The New Humanism


Science Fiction vs. The Bible

Paul Chiariello

Let our habits be of the future.

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by Paul Chiariello

"Sci Fi is understood as fiction and makes clear from the outset that it is fallible and only a tentative exploration.

We need more Science Fiction. The world that we find ourselves in is changing too fast to rely on genres that look backwards for their answers. So as a society we need something that will engender habits that help us look forward, dream our own dreams and search for new answers to the new problems we face. Now don't get me wrong, I like the Bible. When I was young I memorized the Sermon on the Mount as well as dozens of other passages. Much of it still inspires me and I can still find value in its pages. It is clear that the Bible and other revealed doctrines have played an important role in society, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. However, whether it has been more on the better or worse half is not my concern here. My only real concern is about the future. The past is just that and our actions won't affect it now. So however much the Bible has done, we in the present simply need to move on. And what we desperately need now is more Science Fiction.

The first time I really fell in love with Sci Fi was reading Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein in high school. While I read it I disagreed with a number of points it made, but its ideas were never really at the heart of my infatuation with it. Compared to my early grounding in the Bible, the book opened up a whole new way of looking at the world. Given all I disagreed with in the book, its most striking feature was that it was something I even could disagree with. And that seemed to be the point of Science Fiction: to ask questions about your beliefs and to outline new pictures of the world. When reading Orwell's 1984 and other dystopias you simply cannot help but wrestle with the warnings they give. The future is not guaranteed to us and it is this complacency that is real enemy of any dystopian novel. When watching Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry, a self-identified Humanist, it's clear that the goal is so much more than mere entertainment. It is instead to dream and be inspired by the new technologies and exotic societies imagined. In this role, Star Trek is more than a fictional exploration, but a serious social endeavor to jump start our real life plunges into the unknown.

Really what I want to compare between these two genres is 'Revealed' 'Truth' versus 'Science' 'Fiction'. Two opposite ends of a pole along a literary continuum. Further, we have two complimentary comparisons to make between the genres. First, we can compare the adjectives 'Revealed' and 'Science'. So while the first says: 'This is', the other asks: 'What is?' While revelation hands over a set of givens, science provides a method for being justified in discovering them. It tells us to explore. Now obviously the genre of Sci Fi isn't simply that prose which one might find nestled in a peer reviewed scientific journal. Instead, good Sci Fi is based on a prediction of the world that, squinting, looks ahead through our present scientific advancements to those worlds that might someday be. The very word 'Revealed', implies a truth outside our grasp. It doesn't give us a method of asking and exploring questions, but simply gift wraps its own answers.

Another foil genre to quickly compare Sci Fi to would be Fantasy. Here a whole range of unexplainables and never-can-be's make their appearance. A world with Merlin's magic is simply not a possibility we might reasonably find ourselves confronted with when compared to colonizing distant planets or some future Dystopia. Now Fantasy and other fiction genres certainly seek to explore human emotions and social issues, but here I am concerned with what is more directly relevant to our lives as we look forward. Other fictional genres assume either worlds that we will not find ourselves in or an alternate past or present. So, in contrast to Fantasy, Science Fiction at its best seeks to paint pictures of what might actually exist in our future given what we know is true. In contrast to Revelation, it seeks to ask questions about this world instead of merely having them dictated to us.

Second, we can compare the 'Truth' versus 'Fiction' half of these genres. Now of course we may never reach Mars, for whatever reason, much less populate distant galaxies. But this is not the point. Sci Fi is understood as fiction and makes clear from the outset that it is fallible and only a tentative exploration. Therefore in claiming that it is fallible, while still trying to get at your own beliefs about the world, it seeks your participation. It presents a narrative of a future 'what if' or 'might be' that we should ponder ourselves. Revealed truth, on the other hand, claims to have no errors or exceptions. It is a static presentation of reality that cannot be amended or argued with. Revelation says 'this is True and that is that'. Putting these two layers together, the genre of Revealed Truth in the Bible, the Qur'an and other books presents an inarguable catalogue of truths. Science Fiction, however, seeks the participation of the reader to use what knowledge we have in musing over the possibilities we might face.

Now why is this distinction important? Can't it even be considered a good thing to be told what is right? And doesn't questioning our moral viewpoints lead along a downward spiral to moral subjectivism where anything is right? Well, no. It doesn't take much to realize there is only one future and we will face it, no matter what our beliefs about it are. Further, it is extremely difficult to figure out what that future might be. And it is here that there is a real sense of urgency. It is because of this, I believe, that we need to shed the habits engendered in the genre of 'Revelation' and start picking up a few more Sci Fi books.

The differences between these two literary genres develop what I like to call Habits of Interpreting versus Habits of Searching. When you have a fixed set of knowns that claim to be complete, like revelations, what do you do when you have new questions? You take your given truths and fill in the blanks to find the answer. The only real virtue present for the scholar of a revelation is that of consistency. When you have a question you interpret the text you have and judge competing interpretations by how consistently they weave together its revealed claims. It will never be the case, believes the Biblical or Qur'anic scholar, that new information will prove old revelations false. When the Revealer is omniscient by definition, if your interpretation brings to light some inconsistency in the book, you simply have the wrong interpretation.

