Amanda Rees is a historian of science at the University of York.
In 1948, L. Ron Hubbard is reported to have said, “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” Two years later, he did just that. His short story, “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science,” which appeared in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, laid the foundation of what evolved into the globally significant (and very wealthy) Church of Scientology.
Hubbard’s deeply materialistic approach to faith took for granted the notion that religion is for suckers: those who are guided by their emotions as opposed to their intellect, those who can’t or don’t want to see the snake-oil sales pitch behind the shamanic ceremony. In the modern West, after all, efforts by the church to exert control over political and intellectual life had been successfully repulsed. Critical to that battle were the weapons provided by science, rationality, the scientific method or even just the figure of Galileo, heroic in his opposition to the iniquities of the Inquisition.
But science and religion are not inevitably in conflict.
There are many science-fiction writers who, like Hubbard, invent religions that seek economic gain or political control as the backbone for their narratives. Robert Heinlein, a noted and highly influential author who wrote extensively in his fiction on the social role of religion, explicitly argued in his 1973 novel, “Time Enough for Love,” that “religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help.” His Hugo Award-winning “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961), which was named in 2012 by the Library of Congress as one of the “books that shaped America,” is set in a fictional United States where drinking, gambling and fornication are blessed acts — just so long as the Fosterite Church of the New Revelation, which dominates society, got its cut of the profits.
H.G. Wells had provided an earlier version of this idea in “The Sleeper Wakes” (1899), describing a future London festooned with psychotropic advertisements broadcasting a “deafening scream of mercantile piety”: “Put your money on your maker,” “All the brightest bishops on the bench tonight and prices as usual,” “Brisk blessings for busy businessmen.” “But this is appalling!” says the story’s time-traveling Victorian protagonist. “Surely the essence of religion is reverence.”
The role played by religion in science fiction — and science fiction’s exploration of the relationship between science and theology — is, however, not confined to the desire of prophets to make profits. Science and technology also have an important role as handmaidens of theology, although not always in particularly positive ways.
Encapsulated in the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous three laws (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) is an important corollary: Sufficiently advanced technology will enable its user to play God. In his 1940 novella, “If This Goes On —,” Heinlein describes a future in which technology and knowledge of the natural world are used to create spectacular “miracles,” which convince the American population that their theocratic, corrupt and totalitarian government is divinely inspired.
The other side of that coin — religious belief supporting scientific activity — is also an important theme within the genre. Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series (1942-1950), for example, involves scientists presenting themselves as missionaries for the “Church of Science.” The theology and rituals of this church enable a relatively small and isolated community of researchers to exert control over, and thereby avoid extermination by, their less well-educated neighbors.
Both stories treat religion as a con — but a con worked with scientific connivance, and on which the survival of science can be seen to depend. Other stories, particularly those exploring post-apocalyptic societies, such as Walter Miller’s “Canticle For Leibowitz” (1959) or Pierre Boule’s “Planet of the Apes” (1963), also show religion and religious institutions as key sources for the perpetuation and protection of knowledge in chaotic times.
But science fiction’s entanglement with theology goes far deeper than these somewhat old-fashioned tales. Writers in this genre explore the consequences of technological innovation for human communities and individual human lives, whether those consequences are intentional or accidental, emotional or economic. They consider the impact that scientific theories and concepts have had on our understandings of what it means to be human, and on the limits of individual human identity. They examine how the characteristics that make us human (big brains, tool-making hands) might also lead to the end of humanity, either with a bang (“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”) or a whimper (“Day of the Triffids”) or both (“Threads,” “The Day After”). As such, science fiction asks its audiences not just who they think they are, but who they want to be. It creates visions both of the world as it could be and as it must not be allowed to be, with science and technology together building the future of faith.
Take fictional explorations of artificial intelligence, for example. Stories about AI ask us whether an artificially created intelligence could have (or would want?) a soul, as well as exploring the nature and extent of the responsibilities that humanity bears for its creations. These last questions are made explicit in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818), one of science fiction’s foundational texts.
The epigraph in “Frankenstein” is taken from John Milton’s depiction of Adam’s anguish at his fallen state in “Paradise Lost”: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould Me man?” But while Victor Frankenstein paralleled the achievement of a deity in creating a creature capable of comparing himself to Adam, he failed as a creator in almost every other respect — most poignantly as a father, because he does not name the monster or take responsibility to care for it.
The anthropologist Beth Singler has examined in detail the ways that the language and metaphors used in discussing AI are framed by parent-child narratives, and how that structure can cover some critical creative failures. The “Star Trek” android, Data, for example, was able to both build and care for his daughter Lal (“The Offspring,” 1990), but was unable to sustain her when her positronic brain became unstable. Lacking omniscience (or themselves suffering from immaturity) non-divine creators cannot produce reliably resilient offspring.
