Tom Flynn – Science Fiction and Atheism

December 26, 2008

Tom Flynn is the Editor of Free Inquiry magazine. A journalist, novelist, entertainer, and folklorist, Flynn is the author of numerous articles for Free Inquiry, many addressing church-state issues, as well as the best-selling The Trouble With Christmas, about which he has made hundreds of radio and TV appearances in his role as the curmudgeonly “anti-Claus.” He is also the author of the critically acclaimed anti-religious black comedy science fiction novels, Galactic Rapture and Nothing Sacred. His latest work, The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, is a comprehensive reference work on the history, beliefs, and thinking of America’s fastest growing minority: those who live without religion.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Tom Flynn discusses the trouble he has with Christmas. He also explores the relationship of atheism and skepticism with science fiction. He talks about the connection that many of the leading figures in science fiction have had with the Center for Inquiry over the years. He surveys influential atheist and humanistic writers in science fiction including H.G. Wells, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Phillip Pullman, and Kurt Vonnegut, among many others. He discusses the secular humanism in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek franchise, and an interesting connection an episode had with Scientology. He details Orson Scott Card’s relationship with secular humanism. He talks about the influence of Robert Heinlein’s earlier works on the development of his own religious skepticism. He discusses the similarities of Scientology and Mormonism with science fiction. He examines the intersection of sci fi and religious satire, as in the works of James Morrow and Bo Fowler. And he explains his own foray into science fiction, with his critically acclaimed books Galactic Rapture and Nothing Sacred.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, December 26, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, which is a think tank advancing reason and science and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to our guests this week, Tom Flynn, who’s going to talk to me about something we’ve never really talked about on the show before. I’d like to appeal to our listeners, especially our regular listeners, to to show your appreciation for points of inquiry by becoming what we call a friend of the center. That’s the supporter category at CFI. You can do so through the Web site, Center for Inquiry Dot Net. My guest this week is Tom Flynn. He’s editor of Free Inquiry magazine, which is the nation’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. He’s appeared all over in the media. He’s traveled widely, talking about Freethought, secularism, the other kinds of issues that the Council for Secular Humanism promotes and advocates. You might have seen him on television a lot recently with his appearances as kind of an antique Christian activist. He’s the author of a number of books, including The Trouble with Christmas, where he lays out his case against that holiday. But he’s joining me on the show today to primarily talk about the intersection of science fiction and Athie and maybe science fiction and humanism. 

Welcome back to a point of inquiry. 

Tom Flynn a DJ Grothe to be back. 

Tom, I wanted to have you to talk about the side of of yourself that many listeners might not know about. And that’s your science fiction background. And also to get you to kind of riff on the intersection of science fiction, humanism, skepticism, all that. But before we do, given that yesterday was Christmas and that your known foreign wide as this naysaying antique Claus. Right. Give me your best arguments. Why I should be anti Christmas. 

Well, first Christmas. And you and I are secular humanists. Christmas isn’t the birthday of anyone we know. Waialae The holiday has a rich panoply of pre-Christian pagan elements and post Christian commercial elements. At its core, it’s Christian. And when when American society devotes itself to nothing but the holiday for the last six weeks of the year, it really sends a message of exclusion to the growing number of Americans who aren’t Christian. Now, of course, that includes a lot of people who belong to other religions and it also includes the humanists. So I think we hurt ourselves when we go along and celebrate the holiday as though we’re Christians, too, because no matter how hard we try and no matter how careful we are to say merry solstice to people, we’re going to be seeing, you know, the folks who are walking their dogs and go by and look in our windows and see a tree and presence are just going to think, oh, there’s one more Christian celebrating Christmas. So I think secular humanist are really missing an opportunity if they don’t take advantage of this chance to make themselves more visible by setting the holiday out. Now, you don’t have to go as far as I do. I I went to work yesterday. Some folks aren’t going to want to do that. 

Yeah, you’re you’re kind of known even at the Center for Inquiry as the real Scrooge at Christmastime. 

I am the real deal, which is why I say ho, ho, ho, no, no, no. 

Now, we’ve talked about this on the show before. You’ve been on years past. You know, we normally have kind of an antique Christmas show. You are avowedly part of this war on Christmas that a lot of Progressive’s imagined that conservatives are inventing. 

