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It all started with a letter, dated December 1943, that began, “I wish to disagree, somewhat violently, with you over a passage on page 43 of Perelandra.” The writer was Arthur C. Clarke, later to be renowned as the author of the science-fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the recipient was C. S. Lewis, the premier Christian apologist of the time.

Clarke felt that Lewis’ description of Professor Weston, the villain of Perelandra, cast an unfair light on science-fiction enthusiasts and space-travel advocates. “I can assure you from personal experiences that most devotees of science fiction are biased far more towards pacifism than militarism,” he wrote. “I believe that astronautics more than any other single development will accelerate the coming of age of our species. National rivalries . . . will finally appear in their proper perspective when they can be seen against the background of the stars.”

In a later age of intercontinental missiles and spy satellites, it is hard not to smile at the naivete of these sentiments. Even in the 1940s, within a year of Clarke’s letter, England and Antwerp were bombarded by V-2 missiles, the creations of fellow space enthusiasts in Germany. Although Clarke tried to distance himself from the “stories of interplanetary imperialism and destruction” that are “the stock in trade of the hack writer,” he did not seem to grasp the real root of Lewis’ concern. The problem was not merely the extension of warfare and its exploitation on an interplanetary scale. It was also the science-fiction claim that mankind itself—fallen and corrupt, as Lewis knew—should be imagined as extending across the cosmos.

This was neither the first nor the last time that religion and science—or, more properly, scientism, the mystical and literary celebration of science—have squared off, with science fiction as the battleground. Again and again, in the history of the genre of science fiction, religious themes have been examined, debated, proposed, and pilloried. On one level, this seems counterintuitive: Surely science fiction should concern itself with science. Yet over and over again, we find science-fiction stories dealing with themes implicitly or explicitly religious.

In a 2009 article in City Journal, Benjamin Plotinsky suggested that writers turned to religion—and specifically to Christianity—for metaphors when the collapse of the Soviet Union made political themes seem less immediately relevant than they had been. There may be something to this, even though Plotinsky undermines his own thesis by predicting that religious themes will not be abandoned, even as the war on terror provides a new political focus.

Meanwhile, in another article on the topic, this time in Christianity Today, James Herrick claimed that, in the spate of religious science fiction over the last few years, readers get “a taste of transcendence without the moral accountability or costly interpersonal commitments of a church.” This is a narrow judgment. Even before C. S. Lewis wrote, some of the best science fiction was being written and read by individuals deeply committed to their faith. An anti-utopian vision is as common as a utopian vision in science fiction, and a strong strain of suspicion of science runs through the entire genre. Many stories have promised that science would deliver what has been only hazily promised by religion. But many, many other stories have warned against the dangers of such hubris.

This conversation spans decades, and it began in the pulp magazines long before it found its way into the prestigious science journals. Well-written science fiction with religious themes has always found an audience. Arthur C. Clarke’s own 1956 story “The Star” (in which a Jesuit starship crewman learns that the star of Bethlehem was a nova that destroyed an advanced civilization), James Blish’s 1959 A Case of Conscience (in which Fr. Ruiz-Sanchez is confronted by the Lithians, a race with no concept of God, sin, or the afterlife), and Walter M. Miller’s 1961 A Canticle for Leibowitz (in which monks preserve civilization after nuclear war) all won Hugos, the best-of-the-year awards in science fiction.

One may wonder why so many of these stories deal with the Catholic Church. Blish himself raised that question in his essay “Cathedrals in Space.” His explanation—that all of them express “a common chiliastic panic, so that the choice of the most complex, best organized, and oldest body of Christian dogma as an intellectual background is only natural”—isn’t quite convincing. Simpler is the old line that the Catholic Church is the only church that always seems to be The Church. For that matter, Catholicism tends to be more visually interesting and dramatic than most other forms of Christianity. Putting a priest in full regalia on the cover of a book with an enigmatic alien is just more intriguing than showing a Baptist minister in a three-piece suit.

