Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Battle for Science Fiction's Soul

I promised the other day that I would respond to an article I had read recently in TV Zone magazine (issue #216).

The item (entitled "Deep Thought"), was written by John Binns. He posed the question "Why are Science Fiction series so obsessed with mystical themes such as destiny?"

By looking at an array of television shows including Heroes, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, Doctor Who and Quantum Leap - from his own subjective viewpoint, he voiced concern that some science fiction programmes were playing fast and loose with evolutionary theory and by misunderstanding what evolution means... were threatening to let religion in through the back door.

Binns suggests that:

"the prosaic truth of natural selection is that the only choice that matters to a gene sequence is whether the individual who carries it decides to have children; everything else, at least as far as evolution is concerned, is irrelevant."

He even went as far in his criticism of modern science fiction, as to say that:

"Doctor Who has joined a cultural pantheon that understands so little of the concept of evolution that it might as well be an act of God after all"

Binns has made the classic mistake of believing that evolutionary theory is the exclusive property of atheism.

It really isn't.

I have many Christian friends who have a genuine and passionate relationship with God and yet are prepared to consider that Genesis is allegorical. There are many reputable scientists who feel the same way - too many to list. They believe in evolution as part of God's creative process... and so do not subscribe to the view that Binns expresses.

I could turn this post into an exploration of the various different ways that Christians choose to understand the created order... and there are several - contrary to the popular misnomer, not every Christian is a literal 6 day believer. However, I am writing this as a response to an attack on fiction not fact... and so now is not the time.

Binns also writes about the ideas of God, religion and fate working their way into science fiction:

"What's worrying about this trend is not just that it has persisted and made it into the mainstream, but that it has blended with a general ignorance about what evolution means, threatening to let religion in to popular culture by the back door."

Binns is clearly imposing his subjective view on us in this article. I stress once again, that there is no singular view on "what evolution means". Scientifically minded atheists are entitle to their views. However as I have pointed out before when being critical of Richard Dawkins, their views are not sacrosanct by any means. Their views when it comes to "why", are equally subjective... and we do well to be cautious of them when they preach their own flavour of fundamentalism.

The right to "freedom of religion" (inclusive of atheism, humanism and agnosticism), must not be superseded by "freedom from religion". The former is inclusive, the latter exclusive.

Science fiction writers should be absolutely free to express any theistic or atheistic viewpoint they desire. Lets remember that roughly only 16% of people don't subscribe to a theistic belief of some nature, so it is wrong that only 16% of people get a say in what input goes into popular culture. Religion and faith in themselves are not a threat and should not be seen as something to keep out of popular culture. If it were the case, most of my blog posts would never exist... because I frequently reference popular culture, so did the apostle Paul for that matter(but there the comparison ends).

Besides, even if you could eradicate purposeful theistic parallels, the ideas and principles are so saturated into the collective psyche that religious allegory, ideology, iconography and imagery would continue to influence created works.

It should be noted that J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5 is actually an atheist. However he does not seek to impose his atheism on his audience. He accepts that religion plays an important role in peoples lives - and often plays on it (remaining assertive with his atheism but never aggressive). Here is a sequence from the first season episode The Parliament of Dreams:

Note that the first in line is an atheist. It is beautiful sequence is it not? Staczynski is objective, he holds his creative microscope up to religion and he is equally favourable and critical towards it. I believe that is a good attitude to have towards writing.

Returning to Binns who concludes in his article:

"In other words there's nothing wrong with a few outlandish non scientific ideas in the dramas we watch; the only thing to be careful of is when they're masquerading as something else. And when a drama presents itself as knowledgeable about something as important as evolution, we should be able to expect not a bundle of pseudo-religious ideas masquerading as science, but something more like the real thing."

In conclusion, I would like to encourage John Binns to take some time out to become knowledgeable about something as important as other people's beliefs... and how they interact and co-exist with scientific theory. Science is not equipped to make bold philosophical and ideological statements in itself, it is not designed to... and the last time a political organisation decided to hijack scientific theory (oddly enough evolution), for it's purposes; millions of people ended up in furnaces. Faith and reason both have their role to play and we should not be afraid of embracing either. Science fiction should continue to flourish in a carnival of religious and scientific diversity.


  1. Good stuff! Thanks Nick, really appreciated your response to this. One of the things which has always struck me about Sci-Fi (by far my fave genre of all the stuff I read and watch) is that it is concerned with meaning and depth and hope and faith. Some of the most philosophical and spiritual reading I have ever done has been of Sci-fi books.

    Also, storytelling is crucial to what it means to be human, IMHO, and ultimately faith is about telling God's story, and inviting others to join that story and make it their own.

  2. I fundamentally believe that storytelling is the best way of passing on information. everyone knows that a great trick to improve the memory of a seemingly random sequence of numbers or items... is to invent a story revolving around them.

    Similarly the reason the oral tradition (the method the jews and early christians used, to convey the law, prophets and gospel message), was so succesful was that a lot of information was set out in narrative form.

    Nobody understood the power of a good story better than Jesus (demonstrated in the parables). Stories have the power to separate the curious from the hard hearted. To people who are dead, a story is just a "silly tale" and they quickly lose interest and walk away. Those who want to hear the meaning behind the story, wait till the end. This is another way in which being childlike is important. children love a good story.

    The film "Big Fish" is a good example of this, though I think I shall feature this in another blog... it's brewing.

  3. From what you wrote I think Mr Binns needs to understand a little more about evolutionary theory and not just other peoples beliefs.

    Babylon 5 owes as much to Tolkein as JMS himself since he rather stole some of the themes and ideas from LOTR. That aside it is one of the best pieces of sci-fi for exploring religion and religious ideas. I seem to remember Judaism featuring quite heavily in an episode around Ivanova dealing with the death of a relative. The New Battlestar Galactica is very good at exploring monotheism versus polytheism.

    Star Trek I am afraid is Politically Correct schlock as far as exploring faith and religion. Too shallow for my liking, even though I did watch every episode of all series and mostly enjoy them.

    The recent load of Super Hero films have done a reasonable job of exploring meaning, prejudice and faith.

    Who said people who blog are geeks ;-)

  4. Interesting stuff. I'm a bit curious to read the original article now, if only to figure out how he went from destiny to evolution (or vice versa).

    It seems to me that science fiction is the perfect place to examine big themes like destiny. But, I could be biased.

  5. As always Nick, your posts cause the sleeping braincells in my head to stir themselves and actually have some deep thoughts! I am a big fan of science fiction - love stuff like Trek, Stargate, B5. I've picked up on the themes of destiny, something out there, be it the "force" or other and having viewed them, it's provoked much discussion between myself and the other half about eternity in a round about way.


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