Religion Fiction Inspires Real Religion

Science fiction and real science are in a symbiotic relation with powerful feedback loops: science fiction is inspired by science, and in turn it inspires new scientific and technical developments. At times, new developments are directly inspired by the imagination of science fiction writers - for example the fictional technologies described by William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and more recently Ernest Cline, shaped and continue to drive real developments in consumer electronics and virtual reality, a recent example being the Oculus Rift. More often, science fiction ignites with overpowering interest in science and technology the flexible and imaginative minds of the young, who then become the next generation of scientists and engineers. This has a huge social impact: as Golden Age "pulp" science fiction inspired those who developed the space program and the Internet, the best of today's science fiction will inspire the creators of tomorrow's world.

Why do we need science fiction to motivate scientists? Isn't science alone enough? No, because we are born story-tellers, and we need powerful narratives to create a motivating sense of meaning.

I am a scientist by training, and I worked as a scientist for many years. I am also one of those people who find details and routine boring and too "low-level" to provoke and maintain enthusiasm. However, despite my low boredom threshold I have always been able to perform routine scientific tasks well and focus on details for as long as it takes to achieve a goal - but I always needed extra motivation from the grand, epic cosmic visions of science fiction. I used to spend whole night shifts fixing electronics and realtime software in the lab, several nights a week, for years, and I kept myself awake and interested by seeing myself as a small part of a big cosmic adventure. This is not a universal attitude, but I am hardly the only scientist to need extra motivation to focus on routine work. How do we endure the boring wait for the next meaningful moment that may never come? We make up stories to tell each other, and to ourselves. Then the long calculations that lead nowhere, the bugs in the software that don't go away, the failing devices, even the paperwork, acquire meaning as part of the background narrative and esthetics of science as a whole.

The best stories are not about impersonal science, but stories of people that we can empathize and identify with. That's why good science fiction is so effective in creating a burning, overwhelming enthusiasm for science.

"[H]uman beings interpret the world by constructing narratives to explain it," explains a character in Robert Charles Wilson's science fiction masterpiece Blind Lake. "The fact that some of our narratives are naive, or wishful, or simply wrong, hardly invalidates the process. Science, after all, is at heart a narrative."

"Most fundamentally, narrative is how we understand. Narrative is how we understand the universe and it is most obviously how we understand ourselves. A stranger may seem inscrutable or even frightening until he offers us his story; until he tells us his name, tells us where he comes from and where he's going."

In some sense, science fiction is religion. In his opening presentation at the 2013 Conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, Lincoln Cannon noted that "Esthetics shape and move us, and at their strongest, they provoke us as a community to a strenuous mood. When they do that, they function as religion, not necessarily in any narrow sense, but esthetics that provoke a communal strenuous mood are always religion from a post-secular vantage point." Writing on io9, Charlie Jane Anders suggested that "smug atheists" should read more science fiction. "A lot of the best science fiction includes a sense of wonder at the hugeness of the cosmos," she says. "A lot of the best science fiction is intensely 'cosmic,' conveying just how huge and unknowable the universe is, and how little we still understand it. In a sense, the huge cosmic imagery of science fiction resembles some of the best religious paintings."

"Contemplating space and time in all of their massive strangeness is much like gazing into the naked face of God... [I]n Olaf Stapledon's First and Last Men, this sort of cosmic vision eventually leads to humanity awakening into a kind of 'cosmic spirit' which encompasses all living things. There's also tons of science fiction which deals with humanity reaching the next stage of evolution - which frequently has some quasi-religious overtones, as in some of Arthur C. Clarke's work."

It's interesting to note that Anders was strongly criticized by many smug atheists for calling them smug, which shows how smug many atheists are and how right Anders is in calling them smug. They should, as Anders suggests, try to open their minds with the cosmic visions of the best science fiction.

Fiction literature plays a similar role for religion as science fiction for science. Theology and philosophy alone wouldn't command strong emotional reactions, at least not for most people, without the human stories and science-fiction-like mythologies that form the narrative scaffolding of most religions.