Some, like H. L. Gold, editor of Galaxy Magazine, disliked these themes. He told Blish that he would take the short-story version of A Case of Conscience only if “there’s some way we can get rid of this religious jazz—I run a family magazine.” That was, in fact, the typical response of genre science fiction until about 1950, when Blish and others began pushing the boundaries.

Another way around the discomfort that editors felt was to treat religion in a sociological manner, as a means of controlling large populations. This avoided the necessity of determining whether the theological underpinnings of a given faith were valid. In fact, the default presumption was that all creeds are shams. This agreed with what the readers knew, or thought they knew, from history. The Inquisition, Calvin’s Geneva, and the Salem witch trials showed—as readers were congratulated for knowing—that religion enforces obedience and conformity through superstition and fear.

These historical models were, for many years, fairly common templates for future terrestrial or extraterrestrial societies. Thus, there were stories like Robert A. Heinlein’s “If This Goes On—,” about a rebellion against a tyrannical church that has taken over America. The Bene Gesserit in Frank Herbert’s Dune might look like an order of nuns, but their purpose is neither good works nor mystical contemplation. Instead, they use mélange-enhanced mental powers and artificial myths and prophecies to further their centuries-long scientific breeding program. Margaret Atwood’sThe Handmaid’s Tale is feminist science fiction describing a United States where women are oppressed by a rigid theocracy.

A third standard approach was satire, in which all social conventions are considered arbitrary. Thus you could have societies where nudity is conventional (The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov) and eating in public is taboo (Mack Reynolds’ “Speakeasy”). In this approach, religion often was portrayed as especially arbitrary. In Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno, a deceased science-fiction writer named Allen Carpenter finds himself in the hell described by Dante. A demon has just pointed out one of the damned who “founded a religion that masks as a form of lay psychiatry.” Carpenter naturally objects to being put in the same class, insisting that he was just a writer:

“I’m not like him,” I said quickly. “He played the game for real. With me it was just a game . . . . Take the Silpies. They were humanoid but telepaths. They believed they had one collective soul, and they could prove it! And the Sloots were slugs with tool-using tongues. To them, God was a Sloot with no tongue. He didn’t need a tongue; He didn’t eat, and He could create at will, with the power of His mind.” I saw [the demon] nodding and was encouraged. “None of this was more than playing with ideas.”
The demon was still nodding. “Games played with the concept of religion. Enough such games and all religions might look equally silly.”

The swipe at the actual writer who tried to invent a religion is aimed at L. Ron Hubbard, author of such science fiction as Battlefield Earth. As early as 1938, Hubbard wrote a letter to his then wife Margaret Grubb saying, “I have high hopes of smashing my name into history so violently that it will take a legendary form.” In 1948, he made comments to several science-fiction authors about starting either a psychiatric method or a religion as a way of making money.

In fact, he did both. Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, published in 1950, proclaimed itself a self-help method to achieve sanity. Although some science-fiction writers, such as Isaac Asimov and Jack Williamson, considered it a scam and criticized it as unscientific, others—including John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding, the most influential science-fiction magazine of its day—seemed convinced of its importance and validity. In December 1953, Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology. Eventually, most members of the science-fiction community distanced themselves from Hubbard and his church, which went on to gain notoriety for its stealth war with the IRS and FBI and became the darling of various Hollywood celebrities.

By the mid-1960s there was a feeling among many writers and fans, that the old themes of space travel and superhuman abilities were played out. Something new was wanted—and when it arrived, its promoters called it the New Wave.

As a literary movement, the New Wave emphasized literary style (often at the expense of scientific accuracy), experimentation, and an exploration of social taboos that valued shock and controversy for their own sake. This would not seem to be a milieu favorable to stories dealing seriously with religious themes, but there were at least three writers who made use of the new stylistic freedoms to produce stories of worth.

The first was R. A. Lafferty, an Oklahoman whose stories partake equally of science fiction, fantasy, and tall tales. Underneath it all is a conservative, if somewhat eccentric, Catholic faith. Lafferty’s Fourth Mansions, for example, derives much of its inspiration from Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. In Past Master, Lafferty plucks Sir Thomas More out of time to save a failing utopia on the planet Astrobe—only to discover that the masters of that planet have no more use for spiritual integrity than did Henry VIII.

