Defining religion . . .

New-Worlds-Behold-the-Man

Time for a little housekeeping.  The book is about representations of religion in science fiction . . . which means I have to define at least two terms pretty carefully.  I’ll worry about “representations” in the book; for now, “What’s religion?”

Two initial observations:  1) Religion isn’t a ‘natural kind,’ but is rather an academic concept.  That is, you can’t walk through a landscape and pick out what is religion and what isn’t.  Nevertheless, academics have a sense that something distinctive exists, and have spent generations trying to determine exactly what the distinction between “religion” and “everything else” is.

2) Different definitions point one towards different data.  If I define “religion” as agreed-upon moral standards, versus as quests for individual transcendence, I would end up looking at very different sets of gSF stories.  Plus, either would exclude a significant number of apparently “religious” traditions in the ethnographic record, and exclude quite a few of the gSF stories I feel need to be included.

For example, In Moorcock’s Behold the Man, morality isn’t a big issue; Jesus makes an appearance, but he’s decidedly not supernatural; nobody ‘transcends’ anything.  ‘Karl’ is influenced, even driven by the religious claims of his society, to the extent that he participates to a self-destructive degree even when the ‘supernatural’ is proven otherwise.

So, following Luther Martin, I’m defining religion first and foremost as a social system, distinct from others only in that in this case, legitimacy is based on claims to supernatural authority.  This also has the advantage of resembling the definitions assumed by many (especially Golden Age) gSF authors — and, not coincidentally, sets up contrasts to other authoritative claims, e.g., science.

I admit, this isn’t the only way I could approach religion in gSF, but I think it’s probably the best.  (The book will describe why in rather more detail!)  But alternatives could still yield pretty interesting books:  see, for example, Cowan’s Sacred Space . . . it’s really good, but very different than what I’m working on.

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