Why religion belongs in science fiction (even if you're an atheist)

Atheism has a place in speculative fiction but it shouldn't be the default assumption

Why religion belongs in science fiction (even if you're an atheist)

Writer of horror Laird Barron once wrote in an interview:

Nyarlathotep and Jesus. Cthulhu and God. The Bible and the Necronomicon were the greatest horror stories ever told. Against the illimitable blackness of the cosmic ocean, my puny hardships were as the travails of a flea. We all have our bad patches, even the supreme and inscrutable overlords who exist beyond known reality.
- Laird Barron

Mr. Barron raises a heckuva point that strikes right at the core of speculative fiction.

What is religion? What does it tell us about ourselves and the world?

Amongst the writers and fans of "hard" science fiction you're more likely to find an attitude of atheism. These hard-nosed minds fancy themselves as disciples of logic and observation, with no time for any silliness about the supernatural.

Religion is a just an old myth, using that word in its most un-kind meaning. The more science progresses, the more we learn that the universe isn't designed for us and we aren't exceptional in the greater scheme of things.

Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, and Freud put an end to any serious possibility for believing in God or gods.

Your Host used to subscribe to that view. Then things got complicated.

The story of modern progress is a story of gradually replacing old-timey superstitions with the crystal-clear explanations offered up by science. The more we uncovered the hidden causes of events around us, the less we had to tell stories about gods and demons and faerie-folk and all that. The modern world is an exercise in understanding how things work by explaining what they do.

Here's the interesting thing about this tale of modern progress.

It's a story.

You could say it's our story. Certainly one of the most important stories we tell ourselves.

You could say it's part of our own cultural mythology.

I don't mean to imply that facts aren't facts. When Newton wrote down the laws of motion he didn't just cook up another fairy tale. He'd found out an interesting set of facts about the material universe.

Around here we're firmly in the camp that believes that science in general discovers real facts about the real physical world. The facts are not all relative to our choices, our culture, our language, whatever.

(It's also an unfortunate fact that a lot of what goes on in today's academic-industrial complex is flat-out wrong, unreliable, unable to replicate, and motivated by shady interests.)

But I also don't buy the arguments that science hands us a neat package of facts that show us the complete truth about the world and our place in it. The truth science shows us is much weirder than that.

We're all participants in reality, and nobody, not even the scientist, can claim a fully neutral viewpoint.

There are no spectators in this game. We're all out on the court, playing ball.

If you're wondering what's all this got to do with religion and the Necronomicon, here's the point.

Religious belief is one way that we make sense of ourselves in the world.

Rocks, toasters, and clouds don't ask themselves "why?" Those things all behave according to the laws of physics and chemistry.

Why are we here, what are we doing, what's it all for? Toasters don't care. But not humans. We do ask those questions. The answers matter to us. We're the only things that want to know why (so far as we know).

Materialists want to say that the difference between making sense and explaining causes isn't real.

When we ask these "why?" questions, we're just making noises. You can find the causes of those noises in the brain, if you look hard enough.

That sounds air-tight to a whole lot of people.

But there's a catch. Several catches.

Here's one of them. Materialists say that you're fooled by an illusion of meaning. But if there's an illusion, there's a true reality behind it. Who, or what, is being fooled if there's only illusions?

And what makes the materialist so sure that he's seeing the real reality instead of his own illusion?

Here's another catch. If you want to argue for materialism, you have to argue for it.

But there's no such thing called an "argument" in physics, chemistry, biology, or any natural science. Arguing, which is at heart asking for reasons and giving them, is a thing that humans do with other humans.

None of this is iron-clad proof that religion is true.

Which is the whole point.

Reality has mystery baked into the recipe.

It's way more interesting, fun, and exciting when there are no hard answers, when there's ambiguity and uncertainty.

Is there a God, or is it all electrical storm in your brain? Is the Bible a horror story, or is there really a divine principle looking out for us humans? Are we saved, or are we simply the playthings of a higher, malevolent form of intelligence?

Whatever your personal convictions, if you're writing in the speculative genres...

No definite answer will be as compelling as the uncertainty of the question.

Existential terror is fine and dandy, and I like few things more than a quality hit of Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith at their finest.

But the existential terror has to be tempered with a seed of humanity. Even if it's just a seed.

Nobody likes bleak for bleak's sake.


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