The September 2008 issue of Analog opens with a refreshingly positive depiction of faith in Henry G. Stratmann's "The Last Temptation of Katerina Savitskay." The title character is a fairly conservative Christian who is stranded on Mars with her fiancé, Martin Slayton. (They wound up there in "The Paradise Project," a story in the November 2007 issue.) The story is an extraterrestrial transposition of Jesus' temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13), with aliens taking the diabolical role. They don't understand why Katerina won't sleep with Martin before they're married, or why she won't break her Lenten fast to eat the food they offer her:
"There is no need to fast if you are hungry and food is available. It is not intelligent to blindly obey rules that inflict unnecessary pain.
"Reflexively she clutched the cross hanging from the gold chain around her neck. 'My obedience isn’t blind. Fasting helps me practice self-control. We humans can be tempted to indulge desires that could cause unnecessary suffering later for ourselves and others. Eating this food now wouldn’t directly injure me. But by not eating it I make it easier to resist temptation when it really could cause harm.'
"That explains why you do not mate with your companion though you strongly desire him.
"Katerina wondered if the aliens understood what a blush meant. 'Yes, I want us to share our love in that way. But doing that now could put the new life we might create in danger. And if our unborn child or me died from a medical problem beyond our ability to deal with on this world, I know Martin would feel terrible pain too. As difficult as it’s been to abstain, it might be far worse if we didn’t.'
"Delayed gratification. An interesting concept."
The story presents Katerina's faith a bit bluntly— Martin is a bit too fond of regarding her cross pendant and saying things like "You may have faith that things will turn out okay, but..."— but it's miles beyond the "religion-means-narrowminded" shorthand of, say, Bond Elam's "A Plethora of Truth" last month. [It's interesting to note, however, that Analog has cropped the illustration for the story on their website, shown above. The original in the magazine extends for a good inch lower, and we see that the object Katerina is holding in her hands is a cross. Were they worried about what their more anti-religious readers would think...?]
Given the greater nuance on display in Stratmann's story, it's particularly dismaying to see the tired clichés that Tom Eastman trots out in his book review column. In discussing the National Academy of Sciences' Science, Evolution, and Creationism, he drops this doozy:
"Scriptural explanations definitely do conflict with scientific explanations, and to the extent that religion and science endeavor to explain the same things, they do conflict. Only when religion confines itself to the discussions of the nonexistent (the supernatural, or the spiritual), does it not conflict with science, which can only say about such things, 'No evidence.'"
Why is it that atheists are so dogmatic about the meaning of Scripture? Do they really think that there is no interpretation that goes into a so-called "literalist" reading? Is there no room for poetry in the soul of Tom Eastman? And that passage ain't got nothing on what follows it:
"Does that sound harsh? So be it. The only value of religion that I have ever been able to discern is that it helps people live amicably together, and that tends to work best in religiously homogeneous societies. In pluralistic societies, it far too often breaks down."
Eastman seem to think that all faith is fundamentalism, that all believers wish that our society was "religiously homogeneous," and that pluralistic society forces these authoritarian aspirations to "break down." (This seems to be a pretty popular paranoia among atheists, and it's something I hope to write more about soon.) So, when Eastman (grudgingly?) acknowledges later in the same paragraph that creationists are a minority among the faithful, it comes across as more than a little self-contradictory. If he knows that creationists are a minority, does that mean he thinks that Congregationalists secretly want to overthrow the government? A 200-word book review is hardly the place for the sort of pontificating that Eastman attempts here, and he ends up sounding deeply uninformed and more than a little pompous. (Does that sound harsh? So be it.)