HDS Course Explores Link Between Science Fiction, Religion, and Society

September 26, 2018
Ahmed Ragab
HDS Professor Ahmed Ragab / Photo: Justin Knight

This feature is part of an HDS Communications interview series highlighting selected course offerings at the School. Below, HDS student Bo Clay chats with Professor Ahmed Ragab, Richard T. Watson Associate Professor of Science and Religion and director of the Science, Religion and Culture program at HDS, about his fall 2018 class “The Empire Strikes Back: Science Fiction, Religion, and Society.”

Harvard Divinity School: You’re a historian of science and medicine, a scholar of science and religion, and a physician as well. If you don’t mind my saying, you might be a man of contradiction to others, since you study two fields that often butt heads against each other. So how did you become interested in the relationship between science and religion?

Ahmed Ragab: The reason I became interested in science and religion is related to how I came to study the history of science and medicine, which is based on the idea that science and medicine are social and cultural practices of knowledge production, which are also connected to questions like gender, sexuality, race, and colonialism. 

In all of these aspects, religion plays a central role. So in my work, whether in teaching or in writing, I do not look at science and religion as two coherent and stable categories, but rather as historically dynamic processes that keep changing over time and impact each other simply by virtue of being a part of the society that we live in.

It’s really the difference between “Science” and “Religion” in their capitalized, singular forms versus “sciences” and “religions” in their small-caps, plural forms. When we view these concepts in their non-capitalized plural forms, we can see the diversity in these discourses as opposed to the former big narrative of “Science versus Religion.” And we can see how they are carried on in the bodies of people and how these concepts really impact our lives. And people themselves—whether they are producers of knowledge, like authoritative figures, or consumers of knowledge, like patients or believers—impact the meaning of science and religion.

HDS: I was pleased to learn the other day that science fiction has been called at times “the literature of ideas.” In some ways, I think religious literature may also share this quality, too. Do you also see any connections between these two literatures? 

AR: Let’s put it this way: Science fiction is, in the modern and contemporary world, a key rhetoric of science. The production of scientific knowledge has worked hand-in-hand with science fiction.

For instance, in the course “The Empire Strikes Back,” which I co-teach with Prof. Sophia Roosth, we start with Johannes Kepler and how he tried to explain his astronomical theories in what some consider one of the earliest science fiction short stories: Somnium. Science fiction, in that sense, is a rhetoric of the future. And as both science and religion are connected to a particular understanding of the human future, science fiction becomes a key part of these discussions.

Now, in thinking about “science fiction” we can see at least two major traditions. The first is often written around what used to be called “boys and their toys”—a largely male, white, heterosexual enterprise that is centered around very basic issues of scientific explorations, such as conquering space, “expanding the frontier”, etc. However, alongside and in contrast to this narrative is another that offers deep and consistent discussions of an engagement with issues of race, gender, and sexuality. All of these questions were explored in the light of science fiction because this narrative provides a space for exploring and creating strange societies and worlds that, in turn, impact our thinking about our own world. So in a way, the strangeness and estrangement that science fiction provides becomes key in understanding our different problems—whether at the scientific level or at the religious, cultural, or social levels.

At the same time, science fiction becomes a space of liberation. Figures like W. E. B. Du Bois, among others, wrote science fiction, and the genre continues to be significant in the history and future of liberation and liberatory movements. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland, for example, is a feminist utopian novel that was published during the early suffragist and feminist movements. There are science fiction works from India that wrestle with liberation and decolonization. What's more, one of the first and most culturally significant interracial kisses to air on television happened on Star Trek between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura, even though the episode motivates the kiss through telekinesis and not romance. Black liberation, questions of gender, sexuality—all of these things played out on the pages of science fiction in part because it presented a claim to the future: Can we make our own future as peoples who are not in positions of power? And if we made this future, what would it look like?

In terms of today, with particular regard to the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale (which is another novel that we’ll be reading), science fiction is a way to think about our present. After Trump won the election, many turned to Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents because it portrayed an environmental apocalypse that occurs alongside the rise of a Christian dogmatic and white nationalist regime. So across the board, utopias and dystopias were very powerful tools that authors and thinkers have used to imagine new futures and to critique current society.

