Butler University religion professor James L. McGrath has an interesting article in the spring issue of the Phi Kappa Phi Forum in which he explores the connection between science fiction and religion. Given my own interest in the connection between speculative fiction and fringe history, I found his discussion to be engaging, if (understandably) somewhat incomplete.
McGrath begins with Lost, which is perhaps less science fiction per se than it is a fantasy since ultimately it is not about science but rather the supernatural. McGrath doesn’t really have the space to go into the issues demarcating the differences between the overlapping genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but I think it’s fair to say that McGrath’s ideas about science fiction apply as well if not better to the other two as well. Anyway, McGrath argues that Lost represents a reflection of contemporary society’s views on life and religion, particularly in the way audiences reacted to the finale, in which the characters were revealed to have traveled to an afterlife.
According to him, those who wanted more resolution are akin to those who see the universe as “enigmas to solve” and those who were emotionally satisfied with the finale are akin to those who see the universe as an unsolvable puzzle whose value lies only in our social relationships to other people. I confess that I see nothing religious in either view, but McGrath takes a rather broad view of religion. To this end, he says that the golden light at the center of Lost’s mysterious island might “undermine venerable theosophical tenets about spiritual light” by making the supernatural literal, and he asks whether this creates a conversation in which viewers are asked to think about whether science and faith can coexist. I suppose from a Christian perspective this makes sense, though I have a hard time imagine ancient Greeks arguing about whether a glowing light cheapens the mystical power of Zeus. Plus: Didn’t the Judeo-Christian God have a burning bush of some sort that made the “spiritual light” literal?
This is prelude, though, to McGrath making a connection between religious believers looking for literal proof of faith and science fiction writers literalizing religion through appeal to aliens. He cites Star Trek, particularly the episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?” in which the Greek god Apollo is revealed to be a space alien, as well as various episodes of Doctor Who that attribute Greek mythology to alien species, and Stargate, which did the same but in Egypt. He says that these sci-fi stories give
…expression to a fundamental human storytelling instinct and a desire that our myths and stories still be true in some sense, even as we recast them within the framework of modern scientific understanding. Put another way, we long for a universe filled with monsters and magic, even if we now expect them to be delivered by scientific means.
There is obviously a close connection between this concept and the science fiction spirituality of UFO cults and ancient astronaut believers, who also try to rewrite the gods as space aliens.
Here, though, I find McGrath’s argument incomplete. He goes on to discuss various sci-fi stories that touch on alternative explanations for Jesus (which are themselves not too different from Monty Python’s Life of Brian), but because he is apparently drawing a fairly bright line around science fiction and fantasy to the exclusion of horror, he misses the longstanding literary tradition of casting supernatural and quasi-religious claims as truth claims. This goes back to the very first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, whose author claimed falsely that the text was a true account taken from ancient manuscripts. Down to this very day, movies about exorcisms, ghosts, and psychics routinely describe themselves as “based on a true story.” This must say something about our culture and its relationship to truth, but if it does, McGrath does not day.
These horrors do not necessarily take the form of science, and by excluding ghosts and demons from his consideration of Lost and questions of a “scientific” afterlife, McGrath falsely decides that “we”—whoever that might be—demand scientific justifications for monsters and magic. It is better to say that the definition of the science fiction genre requires a scientific explanation for the divine, but that this demand falters and fails as we move from science fiction to fantasy and ultimately to horror. In the reverse, this is how H. P. Lovecraft’s quasi-divine Old Ones eventually became explicitly extraterrestrial aliens as he moved steadily toward a more “scientific” basis for his stories. To exclude the horror genre from consideration is to bias the sample and suggest that the undefined “we” is more rational—and more aligned to science fiction—than the facts warrant.