Well, the conservatives are exaggerating something fierce. But, yes, there is a slow, quiet movement. And I suppose war is like really over pitching it. But yes, there is a movement to tone down the overt observance of Christmas in public spaces out of respect to the growing number of Americans who aren’t Christian. Yeah, we saw one tempest in a teapot this year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where they decided not to put up Christmas trees in their two main libraries because the librarians have been getting complaints from non Christian students for years that the non Christian students find these trees oppressive. This is one of the things that conservative commentators often fail to register. Yeah, the trees have pagan roots. In one sense. They’re not part of the Christmas holiday, but they’re still part of the Christmas holiday. And to people who didn’t grow up knowing how to pass sacred and secular, the way American Christians do an image of Santa Claus or a trimmed tree does just as good a job as a manger scene at communicating this privileged position that Christianity holds from the culture. 

I probably disagree with you about some of those things. I should just say that I think you have the right to be wrong. I do think you’re being a little too strident. We’ve talked about this, you know, a zillion times before. Tom, isn’t Christmas largely a secular holiday? You said, yes, it’s secular, but still it has these religious overtones. But no one really thinks of baby Jesus, you know, Christmas for most Americans. And I think this is a good thing is about family fun, the presence, the giving, the tradition. To me, the secularization of Christmas is an example of the steady march of secularism, which is something I celebrate. 

Well, I would have to disagree with you there. Now, in my book, The Trouble with Christmas, I talk about what I call the paradox of Christmas. I. Wouldn’t agree with you that most Americans don’t have a thought for the baby Jesus in their heads? Well, they’re opening their presence. Many of them probably do. But the fact remains that probably five percent of the elements of the holiday, as most people celebrate it, are uniquely Christian. The majority of its pagan or commercial and post Christian. 

Nonetheless, this association with Christianity, you know, even even while you’re drinking your eggnog and opening your presence in the back of your mind, you know that the birth of Jesus has something to do with it all. 

And so the whole festive pastiche winds up taking on this Christian era. And in a way, Christianity winds up benefiting from a lot of borrowed mojo, if you will, because the non Christian parts of the holiday are so vast and yet it all goes back on Christianity. Now, I think it would be great to have a holiday where people get together, exchange presence, where folks come together from all different parts of the country. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking it should be Arbor Day because, you know, if you really think about it, Thanksgiving again on Christmas. 

People from all over the country go traveling huge distances to bring their families back together. And in the northern part of the country, you can expect some pretty dicey weather. 

So do something in the summer. Big national holiday for family in the summer. 

Yeah. Let’s have our family holiday in June after tornado season before hurricane season when no one has snow. Now there’s a new idea. 

Okay, Tom, let’s turn to the other reason I had you on the show this week, and that’s to talk about something we really haven’t touched on, although so many of us are interested in it. That’s science fiction and really the intersection of science fiction and the scientific outlook. Athie ism in science fiction. The biggest names in the history of sci fi. Not only are they all atheists and humanists and skeptics, I’m talking about the history of science fiction. But, you know, many of them have actually been affiliated with the Center for Inquiry. 

Absolutely. Well, the first name that leaps to mind in that perspective was Arthur C. Clarke, who has been deeply involved with Free Inquiry magazine and the Council for Secular Humanism, lent his name to some of our subscription promotions for years on end until his recent death, and was a very active participant with the humanist and skeptical organizations. Isaac Asimov was another one who was quite active and frequently interviewed in movement publications. Kurt Vonnegut is kind of half in and half out of the science fiction writers fraternity Jim Underdown. 

But he was completely in the humanist world. 

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Even served as honorary president and one of the national organizations for a white man, Philip Pullman. 

There’s Douglas Adams Philippos, a farmer. Ray Bradbury’s kind of you know, there’s a lot of skepticism in his stuff. He just spoke at our center in L.A. about a year ago. Even Pearl Sagan wrote science fiction. So, you know, the science fiction writers, the biggest names in that field, they’re all calling into question some of the basic doctrines of religion. 

