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Atheism in the face of omnipotence in science fiction

Contributed by
Apr 9, 2019

In the distant future, the furthest reaches of space, or the most disparate parallel universes of science fiction, you’re likely to run across two things: atheists, and omnipotent beings. For every insistence of rational thought, every scoff at the notion of gods or higher powers, there is a character who can snap their fingers and defy every known law of physics, who can be anywhere and see everything, and who the writers seem to almost bend over backward to avoid calling what they are: a god.

To some degree, this happens because most popular science fiction leans a little more fantasy than the name suggests, meaning godlike powers don’t need to always be defined by a specific scientific fact or theory. Nonetheless, it’s a trope deeply entrenched in the genre, and one that leaves a lot of room for examination.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." 
Arthur C. Clarke

The writers of sci-fi have a one big cheat code to add in magical characters into their stories: Clarke’s Third Law.  This often-quoted line from Arthur C. Clarke’s Profiles of the Future states: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In the hands of many writers, this is essentially permission to go hog wild with things like laser swords, weapons forged in the hearts of stars, or simply hoping everyone will accept the existence of gravity on spacefaring ships.

The question is: how far can we legitimately push Clarke’s Third Law? The most extreme example that comes to mind is Asgard in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the first Thor movie, the titular Odinson paraphrases the Third Law, telling Jane Foster that he comes from a place where magic and science are one and the same. This is further hammered home in The Dark World when Jane is placed into the “Soul Forge,” a device that she recognizes as a quantum field generator. Yet even moments later Odin refers to Jane as a “mortal,” blending the lines again of what is science and what is supernatural within their world.

Are we really to believe that the Thor movies are actually just an alien movie franchise, a set of stories about a race of beings who have simply perfected their iPhones to the point where they don’t need touchscreens and also they grant eternal life? When Odin whispers to Mjolnir to bestow the power of Thor on whoever is worthy enough to wield it, is he actually just turning on the parental settings of a piece of extremely user-friendly technology? In our society, we have plenty of machinery that most of take for granted, but we still have technicians who study them and know how they work. Is there a secret Asgardian Chris O’Dowd who occasionally has to remind Loki to switch his disguise projector off and back on again?

What’s most fascinating about the presence of Asgardians in the MCU is how quickly the citizens that Earth just accept that they are, in fact, super immortal aliens from space and not the literal Norse gods they actually are. 

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Star Wars has some of the most wiggle room for religion in its stories because they establish the Force and the Jedi order as a defined religious belief within the fiction, and yet we see Han Solo scoff at the very idea of the Force existing when he meets Obi-Wan and Luke, though he never seems particularly shocked when he discovers that this ancient religion is in fact, actually real.

Even more absurd is the Imperial officer who mocks the mere idea of the Force to Darth Vader’s face, finds himself Force choked as a result, and then… apparently just continues on his day, mildly embarrassed and a little frightened but immediately accepting that he was wrong about the Force existing. Imagine if you got in an argument with a rabbi only to have them bring a golem to life to defend themselves against you. Would you sincerely have no follow-up questions about Judaism and the existence of God at that point? You might at least give a cursory glance at the Torah, right?

This happens again and again in sci-fi. Battlestar Galactica walks the line between faith and science but veers pretty hard into faith with the resurrection of Starbuck. Federation starships on Star Trek have met multiple omnipotent alien races to the point where they’re positively jaded and annoyed by any appearance of John de Lancie’s Q. The Doctor has literally talked to the Devil in an episode of Doctor Who, while just a few seasons later the 12th Doctor refers to someone who believes in the afterlife as an idiot.

Swinging Occam’s Razor at this whole thing, the simplest solution could be that writers of science fiction simply want to occasionally do something cool and fun and not constantly dwell on the ripple effects that they should consistently cause throughout their universe. After all, Star Wars isn’t the story of Han or an Imperial officer’s faith in the Force, it’s a story about rebels fighting off the Empire and their boom boom moon. The Thor movies aren’t about new Scandinavian cargo cults, they’re about Chris Hemsworth looking deep into our souls and letting us know we’re safe and he has our backs.

But when stories lean a little more into the realm of trying to establish a society without faith, or with a rigidly defined faith, it seems worth exploring why the presence of beings that contradict those beliefs don’t seem to have more of an impact. It seems that many creators simply just want to imagine a world detached from the confines of religion, but cannot actually picture what that world would be like. They can imagine characters who don’t have faith, but not a world where the things that faith rises from in our world are completely non-existent. They want to treat religion as a switch that can be turned off, rather than a very heavy suitcase that needs to be meticulously unpacked. 

And maybe that’s because we as a society aren’t anywhere close to living in a world where that’s true either. Given the presence of religious beliefs over the last several thousands of years, it’s highly unlikely that faith is going to disappear in the next few generations. As our world gets tougher to live in and the potential catastrophes of climate change loom around the corner, if anything it seems religion could loom larger over our future as somewhere for people to turn for solace. As we struggle to fully understand the human cultural desire to cling to beliefs, maybe it’s time for some more stories that explore that complex relationship and imagine where it’ll go next, instead of simply writing characters who ignore it altogether.

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