“So science fiction is a wonderful window into how humans perceive religion in the present,” McGrath writes. He sees in it explorations of ontological, spiritual, and epistemological questions, and this is correct but incomplete, not to mention presumptive in its efforts to universalize the human experience through the limited sample of science fiction producers, who are disproportionately Western (i.e. Euro-American), white, and male. Science fiction might represent, for a specific audience, a conscious reflection of how some choose to engage with religion, but it is not the only or even the predominant view. In the horror genre we see the dark mirror of this, in which the supernatural is invoked as a constant and chaotic force that threatens to overturn the audience’s rationalizing beliefs about the world. It’s difficult to argue that we should celebrate stories of time-traveling to meet Jesus as inquiries into the fundamental nature of modern faith while omitting whatever the literature of the supernatural seems to say about our relationship to demons, ghosts, pagan gods, and whatever other unsightly things no longer fit comfortably in the certain type of Judeo-Christian spirituality. (Note too that claims made in fiction stories do not necessarily represent the actual view of their creators or the audience.)
To give just a couple of recent examples: The CW’s Supernatural is a horror show, and yet most of its seasons have been devoted to exploring Judeo-Christian mythology and to considering the absence of God and the bureaucracy of faith-based views of the world beyond the physical. Over on the El Rey Network, that channel’s new adaptation of From Dusk Till Dawn has expanded on the original movie to offer a bloody meditation on faith and the degree to which we are imprisoned by faiths not of our choosing or making and therefore manipulated by outside forces we don’t understand. Now, I’m not endorsing either of these as particularly insightful, but they easily have more to say than Star Trek’s brief foray into ancient astronaut theorizing.
Why should we as critics privilege science fiction’s view of faith over the darker and more Gothic take of horror? Why should either of these Western elite viewpoints reflect “how humans perceive religion in the present” more than the art of China, India, or any other culture? Or for that matter the actual expressed beliefs of actual people in their daily lives? These questions are perhaps too big for a three-page magazine article, but they deserve to be acknowledged and discussed.
5/14/2014 04:41:38 am
Faith does not require proof, theories require proof. Some people love so much their theories that they fabricate proof, others have so little faith that they require proof and some like to create preposterous theories and fabricate evidence to confuse both wise and faithful alike... those are the really dangerous ones. Both Science and Religion have a place in society as long as we don't force our own beliefs on other.
5/14/2014 07:05:08 am
"Some people love so much their theories that they fabricate proof"
5/14/2014 09:58:11 am
Fair enough. My point was that faith does not require proof, that's why it's called faith and not fact.
5/14/2014 12:52:12 pm
Interesting that both scientists and theologians have fabricated evidence to support their claims (I say this while both acknowledging I am using the term scientists to describe both students of both hard and soft sciences...and that those students fabricated evidence more in the past than the present).
5/14/2014 01:58:58 pm
To be fair, both for science and for theology, the fabrication of evidence tends to happen not because of the science or faith, but because it will personally benefit the fabricator in some fashion. The wholesale fabrication of relics during the late Medieval period, for instance, was entirely economic in nature; pilgrims meant income for the churches that housed those relics, so it was in the best interests of the clergy of a given church to beg, borrow, steal or make as many relics as possible. Likewise, the fabrication of data in, say, the infamous Wakefield study (falsely linking autism and the MMR vaccine) had more to do with who was paying Wakefield than it did with actually uncovering the causes of autism. (Wakefield was paid tens of thousands of pounds by lawyers seeking evidence to sue the vaccine manufacturers.)
5/14/2014 02:32:11 pm
That is an excellent point, Varika. Though I believe both have also falsified for vanity/ get famous etc...there are not many cases of fabricating evidence out of pure love for ones own beliefs in science. Outside of fringe claims, that is.
5/14/2014 07:36:59 pm
"Not something I could necessarily say for faith."
5/14/2014 04:57:33 am
I think a better example of science fiction tacking faith would be the Star Trek episode, "Bread and Circuses".
