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)

*Ahem*

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.