The Importance Of Faith As An Element In Realistic SFF Worldbuilding

It’s a topic that comes around time and again: Religion and Science Fiction. While some argue the two are antithetical, others, even Atheists, strongly disagree. SFSignal had such a case in their Mind Meld on the subject in which such known Agnostics and Atheists as Mike Resnick, Ben Bova, Michael A. Burstein and L.E. Modessit, Jr. argue that the two are not antithetical. In my own guest post at SFSignal, I cited 15 Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy with Religious  Themes and readers listed many more in the comments. Wikipedia has a 26 page listing of Religious Ideas In Science Fiction citing all kinds of classics and popular novels stretching back through the history of the genre. So it would seem such generalizations are hardly appropriate, and in fact, I’d argue that faith itself is such a key motivator of humans that to world build without recognizing it is to teeter on the edge of believability.

In his famous series on The Change, author S.M. Stirling uses The Church Universal and Triumphant, a real group, as antagonists. In an interview, I asked him if this reflected his own feelings about organized religion and he answered as follows: “Oh, certainly not. The Church Universal and Triumphant is an actual theosophical cult, but even they aren’t evil in the real world (weird, yes, evil, no). I’m an atheist myself, but plenty of extremely smart people have been and are religious in various  flavors; I don’t think that belief makes you stupid or bad. In fact, I also don’t think that atheists will ever be the majority of humanity, as religion serves genuine needs.”

To me, religion is a core element of societies as we know them. While there may be societies on Earth with no religion, I’ve not heard of one, and thus, when writing worlds, readers expect there to be elements of faith and belief in some higher power. That’s not to say they expect such themes to dominate the narrative, although they can when done well, but some reckoning with it is a natural element we expect in realistic worlds.

Not all of this should or need be done in the name of the conflict between faith and science. In the classic Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, the setting and protagonists are monks in a Catholic monastery fighting to preserve knowledge after an apocalypse. James Blish’s A Case Of Conscience and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow deal with Jesuits whose faith is shattered by their discoveries in visiting alien planets. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and Silent Planet series deal with people finding faith, as does my own novel The Worker Prince. God-machines are common themes in series like Asimov’s Foundation, Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and William Gibson’s Neuromancer, amongst many. Authors such as H.G. Wells, Tim Powers, Gene Wolfe, Dan Simmons and even Carl Sagan have wrestled with religious themes in various ways in their works.

For most of us, faith in something or someone is a core motivator for our daily lives. There’s a reason idolatry is so common in many incarnations. From the ultimate incarnation-fest that is American Idol to car commercials and even the Oscars, we find plenty of people and things to inspire our envy: If I was only just like so-and-so, life would be perfect. If only I just had such-and-such, everything would be ideal. And our dreams of those perfections can drive us in our careers, marriages and every aspect of our lives with the desire to obtain them and discover if our belief is true or not.

Having characters who wrestle similarly gives power to our narratives. After all, just as writers’ lives are a constant journey of self-discovery, so are most characters’ lives, and part of the discovery is analyzing who we are in context of what we believe and how that directs us to respond to the people and events around us. Even if the end result is faith only in ourselves, there’s a drive there to believe in something bigger, some reason for our existence or some hope for a better tomorrow.

Thus, I think the wrestling with faith in our Science Fiction and Fantasy worlds is inevitable and appropriate. In fact, I always chuckle when people bother to use Christianity and Islam as religious models but just change the name. Why bother? People know they exist and wrestle with them in one form or another. To me, the literature of discovery that is Science Fiction and Fantasy, asking “what ifs” about the world, is the perfect place for such examinations to occur.

In fact, if characters wander through life without such higher goals, I find them hard to relate to. Are they purely driven by selfishness or ego? Are they interested in making a better world or just bettering things for themselves? I find anyone without the desire to make a better world hard to admire or respect. But that doesn’t mean they’re not driven by faith. Self-confidence and the belief in one’s self can be incredibly powerful as a motive. Even when they do have a larger goal, self-faith can be the driving force that keeps a character going. Tom Cruise’s character in Jerry Maguire has a strong sense of faith in himself. He is pushing for a higher goal for his industry, despite being laughed at and fired for his faith in it. Yet he doesn’t give up. He presses on. And he triumphs.

When I read a novel, one of the questions I continually ask is “What drives this character?” i.e. “What does this character believe in?” It speaks heavily to motive and faith is one of the greatest motives of all. In a world with so many things we struggle to explain with science and which seem so beyond human understanding, it seems natural for people to wonder if a higher power might exist that created them. This can only lead to questioning and even a drive to explore and discover the truth: Does God exist?

