io9 has a very good article by Charlie Jane Anders on “Why Smug Atheists Should Read More Science Fiction.” “You can’t be on Twitter these days without being bombarded with atheistic smugness,” she says. “You know what I mean. People who can’t just profess that they don’t believe in God — they have to taunt religious people for believing in ‘fairy tales.’ Or the Tooth Fairy. Most of the time, these are geeks who have immense respect for science… and yet, they won’t recognize a situation where they simply have no data, one way or the other. After a while, I can’t help wishing that these people would read some more science fiction, which above all is the genre of amazement and limitless possibility.”
“A lot of the best science fiction also features the realization that for all our knowledge, there are still things in the universe we don’t yet fully understand… A lot of the best science fiction is intensely ‘cosmic,’ conveying just how huge and unknowable the universe is, and how little we still understand it. In a sense, the huge cosmic imagery of science fiction resembles some of the best religious paintings… [T]he universe is a much stranger, more bewildering place than any of us can really begin to grasp, and the only thing that would be surprising is if we stop being constantly surprised. If you don’t believe me, just read some science fiction.”
The author is (probably) an atheist: “[I]t’s great to be atheist,” she says, “and I strongly support arguing publicly and loudly in favor of atheism as a point of view. Just, you know, don’t be smug about it. You don’t actually know any more than the rest of us.”
This is also my own attitude toward atheists. I firmly stand for their right to choose what to believe, or what not to believe, and their right to express their opinions, but I ask them to respect the right of others to do the same. I also firmly stand for the right of everyone to believe in God, Gods, Zeus, Thor, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, if that makes them happy and gets them through the night.
Many atheists live, by their own choice, in a black and white world, and prefer to stay away from the colors of imagination. They see this as an act of courage and maturity, the hard choice to face reality, but perhaps real reality is more complex than our simple models. There is a Cosmist “third way” besides blind faith and blind atheism, firmly based on science, but open to the sense of wonder and the endless possibilities in a vast and amazing universe.
It is true that the best science fiction gives powerful visions of mystery and vastness, similar to religious visions. The article mentions Clarke, Dick, Herbert, Le Guin, Sagan, and Stapledon. I find powerful and beautiful “religious” visions also in the works of less “solemn” science fiction writers like Egan, Morgan, Rucker, and Stross, and science writers like Drexler, FM2030, Kurzweil, Moravec, More, Rothblatt, and Tipler. We are all small cogs in a huge transcendent machine, part of a species that may expand to the universe, merge with our intelligent technology, leave mortality behind, leave biology and matter as we know it behind, and meet Gods out there, and perhaps build Gods, or become Gods.
Richard Dawkins (yes, Dawkins, the leading atheist thinker) says that “It’s highly plausible that in the universe there are God-like creatures.” In his book, “The God Delusion,” he writes:
“Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine. Their technical achievements would seem as supernatural to us as ours would seem to a Dark Age peasant transported to the twenty-first century.
“Imagine his response to a laptop computer, a mobile telephone, a hydrogen bomb or a jumbo jet. As Arthur C Clarke put it, in his Third Law: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ The miracles wrought by our technology would have seemed to the ancients no less remarkable than the tales of Moses parting the waters, or Jesus walking upon them. The aliens of our SETI signal would be to us like gods . . .
“In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural? In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn’t start that way. Science-fiction authors . . . have even suggested (and I cannot think how to disprove it) that we live in a computer simulation, set up by some vastly superior civilization. But the simulators themselves would have to come from somewhere. The laws of probability forbid all notions of their spontaneously appearing without simpler antecedents. They probably owe their existence to a (perhaps unfamiliar) version of Darwinian evolution…”
I completely agree with Dawkins. In my worldview there is no room for the “supernatural,” whatever that means (I think “supernatural” is a contradiction in terms), but I set no arbitrary limits to what intelligent beings in a vast universe can achieve. The history of science seems to agree with me, and I am persuaded that “future magic” will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed.