At Bristolcon 2018, we—Farah Mendlesohn and Ben Jeapes—two people of completely different faith positions, discovered that we shared a dislike of the way religion is depicted in much of the genre: stereotyped, unrealistic, implausible, or just plain wrong. We convened a panel of people from even more faith positions to discuss this:
Zen Cho, author of Spirits Abroad, Sorcerer to the Crown, and The True Queen
Aliette de Bodard, author of the Obsidian and Blood series, Dominion of the Fallen series, and Xuya series
Ben Jeapes, author of His Majesty’s Starship, The New World Order, and Phoenicia’s Worlds
Daniel Heath Justice, author of The Way of Thorn and Thunder: The Kynship Chronicles series and The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature
Liz Williams, author of Banner of Souls, the Detective Inspector Chen series, Darkland series, and Winterstrike series
Tajinder Hayer, playwright and author of North Country, Mela, and Islands
Mimi Mondal, author of the Other People series of short stories
Michael A. Burstein, author of I Remember the Future
Ken MacLeod, author of The Fall Revolution series, The Engines of Light trilogy and The Corporation Wars trilogy
Farah Mendlesohn, author of Rhetorics of Fantasy and The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein
One faith position sadly missing from our line-up is Muslim: we are aware of the gaping loss in the range of views and experiences. Sadly we were unable to find an author from that position able to join in on this occasion.
We asked our panelists to begin with an introduction of their faith position, what is done badly in SFF, what is missing/would they like to see done better, and any further discussion issues they'd like to raise.
Zen Cho: Growing up, I always put Buddhist down on official forms demanding to know my religion—but this was really a shorthand for the syncretic faith tradition in which I was brought up, combining elements of Taoism, Buddhism, and Chinese folk religion. My family were the “visit the temple once a year on Wesak Day” kind of irreligious and I personally am what we’d call a “freethinker” back home, a pleasantly vague term that is roughly equivalent to “agnostic.”
My religious background is not one I often see portrayed in Anglophone SFF. Star Wars does a mangled and inconsistent take: the Force is qi, obviously, and the Jedi are sort of Shaolin monks with laser swords. But the story can’t bring itself to commit to non-attachment—Luke only wins fights when he draws strength from his attachments to others.
Gene Luen Yang’s companion graphic novels Boxers and Saints, set during the Boxer Rebellion, come much closer in their depiction of the Boxers’ belief in spiritual possession by the gods. But Yang’s Boxers are arguably terrorists, persecuting Chinese Christians in their zeal to cleanse the country of foreign imperialist elements. It all still seems quite far from Chinese folk religion as it’s practiced in Southeast Asia today—the visits to temples and fortune tellers, the joss-sticks burnt for one’s ancestors, the applications to spirit mediums possessed by gods.
I thought R. F. Kuang’s Chinese history-inspired The Poppy War might deal with the last when I heard it featured shamans. But enjoyable as the book is, its shamanism is a sort of cartoon version, as imagined by a rationalist. It might be inspired by real life religious practices, but it’s not a depiction of these.
It’s easier to think of examples of stories featuring the gods and demons of the Chinese pantheon than of SFF featuring those who believe in them. It’s like if there were way more novels featuring Jesus as a character than there were about Christians. I’d like to see more explorations of the real life religious practices and beliefs of my community in Anglophone science fiction and fantasy, but they’d need to be either accurate or respectful. I wouldn’t demand both.
Aliette de Bodard: I was raised Catholic and Tam Giao (the Three Teachings: Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism), and still practise both.
What is done badly: it’s a long list! With certain exceptions, I think that one of my main issues with the depiction of religion is that SFF tends to depict sincere religious belief as misguided naivety or fanaticism: both do exist, of course, but that is rather reductive. (And it’s also rather overused, not only on Christianity, but on a particular brand of Christianity—it’s rare for me to recognise even a distorted version of Catholicism, and non-western religions fare even worse.)
I would like to see complex discussions of religions as essential elements of the social fabric: not only in the past (I feel that not many fantasy settings get the way in which religion was intimately woven into everyday life in, say, the Middle Ages in France), but also in the future (where far too often religion is a quaint outdated practise that will naturally get extinguished when people know better).
One of the things which I don’t see discussed a lot is that the definition of religion itself tends to be quite reductive: a lot of my relatives practise teachings from Confucianism (including ancestor worship) but don’t consider themselves religious, because Confucianism is such a ubiquitous, bedrock practise in Vietnam. Similarly, there’s no clearly defined boundary between the three contributors of Tam Giao: there are things which are clearly Confucian, things that are clearly Buddhist, and then there’s a whole lot of blurred ground in between. And this comes back to an idea that the boundary between religious and not religious activities can clearly be defined, whereas I think a lot of it can be murkier? (And religion itself leads to cultural practises, which often gets ignored as well.) I wonder if anyone else on the panel has thoughts?
Michael A. Burstein: I grew up in a typical non-observant American Conservative Jewish household. I knew about the laws of Judaism growing up and we observed some version of them, but not very intently. As an adult, I moved into the Modern Orthodox movement. From the outside, the primary things a person would notice is that I keep kosher and observe the Sabbath to the point of not using electricity during the period from Friday night to Saturday night. That includes not using the phone or going on the Internet during that time.
Although Jewish cultural touchstones are sometimes seen in science fiction or fantasy, Jewish observance is rarely treated. It’s somewhat annoying, really. I remember one scene where a rabbi shrugs off eating a piece of alien fish assuming it would be kosher, and it would have been very easy to instead show him not eating at all or having a plate of fruit instead. We sometimes are introduced to Jewish characters but more often than not they are non-observant and their Jewishness is defined in other ways. Furthermore, a lot of this Jewishness seems to be based in American Ashkenazi culture when in truth there are many different cultures that are a part of the Jewish people.
What I’d really like to see is more simple representation. For example, have a team that includes an observant Jewish character who doesn’t participate in activities on the Jewish Sabbath. Or have a character visibly keeping kosher. And have this not be what the story is about, but simply aspects of the character who is part of the story. Stories with Jewish characters in them do not have to be specifically Jewish stories. If you take my meaning.
A question to discuss is, how can we have better representation across many religions, especially in a field that had atheistic tendencies from early on?
Ben Jeapes: I am a trinitarian Anglican Christian. Trinitarian because to me, Christianity is about being in community and a relationship with a God whose very being and nature is communal and relational. Like any successful relationship, it’s dynamic, in a state of constant give and take. Anglican, because the Anglican church groks this well and allows a lot of wiggle room. You can swing back and forth in how strongly you do or don’t hold to certain issues; you can even hold seemingly contradictory views from different ends of the progressiveness spectrum; and you’re still an equally valid Anglican.
Don’t get me started on the displays of sheer ignorance about custom or culture that could be resolved with a little research. Let’s concentrate on a failure to grasp the basic concept that humans are messy. We can hold contradictory beliefs in our heads, consciously or unconsciously, in dynamic tension. In too much fiction, religion is purely rules- and dogma-based. The only choices are to fall obediently into line, or gladly abandon it and emerge unscathed. You certainly don’t quietly apply your own experience-based analytical thought processes as you go along. You are stamped with your religion at birth, and that is your lot. Whereas, in real life (for example), slave trader John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” as he became aware of how vile a human being he was, yet stayed involved in the slave trade for several more years before the penny finally dropped. Hypocrite, or work in progress?
What I would like to see done better is a recognition of said messiness.
I wonder if part of the problem is the human tendency towards binary, either/or thinking? And does SFF have this especially bad due to the scientific predilections of its readers? If you have a binary mind then you just don’t get syncretism.
I was mightily impressed with Michael Burstein’s descriptions of how he observes the Sabbath, and it immediately got me thinking of ways religion could be presented: a Jewish astronaut faced with powering down the capsule for 24 hours? A traveler dodging the Sabbath by dodging through time? Other religions can also apply.
Daniel Heath Justice: I was raised as a Unitarian Universalist in all but name by a lapsed Catholic mother who dabbled with Mormonism and New Age spirituality for a time before returning to her Catholic roots, and a loosely Christian Cherokee father who proudly proclaimed the Colorado mountains of my upbringing as being closer to God than most people would ever get. My immediate and extended Cherokee and non-Indian kin include Catholics, evangelical Christians, devout Baptists, agnostics, ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a few atheists, along with others who don’t seem concerned with labels. And then there’s me, the weird queer pagan of the family.
Spirituality has thus always been messy, conflicted, and fascinating to me, inherently embedded in complex social relations, politics, and understandings of power. As a reader and writer of fantasy, it’s also informed much of my experience of the genre, too, and the imaginative scope for different ways of being in relation with the world. But so often the cosmologies I see in mainstream fantasy are evacuated of these messy politics, or presume a baseline monotheism, even if the external trappings seem more expansive. It’s no surprise to me that writers of colour and diverse genders and sexualities are the ones offering the most nuanced alternatives to this narrow vision, yet these works are still marginal in the industry.
Celestial autocracy and its associated social hierarchies still serve as fantasy’s cosmological template. We simply don’t need more stale, pale, and male fantasies of kingly overgods, no matter how seemingly benevolent, as we know too well the carnage unleashed by these patriarchies and their singular worldviews. It’s the story of our political moment. Instead, what we need are richly imagined fantasies from a wider range of understandings that are rooted in the communities and the continuity of our living world.
Tajinder Hayer: As a Sikh, I’m a member of a religion that has about 30 million followers around the globe (a population concentrated in the faith’s birthplace—the Indian sub-continent—and with a diaspora settled mainly in Anglophone and Commonwealth nations). There are visible markers of Sikh identity (such as the turban); there is also a spectrum of adherence taking in Sikhs who are fully baptised (amritdhari) to those who may identify as Sikh in a more loosely cultural manner. While anyone can become a Sikh, there is a strong component of Punjabi ethnic identity woven into the religion.
As a member of a "minority" religion, I am used to having to explain Sikhism in my everyday life (see the incredibly condensed summary above). In my own writing, I take a little holiday from this; I recognise that audiences have their own levels of knowledge, and (barring religious information significant to understanding the plot), I avoid too much exposition. I want to write characters that suggest their ethno-religious hinterland naturally rather than act as mouthpieces (I always frown when a narrative stops so that a character can explain their difference). This is a challenge given that many minority religions (and I recognise the term is dependent on specific cultural contexts) are nearly invisible within SFF and there is an understandable temptation to introduce them through pioneering infodumps (see the incredibly condensed summary above). I want to see SFF’s best, most nimble world-building/world-explication also applied to its approaches to religious identity.
In my own work, I’m interested in religious communities (particularly how they have and could change) and the challenges/consolations of personal faith.
Liz Williams: I describe myself as a practising British occultist. I was not brought up as a Christian, but have had an interest in pagan and esoteric ideas since my teens. I have been a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids for nearly 20 years and currently am mainly working with the Kabbalah.
Magic generally is presented with a surprising lack of imagination, mainly in urban fantasy and YA. Rowling’s work, for instance, has a basis in practice but I get frustrated at the gulf between the substantial diversity of historical magical practice—cunning craft, ceremonial magic, cursing/hexing—and ancient practices such as those in the Greek Magical Papyri and grimoire-based magic. Writers who aren’t practitioners tend to take the tip of the iceberg: fairies, vampires, elves etc. done to death.
Writers who do magic well: Terry Pratchett, Katherine Kurtz, Patricia Kennealy Morrison, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin, R A MacAvoy, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner. Some of these people, but not all, have a background in practice.
Ken MacLeod: Like many atheists I was raised fundamentalist, in my case in a denomination of Scottish Presbyterianism that defined itself against the growing acceptance of biblical criticism (and evolution and the age of the Earth) within its parent denomination. I have no personal experience of faith. In my childhood and adolescence I believed the theology but I didn’t have what its adherents would call "a saving knowledge." Reading science fiction and other literature undermined my belief, and when I learned that I had been lied to about biology, it was all over.
Despite this, and because while I was reading Darwin I was also reading Marx and Engels, I never thought that religion was simply a set of mistaken beliefs. A number of atheists with a scientific background think that is all there is to it, and that it can be dispelled by refuting the hypothesis. And if not, this can only be put down to ignorance or stupidity. This attitude is the default in some science fiction. I’m also annoyed by sheer ignorance of the Scottish church and how it differs from Anglicanism and American fundamentalism, and by the absence in fiction of believers who are not ignorant and not bigots. This is despite such people being prominent in the field.
In my own SF I’ve tried to have characters that are not caricatures, such as Ryan’s mother in Descent, and Grace Mazvabo in The Night Sessions. I’ve also tried for a kind of ironic appreciation of possible truths, as in my short stories "A Case of Consilience" and "Jesus Christ, Reanimator." When I’ve written about Catholic doctrine and practice, I’ve checked the details with people who know about it.
It would be interesting to discuss how SF’s ineptitude on religion has come about?
Farah Mendlesohn: I identify as Jewish, both ethnically and religiously, but would be considered by most other Jews as non-practicing. My father is non-practicing and I suspect indifferent other than in terms of ethnic identification, and my mother is an avowed atheist. I am also a Quaker. I’ve said most other Jews because I’ve actually found over the years that the more pious/frum a Jewish person is, the more likely they are to understand me as Jewish. It tends to be more (what we often call) lip service Jews who need to draw a tight boundary. My grandparents were all practicing Orthodox Jews, and one of the commonest things I experience is that people don’t understand that this is a denomination—think of it like Catholicism, with Liberal/Progressive Jews as German style Protestants and Chassids as Russian Orthodox, and you have a decent parallel.
