I interviewed Margaret Atwood about her new book, In Other Worlds, a collection of her writing on science fiction, and we got to talking about science fiction and religion. Or rather, science fiction as a replacement for a literal, completist reading of the Bible:
I think that the religious strand is probably part of human hard-wiring…by religious strand, I don’t mean any particular religion, I mean the part of human beings that feels that the seen world is not the only world, that the world you see is not the only world that there is and that it can become awestruck. If that is the case, religion was selected for in the Pleistocene by many, many millennia of human evolution. That would make sense. If you think there’s an unseen somebody or other helping you out, you’re more likely to feel encouraged. Suppose that the religious thing is kind of a given and you can’t act it out using your old figures and images, because time has moved on and people no longer quite believe, and if you announce that you have seen a bunch of angels sitting in a tree, you’re likely to be locked up in a bin, so instead you put them on planet X, where they’re like to feel quite at home.
I think it says something about the disjunct between people who say they interpret the Bible literally, which nobody does, and people who take a historical view of the Bible…that has made it more difficult to posit a world that is imaginatively complete and identical with the earlier medieval cathedral view of the universe. The imagination likes to deal with imaginatively complete worlds. It’s made it harder to do that than the old arrangement from creative to revelation, that you used to be able to see marching around the ceiling of cathedrals…It was a 3D house of the universe.
I think that’s an interesting idea. Not all the aliens we encounter in science fiction are necessarily more powerful than we are, but even if they’re not, they’re an interesting way to speculate about the divine, or the other as divine.