The second of these religiously interested New Wave authors was Cordwainer Smith, the pen name of Paul Linebarger, godson of Sun Yat Sen and a specialist in Asiatic studies and psychological warfare. Most of his stories deal with a time 13,000 years in the future, when humanity is controlled by the Lords of the Instrumentality. Christianity has been driven underground, where it is kept alive by Underpeople, animals who have been given semihuman form by genetic manipulation. Linebarger became an Anglican in 1950, and he seems to have taken his faith increasingly seriously as he grew older. Unfortunately, he died at the relatively young age of fifty-three. His work leaves the impression of a mosaic, brilliant in places, that was never completed.

The uncertain nature of reality is a recurring theme in many of the stories of the third New Wave author, Philip K. Dick. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the novel that formed the basis for the film Blade Runner), for instance, the main question is how to tell real humans from androids. The answer is empathy. Real humans, while gripping the handles of an empathy box, share the experience of a man climbing a hill who is being pelted with stones by unseen persecutors. Androids, meanwhile, feel nothing and, in fact, suspect that humans are faking the experience. It is significant that the shared experience is one of suffering, which seems to combine the plight of Sisyphus with the Via Dolorosa.

In Dick’s later books, the religious element, a sort of gnosticism with Christian elements, becomes stronger: “The whole question of religion is very melancholic. It makes me very sad really. I mean, I’ve read so much and still, I haven’t found God,” Dick wrote. “We have a deus absconditus, a hidden God. As Plato says, ‘God exists but he is hard to find.’ I’ve spent the majority of my life studying and reading and seeking God, but, of course, the thing is you can’t find God. God has to find you. I’ve learned that.”

It is tempting to dismiss much of Dick’s work as paranoia exacerbated by amphetamines. That would be a mistake. A child of the 1960s, in both his politics and his drug use, he was also an astonishingly creative writer who came to realize that what was most wrong with the world could find satisfactory expression only in religious terms.

In this context, it’s worth considering Anthony Burgess. A mainstream novelist rather than a genre science-fiction writer, Burgess is nonetheless best remembered for A Clockwork Orange, a science-fiction novel dealing with the brainwashing of a vicious juvenile delinquent named Alex. It is a shame that this work is best known through Stanley Kubrick’s film, and that Kubrick’s film follows the American edition of the novel. The British edition ends with a short chapter in which, years later, Alex reveals that he turned away from violence. This seemed unrealistic to the American publisher, who wanted a darker ending. Burgess explained his reasons for the violence in the novel as well as Alex’s change of heart years later: “Alex is a very nasty young man, and he deserves to be punished, but to rid him of the capacity of choosing between good and evil is the sin against the Holy Ghost, for which—so we’re told—there’s no forgiveness.”

Skepticism, if not outright atheism, might seem the default position for science fiction. More recent writers—Robert J. Sawyer and Greg Egan, for example—propound explicitly atheistic views in their science-fiction novels. Egan, in fact, introduces a lightly disguised C. S. Lewis as an adversary in two of his stories.

Yet other writers continue to be interested in Christian themes. Readers buy their books and, occasionally, vote them awards. Probably the most prominent writer currently in this category is Gene Wolfe, a retired industrial engineer who is, according to the science-fiction author Michael Swanwick, “the greatest writer in the English language alive today.”

That is a bit much, but Wolfe is certainly very good. Consider The Book of the Long Sun, one of his most accessible works, and most Christian. Its hero, Patera Silk, is “a good priest of bad gods.” He receives a revelation from the Outsider, a minor deity in his polytheistic pantheon who may actually be the One True God. In the course of four novels, Silk rises from being a minor priest to ruler of a major city. Along the way, he shows his ability to solve mysteries—one of the attributes that shows Wolfe’s literary descent from G. K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown. By the end of Long Sun, he learns that the “Whorl” he inhabits is, in fact, a huge starship that has been traveling through space for centuries and is just about to reach its destination.

