The Coming War Between Religion And Super-ScienceS

The 21st century may well see a final showdown between scientific rationalists and religious fundamentalists. We'll see more and more conflicts — like Dawkins vs. creationists, or Bush vs. stem cells — as scientists discover more facts that challenge religious beliefs. But I've been racking my brains to think of science fiction stories that depict the conflict between science and religion in a compelling way. Why don't we see more stories that deal with this? And how can you (yes, you!) write about these conflicts in a smart, interesting way that doesn't resort to caricatures?

(The image above comes from William Shatner's reality TV show Invasion Iowa, which staged an "alien wedding" in an Iowa church.)

It's interesting that the current flavor of the month in science fiction TV is Battlestar Galactica, which is all about a clash between two religions rather than religion vs. atheism or humanism.

I haven't read any written science fiction in ages that shows a super-scientific culture squaring off with a super-religious one... except maybe Iain Banks' "Culture" novels, where the scientific, humanistic Culture often squares off against a more religious and traditional civilization. Also, many TV shows — especially Doctor Who — frequently feature religious cultures that have created a kind of "cargo cult" around a piece of half-forgotten technology, and in the case of Doctor Who's "Meglos," the hyper-religious Deions (cute name) are opposed by the hyper-scientific Savants.

The Coming War Between Religion And Super-ScienceS

The tricky part of creating a future history of religion coming into conflict with science is not stereotyping either side. Especially if you happen to be an atheist or opposed to organized religion yourself. The best handling of religion I've seen in a science fiction book was in Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow — where the Jesuits were intimately involved with space exploration, so there was no conflict.

The Coming War Between Religion And Super-ScienceS

So here are some ideas — I hesitate to call them rules — for creating a future narrative of science clashing with religion:

Find the flashpoint. What's the specific issue that causes tensions to rise between the scientific and religious worldviews? It could be the rise of a more dogmatic strain of fundamentalism, similar to the rise of the Religious Right in the U.S. of the 1980s and early 1990s. But it's probably likely to be some new scientific advance, instead. Something like stem cell research, but more inflammatory. Raising people from the dead, without Jesus? A new kind of nonpolluting car engine that harnesses your orgone energy (by making you have an orgasm while you drive)?

Religious people are technologically sophisticated (unless they're Amish). One of the hilarious things about the portrayal of religious people in cheesy scifi stories is the way they gawk at high-tech items, or start worshipping them. "All hail the mighty Wiimote!", that sort of thing. But you may have noticed that in the real world, religious groups are just as tech-savvy as everybody else who isn't a major geek. They use the Internet for mobilization and outreach, and they're better at using mass media than most secular groups. Think about it this way: has there ever been a useful invention that religious people have refused to use? (Except a few fringe groups.) What would it take for religious people to shun an invention that was genuinely helpful?

Scientific people aren't, as a rule, anti-religion. For every Richard Dawkins, there are tons of scientists and science-zealots who will sort of mumble that studying the wonders of the universe has given them a new appreciation for the possibility that there could be some superior intelligence out there... After all, the existence of a supreme being/first cause/creator is a hypothesis that can be neither proven nor disproven. Even Richard Dawkins admitted that aliens could have "intelligently designed" life on Earth.

Both religion and humanism are fluffy. Most religious people I know are pretty tolerant of other worldviews, and a lot of religious people seem to have only a vague, well-meaning belief in some nebulous (but benevolent) force in the universe. (I'm looking at you, Episcopalians!) Meanwhile, most secular people aren't die-hard pancreas-spitting atheists, but rather humanists, who have a sort of nice, non-threatening belief that people are lovely, and that we're going to keep improving ourselves and getting lovelier. And that eventually, maybe we'll get over our baser instincts and also learn to conquer space.

Atheists can be fanatics too. And then there are the Dawkinses and Christopher Hitchenses of this world, who are just as dogmatic and fundamentalist in their belief that you can prove a negative as the most cross-eyed Cotton Mather wannabe. If a major conflict did strike up between scientific and religious outlooks, it would be as likely to start with the radical atheists as with the radical theists.

Think dystopian. The religious and scientific approaches to the world can coexist reasonably well on a comfy, room-temperature planet with more-or-less adequate resources. But if we see massive ecological disruption in the coming century — as many experts predict — and our planet becomes a much less nice place to live, people will become a lot more desperate. Scientists and religious leaders may have very different ideas on how to handle the wave of disasters and shortages to come — and who's to blame. (Think religious leaders blaming immorality for Hurricane Katrina, for example.) Science, on the other hand, may propose some pretty stringent, if not morally questionable, solutions to the crisis.

I could see the world eventually turning into two blocs: a humanistic superpower that tolerates religion but won't allow it in politics or government, and a quasi-theocracy, where religious leaders hold a lot of sway. Not unlike the Cold War, except the humanistic bloc might be less oppressive than the Soviet Union was. The only real question in my mind is, which of those blocs would the United States align itself with?