Or, if not atheistic, at least radically secularist. Its authors presented religion as a dangerous, irrational opponent of scientific inquiry and, therefore, human progress.
That's what the conventional wisdom seems to hold, at least. In God in the Movies, Albert J. Bergesen states that SF "turns potential grace experiences into science-like puzzles," de-mystifying the mystical. SF critic Darko Suvin has argued that SF that attempts to incorporate religious ideas produces only "fairy tales." More recently, Books Under the Bridge described, as a foregone conclusion, "the lack of any serious portrayal of religion in science-fiction." And this all started, it seems, in the rationalistic humanism of the authors of SF's golden age, prominent, anti-theist names like Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke, whose stories frequently describe the struggle of science against faith.
But does that attitude accurately describe the golden age? As a test, let's examine the magazine that's often credited with ushering SF out of its Gernsbackian adolescence and toward its maturity: the July 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. What makes this issue stand out? Two stories, primarily. The issue contains A.E. van Vogt's first professional sale, "Black Destroyer," which is probably best known these days as the (very loose) inspiration for Alien. The July 1939 issue also includes Isaac Asimov's "Trends," which wasn't his first story, but was his first sale to uber-editor John W. Campbell, who was to the '40s and '50s what Hugo Gernsback was to the '20s and '30s.
"Trends" certainly seems to support the theory that the golden age was an age of secularism. The story concerns a would-be astronaut named John Harman whose attempts to launch a manned space mission face opposition from a powerful religious zealot. Otis Eldredge, the story's preacher-villain, embodies an extreme vision of faith-reason conflict, stating that "science has gone too far... We must halt it indefinitely, and allow the world to catch up." A newspaper editorial supporting Eldredge's views puts forth an opinion on space travel similar to that of C.S. Lewis:
"It is not given to man to go wheresoever ambition and desire lead him. There are things forever denied him, and aspiring to the stars is one of these... In allowing [Harman] to carry out his evil designs, we make ourselves accessory to the crime, and Divine vengeance will fall on all alike."
The story's conclusion sees rationalistic science triumphant over irrational faith. The point of the story, as suggested by the title, is the swinging of society's pendulum from radical to reactionary and back again—an idea that turns up again, in a more complex manner, in the Foundation series. But the story makes no bones about which side of that swing is better for society. The story is secularist, humanist, agnostic (if not explicitly atheist)—all the things that the conventional wisdom ascribes to Golden Age authors as a whole. Asimov clearly didn't think much of religion, and "Trends" is a powerful statement against the tyranny of dogmatism.
What of the other era-defining story in this volume? Does "Black Destroyer" have anything to say about religion and society? On the surface, it would appear not. It is a taut adventure story about a group of astronauts who are terrorized by a predatory alien—no preacher-villains here. Where "Trends" wears its philosophy of religion on its sleeve, "Black Destroyer" is more subtle, but it stands in stark contrast to Asimov's story. When the astronauts arrive on the decaying planet of the deadly Coeurl, they ponder the forces that have led to the world's decline:
"There is no record of a culture entering abruptly into the period of contending states. It is always a slow development; and the first step is a merciless questioning of all that was once held sacred. INner certainties cease to exist, are dissolved before the ruthless probings of scientific and analytic minds. The skeptic becomes the highest type of being.
"I say that this culture ended abruptly in its most flourishing age. The sociological effects of such a catastrophe would be a sudden vanishing of morals, a reversion to almost bestial criminality, unleavened by any sense of ideal, a callous indifference to death."
For van Vogt, religion isn't an opponent to progress, it is the glue that holds a functioning society together. Without it, things fall apart, and the sleep of faith breeds monsters like the Coeurl. Van Vogt's attitude toward religion is one of Protestant rationalism, an almost Weberian consideration of the societal benefits of shared faith.
The role of religion at the inception of the golden age of SF gets even more complicated with the consideration of the nonfictional content of this issue of Astounding. In 1939 Asimov wasn't just an author, he was also a fan and letterhack, and the magazine that boasted his first sale to Campbell also contains a letter from the young writer. In responding to another reader's comments on the role of women in society (and, by extension, in SF), Asimov shows a very different attitude than that presented in "Trends":
"Who says that only men are responsible for war and repression?... How about Catherine II of Russia? How about Catherine de Medici of France? How about Semiramis of Assyria? How about Queen Elizabeth of England? A sweet lot—not... On the other hand, the great philosophers and the great religious leaders of the world—the ones who taught truth and virtue, kindness and justice—were all, all men."
Of course, the most apparent thing about this letter is its unabashed sexism.* But it's telling that Asimov's example to show the inherent superiority of women over men doesn't come from science, it comes from religion. He presents the highest expression of human achievement as spiritual—quite a surprise from someone who is, today, considered wholly atheist. Taken in this context, "Trends" takes on the appearance not of an attack on faith itself, but on a particular kind of faith, a close-mindedness that has forgotten the wisdom of those great teachers of "truth and virtue, kindness and justice."
So let's ask it again: was golden age SF atheistic? SF certainly became mystical in the '60s and '70s, and that spirituality had not yet developed. But, more importantly, neither had atheism. The spiritual visions of later authors like Philip K. Dick, Robert Silverberg, and Samuel R. Delany the anti-religious sentiment of Arthur C. Clarke and the later Asimov both grew from seeds planted in the soil of the golden age. But that soil nurtured both equally. The authors of the golden age had a variety of attitudes toward religion, and individual authors could present what seem to us contradictory arguments. The golden age may have had individually atheistic authors, but their attitudes changed over time and were often more complex than present-day understandings of the term allow. Atheism has changed a lot over the last few decades, and assuming Dawkins-style attitudes of even the most secularist of golden age authors is ultimately anachronistic.
*My initial thought on reading this was just how wrong he is, too. The first preacher in Christianity was a woman, for cryin' out loud.**
**My second thought was—wow, is that the first use of "not" as a single-word, humorous negation? Should we add to the list of Asimov's achievements the accurate prediction of Wayne's World?
Illustrations: cover by Graves Gladney; "Trends" illustration by Paul Orban; "Black Destroyer" illustration by Kramer.