Early works of "religion fiction" (I am using this term for its similarity with "science fiction") may be integral parts of some of today's mainstream religions. I hope this will not offend anyone, but I tend to read religious mythology as fiction literature. I don't believe in the literal, historic reality of all the traditional tales of Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad, but I consider their stories as true in an equally important sense, as part of our shared narratives to understand the universe, and ourselves. However, while suspending disbelief in religious mythologies, it's important to bear in mind that parts of them may have been originally conceived as works of fiction.

However, the difference between "real" and "fictional" is often fuzzy, and "reality" is often a construct. I don't happen to believe in the factual truth of the virgin birth, but I don't disbelieve either - I guess God can do that if He really wants. I can believe in the teachings of a religion even without believing in the literal, historical truth of the writings. To me the question is not "Is it (factually, historically) True?" but "Is it Good? Does it inspire believers to do good things, like going to the stars or building a more compassionate world?" Therefore, I am intentionally grouping traditional religious mythologies, fiction inspired by traditional religions, and fiction about new religions (fictitious religions invented by science fiction writers, as in the examples below), into one category.

More recently in the 19th century, Joseph Smith gave us the Book of Mormon and created a new, uniquely American religion. I find Mormon mythology very inspiring, but my admiration for Joseph Smith is exactly the same if I think that he made everything up. Perhaps there is not even an important difference between imagination and revelation. Perhaps, when we contemplate the numinous, we are more in tune with the universe, and we are allowed to take something back. Perhaps Joseph was just more in tune with the universe than the rest of us. Most certainly, he was a genius able to do radical theological innovation in response to deep psychological needs not addressed by previous theologies - for example pre-mortal existence, proxy ordinances for the dead, and a post mortal existence that continued family relationships including the opportunity to raise children who died.

I am sure that most of the mystics who claimed to have received revelations were sincerely persuaded of the reality of their experiences, but a revelation may be subjectively indistinguishable from your own inner voice, and perhaps also ontologically - God may choose to use your own inner voice to give you a revelation. Does it really make a difference whether Joseph was influenced by God's voice directly, or indirectly via his own imagination and intelligence? Aren't imagination and intelligence gifts of God, and isn't it plausible that God prefers to work through them?

A friend very familiar with The Urantia Book, a religious mythology developed in the 20th century, advised me to "read it as science fiction." That's exactly how I read all religious mythologies - inspiring fiction literature to give human colors to theology and metaphysics, which on their own would be too abstract to be emotionally appealing. Since religion deals with otherworldly matters and cosmic visions, science fiction is the literary genre where religious narratives belong (it always was, only we didn't call it science fiction until recently).

"It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God, but to create him." [Arthur C. Clarke]

These words of one of our greatest science fiction writers are beginning to inspire contemporary theology, and they summarize my own religion. I am persuaded that we will go to the stars and find Gods, build Gods, become Gods, and resurrect the dead from the past with advanced science, space-time engineering and "time magic." I see God emerging from the community of advanced forms of life and civilizations in the universe, and able to influence space-time events anywhere, anytime, perhaps even here and now. I also expect God to elevate love and compassion to the status of fundamental forces, key drivers for the evolution of the universe.

These ideas are not new: bits and pieces can be found in the works of many scientists, philosophers and mystics. They are basically compatible with the works of Nikolai Fedorov and other Russian Cosmists, Teilhard, Tipler, visionary "spiritual" transhumanism, and Mormon cosmology (at least in the interpretation of Lincoln Cannon and our friends in the Mormon Transhumanist Association). However, I think our beliefs should be considered as a new religion. This religion doesn't have a name - I think "Cosmism" is still the best label, and I have used "Cosmic Engineering" to emphasize the central role of technology - but it has a growing body of human-colored narrative, in the religion fiction works of science fiction writers.

Contemporary Religion Fiction Continues To Inspire Real Religion

There are too many relevant works of contemporary religion fiction to list, and I am sure I am not aware of them all. However, I wish to briefly mention some works of religion fiction that can, and do, inspire real religious movements.

