In Isaac Asimov’s science fiction, religion was one of the tools which aided in the creation of drama, delineation of characters, and progress of the story.
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) ruled the genre of science fiction for almost three generations. He coined the word ‘robotics’. His laws of robotics are so famous and intelligently designed that they are discussed even today when dealing with artificial intelligence (AI).
Despite being born a Russian Jew, the American science fiction writer was a deep atheist and a thorough materialist. Even though fascinated by the Bible, its ethics and history, he was a staunch opponent of religious fanaticism.
He belonged to a generation, which had concluded that religion was at best a social evolute, a necessary evil, which had served its purpose in human history and hence was now only an obstacle. We see that in Asimov’s treatment of the subject wherever he had dealt with it in his fiction realm.
This saying by a character in Foundation about a religious ruler, perhaps, reflects to an extent Asimov’s own attitude:
There’s something about a pious man such as he. He will cheerfully cut your throat if it suits him, but he will hesitate to endanger the welfare of your immaterial and problematical soul.
Now with the advancements of neurological sciences, we know that religious experiences and religious quests are more than just a necessary evil. They play a fundamental role both in the individuals and the society.
So now, in his centenary year, looking at Asimov’s treatment of religion in his sci-fi work, gives us a fascinating view. It reveals both the expected and the unexpected.
Even at 19, Asimov saw that almost all sci-fi treated robots as “either unrealistically wicked or unrealistically noble”.
As he started breaking this binary with his short story, Robbie, he observed in the fear around robots a dominant theme, with religion at its base. A robot was a ‘pseudo-human being’ and its creation ‘an imitation of the creation of humanity by God’. In 1983, Asimov explained this in an introduction to an anthology:
In societies where God is accepted as the sole Creator, as in the Judeo-Christian West, any attempt to imitate him cannot help but be considered as blasphemous even if there is no conscious intention of blasphemy. One way of expressing this feeling is to say that only God can create a soul. A human inventor may devise an artificial being that seems to possess life in all its aspects, but that being can never have the God-given spark that will lend it a potentiality for goodness and virtue. Even if the robot is not actively evil and malevolent, it cannot help becoming so because it is passively incapable of anything else.
The short story Reason was first published in 1941.
An advanced robot, QT-1, in charge of coordinating microwave energy beams to planets starts a religion with the lesser robots as its followers. The creed of the religion is that ‘there is no master but Master, and QT-1 is His prophet’.
Though the readers know the basic assumption of the robot is flawed, the logic and arguments of the robot make Zakir Naik look amateur.
The robot believes that the Master created humans and robots and when human investigators from Earth tell it that it were in fact the humans who created them, QT-1 dismisses it as a “complicated implausible hypothesis”. At one point it explains humans away as “servants of Master” now replaced by the superior itself.
Soon, the human investigators realise that the prophetic cult religion of QT-1 has arisen well within the laws of robotics to make the robots serve the best in that specific circumstances — as managers of the beam stations.
In hindsight, this short story can be considered as a powerful premonition of present-day neurological and evolutionary studies of religion — particularly prophet-based religions.
Asimov has also used religion in other earlier and major works.
In one of his earliest short stories, Trends (1939), Asimov took the clash between religious fanaticism and scientific advancement in the West in a typical binary.
The inspiration for this story came from him typing the papers for sociologist Bernhard Stern. Stern had pointed out throughout his works how every medical advancement today is commonplace, from dissection to vaccination, had to fight against social resistance, particularly from religion.
Asimov applied it to a post-War society, where religion held the sway over public life, impacting and restricting the advancements in space research.
As rocket Prometheus was getting ready to be launched for lunar mission, Otis Eldredge an evangelical mass leader ‘with a golden tongue and a sulphurous vocabulary’ starts a vitriolic campaign against it through his powerful organisation.
Religious zealotry, bubbling in the cauldron of frenzied public opinion, enables the legislative body to stop research for atoms and space, making space travel a capital crime.