When I see religion in SF (and fantasy) what I mostly see is Orthodoxy, a right way of practice: rituals get a lot of attention, particularly if they are seen as different from the mainstream. Here I disagree a bit with Michael Burstein, as I think a lot of Protestant Christians, because Protestantism is positioned as anti-ritualistic (High Anglicanism/Episcopalian is only barely Protestant; and Quakers have a lot of ritual that is about not having ritual, see Ben Pink Dandelion’s book The Liturgies of Quakerism, 2005) tend to fixate on ritual as precisely the indication of Other or Dissonant; and Christian writers, when they go looking for ways to distinguish a society, tend to look for rituals as their markers.
What I see far less of is the ways in which religion is culture that shapes ways of meanings. Here my own life experience chips in: in the UK there are Jewish primary and secondary schools, but in the city I grew up in there wasn’t a secondary school, so after five years in an environment determined by Jewish values, off I skipped to a supposedly secular state school. I lasted four months in the first one and it drew my attention to the issue that an awful lot of “secular” attitudes are essentially Christian. I rail about this a lot: whenever the issue of religious clothing, food preferences, etc. come up I am the one to point out that these things people are calling secular standards are Christian standards. For example, it’s St. Peter who told Christians they could eat anything; it’s not secular.
Related to this, if you are going to portray atheists, remember that unless your culture was always atheist, your atheists are still imbued with their origin culture. There is a world of attitudinal difference between my Uncle Phil’s Jewish Communist atheism compared to my partner’s Anglican atheism.
So what I don’t see in most SF is that sense of basic attitudes, expectations, and behaviours interrogated for where it might have come from, and how the attitudes of that society connect to the things people in it believe, and preferably lots of different belief systems as well, because very few societies are monolithic: even if to outsiders it’s all one system, you can be sure that inside it there are different denominations and practices sometimes linked to ethnicity, sometimes to politics, sometimes to long dead politics (see the Quakers, last survival of seventeenth century English radicalism). Off hand the only book I can think of that gets it is Frances Hardinge’s Fly By Night, which is precisely about politics and religion and culture getting all messy.
Mimi Mondal: I was raised a Hindu in Calcutta in a fairly religious family, so I was raised Bengali Hindu, with beliefs, customs and even festivals that are quite different from mainstream North Indian Hinduism. This is the main thing about Hinduism—it’s not a religion that rises from one scripture or even group of people. Hinduism was originally an Otherization term used by invaders from beyond South Asia (Greeks, Muslims, eventually Europeans) for a number of disparate but somewhat similar faith practices that existed in this region. It was eventually adopted by the invaded population to describe itself, but no actual unifying scripture was drawn at any point, and it no longer can be, without erasing the histories and faiths of some group of people or the other. There have always been attempts, like right now there’s a right-wing cultural attempt to turn North Indian Hinduism into the “main” form of Hinduism, but there are always cultures that are quietly or vocally resistant to it.
Hinduism as it’s understood as a religion/culture right now is internally syncretic. It’s possibly the only religion where the good guys are good Hindus, but the bad guys are also good Hindus. In Ramayana, the protagonist Rama is an incarnation of Vishnu, but the antagonist Ravana is the greatest devotee of Shiva alive. How does that work in the good-vs-bad imposition of the religion? It doesn’t. Rama’s people are humans, and they’re the representation of light-skinned North Indians. (Ayodhya, the capital of Rama, still exists as a city in Uttar Pradesh.) Hanuman and his people are a kind of sentient apes, not very bright, and they’re the representation of darker-skinned South Indians. (Kishkindha, the kingdom of the apes, does not exist today but is identified to have been somewhere in Karnataka.) And then Ravana and his people are rakshasas, absolute monsters, and they’re the representation of the people of Lanka, which is obviously current Sri Lanka.
This is the problem with using all Hindu myths in fantasy. All the villains and monsters of Hinduism are inside its system. Every monster is actually a group of people that still exists and identifies as Hindu, so the narrative becomes actively discriminatory. There’s also the matter of caste: Hinduism is not a religion where all believers are held equal, irrespective of their devotedness. Even if I was a complete believer, as a Dalit (originally known as untouchable), I would be a marginalized Hindu despite being completely Hindu. In case of the Ramayana, weirdly enough, Ravana is both a Brahmin—which is a Hindu caste identity—and not even human, since he’s a rakshasa. But many other mythical monsters of Hinduism are also representations of Dalit people from different regions.