Absolutely. And I think there’s a good reason why these two strands go together. I mean, it’s well known that people who are involved in the sciences are much less likely than the population as a whole to be religious. And when you start looking at that very elite scientists like people in the National Academy of Sciences, you’re looking at a group where only seven percent of biologists, for example, believe in God. Well, science fiction writers obviously have to have an interest in science, but they’re also relentless thinkers. They imagine, they speculate, they make predictions. And I don’t think it’s surprising that when you look at the population of artists who do that, that a great many of them are nonreligious or openly atheist or humanist. 

We can’t forget about Gene Roddenberry, avowedly secular humanist who started so much rolling with Star Trek. You you watch Star Trek and maybe this is overselling the point. I’ve made it before that, you know, every episode of Star Trek, The Next Generation, it’s kind of a sermon for secular humanism. 

No, it definitely is. And it’s interesting when you look at the Star Trek franchise, generally, with one or two exceptions, the original series kept a pretty secular note. And by the standards of the mid 1960s, it was kind of surprising that a great big ship like the USS Enterprise didn’t have a chaplain. But Roddenberry had insisted on permitting such a roll from the crew. 

And even when there were plots that involve something quasi religious, it was often explained away scientifically. Oh, it was just an omnipotent human like person who people thought was a god. Cetera. 

Right. Right. Of course, then when you get into next generation, you get into a couple of episodes. Who watches the watchers comes to mind that we’re really exposes of religion as little more than a con game. 

Now, the interesting thing with the Trek franchise also is as Roddenberry passed out of the picture and as Rick Berman took over, as you move into deep Space nine and Voyager, you start seeing much more much more accommodationist treatment of religion and that it wasn’t explained in scientific terms. 

There were these mystical elements of the faith of the jawans and deep space nine, stuff like that. 

Yeah. Yeah. There was a presumption. All of a sudden, the Star Trek universe changed and it became a little bit more like the Indiana Jones universe wouldn’t. Roddenberry was doing tricks. Magic or religion were always something to be explained away. When Rick Berman started controlling the Trek universe, magic sometimes worked as a big, big difference and emphasis Jim Underdown kind of a controversy among some of the fans along very much them. 

Let’s switch gears. Talk about Orson Scott Card. He kind of seems like a secular humanist at some point, even though didn’t he go back to being a Mormon, right? 

Oh, yes. Card was of Mormon birth, kind of left his faith behind. He was never an overt secularist, but early in his career, he was pretty clearly secular in that religion, didn’t inflect his work very much. And some of his classic works like Ender’s Game, come from this period. 

Yeah. No religion in Ender’s Game. 

None. None. Whatever. Now, a lot of people don’t know this, but the card had a second career as a standup comic in the Salt Lake City area, and one of his most popular routines back in his early career was the secular humanist tent revival. 

Right. I have heard that it is phenomenal. I, I, I wish it were widely available. 

Yeah, it it. He does a wonderful job of giving a mock secular humanist sermon in the style of a raging fundamentalist and manages to skewer fundamentalists and secular people at the same time. Now, of course, in later years, he’s passionately reimbursed his Mormon faith and woven it very strongly into a lot of his more recent works. Another interesting sidelight with that. The television producer, Glen Larson, is a Mormon. He’s the fellow who brought us the original Battlestar Galactica Jim Underdown. And there’s a great deal of Mormon and my Mormon like mythology. 

You know, they’re going on their almost westward expansion. 

Right. Right. And it’s masked by putting a lot of it into the language of Greek myth. But, you know, in the ongoing remake of Battlestar Galactica that’s been so highly regarded by the critics, you still see a lot of these same themes. And it’s often very helpful through all of the veiled references to Guantanamo and what have you to think of the Adamah character as Brigham Young. And it really brings forward this whole other subtext, very much still part of the Galactica universe. 

Another big space opera in the recent years was Babylon five and J. Michael Stravinsky. He’s an atheist. And you kind of the creator of all that. 

Yeah. Yeah. And I think there were enough episodes of Babylon five that they managed to catch on just about everything. But Stravinsky definitely managed to get some interesting digs in at misplaced faith. Mm hmm. From episode to episode. 

Tom, we haven’t yet touched on the grand master of science fiction, Robert Heinlein. 

Heinlein was an interesting case. Heinlein was in his personal life. Clearly an atheist. He’s probably best known for his book, Stranger in a Strange Land, which while not explicitly atheistic, it was anti monotheistic. 

Yes. Yes. This was his book for dabbling with the Eastern mysticism. Right. 

And Stranger in a Strange Land probably played as much of a role as the Beatles flirtations with the Eastern religion for making Eastern mysticism a mainstream item in American culture. Other than that, stranger in a strange land was a little bit unusual among Heinlein’s output because most of it was just straight ahead, either implicitly or even explicitly atheistic. I’ve always thought that I owe some of my development as a nonbeliever to some of the Heinlein juvenile novels that I read when I was a kid and still Catholic. And if you go back to a destination moon or rocket ship, Galileo. There are explicit pro science, anti religion messages in these books. There are always characters who are trying to get through life on blind faith or on the authority or dogma. And there’s always a more scientific protagonist who catches them up. And there’s an explicitly pro critical thinking message. And I’ve often thought that reading the time line juveniles back when I was still a believer, you know, helped pave the way for me to be more open to these notions of critical thinking. 

So fundamentalist Christian parents would not want their kids reading this kind of sci fi. It’s right. It opens the door to the greater, bigger skepticism. 

Definitely subversive, which is why I think all fundamentalist parents should immediately go out and buy their children. 

I’m like juvenile as opposed to Lion Witch and the Wardrobe or something from anklet. Earlier you were suggesting maybe Athie ism is so at home in science fiction. Skepticism is so at home in science fiction because it’s science fiction and science, you know, is critical and tentative about faith claims, you know, skeptical about that sort of stuff. Is there a harder and a faster reason why it’s so at home in sci fi? I mean, some of these authors seem to be using the vehicle of literature to be pushing the world view of atheists. 

Well, if you look around science fiction, you can find authors using the literature to push just about any worldview. Science fiction is a wonderful platform for social commentary because it gives you the distance that you can be very overt in your social or political or religious or anti religious symbolism, because you’re not talking about our world. You’re talking about another world. And there’s also the element, you know, the acronym F f another translation for that is speculative fiction. Science fiction authors are great speculators. And what the speculators do, they think outside the box, they think independently. They make it a fetish to play with novel concepts. Well, a stance like that is going to be pretty inherently hostile toward any kind of dogmatism. Mm hmm. So I think you’ve got this confluence between the speculative mindset that the best authors bring to the genre, plus the inherent friendliness toward skepticism. That’s part of the scientific community. And science fiction is the confluence of both of those two streams. 

Tomáš. Another thing I wanted to yammer with you about is not just science fiction and skepticism, but you know, where religion and humor fits in with science fiction, not necessarily Athie ism in science fiction, but kind of poking fun at religion. 

Oh, yeah. And there’s another there’s a huge, huge threat there. One name that a lot of people might not think of immediately in connection with that is Philippos, a farmer who wrote probably best remembered for the River World Series. This is a sprawling after you’ve read it all, you realize it was a black comedy at first. You think it’s maybe an adventure, but it’s really more a black comedy. Every human being who ever lived. Back to Early Cape People comes back to life simultaneously on an artificial world along the shores of this vastly long river. Nobody knows why they’re there, but each person has come back to life. And each one has a like a walking stick that a few times a day. This gorgeous fourth food, water, what have you. So you have historical figures from different eras coming into conflict. You have Sir Richard Burton, the 19th century explorer, Mark Twain. I think, Richard, the second lines up in there. 

It’s kind of a cooler version of heaven. 

Yeah, it’s what heaven really ought to be. And in the process of this, it plays with a lot of afterlife ideas, cause having Mark Twain is a major character allows Farmer to bring in the bitter anti religious attitude that was Twains in the later part of his life, like in his letters from the Earth or elsewhere. 

And of course, by the end of the series and again, this is very much the way Gene Roddenberry would play it in the original track. And next generation, we discover that this whole thing is not the work of gods, but the work of some clever in the level of aliens. 

Another name that comes to mind in this kind of humor in religion within sci fi is James Monroe. 

Oh, yeah. James Monroe is a particular favorite of mine. He’s written a whole string of very, very witty black comic novels on religious themes. 

Yeah. What is the daughter of God or only begotten. Right. 

And towing Jehovah’s Nothing out you go only Begotten Daughter was really the book that put Mora on the map. Originally, a concerned genetic experiment went wrong that led to an unplanned second incarnation of Jesus only. 

She came back as a fellow temperate teenage Jewish girl. 

Right. I love that. And in talking Jehovah, just what a great plot idea. The body of God, the actual carcass of God is found in the Arctic. I think it was right on Nietzsche was right. 

God is dead. But Nietzsche had the timing wrong. God just died. It’s 400 feet long, stiff as a mountain and floating in the North Atlantic. And they actually have to toe the carcass towing Jehova, the last dying archangel, recruits a despondent sea captain who is obviously supposed to be the captain of the Exxon Valdez. His mission is to hijack a supertanker and tow the body of God, a.k.a. the Corpus DGI to the Arctic. So it will be composed more slowly while people try to figure out what to do with it. And well, along the way, they face various challenges, including an assault by this is hilarious in New York City. Atheist group whose members are filthy rich and they pool their money to hire an outfit that reenacts World War Two naval battles with full scale ships. 

Yeah, right. And it just uproarious. 

At one point, the crew of the tanker winds up standing in the Debbie Goddard ear canal. They’re all very hungry because there was a mutiny and some wild partying and all the supplies on the ship were consumed. So people start tearing off pieces of God and eating them. 

You know, the communion jokes that you would expect come flying high and fast. Great. Amazing. Amazing stuff. 

And Moreau has continued to write on these general themes and just just fabulous. One of his more recent books is The Eternal Footman, which I highly recommend. He does some of the most sophisticated, humorous playing with these concepts that you’re likely to find out there. Now there’s another author, an English author, that will be new to a lot of American readers. I love his stuff. His name is Bo Fowler. Bo B. Oh. And basically, he’s got two books. 

God Inc or something. Skepticism is skepticism. 

Anchia in that one. And an entrepreneur who’s a free thinker becomes the world’s richest man. He opens a chain of metaphysical betting parlors, Jim Underdown and all the clergy can come in and lay down their flocks and money on betting that their particular doctrine is correct. Now, of course, none of these claims can be proved to any controls most of the world’s wealth. And then, in a subplot, a self-aware robotic shopping cart trundles its way up Mount Everest, trying to work out the problem of evil. 

Yet make stuff like this that, well, you can if you’re both fouler. That’s great. 

Then there’s his next one. Not not a sequel. Definitely. Definitely a free-standing work. The astrological diary of God. It’s almost indescribable. Suffice it to say that God turns out to be a failed. World War Two Japanese kamikaze pilots. 

And how do you fail if a kamikaze pilot. Right. 

And among his miraculous powers is he gives rise to parallel universes. Each time he masturbates. Wow. And oh, yes. Also, there is a skeptical organization loosely modeled on up whose members inflate their self, inflating bright orange life vests whenever they hear something they don’t believe. 

Love it. 

We mentioned James Morrow. He actually raves about your works of science fiction, Galactic Rapture and nothing sacred. 

Well, I’m always very heartened to hear that. But as I’ve turned out to science fiction novels and I have a third in the oven in terms of what you’d call the genre, I usually call them your basic antireligious black comedy, sci fi, techno thriller, not sci fi purely, but a little bit more going on than just science fiction. Oh, yeah. There’s there there’s some social commentary, some pointed religious commentary. 

But so in galactic rapture, Mormons figure prominently. 

Oh, yes. This galactic rapture is that about 300 years in the future, after the Galactic Federation has found us and almost decided to make us an anthropological preserve because we’re so primitive. But they decide that our religions are quaint and certainly among the quaintest is a particular kind of Mormonism. In my novel, the Mormon Church has had a few centuries to become mainstream and kind of unexciting and maybe kind of like the Presbyterian Church today. 

Well, my character I’ll rootlets here is a back to the roots Mormon televangelist who wants to breathe new life into the faith by going back to the Mormonism taught by Joseph Smith immediately after the Book of Mormon was published. 

And there are some really interesting thousands of typos and inconsistent doctrines. And there’s a lot of material in the Book of Mormon first edition that the Mormon Church itself has worked very hard to keep underground. And my character, Latimer, manages to bring all of it back. So we’re we’re able to play some interesting games with the history of Mormonism. And, of course, when you’re dealing with the Mormon history, it’s a wonderful analog for dealing with Christian history because here is a world religion only it didn’t form two thousand years ago. It happened in our country. The people spoke English and we have a lot of the records and Mormonism considering its worldwide influence. 

