Tom Flynn - Science Fiction and Atheism

December 26, 2008

Tom Flynn is the Editor of Free Inquiry magazine. A journalist, novelist, entertainer, and folklorist, Flynn is the author of numerous articles for Free Inquiry, many addressing church-state issues, as well as the best-selling The Trouble With Christmas, about which he has made hundreds of radio and TV appearances in his role as the curmudgeonly “anti-Claus.” He is also the author of the critically acclaimed anti-religious black comedy science fiction novels, Galactic Rapture and Nothing Sacred. His latest work, The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, is a comprehensive reference work on the history, beliefs, and thinking of America’s fastest growing minority: those who live without religion.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Tom Flynn discusses the trouble he has with Christmas. He also explores the relationship of atheism and skepticism with science fiction. He talks about the connection that many of the leading figures in science fiction have had with the Center for Inquiry over the years. He surveys influential atheist and humanistic writers in science fiction including H.G. Wells, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Phillip Pullman, and Kurt Vonnegut, among many others. He discusses the secular humanism in Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek franchise, and an interesting connection an episode had with Scientology. He details Orson Scott Card's relationship with secular humanism. He talks about the influence of Robert Heinlein's earlier works on the development of his own religious skepticism. He discusses the similarities of Scientology and Mormonism with science fiction. He examines the intersection of sci fi and religious satire, as in the works of James Morrow and Bo Fowler. And he explains his own foray into science fiction, with his critically acclaimed books Galactic Rapture and Nothing Sacred.

Books Mentioned in This Episode:


Related Episodes

Tory Christman - Anti-Science Scientology?
February 8, 2008

Comments from the CFI Forums

If you would like to leave a comment about this episode of Point of Inquiry please visit the related thread on the CFI discussion forums

Regarding atheistic science fiction writers, H. Beam Piper seems unjustly neglected, though much of his work has recently come back into print. In one of his stories about travel between different time lines referred to as Paratime, he writes that the advanced society that had mastered this technology had “forgotten all the taboos and terminologies of supernaturalistic religion and sex-inhibition.” A character has to explain to his boss about the dating system on one such time line (approximately like ours) by saying it measures “Elapsed years since the birth of some religious leader.” Otherwise the existence and message of this “religious leader” remained a matter of indifference to the Paratimers who lack religious beliefs.

Piper also wrote an independent future history where Christianity has apparently fallen into desuetude. In a novel set about a thousand years from now, a character recovering from gunshot wounds (no ray guns in this future!) vaguely recalls a story about Jesus’ execution, but not as an article of a current faith: “He was crucified, and crowned with a crown of thorns. Who had they done that to? Somebody long ago, on Terra.”

Posted on Dec 26, 2008 at 11:09pm by AdvancedAtheist Comment #1

I’m going to plug an author that Tom may not have been aware of- Brain Aldiss. I came across a collection of some of his stories, “New Arrivals, Old Encounters.” One of the stories is called “Amen and Out,” set in the 22nd century, in which gods have been replaced by battery-operated shrines and communicators. I started reading it,a nd it’s really funny!

Posted on Dec 27, 2008 at 6:14pm by Lucretius Comment #2

One peculiar twist is J. Michael Straczynski the creator of Babylon 5.  He says he is an atheist but creates a series whose central theme depends on reincarnation.  GO FIGURE!

But in one episode about the religious traditions of various sentient species Commander Sinclair has to come up with something to represent Earth.  He creates a line of people of different beliefs and puts an atheist first in line.

But this is episode #2:

http://www.joost.com/1750039/t/Babylon-5-Soul-Hunter-Season-1-Ep-3#id=1750039

Atheists are weird.  :lol:

psik

Posted on Dec 27, 2008 at 7:50pm by psikeyhackr Comment #3

Is it possible to get a list of all the books referenced in this podcast in a text format?  i mean, instead of just listening to it and transcribing it yourself maybe we could have a SciFi Atheism/secular List.

i’m especially interested to know which episodes of Star Trek are the ones with explicit secular themes.  I am not that interested in the space soap opera drama stuff, and not every episode has philosophically interesting themes.  Such a list would really be helpful.

Posted on Dec 29, 2008 at 10:29pm by Napalm Filled Tires Comment #4

I smiled when he mentioned Gene and Star Trek, but what I didn’t know was the guy of B5 is an atheist.  I love B5 too, esp the Minbari.  I thought this podcast was exceptionally entertaining.  Thanks DJ.  :)  Yes, a list of the books mentioned would be nice too.