Asking such questions makes not only your characters relatable but your world as well, because these are questions so many people ask every day. We often ask them of ourselves.

Scientists operate on faith at a certain level as well. It takes faith to believe science can provide the answers. It takes faith to believe you can find a solution through scientific method. You have to believe in your skills and knowledge as a scientist to propose a theorem and follow it up with the hard work necessary to prove it as scientific fact. You have to believe in scientific method to hold to anything in science as fact. All of this is a form of faith.

So no, I don’t believe religion and science fiction are antithetical. In fact, I believe there are more compatibilities than we often recognize. The driving force behind both, in any case, is one of them: faith. People need something to believe in. We crave it in our inner beings. Although it can take many forms, positing a world without such motives risks alienating readers. Would they ever accept the validity of such a place? Would they relate to it? For this reason, I think Faith is an important element in  realistic Science Fiction and Fantasy worldbuilding. What are your thoughts?

Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s latest release, “Rivalry On A Sky Course” is an ebook short story prequel to his Saga Of Davi Rhii novel series. His debut space opera novel The Worker Prince, received a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and short stories in Tales Of The Talisman and the anthologies Of Fur and Fire and Wandering Weeds: Tales Of Rabid Vegetation(forthcoming 2012). The editor of the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales 6 from Flying Pen Press, Bryan’s second novel, The Returning, and third novel, The North Star: An Episodic Novel, are forthcoming in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

18 5-star & 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $4.99 Kindle  or Nook  $14.99 tpb.

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  1. Completely agree–with you and S.M. Stirling. I think religion is a necessary background piece for any SF/F story (or foreground piece). If nothing else, it colors the world and adds believability. But more importantly, it creates resonance and understanding with the reader. As you say, we can all relate to someone with drive and faith.

    It is interesting that while so many SF/F writers are atheist or agnostic, they understand the importance of including religion and faith in a story. They understand the humanity possible in religion….

  2. I’m not human, I’m a meat popsicle.

    Wait, what? Sorry, was responding to the tick box.

    Anyway, yes, faith and religion are important to worldbuilding, be it SF or Fantasy. Even societies which are entirely agnostic and atheistic should have, at the bottom, a reason for that.. Or even just secular societies where religious devotion is not strong. How did they get that way? Why are they that way?

  3. I agree with your statement: “. . . I’d argue that faith itself is such a key motivator of humans that to world build without recognizing it is to teeter on the edge of believability.”
    I’d actually hoped this article would be about tip on showing the worldviews in settings and through characters, so a writer is not clobbering their reader with worldview. 🙂

  4. Faith in some form, Sam, whether it’s religion or some other ideology. We all have faith in our idols and ideologies regardless. Organized religion is just one form.

    Yes, Paul on the second part. I have no IDEA what the first part is. Perhaps your religious creed? If so, I call myself a skeptic of your self-understanding. 😉

  5. Frank, I do tips on my own blog. I do editorials here.

  6. Insightful article. it’s interesting that you bring this topic up because I’ve written some thought about it on my own blog. I’m planning to write another series later this year and I’m wrestling with this very issue – in my mind the series will be science fiction except that this story will include one supernatural being. No magic or sorcery or anything like that but the supernatural does come in to play at some point.

    So instead of just dealing with characters who profess faith in some deity how do you deal with said deity in a science fiction story? or is it science fiction at all at that point?

  7. Shaun Farrell says

    Just to chime in Victoria, I don’t think that your story being science fiction changes how you deal with a deity very much. People are still people, and while their world will shape their views, history shows, I think, that our belief in deities isn’t altered much by technological advancement. You seem to infer that a deity can’t exist in a science fictional story. Am I misreading that? If you are saying that, than I would disagree, and I’d say you should treat the deity in such a way that is consistent with the world with the thought in mind that people will always believe in God no matter what science does or does not reveal.

    I’m not sure if I’m really addressing your questions!

  8. Thanks Shaun! Your answer did address my question. I have always thought that that the supernatural element prevents a story from being science fiction. It looks as if I’ll have to think about this issue some more. Thanks!

  9. Shaun Farrell says

    I’d love to see what Bryan has to say about this, too, Victoria. And I’m glad I added something useful to the conversation!