In an earlier episode (“Measure of a Man,” 1989), Data’s right to self-determination was challenged in court by Starfleet authorities: The judge’s ruling hinged not on whether Data was a machine (he is), but on whether he has a soul. Notably, the judge would not be drawn on the answer to the latter question: His verdict was that Data, having posed the question, must have the freedom to find his own answer.
A couple years later, Jack McDevitt’s short story “Gus” took that issue a step further. A Catholic seminary acquires an AI simulacrum of St. Augustine of Hippo in order to support their teaching. The AI, Gus, entrances seminary staff with its incisively comprehensive grasp of theology, but still eventually outlives his usefulness for the seminary. Faced with being unplugged, Gus pleads to be allowed to confess and receive absolution before deletion. Would this be an act of grace — or sacrilege?
The critical point here is not whether science fiction narratives can decide whether machines have souls, or whether minds uploaded in pursuit of trans-corporeal immortality retain their soul, or if multiple copies of the same human being share a single soul. The point is that science fiction creates an experimental space in which to explore and test these different possibilities.
By theorizing well in advance of data, science fiction provides a framework for developing and testing ethical standards for the treatment of AI. Authors can enable audiences to experience the lived emotional consequences of particular technological decisions, and to consider their impact on communities and on sentient beings, whether carbon, silicon or positronic in origin.
Other subjects explored by science-fiction writers — such as the historical life of Jesus Christ or the question of who (or what) might constitute a messiah in past, present and future — have enabled authors and audiences to reflect on subjects as wide-ranging as time travel, free will and human uniqueness.
Michael Moorcock’s 1969 novel “Behold the Man,” for example, centers around a 20th-century Londoner who travels back in time in the hope of meeting Jesus, only to find himself gradually forced into fulfilling the role of the messiah. In Garry Kilworth’s “Let’s Go to Golgotha!” (1975), paying customers go on a time-travelling “crucifixion tour,” and they’re warned that when the Roman governor Pontius Pilate asks the assembled citizens whether he should pardon the criminal Barabbas or Jesus, they must shout for Barabbas. Unfortunately, at the crucial moment, the story’s hero realizes that the crowd contains no native inhabitants of Jerusalem, only visiting tourists. Christians had, in fact, created their own future through their condemnation of Christ.
These time-travelling stories demonstrate the fragility of free will: Judgements of morality might be dependent on the alleged freedom to choose, but divine providence (or temporal paradox) seems to determine the results, however distressing. Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow” (1996) explores this in heart-breaking detail: The Jesuit missionary Emilio Sandoz has unquestioning faith in God’s purpose, but when he is enslaved, mutilated and prostituted by an alien race, he begins to fear that God does not just allow, but actively enjoys innocent suffering. “If … I choose to believe that God is vicious,” he reflects in the midst of his agony, “then at least I have the solace of hating God.” Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God” (2001) similarly explores the devastation of divine devotion in a world where angelic visitation and miracles are both commonplace and anything but benevolent.
But what would the existence of alien races tell us about the limitations of a terrestrial messiah? In the 17th and early 18th centuries, for example, many scholars accepted the existence of multiple inhabited worlds beyond the Earth. (See, for example, Bernard De Fontenelle’s “Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds” , Christiaan Huygens’ “The Celestial World Discover’d”  and William Derham’s “Astro-Theology” , all of which became early-modern bestsellers.) The existence of these worlds was gleefully seized upon by philosophers such as Thomas Paine to attack organized religion. Why, Paine asked, should an infinite, universal God only become incarnate on one planet? Or did he have to do the same on all the worlds, traveling through the galaxies in an endless cycle of birth, sacrifice, death and resurrection?
This idea was elegantly and ironically explored by Michael Bishop in the short story “The Gospel According to Gamaliel Crucis” (1983). Explorers land on a planet where the sentient race is insectoid and each individual gestation results in thousands of offspring. God becomes incarnate in the form of hundreds of eggs bringing forth multiple messiahs, one of which returns with the explorers to Earth in order to preach the gospel. Of course, the insect savior includes animals alongside humans in the congregation.
Alternatively, just like the early 19th-century Scottish theologian Thomas Chalmers, you could say that since only Earthly life was beset by original sin, so only on Earth was a savior required to redeem the fallen sapients. But that in turn posed the question of what it would mean for an alien race to enjoy perfect morality, despite no contact with God — as examined by James Blish in “A Case of Conscience” (1958) and Robert Sawyer in “The Neanderthal Parallax” (2002-3).