Science Fiction develops a Habit of Searching. It asks you to paint a picture that fluently works with our present knowledge and intuitions in exploring what we know and seeking out answers to those questions we don't yet understand. So if something doesn't work or make sense, scrap it. Disagree if you want. Searching is a never ending process. The habits developed by good Science Fiction aim to test our intuitions and beliefs on a never ending set of predictions about our possible future. Revelation can only be judged by interpretation of a static past. For this reason no one will write a definitive work of Sci Fi. The phrase doesn't even make sense. There will always be a future that will need our imaginations to explore and search further. There will always be a point in which we realize our beliefs somewhere need revising. New books will then be written based on different assumptions we would have once thought silly or plots exploring issues we never could have expected. Sci Fi acknowledges its fallibility and in that acknowledgement takes away any complacency that we already have all the answers.

Habits of Interpretation versus Habits of Searching also end up treating context in very different ways. Revealed texts are always revealed in some specific historical context. This is unavoidable. The result is that we need to re-interpret the proclamations of past prophets by updating their contexts with our own. Why could ancient Israelites commit genocide in the Promised Land? The answer many argue is that it was simply a different context. The eternal truths are buried and the relevant features must be teased out before comparing that distant then to our now. But how do we do that when asking radically new questions, like those we now face about the Internet or Climate Change? When these prophets had no idea even how the climate worked—besides 'God did it'—how can we unearth their hidden wisdoms? Habits of Interpretation engendered by Revelation are merely habits of looking backward into contexts that have often become irrelevant. While what we need is to be looking forward, Revealed Truth requires us to know the detailed intricacies of both the context that the work was revealed in as well as the present one that we live in. Thinking about this for a moment, I believe I can safely say that we have our hands full trying to understand our present context alone. Science Fiction and a Habit of Searching focus exclusively on the future. What are the questions we need to ask? What are the next steps we need to take or avoid? What unknowns can we explore? What we need in tackling the completely novel problems posed by Climate Change or the Internet is to nurture a habit of looking forward that searches out the extremely nuanced details of our own present. Only by looking forward and creating the next generation of Science Fiction will we be able to tackle the problems of our common future. If instead we keep asking what was done in an irrelevant past, we will at best ensure that our future resembles it.

Science Fiction, if anything, is the dreaming of the living, while Revealed Truths, at their best, are the dreams of the dead. Within the worldview of most revealed truths, all new ideas must be found consistent with the past through a Habit of Interpretation. When tied down like this, dreaming our own dreams becomes impossible. The present no longer belongs to those living it and therefore a link to the giants of the past must be severed. However, this is not to say that devotees of Sci Fi cannot 'stand on the shoulders of giants to see farther'. Through a Habit of Searching, everything we have must come together to paint the best picture we can. This includes those towering figures of the past. Revelations, however, claim that all we can do is stand on the ground and accept what their giants can see themselves. But as we approach new problems we cannot afford to merely look backwards for our answers. And in the future I can almost guarantee that we will find ourselves in new contexts that will press the boundaries of our imagination. We need to use every resource at our disposal. And to provide the flexibility needed we must dethrone the words of dead giants locked in dead contexts.

If it is in fact the case that our future problems will be unlike anything we have already faced, our only real hope lies in preparing for these new contexts by dreaming big, focusing on what we know and acknowledging we could easily be wrong. Personally I am excited for this voyage. Without any revealed truths given to us we are confronted with an infinite sea of possibilities. From there, our only option in the face of unforeseen storms is to lean over the bow of our boat, searching.

Comments (now closed)

Jim Chiariello

19 Mar 2012 · 00:33 EST

Good job Paul. Very interesting and thought provoking. If "Revealed Truth" actually reveals/uncovers something that is actually true, then it is an essential base to keep the creative thinking of Science Fiction on track. If "Revealed" "Truth" isn't true or doesn't reveal anything that is not obvious, then it isn't worth discussing. Thoughtful people who are interested in the Bible (my point of reference) search for the insight that it uncovers, which as you know is not just a set of rule, but insight is extracted from its parables, poetry, history and character studies. I applaud your condemnation of those who treat "Revealed Truth" as dogma to be blindly followed.


19 Mar 2012 · 13:41 EST

Great illustrative example of a Habit of Interpretation. 1) Revelation "is an essential base to keep the creative thinking of Science Fiction on track," i.e. 'searching' must be done on top of the truths already given to us and cannot sway off track from them. 2) "Search for the insight that it uncovers... insight is extracted from its parables, poetry, history and character studies," i.e. the truth is buried in the text(s) of past giants and is found through interpreting the text.

