The acclaimed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke was difficult to categorize. That’s a compliment, but it also means much important critical work remains to be done.

 The late Arthur C. Clarke

As no great fan of science fiction (not a detractor, just one who has less interest in the form than in others) I have read only one novel by the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who died yesterday at the age of 90, but I find his legacy very interesting. He was one of the three great figures in the early years of the modern blossoming of science fiction, with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.

Clarke’s background in science lent his stories special credibility, as John J. Miller notes in an excellent essay in the Wall Street Journal, and the author’s interest in religious thought was part of a strong strain of that impulse that has manifested in science fiction throughout the past six decades.

Miller characterizes Clarke as thoughtful, inventive, optimistic, good-natured, politically classical liberal (supporting low taxes and an appreciation for peace and comfort, for example). Given that appealing characterization, I hope some day to read the works Miller recommends in addition to the one I’ve already read (2001: A Space Odyssey, of course): The Sentinel, Childhood’s End, and Rendezvous with Rama.

Doing so, it seems to me, will be necessary in getting a handle on Clarke’s legacy, as some critics have strongly asserted that Clarke was an opponent of religion in general (which may be a good thing) and of Christianity in particular.

For example, Regis Nicoll writes:

From a futuristic perspective in 2500 AD, Clarke looks back at 2010 as the year the human race averted its gravest danger. No, it wasn’t thermonuclear war, global warming, or an earth-bound asteroid; it was the “mental virus” of organized religion.

The “good” news is that before our worst fears were realized, science came to the rescue. The wonders of technology enabled minds across the globe to be linked into a “supermind” causing religion, and all other divisive ideas, to meld in cosmic oneness. Once the distinctions of thought and personality dissolved into the universal, impersonal entity, the utopian promise of peace and prosperity was fulfilled.

However, Nicoll fails to note that Clarke’s point in this passage explicitly assumes the existence of both God and Satan:

This was summed up in a famous saying: "All Religions were invented by the Devil to conceal God from Mankind."

That’s is certainly facile and indeed a bit silly, but if we remove the word ‘all’, few reasonable people would object to it. Again, it appears that Clarke does not deny the existence of God while being strongly opposed to people’s use of religious faith as a means of obtaining power over others. That is a perfectly reasonable position, although placing too much emphasis on the latter and not enough on the former tends to make people into annoying cranks.

Also, Clarke uses the term ‘A.D.’ to mark the year in which the story is ostensibly written, which is anathema to real haters of Christianity. This may have been inserted by the editors, but I have never heard of Clarke complaining about it, and obviously he did not ask them to take it off, as it is still on the Web version of the story.

Clarke has certainly said some things that suggest he did have a strong streak of the annoying crank about him on the subject of religion:

"It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God, but to create him." (from his autobiography)

"Religion is a byproduct of fear. For much of human history, it may have been a necessary evil, but why was it more evil than necessary? Isn’t killing people in the name of God a pretty good definition of insanity?"

So, Clarke’s religious vision is certainly a topic meriting discussion and further investigation, with a reasonable amount of skepticism toward him but without ignorant dismissal or facile categorization, either.


Additional Resources:

"The Nine Billion Names of God," by Arthur C. Clarke

"The View from 2500 A.D.," by Arthur C. Clarke 

An interesting compilation of sources of information religion and science fiction

Peter Edman’s list of religious affiliations of sci-fi writers (does not mention Clarke, however)

A definition and discussion of science fiction from a Christian perspective

Wikipedia article on Religious Ideas in Science Fiction


Note: In our Comments section, Hunter Baker suggests that we include Ray Bradbury and make the list of mid-century scifi greats a Big Four. I concur.