Alternative Universes: Sci-Fi and Religion

I don’t normally post on the intersections between science fiction and religion, but I was musing on the idea of ‘Universes’ this morning.

The word ‘universe’ is often used in regard to a fictional setting, often with some connection to the real world. So we talk about the Marvel superhero universe, or the Star Trek universe, or the Star Wars universe. In fantasy writing, the word ‘world’ is often used: the world of Middle Earth, say. HP Lovecraft inspired (quite deliberately) a fictional universe, which is more called the ‘mythos’ (specifically the Cthulhu mythos).

A fiction becomes a universe (‘world’/’mythos’) when it goes beyond a primary narrative. Particularly when more than one person contributes to the fiction, when it moves beyond its initial medium, or when it is scope expands beyond a since story arc. So the Marvel superhero universe encompasses several time periods, many characters, large numbers of writers and artists, and a broad range of story arcs. There may also be multiple inconsistent timelines (e.g. Marvel, again) with fan theories on how to reconcile them in convoluted ways that appear in none of the stories.

Fiction in its own universe also splits into canon and apocrypha. There is a canon of work in the Cthulhu mythos, and then a huge mass of other work, by countless other writers. If a non-canonical work matches the universe sufficiently, and appeals to enough of its fans, then it will be granted some kind of inclusion into the repertoire. Otherwise it will be rejected: possibly interesting, but not to be taken too seriously.

And there are small groups of emotionally unstable online zealots willing to argue the minutiae of their favourite universe down to the atoms. Who react strongly and often nastily to those who they see as threatening it (even those who have authority over the universe, such as series creators or studios). And who wallow in the jargon and obscure references: turning off anyone with a casual interest who happens upon their clubhouse.

So I feel a bit bad drawing the parallel between this and religion. Said like this, it seems a bit too obvious to me.

Religious narratives are fictional alternate universes of the same kind as any other fantasy. And the kinds of religionists I get along with are the same as the kinds of Star Trek fans I like: those who can keep it all in proportion.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Alternative Universes: Sci-Fi and Religion

  1. You are now trying to compete with James McGrath! 🙂

    Love your conclusion.

    I have often said, those that see the statement that “Life is a game” as an offense, either have no deep understanding of what a game is, or don’t really understand their own life.

    Religion, fictional alternate universes, political worldviews and much more, are games. But then, life is a game. Like you perhaps, I like people who play games to have fun.

  2. Ian

    Thanks Sabio. Agreed on all fronts.

  3. If religion is just another fantasy, I wonder how we tell the difference between a religious reality and another fantastical one. Would you think it would be along the same lines as being able to tell a piece of realistic fiction from reality?

  4. Ian

    To some extent, yes. But I think the ‘just another fantasy’ line there was a bit of intentional hyperbole, and probably needs a lot of qualification.

    To talk properly about religious stories needs to take into account that they are deliberately realistic, I think. And it has to account for the fact that they have real world functions and consequences. As such they are different from intentional fiction, I think, and that is significant.

  5. “Tell me that reality is better than the dream
    but I’ve found out the hard way
    nothing is what it seems.”
    -Slipknot, Duality.

    The balance of the “is” and the “is not” is always a hard one for we religionists. Being both a geek and a pastor, I feel a little better suited to holding the kataphatic and the apapahtic in tension. Many don’t. Good post.

  6. Ian

    Thanks Luke. Spent an hour listening to Slipknot tracks on spotify now!

    I agree, you’re definitely the kind of religionist I like to hang around with! Most of my family and friends are the same.

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