  10. Well, faith can be spiritual as in religious or it can have nothing to do with supernatural. It can be your faith that a certain job or financial level or object will bring you to the ultimate success or level of achievement. It can be a belief in scientific method or a process, etc. So the use of faith in storytelling, in and of itself, is not fantastical. It can be science fictional as well. My own Davi Rhii books deal with faith in a space opera setting. Now, I think how you approach it is important and determines your genre in part. But you could write an epic fantasy and throw in metal men or robots and some lasers or technology and all of a sudden it becomes science fiction or a genre mix. Ken Scholes did just that in his Psalms Of Isaak series. You can also set your epic fantasy on a distant planet with people who settled there from the stars, throw in aliens and have an epic science fiction fantasy, such as Robert Silverberg did with his Majipoor books. So I don’t think the inclusion of faith or supernatural is limited to a particular genre. The cultures of both Majipoor and Scholes’ Named Lands have religions and secular belief sects in addition to horses and traditional fantasy elements (tropes) and work quite well. It’s limited not by genre labels, which exist as much because of marketing purposes as anything, but by your own imagination, Victoria.

  11. Victoria,

    I got the impression from your post that your story includes an actual deity as one of the characters, not just as a object of faith? That could still be straight sci-fi if the “deity” was just a member of an advanced race. If it’s presented as truly a supernatural being, then you’re wandering into the sci-fi/fantasy hybrid category. Not that it’s a bad thing, just saying.

    This is an interesting subject Brian because I’ve thought a lot about it with my debut, specifically because I’ve taken our society and advanced it past devastating religious wars to a point where it’s now a purely secular society. But even in that situation, all the trappings and semblance of religion are there, whether the object of the worship (or idolatry, I suppose) is an Emperor with absolute power or an omnipotent God.

    I don’t think you can really have any sort of believable large-scale society without some “faith” system, because human history bears out that people will always need something to believe in. New religions and faith systems replace older ones, even, as you pointed out, a belief in the predictability and possibilities of science. It’s not a shedding of faith, just a new coat.

  12. I enjoyed this post. I suppose I’ve never really seen religion and science as opposites. Many of the early naturalists were religious — learning about the world was seen as one way to learn more about the mind of God.

  13. Leah & MK, thanks for your thoughts. I agree that they are not opposites. I think the church helped advance science at times and I know science has advanced faith. I think the battle between reason and faith is often manufactured. There are differences in how people regard and define faith, but yes, it definitely doesn’t go away. It will manifest in one form or another. Even a future society, as Leah posits, will have a systemized faith, even if it’s not in religious form.

  14. Bryan –

    It’s a good point you raise, but I think that at the tail end you dilute it to the point of meaninglessness, because you redefine “faith” as something in the context of religion to something merely aspirational or relational. These senses of the word are not the same sense, any more than the term “slippery” as in “banana peel” is the same as “slippery” as in “politician.” One is a sensory analogy for the other–in this same way, “faith” in the sense of “religious conviction” is an analog term to “faith” in the sense of “trust” or “aspiration,” but they are qualitatively different.

    That kind of distinction matters if you’re trying to get to the root of the interesting relationship between science fiction and religion. I’d argue that the relationship proceeds mainly along three facets:

    First, the human impulse to create mythology is the business of the science fiction author–when we write stories of strange new worlds, alien beings, human apotheosis, and weird gods interacting with humans (whether that interaction is pietistic or antipietistic), we are doing the same thing that Homer and other ancient mythmakers did, and we’re inviting our readers to trespass–however tentatively–into the domain of religious thought and feeling while they’re trapped in our universes.

    Second, the nature of science fiction is to put its characters in touch with the cusp of the known and the knowable–i.e. right at the “wonder threshhold” where religious feeling exists. Whether you’re talking Sagan’s marvelous descriptions of the universe or the sweeping hymns of the Anglican Reformation, spirituality has always found its keenest incarnation in peeking just over the border of human understanding. In a science fictional universe, our characters often live right on that border, and thus routinely wrestle with the feelings of immense wonder and the philosophical and religious disquiet they can sometimes create.

    Thirdly, religion is a pervasive influence in all of recorded history, intruding as it does into the sociological, philosophical, economic, and legislative domains to greater or lesser degrees at different points in history. Ignoring it would be both irresponsible (as it would make our worlds pretty culturally thin) and dumb (as it removes a ready and ubiquitous source of conflict, both internal and external).

    You flirted with each of these points in your essay, but I couldn’t help but feel let down when you took the more pedestrian turn of saying “faith is everywhere” and then redefining the word to fit your point. Robust essays on this topic are hard to come by, so kudos for raising the issue.