There has even been, in recent years, an effort to rehabilitate the image of the Middle Ages. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle have written two books (Inferno and Escape from Hell) that take Dante’s cosmology from The Divine Comedy literally. In both, the hero seeks to understand the purpose of hell. Is it anything more than infinite power in service of infinite sadism? At the end of Escape from Hell, Niven and Pournelle write, “While our original Inferno might have been thought to be in conflict with the views of the Church as then expressed, the new doctrines of the current pope [Benedict XVI] seem very much in line with what we wrote.”

Meanwhile, in Doomsday Book, Connie Willis maroons a time-traveling historian named Kirvin in fourteenth-century England just as the plague strikes. Kirvin comes to know the inhabitants of Oxfordshire not as ignorant and superstitious caricatures but as intelligent and vibrant human beings.

The parish priest, Roche, is rendered especially sympathetically. When Kirvin’s rescuers finally arrive from the twenty-first century, they find all the villagers dead and Kirvin tending Roche’s body: “‘You must help me with Roche,’ she said, squinting into the light. ‘He died this morning . . . .’ ‘Was he a knight?’ Colin said, wonderingly. ‘No,’ Kirvin said. ‘A saint.’”

Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim, set in Germany in the same period, also deals with stranded travelers, but these wayfarers are the Krenken, a race of aliens who resemble giant grasshoppers. They are befriended by Dietrich, a parish priest whose mind is a bubbling stew of Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, and William of Ockham. He tries to understand the Krenken, by helping them return home and helping them find salvation. Those willing, he baptizes. The novel somewhat puckishly reverses the usual characterizations of the Dark Ages. Although clearly a man of sincere faith, Dietrich has a questing, scientific mind. Meanwhile, Sharon, a modern scientist attempting to understand the basis of the aliens’ space drive, finds herself the credulous one.

Flynn has recently gone so far as to argue that science itself could not have come about without the fusion, during the Middle Ages, of Christianity and Aristotelian philosophy. In a 2007 issue of Analog (the magazine that, half a century earlier as Astounding, had introduced Dianetics to an unsuspecting world), Flynn made this case in the style of a medieval dialectic, a form familiar to anyone who has ever browsed Aquinas’ Summa Theologica.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow might seem out of place when grouped with the books of Willis and Flynn. Set in the near future, it deals with the disastrous consequences of a Jesuit mission to a planet in the Alpha Centauri star system. Russell insists, however, that a major purpose of the book is to make readers rethink the established wisdom about the blameworthy effect of European contact on American cultures. “I decided to write a story that put modern, sophisticated, resourceful, well-educated, and well-meaning people in the same position as those early explorers and missionaries—a position of radical ignorance.” Given that ignorance, even the best intentions of intelligent people are likely to cause tragedy.

Of course, the question for science-fiction writers—the science part of the puzzle they have to solve—is how we are to judge the Middle Ages, or anything else, for that matter. Starting with Fred Hoyle, himself the author of such science-fiction novels as The Black Cloud, scientists have realized the universe is exquisitely fine-tuned to produce life. If protons were just 0.2 percent more massive, they would be unstable and decay into simpler particles. If gravity were a bit stronger, stars would burn up before life had a chance to evolve. If the strong force, which binds nuclei together, were a touch more powerful, there would be no hydrogen and therefore no stars, no water, and no us. All these coincidences seem to indicate the presence of an Intelligent Designer.

Hoyle certainly became convinced that they did. Moreover, a number of physicists have proposed that our universe is but one of a multitude, and with enough universes the odds tip in favor of having one with the right set of laws and constants to produce us. There is a long tradition of science-fiction stories dealing with alternate worlds and parallel dimensions—Keith Laumer’s Worlds of the Imperium, for instance, and Roger Zelazny’s Amber series—and it is likely that this sort of theorizing will spur the production of more. Yet the whole enterprise has an air of desperation about it. We are asked to believe in the existence of myriad universes for which we have no direct evidence and that must always be unobservable because the alternative, God, is emotionally disagreeable to the theorists. The multiverse may even be true, but until it can be shown to be a necessary result of established physical laws, or somehow submitted to proof, it will never be science.

