I first encountered a science-fiction portrayal of religion in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. In The Gods of Mars, when the people of the Red Planet grow weary of their long lives, they undertake a pilgrimage down the River Iss to Barsoom’s South Pole, where eternal paradise allegedly awaits. In reality, the land at the river’s end is a nightmare realm of slavery and death, a truth their priests selfishly and cynically conceal.
Later, in The Master Mind of Mars, the sixth book of the series, a band of heroes discovers that the living idol of the city-state of Phundahl only talks because other unscrupulous priests speak through it like a megaphone. And meanwhile, here on Jasoom (or Earth, if you prefer), in the pages of Tarzan the Terrible, the apeman visits the lost world of Pal-ul-Don and finds its two indigenous peoples engaged in an endless religious war over the question of whether God has a tail.
In other words, Burroughs’s portrayal of religion is consistently critical or downright satirical, and in this, his books are like most of the SF I read as a kid or in the decades since. Robert A. Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 depicts a tyrannical future theocracy. So does Fritz Leiber’s Gather, Darkness, with the twist that the rebels adopt the trappings of witchcraft to bring down the oppressors. In Roger Zelazny’s “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” adherence to religious dogma seemingly means extinction for the people of Mars, and in the same author’s Lord of Light, oligarchs rule a planet by impersonating the gods of Hindu mythology.
In fact, I can think of few true SF stories (as opposed to those manifestly intended as fantasy yarns that just toss a little science or super-science into the mix, like Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows and Simon R. Green’s “Nightside” novels) that take a sympathetic view of religion. Frank Herbert’s Dune, maybe. But the esoteric belief systems in that work have more to do with psychic powers and racial destiny than they do with faith in the divine, and to my mind, they’re not religions in the same sense as the churches depicted by Burroughs and those who followed in his scoffer’s footsteps.
I’m not a believer, so as you might expect, I’m okay with SF’s general rejection of religion as long as criticism of ideas doesn’t turn into bigotry against people. To me, the genre’s posture seems only natural, because a literature that celebrates science perforce embraces rationalism and empiricism. That way of looking at the world is inherently at odds with a faith-based perspective.
But writers of fantasy and supernatural horror (like me) are in one sense excused from that argument. Our form of fiction is by definition the literature of not just the marvelous but the impossible. That means we can portray deities as real and religions as true without it necessarily coming across as advocacy of such beliefs.
Although sometimes it is. C. S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” books are straight-up Christian allegories urging us readers to get right with the Lord. Lewis’s pal Charles Williams displays the same sort of missionary intent in novels like Descent into Hell and All Hallows’ Eve.
I think it’s fair to say, though, that the majority of 20th and 21st Century fantasy and horror writers are guys like H. P. Lovecraft, creator of the Cthulhu Mythos, L. Sprague de Camp, author of The Tritonian Ring and co-creator of the “Incomplete Enchanter” series, and, well, me. When we depict religious beliefs and institutions, it’s purely for the sake of a good yarn, with zero expectation or desire to have our conceits taken literally. That’s true even when we’re messing around with concepts derived from a real-world religion like Christianity, as Tad Williams’s novel The Dirty Streets of Heaven and the TV series Supernatural do to good effect.
Unfortunately, a work’s manifest playfulness doesn’t always protect it against the charge that it’s offensive, blasphemous, or flat-out satanic. Some Christians view J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” novels as an attempt to seduce kids into practicing black magic. Such fears reflect a failure to comprehend what fantasy literature even is and make us devotees wonder if those who suffer them were born without imaginations.
Accordingly, we’d be crazy to care about what such people think. But maybe there’s a subtler issue for skeptical fantasy writers to consider. When we write about the divine even though we believe what we’re depicting is impossible nonsense, can we still say something relevant to the human condition, or must we settle for creating something amusing but devoid of thematic heft?
I think the best work of our predecessors shows we can say something meaningful. Cthulhu and Azathoth are mere figments, but Lovecraft employs them and the other entities of his mythology to provide a vision of limitless space, deep time, and mankind’s place amid all that vastness. It may not be the only truth of our existence (you kind of hope it’s not), but that it’s one truth is hard to deny. Similarly, in Fritz Leiber’s “The Price of Pain-Ease,” when the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd enter the realm of Death (the most genuinely godlike figure in their world of Nehwon) to redeem their lost loves, their experiences serve as a commentary on grief, despair, and the means by which people overcome them.
Now, I’m not suggesting that storytellers should be forever preoccupied with theme, that when the words are flowing, the hero’s cracking jokes, the blades are flashing, the fists and bullets are flying, the monster’s attacking, the time bomb is ticking, we should stop and ask, “Am I saying something important here? Is there a message?” No. Screw that. Our goal is entertainment, and if a particular story or sequence “merely” entertains, that’s okay. In fact, it’s better than okay. It’s great.
Still, though, I think many writers would cop to the hope that their stories provide a little something more than simple entertainment from time to time. If you’re that kind of writer and you’re bringing deities onstage, it may be worthwhile to put a little extra thought into how you portray them. They are, after all, likely the most awesome entities your characters will ever encounter, beings that embody their concepts of existence and the universe, and if you depict them in a manner that reflects that and resonates with whatever internal conflicts the mortals are experiencing, your story may be more powerful as a result.