The science fiction of no God

“Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in awhile, or the light won’t come in.”
– Alan Alda

We all make them. We all run into them/get run over by them. Common ones I have dealt with:

1. I’m male, an artist, so I must be gay. (my wife is always amused at this one)
2. I’m physically disabled so I must be mentally challenged. (One potential client saw me walking with my cane and asked if I was capable of doing her job. I replied it was fortunate you don’t cut glass with your feet. Fact is, one of the reasons I started using a cane in public was the tediousness of people talking to me like I was a three-year-old about to have a seizure.)
3. I’m a Christian, so I must be willfully uneducated, uncultured and hostile toward science, literature, etc. (After all, only stupid, poor hicks believe in God.)
4. I’m pushing 50, been saved longer than ten years, so I must be like Statler and Waldorf, a religious ‘old wineskin’ hindering ‘real’ revival.
5. Because I have a Pentecostal Christian background, I’m a hop, skip and a jump away from prancing about in my undies like King David waving a prayer banner whilst frothing in tongues. (See #2)


To clarify, it was Iain M. Banks‘ passing and his last novel “The Hydrogen Sonata” that prompted this post. The above have been simmering for a bit – Guess I needed to get them out.

It’s just that the ‘H.S.’ typifies science fiction’s traditional assumptions toward religion, spirituality and faith. And it got me thinking.

Before I go any further, I’m not disparaging Mr. Banks. Far from it. The man was an absurdly brilliant and prolific writer. Would to God I could write half as much half as well. I agree with Neil Gaiman who said ‘his bad books were good while his good ones were astonishing.’ His Culture series novels are sprawling space-operas filled with Red Giant-sized ideas, story-arcs measured in parsecs, tragedy in gigadeaths. If you’re a sci-fi fan, you owe it to yourself to read at least one of his books. “Consider Phlebas”, “The Player of Games”, or “Against a Dark Background” are all good starting points. His work is at once an inspiration, a challenge and a rebuke, all in the best possible way.

Mr. Banks’ assumption was common to the genre: that technology renders religion and faith spurious. That humankind will mature beyond the need for an Imaginary Friend/Sky Bully, and develop the ultimate, prosperous, tolerant, secular-humanist utopia under the new omniscient, omnipotent, and ubiquitous gods of Artificial Intelligence. That thought was the foundation for every novel, a common thread, implicit or expressed.

I couldn’t help but note Mr. Banks didn’t so much discard God as replace him. With all the disdain for religion, future fictional people still require a guiding hand. The A.I.s are as much protagonists as the deities of Greek Mythology. Indeed, they play much the same role in his plots.

I’ve heard it said we’d ‘need to invent God even if there wasn’t one’ for ethical, moral, transcendent philosophical purposes alone. This isn’t so much an essay on apologetics but a question of how realistic is a fictional future without people who believe in God? Odd that as a Christian, I’m accused of wishful thinking and unreasonable fantasy. For the record, nearly half the characters in Shift Tense profess some form of religion, be it genuine, misguided, or manipulative. It’s not simply my preference – it made sense that in depicting the future, people would still be made of the same stuff.

Despite centuries of predictions, the sheer number of religious people is telling. God is far from dead. If a writer’s job is to construct a credible fictional universe, how plausible is it to discard religious faith? In the context of an unknown future/exploring an unimaginably vast universe, is it reasonable to think people will leave God behind?

If anything, I suspect religion will be cherished, will be preserved even more for inspiration, guidance, comfort, certainty, rationalization… Just like today.

9 Replies to “The science fiction of no God”

  1. Are you SURE you’re not “gay”? I was under the impression that was the case with anyone with any artistry about them. And you write pretty well yourself! 😉
    Seriously, I enjoyed this post. Good points, including the venting, with which much sympathy.

  2. Interesting approach, but I get the impression you are missing something. Banks was someone who made the distinction between religion, faith and belief. It’s something of a perspective rarely found in the US, but much more standard outside of it. To a high degree this is a case of language and terminology.

    In his creation of artificial universes Banks never removed people’s ability to have faith, it just never had any religious connotation, neither the word or the concept.

    I have the same fundamental issue when in conversation with people here in Europe, the concept of faith to them is entirely non religious. To an extremely high degree the same goes for belief. The first an expression of conviction, the second one of choice. Only the various language specific words of religious have exactly that connotation.

    When Banks uses such words in scenes, there is more to it that a mere standard of science fiction approach towards religion 🙂

    1. Excellent. I wasn’t aware of the nuances. Thank you very much. There’s always more to Banks than standard sci fi. 🙂

      Without resorting to sophistry or semantics, my main concern stands: namely that sci fi in general and Mr. Banks in particular seems to prefer God non-existent and religious faith a superfluous cultural anachronism or accessory. “The Hydrogen Sonata” illustrates the point: the Gzilt holy book is nothing more than an experiment, a trick played by an advanced race. In fact, all such holy books are deemed equally naive and ultimately false. The novel’s conflict is built on a faction intending to preserve the illusion, the lie, even as the Gzilt prepare to enter the high-tech afterlife, i.e. ‘Sublime.’