Finally, the hero, John Harman, sways the public opinion after his successful space voyage, declaring in typical Galileo fashion, but more defiantly, “Go ahead, hang me, fools. But I’ve reached the Moon, and you can’t hang that.” The whole narration done from the vantage point of 2008 celebrates triumph of ‘good’ science over ‘bad’ religion.
The next important work of Asimov that brought forth the role of religion in society is Nightfall.
John Campbell who presided over the golden age of the US sci-fi asked a very young Asimov to fashion a sci-fi story out of a quote from a famous essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson on nature:
If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!
Would not humanity go mad wondered Campbell, and Asimov came out soon with ‘Ad Astra’ eventually published as Nightfall. The short story was later published in 1990 as a complete novel, by roping in none other than Robert Silverberg. Asimov was then dying.
In a six-suns solar system, a human-like intelligent species has never witnessed a prolonged period of darkness and has never even witnessed total darkness, as in a ‘night’ on Earth. At least one of the six suns, always shines on the two sides of the planet. So, the intelligent civilisation that has evolved on that planet has evolved such that a prolonged exposure to darkness could kill it or worse, make the people go mad.
Initially, totally opposed to each other, the tension between science and religion on the planet increasingly becomes more nuanced.
The ‘nightfall’ creates a civilisational cycle. In the present cycle, they have archeological data of previous cycle’s cataclysmic destruction and a religious text that describes the same. They have also discovered the law of universal gravitation with which the astronomers can predict the eclipse.
But what is dismissed mostly as mythical religious fantasy is the appearance of stars. But when the real nightfall happens, it turns out that religious text had a prediction that was quite more accurate than those of the scientists.
Astronomers who were able to predict the eclipse were totally unprepared for the appearance of countless stars which drives the entire planetary humanity into a destructive madness.
In the end, we find that a new cycle of civilisation starts where too the knowledge of what happened gets conserved in religion. Here, religion with all its inherent faults and fallacies becomes the tool to conserve knowledge.
In the famed Foundation series, in the creation of which, Asimov was influenced by the ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, religion plays an important role. The Foundation’s founder, scientist Hari Seldon uses it to accelerate the recovery of civilisation even as the Galactic Empire was falling.
The ‘Foundation’, slowly growing into a power, first uses strategy and then religion to control the rival planets. These planets suspect the ‘Foundation’ becoming a force to reckon with.
Here, Asimov gives the classic view of religion as a tool for manipulation. As the Galactic civilisation deteriorates into ‘barbarism’, science fails to be understood as science and ‘Foundation’ intentionally creates a religion, where it trains priests who operate nuclear power plants in the planets the ‘Foundation’ controls. Only these plants are considered as holy places of mystery by the populations in the controlled planets.
Here is a sample:
The religion – which the Foundation has fostered and encouraged, … is built on strictly authoritarian lines. The priesthood has sole control of the instruments of science we have given Anacreon, but they’ve learned to handle these tools only empirically. They believe in this religion entirely, and in the... uh... spiritual value of the power they handle.
Along with religion, also comes ‘a religion-controlled commercial empire’. So, the theory behind this ‘religion’ spread by ‘Foundation’ is this:
The primary reason for the development of trade and traders was to introduce and spread this religion more quickly, and to ensure that the introduction of new techniques and a new economy would be subject to our thorough and intimate control.
If one replaces ‘planets’ with ‘continents’ then the identity of the religion here is not difficult to guess.
At the time of the beginning of Cold War, every theo-ideology whether Christianity, Islam or Marxism, was also used by the epicentres of that theo-ideology to further their own empires — empires of the mind with clear economic advantages to the sacred epicentres.
Unknown to the ‘Foundation’ studying physical sciences, there exists in the ‘other end of the galaxy’ a ‘Second Foundation’ studying the inner sciences — a deep psychology, developing powers like mind-reading and mind-control.
