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December 06, 2008



A shiny nickel says that Scalzi didn't write the title of his piece.

steve davidson

This is an interesting take, but your conclusion presupposes something that is not necessarily true:

"...ideas of good and evil, the core messianism of the epic hero, the concept of creation (both cosmic and local), and above all the providential desire to guide the world toward a better future that I see as SF's ultimate (and ultimately spiritual) aim."

and then you conclude with
"Those things are all religious..."

They can be, but aren't necessarily so. Part of the 'conflict' that did not get discussed is the fact that those 'themes' can be divorced from their religious associations. Stating that they are, ipso facto, religious themes is an attempt to coopt them all for 'one side of the argument'.

Spinrad's the Iron Dream is a perfect exemplar of a novel that takes those quasi-religious themes entirely out of the religious context in order to examine them without the 'baggage', and there are plenty of other examples as well.

Gabriel Mckee

@dsr: You're absolutely right-- hence the bit about "the media" (i.e. editors) applying distorting titles.

@Steve Davidson: Au contraire-- I really do think those things are all fundamentally religious. They can be divorced from specific creeds, but they're all part of the basic human religious impulse-- something that goes far, far beyond individual faiths, denominations, or personal beliefs.

As for the Iron Dream-- taking Campbell's heroic monomyth out of the context of any specific system of mythology doesn't mean it's not still the monomyth-- indeed, that's the point (if you believe Campbell, that is). Removing the cultural "baggage" doesn't make it non-religious; it just makes it non-culturally-specific.


It doesn't fit the usual usage of religion---which is generally associated with some supernaturalist belief system of some sort. So it can be somewhat misleading to the casual reader.

But its true that there are exceptions, there are Unitarian Universalists, for example, who are atheists and naturalists with no belief in even the most dilute variety of supernaturalism. I've read essays by ministers of the UU church on naturalistic religion (basically humanism with a church).


"The middle ground is where the good stuff is."

Amen to that.

Posts like these make me think "God bless Gabriel McKee for posting these views so I don't have to!" :-)

I would, though, hesitate a little about the label 'religious.' I think you're generally correct, but people who equate 'religion' with supernaturalism can make a pretty good case that these questions are 'philosophical' or 'existential.' I tend to think that there's an enormous amount of overlap between those three categories: therefore I have no problem with seeing the Big Questions as inherently 'religious,' no matter in what 'secular' language they're stated. But I can see how some people might reasonably object.


"More importantly, those religious ideas shine through even when the surface message of a book is anti-religious, or the author is an atheist."

Babylon 5 is a good example. JMS is a self-professed atheist, but the show is profoundly spiritual and consistently treats matters of religion with the utmost respect.

One of the many, many branches of awesome on the awesome tree that is B5.


That's idealism, not religion. Religion, by definition, is codified.

Gabriel Mckee

The definition of religion is an ancient, thorny issue. Most definitions exclude some aspects of one culture's religions for the sake of including another's. (Indeed, Aoede's comment explicitly excludes the Unitarian Universalist Church from the "religion" category). But UU *is* a religion. So I'm wary of saying that religion is "by definition" anything. Idiosyncracies like UU should still be accounted for in a good definition.

In any event, I think there's also a line to be drawn between "religion" and "religious" (as in the "religious themes" I'm talking about. If the word "religion" has any meaning at all (and I think it does), there must be a set of morphisms or defining terms that make up the category "religious." Some of these can be used outside of the "religious" category, but that doesn't mean they *must* be removed from it. Theology, ontology, ethics, and, yes, philosophy are all part of what I mean when I say "religion."


Under that definition, I don't think that anyone would think of suggesting that SF excludes/denigrates religion or religious themes.


(To clarify: Nobody would, because that definition encompasses all thought. A definition that broad isn't very useful.)

Gabriel Mckee

A couple possible responses:

1. It doesn't encompass *all* thought, but it does encompass *aspects* of all thought. There's a religious angle on anything and everything.

2. "Religion" is a tapestry made up of those things I listed-- ethics, philosophy, ontology, etc. As I said, there is ethics (for example) outside of religion, but that doesn't mean that talking about ethics precludes talking about religion; it's not an either-or.

3. One extreme view is that *all* human endeavor is religious, since we are, after all, souls striving for the divine. I don't think I, personally, would necessarily make this argument too strongly, but others might.

I can't really be more specific without knowing what definition of religion you're working with-- you've said it's "codified," but what else?


Wiktionary defines it as a "system of practices which act according to beliefs, including belief in the existence of at least one of the following: a human soul or spirit, a deity or higher being, or self after the death of one’s body." I would do a bit of consolidating and call it a system of practices and beliefs deriving from belief in the existence of something logically and empirically unprovable.

Then again, perhaps I'll look at this tomorrow and wonder what the hell I was thinking, but this will do for now.


I just want to thank you for this very interesting blog. I'll certainly be reading your book in 2009. All the best for the new year.

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