Jonathan Bellot

23 Mar 2012 · 20:27 EST

"Science Fiction, if anything, is the dreaming of the living, while Revealed Truths, at their best, are the dreams of the dead." You hit the nail on the head there. Your discussion of how new discoveries must be "wrong" if they don't fit within the scope of said "revealed" truths is spot-on, too, and makes me think of the Islamic scholar Al-Ghazali, who rejected whatever discovery or idea seemed to go against the Quran--even the idea of cause and effect. (For him, fire doesn't make cotton burn; Allah simply causes it to burn whenever it touches the fire.) This kind of thinking is the dullest, most restricting thing I can imagine. Let the dead have their dreams; we can have our own, as well.


17 Apr 2012 · 16:46 EST

I am glad you credit The Bible with wisdom. However, I disagree on that The Bible can't answer the problems of today and the future. The Bible does not lay out specific answers to every situation possible, otherwise it would be forever long. What it does do is give you a set of morals and principles that, if guiding all your decisions, stand the test of time no matter the situation. Reference the ten commandments, and what Jesus says are the greatest commands (summary of the ten commandments) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. If people actually put down their preconceptions of Christianity (discount the kooks) and understood it's true teachings the world would be much better.


22 Apr 2012 · 04:54 EST

I accept your point about science fiction, and I fully agree with your point about dogma as a claimed source of truth, but I can't accept your objection to 'habits of interpretation'. Theological scholars are not the only hermeneuts. As a historian, I am a hermeneut. And from that position, I think I can see what my problem with this article is. You appear to assume that future and present problems, and all that we need to think about, are things outside our immediate humanity. I know you talk in general terms about social problems, but it cannot be a coincidence that when you choose to list the kinds of problems we might face, the only concrete examples you name are climate change and the internet. Obviously, these things matter, as any cursory glance at what we are doing to our planet can tell us, and of course they are problems which at the very least involve humanity, but what about us? About people? And that, I think, is what I hope we do as historians with our hermeneutics, looking at people and at the problems of living as part of the human race. I can't, for example, accept your casual dismissal of the question of genocide as if only one simplistic answer is possible, without a return to the question of humanity. It is worth noting that you seem to think only looking forward requires, or uses, imagination. For me, a serious hermeneutics will always turn on the insights of Idealism and Historicism, thus accepting and promoting the full panoply of our intellectual capacities (most notably including imagination, intuition and feeling) in our habits of searching, which are also, rather than opposed to, our habits of interpretation.

Deborah Tatar

15 May 2012 · 13:13 EST

This is a very nice distinction and it has provoked some interesting commentary. I really like it and also appreciate that Paul both wrote it and contributed it. But I find myself wondering about two things: One, more precisely what Mark meant when he wrote "but what about us? About people?" Indeed: What ABOUT us? I would love to hear more about this. The other has to do with my own history with fiction. My concentration was English, and I adore(d) fiction of all kinds, including Science Fiction. I felt inspired, perhaps in the way that Paul describes. But then, one day I woke up when I was 26 years old, with a nice humanist revelation in the following form: "Nobody actually told the Pilgrims, 'Hey, it's 1620, c'mon, time to get on board!'"---and I was not, in my life, going to even have the illusion of being called to action at some particular time by some higher force. Somehow, imagining the world through the lens of fiction had allowed me, up until then, to imagine my life as authored, even without a belief in God. And because I imagined it as authored, and nothing in particular was happening, I was sitting around waiting for a trigger to tell me what to do. I expected narrative development, plot, completion. A handsome man would appear, I would trip over a body, I would be transported into the past or the future, something. It was only when I gave up that vision that I seriously took on the problem of how to live my own life. And that was really hard because it was only then that it occurred to me that even if life was a book, I might just be Rozencrantz (or Guildenstern). Definitely a blow to my vanity. I think that in calling for Habits of Searching, Paul is hoping that we can find our own triggers to action in our reading. Perhaps some people can. But I expect that part of what Mark is saying when he says "What about people?" is what happens now, and now, and now, that for example leads us to set out on a ridiculously dangerous voyage in a very small boat .... or not. Or, more realistically, how do I create a situation in my morally ambiguous life in which it makes sense to give to some charities but not every charity that calls me every darn evening including my dear Alma Mater? How does any particular action make sense in a world that is not authored?


13 Jun 2012 · 01:11 EST

Evan, it's not just Christianity which offers those ethical teachings. Centuries before Jesus existed, Buddha and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, were espousing the values of non-violence, love, and forgiveness for others. These are core human values, not 'Biblical' values. As it happens, both Buddhism and Jainism are non-theist. They don't posit the existence of any supernatural deities. Instead, they ground themselves in the natural world and focus on how we can live enriching, fulfilling, and loving lives here and now. Jainism has flourished for close to three thousand years with a rigorous moral framework that does invoke a God. These are some of the most peaceful and moral people in the history of this planet. There is value and wisdom in the Bible, but those truths precede its writing and are found in other religions and philosophies - both theistic and non-theistic. There is no reason for us to privilege the Bible over the Buddha's or Mahavira's discourses. Instead, we can draw the best from each of them, and other philosophical traditions, and continue to inquire and develop our own insights into the world through science and philosophy.