The location of the ‘Second Foundation’ is mysterious and their members unlike the members of the ‘First Foundation’, are secretive; mingling with all and living as commoners yet influencing the course of the Galactic history. ‘Foundation’ first denies and then despises the presence of the ‘Second Foundation’, seeking to destroy it.
In Foundation’s Edge Asimov brings a third hidden power — a planet named ‘Gaia’. This turns out to be a unified non-dualistic planetary consciousness, with all life in it harmonised, with most of the conscious beings being vegetarians. Gaia is defined in the novel by a girl, who reveals that she is as much Gaia as the planet itself is. The girl ‘Bliss’, says:
Yes. And the ground. And those trees. And that rabbit over there in the grass. And the man you can see through the trees. The whole planet and everything on it is Gaia. We’re all individuals — we’re all separate organisms — but we all share an overall consciousness. The inanimate planet does so least of all, the various forms of life to a varying degree, and human beings most of all — but we all share.
(Gaia) runs itself. Those trees grow in rank and file of their own accord. They multiply only to the extent that is needed to replace those that for any reason die. Human beings harvest the apples that are needed; other animals, including insects, eat their share — and only their share.
My consciousness is far advanced beyond that of any individual cell — incredibly far advanced. The fact that we, in turn, are part of a still greater group consciousness on a higher level does not reduce us to the level of cells. I remain a human being — but above us is a group consciousness as far beyond my grasp as my consciousness is beyond that of one of the muscle cells of my biceps.
On a September afternoon of 1965, James Lovelock, a British physicist who was working in NASA, had an epiphanic vision — the Earth as a living organism. The scientist in him of course knew that “it is not alive — it merely behaves as if it were”.
In 1967, he would choose the name Gaia (suggested by William Golding) for the hypothesis that earth was a self-regulating system.
In 1972, the term was introduced in the journal Atmospheric Environment: “Gaia as seen through the atmosphere.”
Soon, Lovelock started working with the US microbiologist Lynn Margulis, who was known for her controversial stands upsetting scientific orthodoxy. Top evolutionary scientists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould strongly criticised Gaia.
The science establishment reacted, in the words of Lovelock, “with that same certainty that the religious have when they reject the views of a rational atheist. They could not prove us wrong but they were sure in their hearts that we were.”
In 1979, Lovelock came up with Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth taking the radical new hypothesis to the general public.
Foundation’s Edge was published first in 1982. An idea expressed or incorporated in fiction may not reflect the worldview of an author. And Asimov was no lover of new age fancies. Yet, here we do see him incorporating the controversial hypothesis mostly condemned for its new-age sounding name, as part of his work of fiction.
In the entire Foundation series, there is a strand. A physical science supremacy undermines and plays with juvenile religious systems for social manipulation. Then, there is the development of inner sciences with a physical and mental realms duality. Ultimately, the quest for the home planet Gaia ends in a non-dualist planetary consciousness.
Can this planetary consciousness expand itself to embrace the entire galaxy? There is a hint at the beginning of Foundation’s Edge. Looking at the galaxy from the spaceship an old historian searching for Gaia exclaims that “the Galaxy looks like a living thing, crawling through space”.
Here, the story line actually moves from the point of view of Western institutionalised religion to a religious consciousness more Hindu-Buddhist or in West’s own tradition — Spinozan.
Of course, Asimov could not have intended this, for he was, as said earlier, a deep atheist.
So, we see the interplay of religion and science, particularly the impact of science and technology on religion, as a continuous theme in Asimov’s sci-fi realm. In fact, this is a central theme in the screenplay written by Harlan Ellison for I, Robot, which Asimov approved, but alas was never made into a movie.
Beyond this we also see that Asimov was sensitive to orthodoxy in science establishment. This reveals a spirituality that emerges naturally, which need not be even theistic.
Surely, Asimov was not given to mysticism and was an atheist. Yet, his sci-fi universe can help the religion of humanity to uplift itself.