Science Fiction as Improvised Religion

Science Fiction

Our need for a new mythos, that is, a narrative that helps us understand our role in society and the universe, has never been more urgent. Declining church membership, the rise of alternate religions, and the increase in visibility and number of those who consider themselves non-deist clearly indicate that the old narratives simply don’t work for us any more.

And the daily news forces us to realize that our institutions no longer inspire confidence, or instill social order. The division and alienation driving people to acts of madness are red flags telling us we’ve lost our way.

Many commentators claim we need a new mythos to unite and inspire — others say we need to stop speeding down the dead-end road we’re on and get back to the basics. How do we reclaim our humanity and sense of purpose? This short essay from Dispatches from the Cusp looks to science fiction as a signpost leading toward that new mythos:

Within the last couple of centuries, science fiction has served humanity as part searchlight, part sentinel, part prophetic voice.

Originally known as “fantastic fiction” and “speculative fiction,” this artistic genre – genre almost seems an understatement in this context – has not simply entertained us for generations or, for that matter, divined our future. In many instances, science fiction has supplied a kind of evolutionary tug. It not only has also pointed the way toward scientific and technological innovation and our role within this expanded conceptual landscape but has also inspired us to reach for this future – not only to reach toward it but also to conceive and to refine the nature and terms of this quest. To put it another way, science fiction now seems to be integrally bound up in scientific and technological progress, an essential facet of the equation. Much of the scientific and technological progress we have achieved arguably would not have been possible without the clarifying effects of science fiction.

I have also been intrigued for a long time with how science fiction has taken on many of properties of religion, not only in terms of helping us divine the future – no pun intended – but also enabling us to identify, improvise and refine the moral and ethical scaffolding to cope within this emerging future.

I think this writer is on to something. We know that fantastic stories engage deeper responses from readers than mundane exposition. And in a world that’s been flattened by globalism and stripped of its mystery by behavioral psychologists, a renewed sense of wonder is a good place to start if we’re to define a mythos that helps us find our way.

Let’s get started …

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17 thoughts on “Science Fiction as Improvised Religion”

  1. I like how speculative fiction enables us to talk about “real world” issues under the guise of fantasy and science fiction. What may be unpalatable to staunch believers in a particular paradigm becomes fodder for contemplation or acceptable when couched in the fantastical.

    This makes me think of the post-apocalyptic books that came out shortly after WWII. They shaped our thinking about nuclear war. Speculative fiction’s approach to religion seems to be cautionary in some regards, and in other cases focused on redefining the values of the future. It’s an interesting topic, Mike. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Great subject! Storytelling helps us disscus real life issues without the clutter of present day politics and people. It helps us get beyond our prejudices to see the true heart of a matter. Your statement “Speculative fiction’s approach to religion seems to be cautionary in some regards, and in other cases focused on redefining the values of the future” really made me stop and think. Traditonal religion has tried to change with the times but has started to lose its efficacy. We have always told stories that help define us wether framed as mythology, scripture, or oral history. I think you’re right that speculative fiction will help lead the way. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Some religions have remarkable science-fiction-style stories at their foundation, like aliens appearing and immaculately creating immortal hybrids to lead humans out of their misery, or supernatural beings from space brining earth-destroying cataclysms. It would be interesting to see Christianity’s stories redone as a major motion picture science-fiction film. Or has that been done?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Advances in science and technology have taken the mystery out of so much that was not understood 100, 150 years ago – so assumptions are different. I suspect humanity looks some mystery in life, and myths and stories fill that void – but now in order to remain mysterious the tales have to change. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t think Science Fiction and Religion share that much. Yes, there is the divination part which I also mention in my last blog post, but Science Fiction is fulfilling our need for adventure and discovery (which lacks immensely in the modern world) while Religion fulfils our need for safety and hope.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mike,

    How closely do you think Joseph Campbell’s theory of “The Hero” plays into what is going on in SF in terms of being a religion? He has a point about the supernatural, in which he argues had played an integral role in a hero’s journey for generations. I think the supernatural intervention has become AI or some other advanced species in most recent years regardless of how the dystopian genre has tainted it. Your thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I would say the older franchises such as Star Trek and Star Wars are going into a new direction now. I feel like we are at a point in our time we’re dystopian stories would serve a better purpose for us. I do think people need something to believe in, one way or another. Great read.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Mike, I found your article well written and thought-provoking. In short, I enjoyed it. However, would you oppose a different viewpoint?

    I don’t think that today’s religion, even with declining church membership, will ever totally go away. And if it does, I think there is a good chance that it will return. Take Greek mythology for instance. In Greece people are starting to worship the old gods again. On a broader sense, some of this new age religion isn’t so new at all, but old forms of paganism coming back and being reinvented. Perhaps the same could happen with Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc, etc, just to name a few.

    You also mention a “new mythos to unite and inspire,” and that science fiction can be that “new mythos.” In a sense I believe it can be. But I can’t help but think in the end that fantasy and magic will be more popular than science fiction in the future. Science fiction is rapidly becoming science fact, killing some of the wonder for what could have been. Science fiction may turn into science fact, but fantasy will always be fantasy. Therefore, I can’t help but think that the old narratives will survive and still be popular years from now.

    Anyway, I can tell I’m going to like this blog. I might as well follow it. Thanks for the wonderful piece.

    Liked by 1 person

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