      1. Well, something we should keep in mind is that most aspects of religion are accesories and cultural anachronisms. Religion is the cognitive and functional organisation of a system of beliefs. Our beliefs are individual, private, we share them with others – but they are individual in nature. Which is fine, as everyone has such an individual relation with god (or even just to god).

        Consider for example our own Christianity. Most of what we have today is a direct result of the historic equivalent of a convention where an emperor (pretty much) locked up all the authority figures sharing a wide range of variations of individual beliefs, in order to create a belief system and from that to create a centralised organisation of religion – for the purposes (as always) of power.

        That has had its share of consequences. From changing dates of minor and major events, to incorporating non Christian concepts for the purposes of evangelism, but also tossing out entire pieces of scripture and gospels. Same goes for protocols, procedures, hierarchies and rules and regulations.

        Religion is created by man. Not in his image, and more of then than not with the best intentions, but it is as flawed as man itself. It stands seperate from individual belief because it is an organised construct, serving man determined purposes. Hence why it is so easy for any religion to derail itself. Power. Look at the Crusades, or the Inquisition. The Conquista. Only very little of those had much to do with man’s relation with god.

        So personally I dont really raise an eyebrow over science fiction – at times – taking an angle of approach to religion of experimentation. We do that as a species, writing is just another part of it. See, the real problem – especially in our modern times – is that we as societies tend to use religion as part of instrumentation. Or as the Romans would say, religion is coin. Whether it is Christianity or another, doesn’t even matter, the results are visible and count.

        I can’t blame anyone for taking a “what if” approach, because we as a society do not “see” that and how we use religion as part of instrumention. There is a divide there, as someone once said while walking up a hill.

        The funny thing is that Banks was not an atheist. He was not another Laplace either. His writing stood seperate from his person. But what he did do, was effectively travel scenarios that present us with mirrors and microscopes. Look at this discussion here. For that I thank Banks, because he makes us think. Hopefully enough to make us contemplate, and open our eyes a little more.

        Instead of wondering about aliens experimenting with a holy book to make use of a society, perhaps we should look in that mirror and consider that all too often we do the same. Not for the word or any message, but for the sake of individuals and power. See what I mean?

      2. I do see what you mean. I get human meddling, constructs, fictional license, etc.

        I simply took The HS at face value: a dramatized dismissal of religious books, beliefs, Deity, the spiritual/supernatural. Like the elevenstring instrument: religion only makes music when inhabited/played by a person. It’s otherwise empty and silent, meaningless and without harmony.

        The essence of Christianity – as I understand it – is that God is neither silent not static, but present and active, intervening in the affairs of men. And he offers a covenant relationship established on truth and grace.

  3. Hehe, yeah, I understand. It is a human thing, taking matters at face value.

    But, this is science fiction. It takes us at face value, and then explores the possible scenarios of our actions and inactions. What we do with choices, and with consequences.

    That is where great science fiction stands on the table. It’s where we can’t take it at face value, but where – in reading – have to take ourselves at face value, and then think about.

    Preferably together. That’s where the mirror can be put in perspective, and where people can share.

    god is indeed neither silent nor static, but every intervention is only ever that of reminding us of our means to make choices. It’s’what we do with our choices. If there is a plan, that’s how i works. And that makes it a long road of repeating mistakes and learning lessons. Until we stop making the wrong choices. On two levels, the individual and the group, adding to the complexity.

  4. Great, well written and fun. Great topic and lead in- and from poor old alan alda! I used to love him in Mash but then he got so apologetic it was too much.
    I recently had my eyes closed in a prayer meeting and I was watching the biology in my eyelids as I looked at the light and thought how odd it is that we separate all kinds of stuff- like school, church, work, home- and all these things have different parameters to them, different ‘rules’, but why are we ‘more spiritual’ at church? More in-tune and sensitive- (I understand: ‘where 2 or 3 are gathered..) but- how funny we are at putting up boxes around stuff- assumptions. We need much more bleed over- so we can have Science and Astronomy and Biology etc AND the Holy Spirit pouring through and saturating- instead of waiting back at the church till next Sunday.

    1. Amen. Thanks for commenting.

      Seems to me all truth is Gods. Natural theology (God revealed in/through creation) isn’t antithetical to Specific/Scriptural revelation. They compliment one another and the latter focuses the former. The root concept is ‘integrity’, on all levels. I think the modern 50-cent word is: holistic.

      It seems to me compartmentalization on any scale, personal or in the larger fields of knowledge or conduct, fosters ignorance and impotence.

      Two things Christians have historically wrestled with and that they absolutely can’t afford.

      Take a look at Os Guinness’ new book: “A Free People’s Suicide.” “Time for Truth” is also great.

      Have a great day.

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