Anthropologies of species born without sin allow writers to examine the biological foundations of faith. Sawyer’s Neanderthals, for example, have no concept of God and no idea of an afterlife. Nevertheless, they behave in an exemplary manner, with respect and care for individual need and community life, as well as a powerful sense of ecological responsibility. Comparisons between the structure of Neanderthal and human brains reveals that humans possess a “god” organ, enabling them to experience transcendence and to perceive the immanence of God. Neanderthals do not share this structure, and the question that must be faced by the Catholic heroine, planning to make hybrid babies, is whether or not her daughter will lead a more moral life in the absence of God.
From the perspective of Sawyer’s Neanderthals, believing in heaven meant that humans had no incentive to improve life on Earth. Sociologists and theologians might disagree — and many science-fiction writers have invented religions not (as Hubbard did) to make money from their followers, but to show how humanity needs faith and ritual to hold communities together. Russell Hoban (“Riddley Walker,” 1980) and Chris Beckett (“Dark Eden,” 2012) use plays and puppet shows to reenact creation stories in order to convey both the stabilizing social role of religion and the danger of dissent.
Or consider Ursula Le Guin’s “The Telling” (2000), which contrasts the societies of Earth (organized around a fundamentalist religion) and Aka (run by corporate capitalists). When a Terran anthropologist lands on Aka, she discovers an underground religion without gods or services — only stories told by individuals to each other and about their worlds as a means of understanding the world around them through the perceptions of one another.
Octavia Butler, in “Parable of the Sower” (1993), created “Earthseed,” a creed deliberately invented to establish a more ecological and emotionally responsible mindset among believers. The credo “God is Change” calls on followers to recognize that they can and should shape God, that they are active agents in creating better human futures.
But one of the most significant of all fictional religions (that of the Jedi excepted, naturally) is Heinlein’s in “Stranger in a Strange Land.” The novel’s title is taken from the Old Testament (the Book of Exodus 2.22, which describes the birth of Moses’s son) and in turn the novel recounts the life of Valentine Michael Smith, a human born on Mars and raised by Martians.
When he returns to Earth in his mid-20s, it becomes clear that Smith is possessed of superhuman intelligence, supernatural abilities and an abiding love for the life that surrounds him. He founds the Church of All Worlds, which requires its followers to learn the Martian language and expects them to share sex as easily as they share food. But he is accused of blasphemy and eventually stoned to death by a mob — which he gladly embraces, knowing they will kill him. In keeping with Martian custom, followers of his church then share a meal that contains flesh taken from his body, willingly donated prior to his sacrificial execution.
Clearly, Heinlein wrote this novel with the intention of causing controversy, as well as outright offense, by attacking both monotheism and monogamy. (Though he was much more offensive, as well as far more antisemitic, in his 1984 exploration of the book of Job in “Job: A Comedy of Justice.”) He certainly succeeded. The book was banned from school libraries, panned by critics and dismissed as a “hippie bible.”
But what’s most interesting about the novel is that underneath its repeated, explicit and overt attacks on religion and religious institutions lies a very different message about the nature of the relationship between science and religion. Heinlein has Smith expressing his understanding, acceptance and love of the world around him though the Martian verb “grok.” In the book, the literal definition of the word is “drink,” but in real life it quickly became popular in Anglo-American counterculture, as well as the computer industry, as shorthand for comprehension and understanding.
To grok is fundamental to Heinlein’s invented religion — in fact, Smith’s original understanding of God, when he first encountered Earthly religion, was as “One who groks.” Converts to Smith’s church have to learn Martian so that they can fully understand the meaning of grok and be able to completely grok the world around them. Smith’s supernatural powers and intelligence, in fact, arise simply from the fact that he knows how to do this. Once he has fully grokked an object or idea, he is able to manipulate it in a manner that can’t be understood or identified by Terran science or philosophy.
In other words, at the heart of this invented religion is an overriding demand that followers must strive to understand and appreciate the world around them. From the perspective of the history of science, this approach looks very similar to the concept of worshipping God through studying the “book of nature,” an idea that was both fundamental and inspirational for scientists and philosophers of the Scientific Revolution, such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Far from science and religion being in conflict, for both, it was only through studying and understanding the natural world that one could grow closer to God. Heinlein’s Martians would agree: Grokking — knowing — encapsulates both the act of being and the act of worship.
Quite apart from its essential role as a critical source of intellectual critique in a technoscientific society, science fiction thus performs another key role for Western societies. It enables us to think about science and religion in a new way: as mutually supportive, rather than competitive, elements of the human imagination, and of how we imagine humanity.
Rather than treating them as separate and “non-overlapping magisteria,” as the scientist Stephen Jay Gould put it — facts versus values, for example, or ethics versus instrumentality — science-fiction authors provide us with vivid demonstrations that scientific and religious practices are both fundamental, and fundamentally, human activities. They are both critical elements in what defines our understanding of humanity. They show us that belief and trust are at the heart of scientific activities just as much as critical doubt is at the core of theology. After all, the future of humanity depends on having faith that there will be a future, as well as in the tools with which to build it.