    In hopes of a follow-up that scratches a little deeper

  15. Dan, respectfully must disagree about diluting and pedestrian. Although I shall not use similar terms in doing so.

    Definitions: FAITH

    confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another’s ability.
    belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.
    belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion: the firm faith of the Pilgrims.
    belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.: to be of the same faith with someone concerning honesty.
    a system of religious belief: the Christian faith; the Jewish faith.

    in Entry: faith  [feyth] Show IPA
    Part of Speech: noun
    Definition: trust in something
    Synonyms: acceptance, allegiance, assent, assurance, belief, certainty, certitude, confidence, constancy, conviction, credence, credit, credulity, dependence, faithfulness, fealty, fidelity, hope, loyalty, reliance, stock, store, sureness, surety, troth, truth, truthfulness
    Antonyms: disbelief, distrust, doubt, misgiving, skepticism, suspicion

    Although I am a man of Christian faith, I think there are many types of faith. Some become idolatry of objects and things. Not all take the form of religion involving supernatural beings or organized belief systems. That is the context of faith I am referring to. You may find it “pedestrian,” but I find it something I observe daily. Religious context may be the first to come into mind at the mention of “faith,” but I think that’s a misunderstanding which needs to be corrected. I think we need to open ourselves to its broader definitions and possibilites, and THAT’s what this essay is about.

  16. Thank you every one for your comments. I’ve found all of them insightful and informative. Wonderful discussion.
    @Leah – you know, I think that fantasy/science fiction hybrid genre may be the wise choice for me.

  17. Bryan —

    By “dilluting” I wasn’t trying to engage in subtle put-downs, I meant exactly what the words mean. The kind of faith you start your article talking about (religious faith, systematized or not) is a massive sociological force in human history, something that a gamer might call “Chaotic Neutral.” As a reserve of energy and feeling it’s been deployed throughout the millenia–both at the behest of organized religious establishements and as a result of the movements of individual conscience–in ways good and evil, and almost always interesting. For a writer, this makes it a potent dramatic tool.

    The other kind of faith you bring in to broaden your subject does dilute this potency. By positing an equivalency between religious doctrinal commitments (and fervor) and things like trust, fidelity to oaths, etc. you’re taking (ironically for a believer) a grand, almost operatic dramatic element and reducing it to the dramatic level of an interpersonal contract. Since all fiction traffics in relationships and the conflict arising from them, it seems to me that you’re ignoring the distinctive dramatic attributes of Faith (with a capital F) in order to make it seem normal and not significantly different from other sorts of faith.

    The trouble for me as a writer is that a LOT of words in the English language have multiple semi-related definitions. “Wet” is a great example. It means something different in swimming (covered in water) than it does when used in relation to sex (sweaty, aroused, secreting fluids), something different in humor (humiliation), and something different again in sound engineering (changed by an effect). Yet, with all these meanings, these disparate terms all derive from a similar root, are spelled the same and pronounced the same, and all the derivatives on some level work on mutually-reinforcing analogy to the original root term.

    “Faith” is a term very like this, as the dictionary definition you supply above illustrates. It’s just as meaningless to talk about “opening ourselves up to broader definitions of wetness” as it is to “opening ourselves up to broader definitions of faith.” There aren’t broader definitions–there are multiple definitions which are tangentially related (and not necessarily mutually exclusive). A person of Christian upbringing can have “faith” (belief in Christian doctrine) and believe he’s “faithful” to God (in the sense of keeping commitments and maintaining an ongoing relationship, and the same person can keep faith (trust) with his bank, can be faithful (sexually fidelitous) to his spouse, display loyalty to his fellows, etc. or he can be or do any single one of these, or any combination of these, or none of them at all. Each of those is a discrete character trait, each with dramatic potential.

    Thus, when I say “pedestrian” I’m not saying that these other senses of the word are without merit (and I’m certainly not trying to insult you), I’m pointing out that they’re ordinary–so ordinary that without them there is no fiction. One might as well speak with great passion on the dramatic importance of the sense of smell, then broaden the definition to include respiration halfway through. You’d get no argument from me that respiration is important, but by linking it to smell in such a way you draw attention away from the dramatically useful sense of smell as an element of worldbuilding. Certainly the air on a certain planet can have a certain smell, but that’s as may be.