HDS: What can science fiction teach us about our religious beliefs that, and perhaps ironically so, religion can’t?

AR: I don’t think we should think about religious literature as outside of science fiction. I think science fiction has engaged with religious themes from as early as we can imagine. Now, why it’s called “science fiction” is in part because it’s related to this history of capital-S, capital-F science fiction where authors like Jules Verne were writing about exploring the moon with new gadgets. But at the same time as Verne was writing, Jonathan Swift was writing about Gulliver, who confronts very important religious questions throughout his travels.

Likewise, Mary Shelley is writing about Frankenstein’s monster, who also deals with deeply religious questions, such as creation and human existence. These religious and philosophical questions have been revisited and reimagined elsewhere in the works of many science fiction authors like Isaac Asimov, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, and up to N. K. Jemisin, who mixes elements of science fiction with fantasy in her Broken Earth trilogy.

However, there was, and perhaps continues to be, an old and problematic differentiation between science fiction and fantasy. In terms of its history, this differentiation excluded many writings outside of the Euro-American context, and any scientific traditions outside the Western canon, considering them non-scientific and, therefore, fantastical. In our course, we move beyond this traditional division and instead think of science in science fiction as a mode of engaging the natural world around us. And this natural world can include angels, prophets, saints, and gods because even if you can’t see them under the microscope, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t “natural” for some people.

Science fiction engages with many different questions that an equally apt term might be “speculative fiction.” Throughout this course, we think about religion not as something that relates to science fiction or speculative fiction, but as part and parcel of the genre. In fact, the three elements of this course’s subtitle, “science fiction, religion, and society,” are not three separate things that encounter one another in the course, but are rather three, co-constitutive parts of a single whole. There’s no science fiction without society and there’s no science fiction without religion. And there really is no religion without speculative fiction, because it is something people keep thinking about not only in terms of eschatology but also in terms of how you envision yourself as a better person in the future, how you envision a better society, and how you endeavor to do something about it.

HDS: What are some of the novels, stories, films, and television series that are assigned in the course? And perhaps more curiously, why those over others?

AR: As far as workload is concerned, we read a novel or short stories about every week and discuss it over two lectures. Also, there is an optional film series of four or five films that we will normally screen in the evenings and discuss over pizza.

As for content, the course traces a historical arch that begins with Kepler in the seventeenth century and ends with contemporary works. Throughout the semester, we will look at how significant societal and religious events throughout history shape or influence these stories and, conversely, how we might be able to read these events in and through science fiction. In other words, the works we will read are simultaneously a mirror of society and a tool to better understand society.

So after Kepler, we will read Gulliver’s Travels, Herland, and Sultana’s Dream, an Indian feminist utopia written in the early 1900s. Then we move into the so-called “Golden Age” of science fiction with selections from The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and others. As we reach the Cold War era, we will read some soviet literature and works written around civil rights movement by authors like Samuel Delany, an award-winning African-American and queer science fiction writer.

After this, we confront anxieties surrounding nuclear power through works like Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and then transition to the post-colonial era by reading Frank Herbert’s classic Dune. Then from there, we move on to Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, and up to Jemisin’s presentation of contemporary afro-futurism. And near the end of the course, we will also look at Middle Eastern, Chinese, and Latinx writings as well because we want to put these often underrepresented works in conversation with all of our other readings. 

Also, we think it’s important to engage with white nationalist and alt-right science fiction to think about how similar themes are being used in these contexts and how it impacts our world today.

For example, the Trump administration used the term “caravan of immigrants,” to describe refugees from South America. Some commentators have noticed that they have lifted this term from a white nationalist science fiction novel that talks about “hordes” of immigrants from north Africa invading Paris. So, we read this because it shows us that not all science fiction is “good”—it can be extremely hateful and also extremely problematic. Science fiction is not simply a genre about the future. Science fiction is a place where we fight for the future.

—by Bo Clay, HDS correspondent