In the 1980s, the science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge popularized the concept of the Singularity. Think of a graph with the x axis as time, stretching from, say, just before the Industrial Revolution to 2100. Plot technological innovation on the y axis. As you scan from left to right, you note that the curve becomes increasingly steep. In fact, it looks more and more as though it is approaching an asymptote where the line becomes vertical. That point is the Singularity, when technological change becomes so rapid and far reaching (perhaps with the aid of machine intelligences that gain the ability to improve themselves more quickly than humans can) that its results cannot be predicted or even imagined.

If true, that makes things tough for writers whose business is, after all, predicting and imagining. Vinge dodged the problem in his novel Marooned in Real Time by having his characters emerge from stasis after the Singularity has occurred and mankind has apparently left Earth for the stars. Other writers, either braver or more foolhardy, have actually attempted to depict the Singularity. Charles Stross has probably been the most ambitious and most successful in Accelerando, a short-story collection that begins in the near future and ends about twenty years later with the planets of the solar system disassembled to form a giant matrioshka brain, an incredibly complex structure powered by the entire energy output of the Sun.

The concept has been intriguing enough to be picked up outside science-fiction circles. Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer in electronics, tells us that “The Singularity Is Near” and that it will be a good thing, leading to, among other things, personal immortality. On the other hand, Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, warns of a future in which humans are replaced by intelligent machines like Skynet in the Terminator movies.

All of this may sound quite apocalyptic and, in fact, the Singularity has been derided as “the Rapture for nerds” and “intelligent design for the high-IQ crowd.” Like parapsychology—like Dianetics, for that matter—it implies that scientific advance will provide what religion promised. Yet there is some reason to believe that the Singularity has been oversold, and that the line on the graph may be moving away from the vertical. Moore’s Law (the number of transistors that can be placed on a computer chip doubles every two years) has described the exponential advances in the computer industry, but other areas of technology have not advanced at a similar rate. Back in the 1960s, it seemed to Arthur C. Clarke that you would need only a straight-line advance to have a colony on the Moon in 2001 and a manned mission to Jupiter by 2010. For approximately the same amount of time, nuclear fusion has been twenty years away. And we still have no theory uniting quantum mechanics with relativity.

Last year, the blog SF Signal asked writers to weigh in on the question of whether science fiction is antithetical to religion. Fifteen writers took up the challenge. Their outlooks ranged from the sharp-edged atheism of James Morrow to the enthusiastic Christianity of the convert John C. Wright. Readers—and, no doubt, the editors—expected loud anathemas, biting sarcasm, and lordly sneers. Instead, to their surprise and disappointment, a polite consensus emerged: No, the two are not antithetical.

The reasons were varied. Some referenced the many religious science-fiction books and authors as proof that science fiction and religion cannot be antithetical. The atheists, for the most part, recognized that religious belief is a general human characteristic that is not likely to go away, Arthur C. Clarke to the contrary, and that writers thus must be willing to take it seriously to describe characters realistically.

In this context, it is at least intriguing to consider the question as presented in Anthony Boucher’s 1950s story, “The Quest for Saint Aquin.” In that story, a Catholic Church driven underground by a repressive technarchy sends a priest in search of a rumored St. Aquin. The priest rides a robotic ass who, being an atheist, thinks the quest idiotic. The robot feels vindicated when they find that St. Aquin is, in fact, a defunct robot.

The priest, however, takes a different lesson from the situation: “This is your dream. This is your perfection. And what came of this perfection? This perfect logical brain . . . knew that it was made by man, and its reason forced it to believe that man was made by God. And it saw that its duty lay to man its maker and beyond him to his Maker, God. Its duty was to convert man, to augment the glory of God. And it converted by the pure force of its perfect brain.”

Science fiction can present two contradictory views of ultimate reality. One is that of, say, Steven Weinberg, the physicist who writes that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” The bleakness of this view is only partially mitigated by the wonders revealed by research and the possibility that man eventually will be able to raise himself to divine status.

The other is that reason reveals an underlying order so profound that even a robot can see that it is the handiwork of God.

Robert R. Chase is chief counsel of an Army laboratory and author of The Game of Fox and Lion and other science-fiction stories.

Image by Per-Olof Forsberg licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.