Why Smug Atheists Should Read More Science Fiction

You can't be on Twitter these days without being bombarded with atheistic smugness. You know what I mean. People who can't just profess that they don't believe in God — they have to taunt religious people for believing in "fairy tales." Or the Tooth Fairy. Most of the time, these are geeks who have immense respect for science... and yet, they won't recognize a situation where they simply have no data, one way or the other.

After a while, I can't help wishing that these people would read some more science fiction, which above all is the genre of amazement and limitless possibility.

Top image: Rendezvous With Rama, artwork by Jim Burns

Of course, science fiction is also the genre of skepticism, and there are numerous examples of fake gods cropping up in SF books and other media. But there's also a long tradition in science fiction of transcendence, and encounters with something huge and unknowable. A lot of the best science fiction also features the realization that for all our knowledge, there are still things in the universe we don't yet fully understand.

We talked to a bunch of theologians recently to find out what religious topics they'd like to see science fiction cover — and one thing became clear: science fiction already deals with religious issues a lot. From Carl Sagan's take on the relationship between science and religion in Contact to all of the stories that explore the nature of humanity and the future, science fiction is frequently stepping into theological grounds. And that's leaving aside all of the stories about humans meeting entities in space that are beyond our comprehension and apparently all-powerful.

Yep, I'm talking about Sense of Wonder.

A sense of wonder includes humility

A lot of the best science fiction includes a sense of wonder at the hugeness of the cosmos — and the flipside of that is a sense of our own smallness. And the humility that goes along with that. If you want to feel a real sense of quasi-religious awe, don't think of the world as being 6,000 years old — think of its actual age, measured in billions of years, and the huge timescales of the universe before and after our world. And think of the vastness of the cosmos, whose mysteries we've only just begun to glimpse in the past century.

Why Smug Atheists Should Read More Science Fiction

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 — like the artworks of William Turner, who depicts light bursting out of the frame in a way that's often almost too dazzling to take in. Or Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whose angels are like explosions of light and energy.

Contemplating space and time in all of their massive strangeness is much like gazing into the naked face of God is supposed to be — apt to drive you mad, or at the very least to make you recognize how tiny and ignorant you are. And science fiction is full of people who see further than others — and are called mad because of it.

Someone else's subjective experience is as valid as yours

There's a common plot in science fiction — particularly media SF — where someone is "seeing things" or having experiences that can't be easily verified or quantified using technology. Like a sense of "deja vu," or hearing voices, or seeing the missing-presumed-dead Captain Kirk floating around. And a huge problem in these stories is that nobody can really know what another person is experiencing, or whether it has any validity or is just a hallucination.

Why Smug Atheists Should Read More Science Fiction

Thus it is with religious experiences — other people can speak about their profound experiences of the divine, which seem immensely real to them, but may sound like a crazy delusion to the rest of us. People experience raptures and witness miracles, which can't be documented. And there are plenty of people who've had out of body experiences or near death experiences, which may or may not have a neurological explanation. One of science fiction's all-time great writers, Philip K. Dick, had a religious experience where he felt as though he saw God in 1974 — and this experience informed his increasingly weird writing for the last eight years of his life.

And science fiction is full of characters who experience visions that are outside of linear time, or beyond cause and effect. In Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, the Foretellers of Gethen go into a "kind of trance" that involves "self-loss" and allows them to see something of the future through extreme sensual awareness. In Frank Herbert's Dune, Paul has visions that are as much mystical as scientific — though they involve "a kind of Heisenberg indeterminacy," where Paul's seeing affects what he sees. Science fiction also has its fair share of psychics and visionaries, who are viewed as lunatics, but who see a deeper reality than the rest of us can perceive.

And in 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.

In any case, plenty of people have personal experiences, which could be immensely meaningful or could just be their own faulty perceptions. They can't say which is which, with an absolute certainty, and neither can any of us, from the outside. Once you've read enough science fiction, you start to allow for at least the possibility that other people might be seeing stuff that you can't see but which still affects you in some massive, important way.

You don't know any more than the rest of us

Carl Sagan is frequently described as an atheist — but there's also a quote commonly ascribed to him where he rejects that label, saying: "An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid."

Actually, atheism is at least as valid a position as religious belief — and atheism has a huge advantage over Young Earth Creationism, in that it hasn't actually been disproved. At the same time, Sagan was an agnostic, because there was no proof either way.

Still, it's great to be atheist — and I strongly support arguing publicly and loudly in favor of atheism as a point of view. Just, you know, don't be smug about it. You don't actually know any more than the rest of us, and the universe is a much stranger, more bewildering place than any of us can really begin to grasp, and the only thing that would be surprising is if we stop being constantly surprised. If you don't believe me, just read some science fiction.

Sources:
Worlds Enough and Time: Explorations of Time in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Gary Westfahl et al.
A Companion to Science Fiction, edited by David Seed