What happens to religion in a Utopia?
My wife and I are planning to do NaNoWriMo1 this year, using each other as readers and accountability buddies. Will we “win?” Will our marriage survive? Find out in December!
Anyhow, I’m deep in research and planning stages now for what I hope will be a Solarpunk story of some sort. In imagining a world where we’ve successfully transitioned to a sustainable future, however, I’m struggling mightily with what to do about religion.
There’s no shortage of scifi that grapples with the interplay between religion and climate change, but it tends to be deeply dystopian. Octavia Butler’s Parable series comes to mind most prominently, as does Robert Charles Watson’s Spin series and Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War.
By contrast, a lot of Utopian fiction imagines a secularist (though perhaps not always secular) future while hand-waving entirely over how we get there, or indeed whether it’s even a desirable outcome. The absence of religion is most noticeable in Star Trek, where Gene Roddenberry simply decided that religion wouldn’t exist in humanity’s future, and the writers went along with it out of respect or whatever without ever grappling with its implications. This decision has led to narrative problems throughout the franchise, as writers continually trip over the invisible line between the Federation’s core value of respect for all cultures and automatic skepticism that anything even slightly religious is superstition or fraud (except for the Vulcans or the Klingons, for whatever reason?), without explaining any of it in the context of humanity’s own history with religion.
No doubt, much of this reluctance to grapple with religion stems from Utopian writers tending to be secularists, which is a problem for me, too. To try to escape this trap, I’ve been looking back at readings from my collegiate International Relations and Religion class, the experience that most challenged my incorrect assumption at the time, that the world is on a steady path towards secularization.
The piece that has stuck with me most through the years is former Harvard Divinity School Professor Harvey Cox’s renowned 1965 book The Secular City, particularly its first argument that the Bible, in breaking with prior religions by declaring humanity as separate from nature and outlawing idolatry, lay the groundwork for modernity. Cox covers a lot of ground here, arguing both that stripping rulers of their sacral-political rights lead to the formation of the modern political nation-state, and that the demystification of nature allowed modern science to arise.
Most interestingly, he believes that the spread of Communist ideology played a similar role to christianity in its ability to “exorcise the magical demons and open nature for science.” Naturally, I wondered what Cox would have to say about capitalism, our modern religion. Sure enough, in 2016, some 50 years after the publication of The Secular City, he wrote The Market As God, which argues that we have begun to deify the market using language and doctrines straight out of christian tradition.
This would seem to imply, although Cox has been criticized for not quite going there, that in place of the divine rulers of old, we have re-endowed our political leaders with sacral rights to rule in the best interests of capital, rather than people, as Pope Francis might say. That idea fits nicely with some of Solarpunk’s guiding maxims, from Ursula K. LeGuin’s famous exhortation, “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings,” to Frederic Jameson’s lament that “It's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
So, perhaps one project of Solarpunk is to put an end to this latest God and the State it rode in with. But that doesn’t mean religion will go away. If anything, Cox argues (positively) that secularization can strengthen religion by allowing it to claim a separate, higher ground of morality above the fray of the political sphere. Thus, Solarpunk must have an answer for how to redirect and/or replace today’s dominant religions towards forms that return humanity to nature without, as Cox warns, succumbing to the rigidity of secularism that leads to dehumanizing and radicalizing outcomes like banning hijabs or romanticizing the environment in ways that reject our role in the climate crisis and the the science we need to climb out of it.
Should be accomplishable by a single person spending a month writing, right?