"Earthseed" is a fictional religion developed in Octavia E. Butler's novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. Butler's heroine, Lauren Olamina, is a strong-willed, larger-than-life woman, the kind of person who builds cities and founds religions. Lauren rejects the personal God of her father, a Baptist minister, and looks for ultimate meaning in the impersonal works of natural laws. The only permanent feature of the universe is change, and therefore change, permanent and unstoppable change, is the one God-like driving force of nature. We can't stop change, but we can try to steer and "shape" inevitable change toward desired ends, such as building a strong community of people who care for one another, and spreading humanity among the stars.

"The destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars."

"Sort of like saying God is the second law of thermodynamics," is a common reaction to Lauren's first explanation of Earthseed. Others ask "If God is Change, then... then who loves us? Who cares about us? Who cares for us?" Lauren's answer, "We care for one another. We care for ourselves and one another" makes perfect sense, but Earthseed seems too intellectual and impersonal, hardly able to offer the strong, immediate emotional appeal of a religion. I guess Lauren Olamina - and Octavia Butler - were interrupted by Butler’s untimely death.

A religion similar to Earthseed has been proposed by Ted Chu. In Human Purpose and Transhuman Potential: A Cosmic Vision for Our Future Evolution, Chu proposes a "Cosmic View" based on active contemplation of our transcendent destiny and cosmic duty to create our successors, the "Cosmic Beings" who will move to the stars and ignite the universe with hyper-intelligent life. I am afraid that the impersonal, essentially Deist approach of Earthseed and the Cosmic View, may not be emotionally satisfying enough for most people, especially for Westerners with a worldview strongly centered on self, but I am hopeful that future refinements of Butler's and Chu's ideas will permit the emergence of "Religion 2.0," a synthesis of "cold," scientific, impersonal Deism, and the warm sense of personal hope offered by traditional religions. Terasem, a religion directly inspired by Butler's Earthseed, with a cuddly new-age look and feel and open to wildly speculative ideas of technological resurrection and afterlife, seems a good first step.

The scientific thriller Blasphemy, by Douglas Preston, a real page turner, tells the biggest story: the birth and unstoppable growth of a new scientific religion, perhaps revealed by God himself. In Red Mesa, Arizona, scientists have built the most powerful particle accelerator on Earth, Isabella, a fictional higher-energy version of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Isabella is so powerful that it can create Big Bang -like energies and rip holes in the fabric of space-time itself. The scientists receive a message that seems to come directly from the zone of extreme space-time curvature that forms where particles and anti-particles collide. "For lack of a better word, I am God," says the mysterious entity. The scientists, led by charismatic genius Gregory Hazelius, are initially skeptical and suspect a hoax, but the beauty and consistency of the words of God persuade them. Now they have the mission to reveal a new formulation of religion, based on science.

"You will expand into the universe, literally and figuratively, as other intelligent entities have expanded before you. You will escape the prison of biological intelligence. Over time, you will link up with other expanded intelligences."

Regardless of its origins - God's revelation, an AI program inspired by God, or a brilliant memetic engineering hoax perpetrated by Hazelius - the new religion, "the Search," is beautiful. It is awesome, full of sense of wonder, compatible with science, and useful in the sense that it can take us beyond current humanity 1.0, and then to the stars where we will eventually meet God. In this sense, the Search is true religion.

In the magnificent Hyperion saga by Dan Simmons, Jesuit scientist Paul Dure', a future Teilhard, waits for the largest machine of all to produce its deus - the universe. "How much of my elevation of St. Teilhard stemmed from the simple fact that I found no sign of a living Creator in the world today?" he wonders.

"I seek to build what I cannot find elsewhere."

Dure's God is a Socinian God - "a limited being, able to learn and to grow as the world... the universe... becomes more complex." In the Hyperion universe, "our" God emerges from human civilization, and other Gods are born to alien and machine civilizations. There are hints at a hierarchy of Gods, striving without end towards more and more exalted status.

Paul Dure', Gregory Hazelius, and Lauren Olamina, are strong, vivid fictional characters who, in Wilson's words, "tell us their name, tell us where they come from and where they are going," and offer compelling narratives to color Religion 2.0 with human emotions. Their teachings deserve to "become real" and inspire real religious movements in the real world.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons