JANE: For the last few weeks, we’ve been discussing religion and SF. While certainly there has been SF written to “debunk” religion or to examine various theological issues from the point of view of a future in which it might be possible to – for example – figure out all The Nine Billion Names of God, there has also been SF written in which religious, theological or spiritual elements are seen as being a valuable part of human nature.
Having settled that issue to our mutual satisfaction, there’s another I’d love to look at: What happens when religious or spiritual concepts created for a story walk out of the fictional world and into our “real” one?
ALAN: Well, the obvious elephant-in-the-room example of this is Scientology. It was the brainchild of the SF writer L. Ron Hubbard and it derived from some ideas he’d published in Astounding in the late 1940s and early 1950s. John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding, was an enthusiastic early adopter of Hubbard’s ideas, claiming that they’d cured his sinusitis!
Hubbard coined the word “Dianetics” to describe his techniques for ridding the mind of fears and psychosomatic illnesses. The fruits of his thinking were eventually published as a book in 1951. As far as I can tell, this book (Dianetics – A New Science of the Mind) has remained constantly in print ever since.
In 1954, Hubbard redefined Dianetics as a religion which he called Scientology. Dianetics, Hubbard said, focused primarily on the physical being whereas Scientology concerned itself with the spiritual.
JANE: I had no idea that Hubbard’s work went back that far. I don’t think I heard of either Dianetics or Scientology until the 1980’s.
ALAN: I have an amusing story about Scientology. I wrote a 100 -word review of a biography of Hubbard for a local newspaper. Almost by return of post I received a HUGE parcel from the Scientologists. I have no idea how they found my address (perhaps they could give the CIA lessons). The parcel contained a lot of glossy Scientology literature and a neatly-typed 10,000-word essay pointing out all the wrong assumptions in my review and all the lies and damn lies in the biography itself. It seemed an awful lot of effort to go to for a tiny review in an obscure newspaper – but that’s Scientology for you.
I found their response amusing, but also a little scary. So perhaps that’s all we can usefully say about Scientology…
JANE: Another good example of religious/spiritual ideas crossing out of fiction into reality comes from Robert A. Heinlein’s novel 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. In it, Valentine Michael (“Mike”) Smith is the sole survivor of an Earth colony on Mars. In the best traditions of feral child fiction, he is raised by the Martians. When he returns to Earth, he carries with him the values – including religious/philosophical ones – taught to him by the Martian “Old Ones.”
These include sharing water (and the bond that creates between “water brothers,” ritual cannibalism, and, last but definitely not least, the idea of “grokking” something – a deep understanding that encompasses a complex hybrid of intellectual and emotional comprehension that is more than either alone.
In the novel, Mike goes to the fate destined for most prophets who push local customs too far, but “grok” crossed over into the “real world.” Even today you’ll occasionally hear someone say “I grok that” in all seriousness. On a lighter note, there’s also a tee-shirt: “I Grok Spock.”
ALAN: I grok all that now, but it took me several readings of the book to grasp fully just what was meant by the term. It’s a really useful word for a very important (though sometimes slippery) concept, so it’s hardly surprising that the word has entered the language. But I’m sure many people who use it don’t know where it comes from originally.
Hubbard and Heinlein aren’t alone in influencing the real world with their philosophical ideas. Octavia Butler’s Earthseed books, which we talked about last time, have also directly inspired three spiritual organisations – SolSeed, a celebration of life and change, Terasem (from the Greek roots tera- (earth) and sem- (seed) which uses technology in an attempt to shape God, and Earthseed itself, a humanistic religion derived from pagan traditions and filtered through Butler’s fiction. There seems to have been something quite inspirational about her thinking.
JANE: I had no idea, but I think that’s fantastic! Let’s see, what else? Ah, hah!
Roger Zelazny’s 1969 novel, Creatures of Light and Darkness, contained a passage that has come to be called “the agnostic’s prayer.”
“Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.”
Having heard Roger quote it from memory, I’d say he was fond of it, but I think he’d be surprised to find it has taken on a life of its own.
ALAN: That’s marvellous. I thoroughly approve!
Another huge science fictional influence on the real world comes from the Star Wars movies. The Jedi Church has a large number of members. In the 2001 census in New Zealand, 1.5% of people declared their religion as Jedi. The statistics bureau refused to accept it as a legitimate answer though, interestingly, if they had accepted it, it would have been the second largest religion in the country.
In 2010 a man called Craig Thomas ran for the Auckland city council on a Jedi platform (I don’t know if he was elected or not), and Jedi wedding celebrants can legitimately marry couples.
Unfortunately the 2011 census was never completed because of the disastrous earthquakes in Christchurch, so we don’t know if the religion’s popularity has continued to increase.
JANE: I hope there’s a new census so we can learn if the Force is still with us.
ALAN: But nothing is so serious that it can’t be examined from a humorous angle. Science fiction has had a lot of fun with religious ideas. Let’s look at some of them next time.