Posted on Dec 29, 2008 at 11:58pm by Mriana Comment #5

  I thought this podcast was exceptionally entertaining.  Thanks DJ. 

I agree 100% with Mriana—thanks D.J. for the idea.
I agree with Tom Flynn that S.F. (and maybe fiction in general)  is sort of a non-aggressive way to carry out a questioning of our assumptions—this may go way back to Greek theatre as well—

To add to what was a great list ,
Ian M. Banks is a favorite S.F. writer of mine—his [  Culture ] S.F. novels take place in a future where the dominant cultutre is atheistic, “anarchist, socialistic, and utopian”.  He plays out examples of how rational cultures interact with crazy religion-dominated ones such as the [ Iridians]

The Idirans are a deeply religious people and believe in a single, rational God who wants a better existence for his creation. Everything in life has its place and it is desirable to bring about order by putting things into their right places. This belief developed while they were struggling for survival in the harsh and chaotic conditions of their home world. Idirans also believe that they are the only beings with immortal souls - as other species do not even possess biological immortality, they see no reason to assume they would possess the spiritual kind. In this way, they treat all other sentient races as similar to very intelligent pets.

By the time of the later novels, the Idirans have become ‘Culturized’ to some degree, with some having joined Culture ships crews.

Posted on Dec 30, 2008 at 12:33pm by Jackson Comment #6

I agree with Flynn that for a substantial number of people, in spite of the commercialization, the emphasis is on Jesus.  Pretty much every family we know made a birthday cake for Jesus for their Christmas feast.  If you google “Jesus birthday cake” you’ll get hundreds of thousands of results.  Maybe it’s more of a midwest thing, as I never heard of it in California when I was growing up.

Posted on Dec 30, 2008 at 2:14pm by revmatty Comment #7

... the critically acclaimed anti-religious black comedy science fiction novels, Galactic Rapture ......

....the similarities of Scientology and Mormonism with science fiction….

I will order Galactic Rapture from Amazon—thanks—here is a detailed review: http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/galacticrapture.htm

Agree with it or not, Flynn is presenting us with, through his satire, some extremely fundamental questions about ourselves and the axioms of our social structures, questions which we normally do our best to evade. To take just a single example, it is generally assumed by atheists that the beliefs of others are sacrosanct: that it is a fundamental right of every human being to believe in the religion of his or her choice; that religion is a personal matter, not to be tampered with by others. (Ironically, of course, the religios who maintain this most stoutly are also those who zealously massacre the principle at every step in their sometimes violent attempts to forcibly convert others to their own scheme of faith.)

Thanks also for having Tom review Mormonism and explaining how is a “living” example of how a religion can jump into being and grow in spite of a general feeling that it’s hokum—and that the fervor of the members of the church do not prove its truth.

Posted on Dec 30, 2008 at 2:32pm by Jackson Comment #8

Don’t foerget Gore Vidal - “His Live from Golgotha” is amazing.

Posted on Dec 31, 2008 at 1:40am by blob Comment #9

Sorry. I did not have my reading glasses on last time. I meant his “Live from Golgotha” by Gore Vidal, a time travellling TV extravaganza

Posted on Dec 31, 2008 at 7:42pm by blob Comment #10

As with most cfi podcasts, this one was quite worthwhile regardless of where you hang your hat.  As a long time Sci-Fi reader, I view it as so much thought provoking escape from reality while the best in the classic sense explores the range of possibilities beyond what we currently “know”.  That said, it is kind of like religion in that there is really a lot of junk you have to sort through to pick up any actual pearls.

Posted on Jan 01, 2009 at 10:17am by gray1 Comment #11

As with most cfi podcasts, this one was quite worthwhile regardless of where you hang your hat.  As a long time Sci-Fi reader, I view it as so much thought provoking escape from reality while the best in the classic sense explores the range of possibilities beyond what we currently “know”.  That said, it is kind of like religion in that there is really a lot of junk you have to sort through to pick up any actual pearls.

Welcome to the forum as the “first new member of 2009” (?)
—- there is an “introduce yourself”  thread
Here is an example from yesterday….
http://www.centerforinquiry.net/forums/viewthread/5248/

Posted on Jan 01, 2009 at 11:23am by Jackson Comment #12

Doctor Who and Russell T Davies!

Just thought I’d add this a no-one seems to have mentioned it. I’ll forgive you as Doctor Who isn’t widely known in the US. The British Doctor Who sci-fi series (1963-1988) always championed science and critical thinking over superstition, but this alliance with atheism has become more prominent with it’s 2005-onwards revival under Russell T Davies. Davies is an outspoken atheist whose non-sci-fi TV work has dealt with these issues before (UK ITV, 2003 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Second_Coming_(TV))).

There are numerous small satires on religion in the new series (Davies has come under fire from some evangelicals for his use of Christian imagery - especially when the Doctor appears as God) and the 2008 series finale featured a cameo by Richard Dawkins.

Posted on Jan 02, 2009 at 1:58am by Toby Barrett Comment #13

Just a plug for Joss Whedon and Firefly as another example of outstanding atheist SF. Great podcast!

Posted on Jan 06, 2009 at 9:44am by mckenzievmd Comment #14

I apologize if this showed up elsewhere already - this my first CFI post and I’m not sure whether I got it in the right place on the first try (I may have sent it directly to a Tom)

Another wonderful episode.  Thanks to all involved. 

With regard to the references made to Mormonism, let me recommend two books that present non-polemical, unvarnished, and compelling historical research on the origins of the Book of Mormon and the early evolution of that religion under direction of Joseph Smith. These are:

1. An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins (2002) by Grant Palmer and

2. Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Revised 1998) by D. Michael Quinn. 

Both writers were life-long members of the LDS Church when they wrote these books and remain sympathetic to the Mormon Church despite being “disfellowshipped” (Palmer) and excommunicated (Quinn). In his Introduction Quinn maintains his “‘testimony’ of Jesus and Joseph Smith as a prophet . . .”  Indeed, it is apparent that the work of both writers were motivated by consciences struggling with discrepancies between the official Church version of history and the what they determined to be incontrovertible evidence of the real story. 

I went away wondering how anyone could maintain their faith in that religion after coming to terms with what these authors report.  Still, I couldn’t help but maintain a certain sympathy, and even a tinge of admiration, for the early church figures, especially Joseph Smith, who I can no longer caricature as a simple con-man.  There is a depth to what happened in that strange corner of 19th century America, which carries through to the present. It is a mystery that needs to be probed and understood - not dismissed too readily as simple foolishness, despite how ridiculous the claims of the Mormon church appear to a rational outsider.

Posted on Jan 06, 2009 at 8:38pm by ek Comment #15

Doctor Who and Russell T Davies!

Just thought I’d add this a no-one seems to have mentioned it. I’ll forgive you as Doctor Who isn’t widely known in the US. The British Doctor Who sci-fi series (1963-1988) always championed science and critical thinking over superstition, but this alliance with atheism has become more prominent with it’s 2005-onwards revival under Russell T Davies. Davies is an outspoken atheist whose non-sci-fi TV work has dealt with these issues before (UK ITV, 2003 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Second_Coming_(TV))).

There are numerous small satires on religion in the new series (Davies has come under fire from some evangelicals for his use of Christian imagery - especially when the Doctor appears as God) and the 2008 series finale featured a cameo by Richard Dawkins.

Actually, wouldn’t Russell T Davis make an fascinating guest on Point of Inquiry? His writing has done a lot to expose the moral vulnerability of religious thinking by either mirroring it or examining it in high profile programmes.  As Toby says, the sci-fi series about the Timelord “Doctor Who” (one of the UK’s most popular programmes),  and the breathtaking drama “The Second Coming” being prime examples.

Posted on Jan 08, 2009 at 7:09am by The Missing Hour Comment #16

I hadn’t been aware of the sheer volume of secularist, even didactic-secularist sci-fi out there. I like sci-fi though I find much of it of poor quality regardless of positive pro-science messages (sorry, Stargate fans).

Certainly sci-fi does not particularly lend itself to any point of view nor does any major genre but the writers tend to be atheistic. I was interested to hear who led to sliding Trek into god-friendly ambiguity. In one Voyager episode featuring a people who ‘send’ their corpses into the ‘afterlife’ and the V’ger crew discover the bodies appear in an orbiting ring. It seems like a secularist anti-idiocy message until the end when Janeway informs us the ring pulses with “complex energy patterns” beyond immediate understanding which thus, could be the some sort of afterlife or soul porridge or whatever. Thanks Rick! You have the uncanny ability to ridicule both science and religion at the same time.

Posted on Jan 19, 2009 at 2:20am by sate Comment #17

Thanks to Tom Flynn and D.J. for the recommendations of Morrow and Fowler.  Hadn’t heard of them and their books sound like a hoot.
I’ll also check into Tom’s books.

  Pretty much every family we know made a birthday cake for Jesus for their Christmas feast.  If you google “Jesus birthday cake” you’ll get hundreds of thousands of results.  Maybe it’s more of a midwest thing, as I never heard of it in California when I was growing up.

My thumping background is in Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico, and I’ve never heard of this practice, either.
Very interesting though.  So what do they do with the cake?
1)  Set the whole cake outside under a manger scene or a cross along with some candles until it rots?
2)  Cut a piece for Jesus and place it next to an empty chair at the table?
3)  Invite a priest over to place it in their mouths as a tasty communion?

(I know, I should google it, but it just hit my funny bone while I was here looking for the names of the authors mentioned in the show.)


OK, I googled it.  First thing I saw:
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR JESUS  

1 chocolate cake mix
Frosting

Make a round cake - chocolate to symbolize our sin.

Cover with white frosting - white to symbolize His purity that covers our sins.

Decorate with a star and an angel - they symbolize the bearers of the first glad tidings.

Add 12 red candles - 12 candles symbolize that Christ is our light through the 12 months and the color red stands for his blood sheet for us.

Encircle the cake with green frosting - symbolized everlasting life.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Sooooo, red symbolizes blood “sheet” for us.  Sheeeeeeet, doesn’t that sound yummy?
Wouldn’t it be great if this was just a joke?

Posted on Jan 22, 2009 at 7:32pm by Trail Rider Comment #18

Something else not to be missed is the range of sci-fi which considers alternative god-like alien sentient forms which we can only read and wonder about.  Who knows if the likes of the moon sized “god” envisioned in John Varley’s Gaea Trilogy:
Titan (1979)
Wizard (1980)
Demon (1984)
might not be watching us even now?  Truly a fav in my library.

Another cutie is
“They’re Made Out of Meat” by Terry Bisson
a short story/play in which two sentients composed of pure energy discuss the hopelessness of trying to incorporate the human race into the their galaxy-wide group of sentients.  This has been made into an amusing video available on the net.

Even Lord Kelvin, the leading scientist of his day and operating well outside the free idea realm of sci-fi could find it in himself to say this much:

“Vortices of pure energy can exist and, if my theories are right, can compose the bodily form of an intelligent species.” - William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin

Lord Kelvin also dismissed the future of a lot of the science and technology which we take for granted today such as aircraft, etc., but this might also indicate a conservative nature.  Consider, while his use of “intelligent species” in this statement would lead us away from any religious connotation, there are many religious views which consider beings of light or even fire as opposed to flesh. 

Could “vortices of pure energy” somewhere in the ranges of space-time have “evolved” into sentience/sapience?  Personally I feel such potential is at least as feasible as the fact that mere “meat” has managed to do so.

Read more, think even more…

Posted on Jan 23, 2009 at 2:06pm by gray1 Comment #19

“Dr. Who” is wonderful, plus he did actually whip the “devil” in one episode which I suppose would put him at least in the archangel league.

Posted on Jan 23, 2009 at 2:10pm by gray1 Comment #20

Have there been any sci-fi novels that included the “Benjamin Button” premise - that is, a world in which the life cycle proceeded in reverse?

Posted on Jan 26, 2009 at 7:53am by Trail Rider Comment #21

Have there been any sci-fi novels that included the “Benjamin Button” premise - that is, a world in which the life cycle proceeded in reverse?

Yes, in my novel, where God dies with the Big Bang, and as chaos slowly turns into order through processes similar to natural selection in biology, He is born at end of time. But I haven’t published it yet.  :)

Posted on Jan 26, 2009 at 8:44am by George Comment #22

Have there been any sci-fi novels that included the “Benjamin Button” premise - that is, a world in which the life cycle proceeded in reverse?

YESSSS!

Asimov
[Asimov’s the last question]
[ (1956) Story is actually available on the Internet]

He also wrote the novel [  (1974) The end of Eternity—in this novel     we discover that the universe is in fact evolving in reverse and that time goes the opposite] of what we think it does.  I like Asimov….

Posted on Jan 26, 2009 at 8:22pm by Jackson Comment #23

Thanks for the links, Jackson.  Am printing out “The Last Question” and will look for the novel.  I really like Asimov, too - great writer and humanist.

And thank you, George - will look forward to your novel in print.

Posted on Jan 27, 2009 at 5:22am by Trail Rider Comment #24

[Asimov’s the last question]
[ (1956) Story is actually available on the Internet]

Great story—one of my favorites.

Posted on Jan 27, 2009 at 7:14am by dougsmith Comment #25