Science Fiction Provided the Civil Religion of Progress with the Necessary Promise of Salvation from the Human Condition
The civil religion of progress was arguably the most successful of all in coopting the forms of older religions. It had an abundance of saints, martyrs, and heroes, and a willingness to twist history to manufacture others as needed; the development of technology, buoyed by a flood of cheap abundant energy from fossil fuels, allowed it to supplant the miracle stories of the older faiths with secular miracles of its own; the rise of scientific and engineering professions with their own passionate subcultures of commitment to the myth of progress gave it the equivalent of a priesthood, complete with ceremonial vestments in the form of the iconic white lab coat; the spread of materialist atheism as the default belief system among most scientists and engineers gave it a dogmatic creed that could be used, and in many circles is being used, as a litmus test for loyalty to the faith and a justification for warfare—so far, at least, merely verbal—against an assortment of unbelievers and heretics.
What the civil religion of progress didn’t have, at least in its early stages, was the escape hatch from nature, history, and the human condition that the religious sensibility of the age demanded. This may well be why belief in progress remained a minority faith for so long. The nationalist religions of the 18th century, of which Americanism is a survivor, and the social religions of the 19th, of which Communism was the last man standing, both managed the trick far earlier—nationalism by calling the faithful to ecstatic identification with the supposedly immortal spirit of the national community and the eternal ideals for which it was believed to stand, such as liberty and justice for all; social religions such as Communism by offering believers the promise of a Utopian world “come the revolution” hovering somewhere in the tantalizingly near future.
It was science fiction that finally provided the civil religion of progress with the necessary promise of salvation from the human condition. The conceptual sleight of hand with which this was done deserves a discussion of its own, and I intend to discuss it in next week’s post. Yet one consistent result of the way it was done has been a reliance on overtly theistic imagery far more open and direct than anything in the other civil religions we’ve discussed. From H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods straight through to the latest geek-pope pontifications about the Singularity, the idea that humanity will attain some close approximation to godhood, or at least give metaphorical birth to artificial intelligences that will accomplish that feat, pervades the more imaginative end of the literature of progress—just as the less blatantly theological ambition to banish poverty, want, illness, and death from the realm of human experience has played a central role in the rhetoric of progress all along. - John Michael Greer