    I suppose at the end of all this I’m terribly confused. The point of your essay seems to be an ecumenical or theological one, arguing for the normalization–and perhaps, the de-emphasis?–of religion in SFF Worldbuilding (as you say here: “Although I am a man of Christian faith, I think there are many types of faith. Some become idolatry of objects and things. Not all take the form of religion involving supernatural beings or organized belief systems. That is the context of faith I am referring to.”) rather than, as your title declares (and the first half of your essay seems to say), an advocacy for the importance of religion–or at least religious impluses and motivations–in SFF worldbuilding. Not that the two are mutually exclusive; certainly the same person can hold both ambitions at the same time. It just seems like there are two articles here: One written to your fellow Christian (or other religious) authors who might prone to under-nuance their faith-related worldbuilding, and the other written to your secular colleagues who might be prone to under-estimating the foundational depth with which many people of faith regard their beliefs.

    But, on the other hand, you may also be seeing equivalences where none exist. For example, although a teenybopper’s devotion to the Beatles might take on the character of Charismatic fervor during concerts, even most highly-excitable Beatles fans did not ask themselves “What would Paul do?” when looking for ethical guidance in everyday life. Devotion and affection to larger-than-life figures comes in different degrees, and lumping them under the umbrella of “faith” and “idolatry” does real violence to the gradient of human affections and loyalties.

    Please don’t misunderstand–I’m not trying to be a jerk about this. I’ve read all of Lewis, Luther, Anselm, and many of the other theologians and pop theologians that your argument depends on–and I’ve spent a lot of time in and around the ministry and its attendant culture–and I’m sympathetic to the fact that the essay looks coherent from your point of view. But from the outside, it looks like you’re artificially jamming two disparate ideas together to the detriment of your article’s thrust (as stated in your title), and I think it’s a shame, since I agree with the point of your title that religion and its cultural, psychological, political and sociological effects is massively useful both in worldbuilding and in character development.

    For what it’s worth

  18. Dan,

    Can you flesh out how you believe religious faith is qualitatively different from trust? I’m still not getting what you understand the difference to be.

    The reason why I’m asking is because there are many who try to define faith as something akin to wishful thinking and then go on to contrast that understanding of faith with science as if that’s the only kind of faith there is. I sense you may be making a different sort of argument, so I was hoping you’d expand.

    By way of background information, the way I’ve come to understand how Christians more knowledgeable than myself use the word, they typically use it to mean that Christian faith is trust in a conclusion that is based on a set of propositional statements and evidences concerning the life and resurrection of Jesus.

  19. From my point of view, you’re just arguing semantics. I stand by my essay and the statement that faith can be in object and things not just people or gods or systems. You are free to write and post on your site your own essay at any time. But I don’t see anything artificial about what I’m saying. Humans, by nature, seek belief in something or someone to give them hope. It manifests in many ways. Many are false. But that doesn’t make them any less a part of the picture. The THRUST of my article is that faith is part of human nature and should be represented in world building to be believable. I am not advocating one form over another. I choose based on my beliefs but won’t impose that on others. I stand by what I wrote. I believe it. I wrote it with sincerity and I see it clearly in my mind. I am not going to get in some war over my verbage. It’s silly and pointless. I will refrain from further response on this point.

  20. Victoria, genuinely glad we can be of help. Thanks for your thoughts as well!

    • Larry Wilson says

      Faith – Religion – Spirituality All definitely part of all societies. I don’t think this necessarily means that any of this would be part of a totally alien life form and its social organization. That is the speculative part of speculative fiction. Will any of this be a part of human culture a few millennia hence? That too is speculative.

      I’m surprised no one has mentioned Orson Scott Card. Certainly he deals with faith in the Ender’s series and parallel Shadow series in the far future.

      Faith is an important element in speculative fiction even when it is considered negatively. Think of James K. Morrow, esp. his Godhead trilogy. Sure, he is an avowed and articulate atheistic humanist, but he deals with faith through speculative fiction.

      What other authors in the SF genre deal with faith in a negative way, either explicitly or implicitly?

  21. rwhegwood says

    Excellent discussion, and timely. Part of the problem as I see it is that so few know how to treat faith, religion, or the religious impulse in mankind very well at all. There is so little ”literacy” of any text or tradition that ”religion” in much of the speculative fiction that touches on it feels thin and fake. If one is not being stoned with vanilla marshmallow tweaks of Catholics in outer SPACE Space space, then its drawling Luddite congregationalists taking over the colony. Then there is the generic good ”religion” of low fat high sex, bunny hugging cafeteria paganism. The treatments are either flannel or cardboard because the authors either are actively hostile to traditional faith communities, or have so little or so limited religious experience as to have nothing to draw upon. They don’t have the tools to get into let alone appreciate and create with that particular palette of human experience. Very few can do it believably, and fewer still do it well.

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