.

The piece as a whole is only okay — it was written in 2003, and it doesn't trot out a lot of stuff that we haven't heard before and since — but the above comment deserves some expansion.

I like the definition of SF as "a literature of change driven by technology". It one-ups a definition I came up with myself a long time ago, which was something like "a literature that could only exist in the presence of the scientific worldview's influence on life". (The exact wording eludes me.)

What I'm a little confused by is his statement that "science fiction presents religion to a part of the reading public that probably seldom goes to church." Does he mean that SF readers are not on the whole religious? That clashes badly with my own experiences; the SF readers I've met are on the whole more spiritually inclined than those who are not. They take the business of existing in the universe that much more seriously than even a lot of churchgoers I've known. The article itself doesn't provide much disambiguation.

I suspect what Benford meant was something like "most SF readers are not religious in the churchgoing sense", which certainly squares with my experiences. t's hard to treat religion in any form of fiction without it becoming propaganda. An element of skepticism matters — not in the sense of whether or not there is a God, but in the sense of whether or not what we believe actually supports our lives.

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A book that leaves us knowing, or wondering, no more than when we first opened it is not much of a book no matter what the label. SF has that much more of a duty to be like that, if only because it draws on so many things which are automatically imbued with that much more of a sense of wonder. A Canticle for Leibowitz explored why and how we think of something as sacred, and whether or not that has the power to liberate us from our own cyclical foolishness. Belief gives strength; skepticism gives power — the two are not as mutually exclusive as we choose to believe.

Some of the best works about belief begin with its absence and burrow deeper. The Stranger (not SF, but valuable all the same gives us a man who is indifferent to the presence of God, and whose indifference is used as evidence of his depravity by others when he commits a crime in a way that makes him appear to be nothing more than an object in the service of unheralded forces. He prefers honest indifference to a dishonest deathbed conversion. The book is not about whether or not he is right for choosing such a course, but more about asking us to look into our own responses to such a thing. With a book like that, you get out of it only as much as you bring to it.

Sounds like much of SF, actually.

Tags: Flight of the Vajra dharma science science fiction