5/14/2014 07:45:16 am
There was an episode of the remade Outer Limits series that crossed over sci-fi and religion. It was the 1999 episode, "The Shroud", in which scientists clone Jesus by way of in vitro fertilization, using DNA from the Shroud of Turin. My favorite scene is when the baby Jesus, from inside the womb, turns a glass of orange juice into blood.
5/14/2014 08:24:28 am
I didn't get Showtime back then (or now), so I watched the episodes in syndication. I wonder if they left that one out of the syndication package due to its content. I don't remember it.
5/14/2014 11:11:28 am
I watched it in syndication as well, probably ten or twelve years ago when it was airing on Sci-Fi, so I'm not sure.
5/14/2014 11:04:58 am
Minor point: I disagree that "...the definition of the science fiction genre REQUIRES a scientific explanation for the divine..." (your emphasis). Some sci-fi does offer that substitution and much of the indistinguishable-from-magic future technology of sci-fi leaves little for an old-school deity to do but often sci-fi doesn't even address the question of spirituality and many sci-fi writers do include a spiritual component in their character's lives.
5/14/2014 12:57:39 pm
Agreed, it's a somewhat narrow view of scifi. I remember reading the Rama series by Arthur C Clark and Gentry Lee.
5/14/2014 01:45:31 pm
To both your points: We obviously can't paint all science fiction with one brush. There are any number of variations, including Christian sci-fi, but McGrath seems to focus on hard sci-fi and seemed to specifically look for rationalized or literalized examples of dealing with the divine. It really depends on how you choose to define science fiction, which can be problematic at the outer edges of the genre, where the inclusion of supernatural elements shades into fantasy.
5/14/2014 02:35:45 pm
No, that's a good point...and probably a good reason why those books/movies are often categorized together as scifi/fantasy.
5/14/2014 03:17:10 pm
Jason, while I don't wish to engage in pointless terminological disputes, I think it's an interesting question whether certain works we would not normally classify as science fiction are essentially of a kind with standard sci-fi. For instance, many of the more detailed mythologies treat gods and other "supernatural" entities as discoverable and explainable within the (erroneous) worldview of the mythology's creators. On the other hand, "relationship with science and reason" better not imply relationship with true science (if only because that would disqualify most sci-fi from Wells to Baxter). So, do you think there is something special about the scientific worldview (whatever that is) that makes for difference in kind between literature arising out of it and literature arising out of "magical" worldview?
5/14/2014 07:48:38 pm
EP, I have personally always defined science fiction as fiction that uses projections of known science of its day to explain things, while fantasy just says "It's magic" and doesn't try and reconcile it with natural laws--though sometimes, fantasy makes up new "natural laws" to explain the magic.
5/14/2014 02:56:38 pm
This article and your blog post are basically how every interesting question/article goes, it seems. Someone will ask a really interesting question or make an interesting point. There's usually merit to it as an idea, and it's usually a valid point...but rarely to the degree believed/proposed by the author.
5/14/2014 03:06:53 pm
Really though, does anyone know of any good papers or books about this? Or maybe a skeptic article?
5/14/2014 03:24:27 pm
Not quite sure what you're looking for, but perhaps some of the works of David Hume and Charles Peirce (or Karl Popper, although I'm not a huge fan), if you're interested in philosophical classics...
5/14/2014 03:59:23 pm
Yeah I'm not exactly sure what I'm looking for either lol, or how to phrase it...I'll definitely give their stuff a try. Thanks for the recommendations!
5/14/2014 08:03:24 pm
I personally think that people "latch onto" incomplete answers out of a lack of training in logical thinking, but that's an unsupported opinion. The only evidence I have is educational theory which, in a nutshell, says that kids need to be taught how to think. (Among other things, of course.) Anecdotal evidence indicates that you can be taught to question, or you can be taught to accept, but I've never met anyone who can really do both. It's kind of a trade-off thing; if you're the type to question everything, the comfort of faith tends to be very elusive, while if you're the type to be accepting, you're more easily swayed into accepting bunk. That's just my two cents, really, though.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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