Religion and Science Fiction

Isaac Asimov

In the November 1983 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, the cover story was “The Gospel According to Gamaliel Crucis” by that excellent writer, Michael Bishop. It dealt with a sensitive subject—the coming of a savior, or, in effect, the second coming of Christ.

What makes it even more effective as a science fiction story is that the savior is an extraterrestrial—and not a particularly attractive one to our human eyes since she (!) is a giant mantis. This is entirely legitimate, it seems to me, since if there is other life in the Universe, especially intelligent life, one would expect that a truly universal God would be as concerned for them as for us, and would totally disregard physical shape since it is only the “soul,” that inner intellectual and moral identity, that counts.

What is more, Bishop decided to make the story more powerful by casting it into a biblical shape, dividing it into chapters and verses and making use of a touch of suitable biblical wording.

The result was a tour de force which we obviously considered quite successful, or we would not have published it. Still, we were prepared for the fact that some readers might feel uneasy with, or even offended by, the subject matter and/or style.

One letter was quite angry, indeed. The writer was “strongly displeased” and considered it “a burlesque of the scriptures” and, finding no other value to the story, considered it to have been written and published only for the sake of the burlesque.

This can be argued with, of course, but never entirely settled. If a reader sees in it only burlesque, he or she can scarcely be argued out of it. There will always be difference of opinion, often based upon emotion rather than reason, with regard to the value of any work of art.

But there is something more general here. There is the matter of how science fiction ought to deal with religion, especially our religion. (Few people worry very much about how some other religion is handled, since only our own is the “true” one.)

No one wants to offend people unnecessarily, and religion is a touchy subject, as we all know. In that case, might it not be best simply to avoid religious angles altogether in writing science fiction? As our angry correspondent says, “I suggest … that offending any substantial religious group is not the way to win friends or sell magazines.”

Yes, we know that, and since we do want to win friends and sell magazines, we would not knowingly go out of our way to embarrass and humiliate even nonsubstantial groups of our readers just for the fun of it.

But we are also editing a serious science fiction magazine that, we earnestly hope, includes stories of literary value, and it is the very essence of literature that it consider the great ideas and concerns of human history. Surely that complex of ideas that goes under the head of “religion” is one of the most central and essential, and it would be rather a shame to have it declared out of bounds. In fact, for a magazine to censor itself out of discussing religion would be to bow to those forces that don’t really believe in our constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and press. If we were to do so, we would be, in a very deep sense, un-American.

Besides, if we were to try to avoid this very touchy subject, where would we stop? I tend to ignore religion in my own stories altogether, except when I absolutely have to have it. Well, I absolutely had to have it in some of my early Foundation stories and in “Nightfall” and so I made use of it. And, whenever I bring in a religious motif, that religion is bound to seem vaguely Christian because that is the only religion I know anything about, even though it is not mine. An unsympathetic reader might think I am burlesquing Christianity, but I am not.

Then, too, it is impossible to write science fiction and really ignore religion. What if we find intelligent beings on other worlds? Do they have a religion? Is our God universal, and is he/she/it their God as well? What do we do about it? What do they do about it?

This point is almost never taken up but, since it would certainly arise if such beings were discovered in actual fact, science fiction loses touch with reality in taking the easy way out and pretending religion doesn’t exist.

Or consider time travel. I don’t know how many stories have been written about people going back in time to keep Lincoln from being assassinated, but how about people going back in time to keep Jesus from being crucified? Surely that greater feat would occur to someone in actual fact if time travel were possible.

Think of the changes that could be run on such a theme. If Jesus were rescued while on his way to the site of crucifixion, and if the rescue were made by modern technology—a helicopter or something more advanced, while the Roman soldiers were held off by rifle fire at the very least—would it not seem to the primitives of the time that supernatural forces were rescuing Jesus? Would it not seem that angels were coming to the aid of a true savior? Would it not establish Christianity as the true religion at once?

Or would it? Clearly, it was God’s divine purpose (assuming the God of the Bible exists) to have the crucifixion take place in order that Jesus serve as a divine atonement for Adam’s sin. Would the subversion of this plan be allowed to take place?

It’s a nice dilemma, and it is within the province of legitimate science fiction. Yet who has ever considered writing such a story even though it would give us a chance to deal with what many consider the central event of history? The story would be an extremely difficult one to write, and I wouldn’t feel up to it myself, but I think it is primarily self-censorship that keeps it from being written.

For that matter, what if we went back in time and found that the biblical Jesus never existed?

The mere concept of time travel makes all these speculations irresistible, so it might very well be that very religious people might object to time-travel themes, and call them blasphemous, simply because of the possibilities they give rise to.

The correspondent says in his letter, “Dr. Asimov, I know that you are an atheist—” and there may be the implication that because of this I am insensitive to the feelings of religionists, or perhaps even anxious to make them seem ridiculous.

As a matter of fact, I have frequently, in my writings, made it clear that I have never encountered any convincing evidence of the biblical God, and that I am incapable of accepting that existence on faith alone. That makes me an atheist, but, although this may surprise some Americans, the Constitution safeguards my right to be one and to proclaim myself one.

Nevertheless, although I am an atheist, I am not a proselytizing one; I am not a missionary; I do not treat atheism as a kind of true faith that I must force on everyone. After all, I have published more than almost anyone, about twenty million words so far, and I have frequently discussed controversial problems. You are free to go through my writings and search for any sign that I ridicule religion as such. I have opposed those people who attack legitimate scientific findings (evolution, as an example) in the name of religion, and who do so without evidence, or (worse yet) with distorted and false evidence. I don’t consider them true religionists, however, and I am careful to point out that they disgrace religion and are a greater danger to honest religion than to science.

And suppose I weren’t an atheist. My parents were Jewish and I might have been brought up an Orthodox Jew or become one of my own volition. Might it then be argued that I would naturally favor any story burlesquing Christianity?

Or suppose I were a Methodist; would I therefore look for stories that burlesqued Judaism, or Catholicism—or atheism?

If I were in the mood to run this magazine in such a way as to offend “any substantial religious group” I wouldn’t have to be an atheist. I could do it if I was anything at all, provided only that I were a bigot, an idiot, or both.

In actual fact, I am neither, and again, I offer my collected writing as evidence. … Needless to say, I am sorry that our correspondent was upset by “The Gospel According to Gamaliel Crucis.” If we lived in an ideal world, we would never publish any story that upset anyone. In this case, though, we had to choose. On the one hand, we had a remarkable story that considered, fearlessly, an important idea, and we felt that most readers would recognize this point—if not at once, then upon mature consideration. On the other hand, we had a story that might offend some of our readers.

We made the choice. We put quality and importance ahead of the chance of some offense. We hope that our angry correspondent will consider the matter again and see that the story is far more than a burlesque. He might even give Bishop points for skill and courage.

From Isaac Asimov’s Galaxy, p. 21–24 (Doubleday, 1989), originally published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, June 1984. Reprinted with permission from Robyn Asimov.

Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov is an award-winning science writer whose career has spanned decades.

Asimov considers science fiction’s obligation toward religious sensitivities.

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