Believe it or not, I actually try to avoid talking about religion, both publically and privately. It’s a subject that either makes me scared, angry, or disappointed—mostly disappointed—except when it has to do with fantasy.
Yes, I’ll admit it, I was the guy in the D&D group who was not just willing to play the cleric, but volunteered for the job. I loved the concept, which was basically this: What if religion actually, y’know… worked? What if the gods weren’t just real but actually interacted with you and granted you magical powers? How do you not play that character?
Most D&D players tend to ask, How can you possibly want to? Clerics have been and still are seen as the helper character—the person who casts cure spells but is otherwise kind of annoying—and so is played by the last person to get to the table. This tends to be true, unfortunately, because most DMs are reluctant to get deeply into creating an actual religion around those characters. But that was never me. The idea of creating the dogma and ritual around that character and his god and religion instantly and thoroughly fascinated me, and surely accounts for things like including religion as a major topic in my online Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction course, the whole R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen series and my constant pitch at Wizards of the Coast to publish the Cyrinishad—the “bible” of the mad god Cyric—as an “in voice”/”in world” (un)holy text (but they wouldn’t let me), and of course my wildly unsuccessful book How to Start Your Own Religion that has been bought by dozens of people and moved one fundamentalist Christian to unfollow me on Twitter.
Real world religions make me deeply uneasy, but pretend religions fascinate the hell out of me.
I’ve written a little before about the general lack of religion in science fiction, and what seems to be a default futurist view that there just won’t be religion in “the future.” But now here we are, actually living in the future that some of the grand masters of the genre were trying to imagine fifty or sixty years ago (or even more recently) and we have smart phones and drone warfare and a global economy and an International Space Station—and churches all over the place and religion front and center in the lives of billions of people and there is absolutely no sign of it going away any time soon.
Religion might, in most places and among most faiths, be getting much nicer—more modern—but no, Time Magazine (or whoever) God is not dead, at least in the hearts of a very large portion of humanity.
A quick question, then: Why?
Why, when we know so much more about the universe around us, do we still have this alternate explanation for things like where the world came from and what happens to us after we die?
Was H.P. Lovecraft right when, in his masterpiece “The Call of Cthulhu” he wrote:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
That pretty much nails it.*
According to science: We are of no consequence, and neither is our planet, and the black seas of infinity can and will randomly destroy us for no reason with shit like gamma ray bursts and coronal mass ejections, and even if all goes well the sun will eventually swell up and swallow Earth whole and that’ll be that, so…
After a season of Space’s Deepest Secrets even I want to believe that all dogs go to Heaven.
Sure, astronomy will scare the shit out of you with no happy ending whatsoever, but just as science isn’t all a drag, religion isn’t always terribly comforting, either. In the Variety article “Guillermo del Toro on the Catholic Church, his Holy Trinity and Boris Karloff Epiphany” the great monster filmmaker said:
“There was a Christ in my church with an exposed bone fracture, and it was kind of green and purple, but his face looked like he was coming. And then they said, ‘The body of Christ,’ and I said, ‘No thank you.’
“The biblical myths read in church were “so fucking gory,” he added, pointing out that to give a kid that “mixture of virtue and violence is fucked up.”
In his amazing book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker begins with a rundown of just how spectacularly awful we used to be, and how that’s reflected in some of the earliest religious writings:
Though historical accounts in the Old Testament are fictitious (or at best artistic reconstructions, like Shakespeare’s historical dramas), they offer a window into the lives and values of Near Eastern civilizations in the mid-1st millennium BCE. Whether or not the Israelites actually engaged in genocide, they certainly thought it was a good idea. The possibility that a woman had a legitimate interest in not being raped or acquired as sexual property did not seem to register in anyone’s mind. The writers of the Bible saw nothing wrong with slavery or cruel punishments like blinding, stoning, and hacking someone to pieces. Human life held no value in comparison with unthinking obedience to custom and authority.
That seems to match up with Guillermo del Toro’s experience in what I guess we can call an Old School church. Pinker goes on to point out that the overwhelming majority of contemporary Jews and Christians in no way suborn slavery, rape, and stoning. In his words:
Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic. In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discretely ignored.
But what if your church doesn’t “spin” the older, gorier stuff—or at least not all of it? I found it fascinating that, in del Toro’s mind, it was this violent, frightening religion that drove him to fantasy. From that same Variety interview:
Del Toro ultimately found his salvation in classic movie monsters. “I started seeing in the monsters a more sincere form of religion because the priests were not that great, but Frankenstein was great,” he recalled.
He added: “The creature of Frankenstein to me was a more beautiful martyr figure than Jesus with the exposed fracture. And I started adoring him.” For del Toro, the Holy Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—“was the creature of Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Wolf Man.”
“I started loving the monsters because, with the monsters, as a child, you don’t have to think. The adults that were supposed to be good with you were bad. The adults that were supposed to protect you, beat you. But the monsters, they did what they looked like [they would do]. You swim with the fucking Creature of the Black Lagoon and you’re gonna die.”
I won’t go so far as to say that fantasy and horror (much less science fiction) are in some way a new religion, and genre fiction certainly hasn’t superseded the Bible, but I think they can fill some of the same gaps in our worldview that religion was created to fill.
* What disturbs me more about that bit from “The Call of Cthulhu” is my physically painful writer jealousy. Let’s say I do have an immortal soul. If so, a billion years from now, I’m still going to be living with the fact that I wasn’t the guy who strung together the words: a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity. I’ll take oblivion.