So the thing I find most problematic: usually people writing Hinduism-based fantasy tend to draw from the North Indian version of Hinduism, which is also most popular in the diaspora. It’s not cool to use rakshasas as the representation of evil in your fantasy when they were originally Sri Lankan people with horns, less so when they’re slaughtered by the droves or utterly vanquished. This stings harder especially because Hinduism is still the practised faith of millions of people, unlike the Greco-Roman or Norse religions, so the people whose ancestors were depicted as those monsters still live under nearly similar conditions of discrimination. This is also why a lot of Hindus feel uncomfortable with Hinduism-based fantasy, because many of the communities that are completely Hindu right now may have originally been those monsters, and those flattened-out depictions reinforce the resemblance while erasing the rest of their historical contexts.
Now everyone has introduced themselves, how would you respond?
Zen Cho: One theme I’ve seen emerge is the idea that the “genre” has a natural or inborn tendency to atheism, to a worldview that excludes the validity of religious faith or a belief in the supernatural. By “genre” here we seem to mean science fiction, and perhaps that’s a fair assessment (though given that science fiction is generally more fiction than science, it’s questionable how much of a right it has to claim to be inherently rational).
But leaving SF aside, what about fantasy? It seems odd to say that fantasy—which often deals with the irrational, the wonderful, the inexplicable—has any bias towards rationalism. Some of the great classics of the genre were by people of faith: The Lord of the Rings is an obvious example; Narnia is another. Perhaps this suggests you’d need two separate symposia for religion in fantasy vs SF.
Of course, much fantasy also suffers from the problem of overly simplistic depictions of religious belief and practice, but we can probably put this aside as having its origin, as Liz says, in creators’ lack of imagination. I’m more interested in the connections between religion and fantasy. I see them as naturally related, for a few reasons, not all of which are set out below:
I think fantasy nowadays often functions as an outlet for the religious instinct in its readers. The sort of ecstasy some people used to feel in church, or when contemplating the divine, I imagine was not too far off that sense of the numinous which many readers look for in their fantasy.
What we call fantasy now was once religious belief, or is still. The appearance of an angel or a djinn in a story means it will likely be classified as fantasy, but if you go by the texts of several world religions, angels and djinns are real. Personally, I think of a fair amount of what I’ve sold to speculative fiction magazines is explorations of religious beliefs, but there isn’t nearly as much of a market for theological fiction that isn’t romance about Amish people or Ustaz’s wives. Probably best to package it as fantasy!
Michael A. Burstein: My biggest takeaway from what other people have said is that everyone, including those of us who are non-religious, want to see a more realistic treatment of religion in science fiction. There’s also the question of where the lack of religion in science fiction for many years came from.
Back in 2006, I wrote an essay for the nonfiction Boarding the Enterprise called “We Find the One Quite Adequate: Religious Attitudes in Star Trek,” for which I did some research about religion and science fiction. A disdain for religion appears to be inherent in a lot of early science fiction, going all the way back to books such as The Shape of Things to Come by H.G. Wells, in which science and rationality are pitted against an “irrational” religious view of the world. In some ways, science fiction seemed to view science as the new religion, and there’s a pervasive idea that once people have become “enlightened” they will come to understand the truth of the universe, in that no supreme being or beings exist, and that we should all live our lives based on atheistic principles.
The odd thing for me is to see that this attitude is not just found in the literature, but often held by readers as well. One fellow writer told me a story of a “fan” letter in which the reader responded to the presence of a Christian minister on one page of his novel set in the far future. The fan apparently felt obliged to tell him that this threw him out of the book, because “of course” by the far future time of the novel everyone would understand the God doesn’t exist and all religions would be gone. That seems to me to be an unimaginative way of looking at the future.
Ben Jeapes notes the question of how a religious Jew would deal with the Sabbath on a spaceship if one cannot use electricity during that time. He’s actually hit on a favorite game among Jewish science-fiction fans, which is to figure out how the laws might apply to new technology. For example, can you use a time machine to skip the Sabbath? Probably not, because there is a mention in the Talmud about how if one loses track of what day it is, say by being stranded on an island, one is required to start counting days and observe the seventh day, no matter what day it is. We use precedent to figure out how to apply the laws in new situations. Right now, rabbis are debating the kosher status of "vat meat," and eventually there will probably be a generally accepted answer as to its status.
Regarding electricity use, I should have been more specific. The prohibition is really against turning devices or lights on or off during the Sabbath. So if your spaceship is already powered on when you enter the Sabbath, you simply leave it on for the whole holiday. And, of course, there is the main principle that preserving life overrules prohibitions on almost all other actions. If my spaceship’s life support system turned off during the Sabbath and needed to be rebooted, even if it meant using electricity during that time, I wouldn’t just be allowed to reboot it—I would be obligated to do so.
Ben Jeapes: I love learning this! This itself answers the basic criticism of religion that it somehow rots the mind to the point of being dangerous. Clearly, it doesn’t—or doesn’t necessarily. (Let’s be honest: I’m sure we can all find examples amongst our co-religionists of where human reason has laid down and died.) It is possible for faith to change and grow and adapt, while remaining true to the spirit of its original precepts. Again, this is something that is just not realised.
Earlier, Michael asked how we could have better representation across many religions. I think he also provides part of the answer. Just have more believers in the story, in the background, unremarked upon but behaving in a manner informed by their faith.
Zen Cho asked what about the gods of fantasy. I think the gods of fantasy (and plural deity religions here on Earth) are very different from single, monolithic gods like Allah / Jehovah / Whoever. They can be understood, and hence defeated, or at least accommodated. In some traditions it’s very useful, maybe even the only way to make it meaningful, for your god to be there on the shelf; in other traditions, the retort would be that in case, it ain’t a god by definition. So, a useful conversation is needed over understandings of the word ‘god’ in the first place—and we might run out of word count before that.
Other than that, I see three main points of agreement:
1) The genre is traditionally atheistic. Atheism is as old as the hills, but I wonder if SF was the first well-articulated alternative of modern times that was actually interesting and positive, filling the religion-shaped holes in our souls. If I were around in the Golden Age and had the choice of getting my atheism from, say, Asimov or Bertrand Russell, I would choose Asimov.
2) Sheer ignorance. My guess is that this may have developed as religion has declined in general importance. Authors have nothing in their experience to draw upon, and an assumption that it’s all a bit silly anyway, so think no one will really look closely if they just wave their hands and make up something bland and easy.
3) Humans are just more complicated than people like to think.
Ken MacLeod: Everyone has argued for more nuanced and informed accounts in SF of their faith and others’. I ask the same for my non-faith. A paradoxical consequence of SF’s default secularism and scepticism is that atheism and atheists are seldom explicitly present in the text. And when they are, atheism is often equated with amoral cynicism. The dying Emperor in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is seen through the POV character’s Christian eyes as an atheist only because with so much death on his conscience he’s afraid to meet his maker. When John Lyle, the initially naive protagonist of Heinlein’s "If This Goes On –", jumps to the conclusion that his anticlerical revolutionary mentor Zeb Jones is an atheist, the offended Jones warns Lyle that if he ever calls Jones an atheist again it’ll be a "come outside and say that" situation. That the ascription is an insult, even or perhaps especially to a freethinking Freemason, is taken as read. What atheist author George H. Smith has called "the slander of atheism" may have retreated since the 1940s or even the 1990s, but it is by no means extinct.
Apart from Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, the only avowedly atheist utopia I can recall without recourse to a library is Arthur C. Clarke’s The Songs of Distant Earth. The only SF short story (again, apart from Banks’s darkly ironic "Piece") in which a sympathetic character’s atheism is affirmed and materialism is argued for is Matt Coward’s "We All Saw It." Interestingly, in the latter story, the "outside context problem" (to use a Banksian phrase) is not an encounter with the supernatural, but with an unambiguous, undeniable flying saucer. To know for sure what everyone else merely fears or hopes is enough to destabilise the characters’ entire lives. The materialist philosophy that to exist at all is to be part of nature can protect one’s own sanity, but can’t counter the consequences of the less grounded responses of others who "all saw it" too.
Atheism in itself is a negation, and varies—or is rendered irrelevant—with cultural context. Not all religions are theistic, but many Western atheists find themselves (as the atheist and anthropologist David Eller has pointed out) "speaking Christian" as fluently as any fundamentalist. However, the spirit of freethinking can and does flourish wherever and whatever spirituality claims truth beyond reason. It would be surprising in England to find militant atheists hauling a jeep by chains hooked through the skin of their backs, while chanting the name of the President of the British Humanist Association. In India, such stunts make a sharp and painful point against the miracles of village godmen.
The affirmation is naturalism or materialism or rationalism, which by a straightforward if not strictly logical implication leads to humanism. Imagining a future in which the secular humanism of Asimov, Clarke, and Sagan was as popular, influential, and respected as Stoicism and Epicureanism were in the better days of the Roman Empire might seem an exciting and realistic project. If it’s too utopian for science fiction, the problem is not with our imagination but with our present reality.
Liz Williams: What I’m getting from other people is a reaction to the over-simplification in SFF and a desire for more nuance, complexity, and mess. I agree with this 100%. I think a lot of the genre suffers from the Star Trekisation of science fiction and fantasy: the Enterprise goes to one planet, where there are one (or at most two or three) social or ethnic groups, with maybe two languages. I appreciate that this is dictated to by a 45 minute narrative format, but there’s no excuse for an entire novel. In paganism, as with most faiths, there’s an enormous variety even within small groups: people who are devout, people who aren’t, people who attend Stonehenge at the Solstice, people who can’t be bothered, people who like to join everything and people who don’t, before we’ve even started on doctrine questions. This has been, in my experience, mirrored in every other religion and spirituality across the planet.
One of my colleagues mentioned that it’s possible that this lack of diversity comes from the STEM bias of writers and readers and I think that’s an astute point, but I will be harsher: I think it comes from lack of imagination. I referred to this in my earlier comments, but I continue to be startled by the pedestrian nature of a lot of genre.
Aliette de Bodard: All these responses express a desire for greater complexity and fewer simplistic depictions of faith in science fiction and fantasy: I think the issue stems, not so much from a default atheistic position (many people in genre are believers), but rather partly from writers’ inherent assumptions when worldbuilding, and partly from a tendency in genre for the simple and simplistic. It reminds me, for instance, of the depictions of science and engineering which tend to be simplistic as well: having worked on larger engineering projects, I don’t often find the complex organisation and relationships I’m used to on similar fictional projects. There’s a background of streamlining things in genre, or at least in these works that become well-known/canon. (The other thing I wanted to bring up is that the genre has many complex depictions of different faiths, but that these tend to get erased faster, and the ones we remember and enshrine are these which adhere to the streamlined version.)
I’m also struck by the idea that genre is more likely to depict the gods rather than their believers, because I think that even the depiction of the gods is not necessarily matching the complexity there, either? They’re cool characters and sources of magic and plot rather than multifaceted, awe-inspiring and complex beings: often, they don’t feel like they’re depicted from the point of view of believers so much as from that of people who retained only the characteristics that they liked (said characteristics not aligning necessarily with those the believers think important: we come back both to the streamlining and the not necessarily felicitous worldbuilding stemming from an unwillingness or an unawareness of the myriad of different traditions).
Finally, I did want to bring up, particularly but not only in the context of fantasy, a core issue of defining genre: namely that for a believer having God, gods, spirits and other supernatural people present in the narration isn’t an act of worldbuilding so much as a reflection of belief and a reality. A story that has spirits or angels for me isn’t fictional, fantasy, or genre, and I think there we do see an atheistic bent (especially for minority religions) that such features of the work mean a departure from reality: for me the fantasy in the story wouldn’t come from the mythical beings but from other features, and indeed many works that are published, say, in Vietnam, would be considered fantasy in the west but simply historical fiction there because there’s nothing imaginary about the supernatural!
Mimi Mondal: I’d like to bring attention to a key difference that I’ve seen between my own opening response and the others’, and some that bridge the gap, like Aliette’s, Tajinder’s, Zen’s and Daniel’s. (I feel like having an active Muslim contributor could’ve sharpened this difference.) We seem to be talking about three almost separate verticals in the same discussion. My breakdown of them looks like this:
- Accurate representations of the gods and mythology of a religion,
- Accurate representations of the (current or historical) practitioners of a religion, and of other people belonging to its culture,
- The worldview of a religion imprinted upon a “neutral” universe.
I am picking up and trying to expand on Aliette’s opening point. You may notice that the mythology itself being used as fictional characters and situations (in a largely non-theological treatment) happens more commonly for the largely “dead” religions and, to nobody’s surprise, more non-Western religions. Sure, there is angels-and-demons fantasy that borrows from Christianity (relevant culturally right now since Gaiman and Pratchett’s Good Omens just got turned into a TV show), but the theological background of that kind of fiction is pretty inarguable, even when the story actually subverts it. And when we talk about that kind of fiction, that’s usually a different discussion from the accurate representation of different kinds of practitioners of Christianity in fiction.
And then, when we talk about opinionated representations of the worldview of Christianity in fiction, that becomes a third kind of discussion separate from both of the others. That’s the part where we’re talking about Pullman, L. Ron Hubbard, and other religious writers who imprint their religious beliefs onto a “neutral” universe.
Other religions usually don’t get those separate treatments in discussion. Even from our own responses, you’ll notice how the Christians among us have identified their specific denominations, while the rest of us have just named big generalized faiths. I don’t even expect a Western readership to understand the particular kind of Hinduism I grew up in, although since it is a syncretic polytheistic religion, the differences between different kinds of Hinduism are significantly larger than the differences between different denominations of Christianity. Some of us don’t even have the “major” gods or a basic cosmology in common, leave alone beliefs or practices.
I tried to make a rough categorization out of this:
Dead religions (Greek/Roman/Norse/Egyptian/etc.) are used only for their mythologies and not for practitioners, since even the people whose ancestors practised them no longer identify with the religions. So a lot of 1, occasionally some 3 which is always intentionally framed and reconstructed, never any 2.
On the other hand, pretty much all discussion of Jewishness in fiction that I’ve seen seems to focus on the practitioners and not the core mythology, besides a few figures used as characters/devices like the golem or the dybbuk. So a lot of 2 and 3, but not a lot of 1.
This puts the more non-Western religions in a weird place. (This is where an Islamic perspective would’ve been very interesting, since Islam came from nearly the same region as Judaism and Christianity, but most of its current practitioners are understood as non-Western.) Our 1 and 2 verticals are nearly always represented in the same broad stroke. Our 3 vertical is largely not even noticed if it’s not blatantly caricatured in the text, and also (for some religions more than the others) distorted by outsiders without giving equal weightage to 1 and 2.
Number 3 is usually the subtlest vertical. Too close to the centre—i.e., within Christianity—one doesn’t even notice the framing, especially when it’s deeply embedded underneath “objective” Enlightenment ideas. Too far from the centre, nobody from outside a religion can even understand its fundamental worldview—they are often dismissed as quirky/irrational/superstitious thinking. For instance, I am a “Hindu atheist.” You’ll notice how an atheist who comes from a white/Western Christian background is simply “an atheist.” But that person and I are not the same kind of atheist, because our basic religious worldview (and therefore also the rejection of it) isn’t the same. A lot of us postcolonial non-Western syncretic polytheistic non-believers are not strictly atheists in the Western sense; we’re closer to what Zen described as a “freethinker,” because our faiths aren’t as canonically defined as Christianity either.
I personally find the distinction between 2 and 3 most closely observable in Jewish conversations, possibly because in the current Western-dominated world, Jewish is the closest Other to Christianity—the definition starts meaning both actual practitioners and the people who aren’t religious but have the Jewish-background worldview as their standard. But by the time the conversation reaches Islam, 1, 2, and 3 become pretty much indistinguishable to the Western readership.
Hinduism, for its 3 vertical, often compounded with 1, has been used in Western fiction far more often, and far differently, than its 2 vertical, the people of its culture—I imagine because the colonizers took a fancy to Hinduism. Buddhism is as diverse as Hinduism as well—Tibetan Buddhism is incredibly different from Japanese Buddhism from revivalist Dalit Buddhism and so on—and a kind of pop Buddhist philosophy has often been used in Western fiction, which is completely divorced from practising Buddhist populations. The distorted usage of 3 in the exclusion of 1 and 2 gives you a world like Star Wars or Avatar. The distorted usage of 1 and 3 in the exclusion of 2 gives you Lord of Light. The distorted usage of just 1 gives you Rendezvous with Rama, which… I don’t even know what Rama is doing there.
When you think of even less represented religions like Sikhism or (treading thin ice here) Taoism or Chinese folk religion or the several American Indigenous and African religions etc.—and this is purely in relation to mainstream Western representation, you’ll notice—the audiences are so entirely unfamiliar with them that 1, 2, and 3 are completely collapsed. That also means each representation of a character from those mythologies almost feels like a commentary upon the members of that culture, even when the individual member may be a non-believer.
All this sets representations in a politically skewed pattern. If I write a dislikeable Christian angel as a character, no one will read that as my saying all Christian-background people are bad. Christian-background atheists won’t even consider the angel a representation related to themselves. But if I write a dislikeable Hindu god, is that me being a bad Hindu or misrepresenting my culture, despite my not even being a believer right now? Is being critical of one’s own culture an act of representation or an act of misrepresentation? Are we entirely escaping writing within the Western framework and for the Western gaze if we can’t write dissent, parody, subversion or even mutually disagreeing representations of our own cultures? (This is personally important to me, because Hindus are a very big group with sweeping histories of injustice within the culture, and I belong to one of the oppressed minorities, so my representation of Hinduism is always revisionist.)
This obviously harks back to the point that no representation is fundamentally objective. I was born into Hinduism and have studied it to quite a bit of depth, and am currently a non-believer: do these facts make my take on Hindu mythology and/or peoples superior or inferior, or merely different from that of another person from a closely similar background? Do we currently accommodate that kind of difference of opinion for non-Western religions, as we do for Christianity?