There’s, what, 14 million members worldwide, no paid ministry. And yet it’s founded on stuff in the mid 19th century that is just so hard to buy into. 

Oh, yeah. Yeah. And it’s one of the fascinating things about the Mormon history. Christian apologists often say that, oh, the resurrection must have happened. Things must have unfolded pretty much as they did in the Book of Acts, because otherwise if the people who had lived right then had seen for themselves that it wasn’t so. Why would early Christians have been willing to have the Romans murdered them? Things along this line. 

Their commitment was evidence that something was really going on. So goes the evangelical apologists argument. 

The only problem with that is when you look at the Mormon experience here, we have a new religion that Joseph Smith was pretty clearly a self-conscious con man, at least in the early stages. I think if the faith began to grow, he started to believe in himself. Right. Brigham Young was in many ways a conscious religious manipulator. The events presented in the Mormon scripture are clearly untrue. And yet the people who were with Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, who were there with them when they made it all up. Took on these enormous privations and allowed themselves to be martyred, suffered horribly in the various communities where the Mormons had settled and been set upon by angry locals, undertook these privations of the great trek West. So there’s no question there’s something about human nature that if a religion presses all of the right buttons, even people who ought to know it’s not really true will lay down their lives. So the fact that they lay down their lives really isn’t proof of much of anything. 

The cool thing about Mormonism to me is that it is itself like one of the two great science fiction religions, you what it calls Joseph Smith, a sci fi writer. But the you know, the storyline that you can become a God like God is God. You know what God was, man? Now is what God is man will be. You know, you get your own universe. You get your own planet with your own people. I mean, that’s a cool kind of sci fi plot. 

Oh, absolutely. And it’s something kind of analogous to sci fi, kind of like alternative history. One of the things that really brought attention to the Book of Mormon in the first place is Smith offered an explanation for some of the very puzzling Indian artifacts. There were these mounds all across the Midwest that no one knew why the Indians had made them or what their purpose was. And, of course, a lot of Christians in the 18th and 19th century were scratching their heads about how can the Bible be inerrant when the Bible doesn’t even know that half of the world is there. Right. Well, Joe Smith wold the new world into the Christian salvation story and also explain those mysterious mounds and other Indian artifacts. The Indians were basically descended from the lost 12th tribe of Israel who had come over across the ocean in enclosed boats. 

They put the period of the Babylonian captivity and Jesus on his way back to heaven after he was resurrected. He visited North America and the Indians. 

Right. Right. That’s the account. And, of course, these strange mounds were explained as the remains of the piles of bodies from these fantastic Tolkien esque battles. Mm hmm. That he writes about in multiple ways in terms of a lot of the promises that he made to the faithful in its inner circle. And also in terms of the elements that first won popular attention for the Book of Mormon. Just Smith was involved in an enterprise that modern science fiction authors would definitely recognize. 

I mentioned the other great sci fi religion that Scientology and the founder of Scientology had his roots as a sci fi writer. 

Absolutely. And another bit of trivia there was, I believe it was a first season episode of Star Trek, the original series that was written by a writer outside of their usual stable person, had sent in an interesting script and they produced it. And it turned out that this gentleman was a Scientologist, but he kept it kind of close to his vest. This is I forget the title of it, but this is the episode where they’re experimenting with installing an artificial intelligence program to control the enterprise. Mm hmm. And of course, the machine goes wrong and starts taking the ship into all sorts of mischief. And Captain Kirk has to pose the problem to the machine that it can’t figure out. But the interesting thing is that the author worked a lot of Scientology psychological theory into the script. It turned out this malevolent A.I. had had bad engrams. It picked up malicious ideas that had been in the subconscious of the people who invented him. And, well, that’s that’s a Mormon term. Graham’s very evil inclinations that are part of our heritage. Going back to the ancient days of the thetas. Well. 

Or that you could even pick up, you know, if people talk during childbirth or something. That’s why L. Ron Hubbard teaches silent birth. 

You know, so that’s what you you try and get rid of in the process of becoming what Scientology calls a clear. 

Isn’t there an anecdote about one of our kind of skeptic sci fi authors hearing L. Ron Hubbard say, boys, if you really want to make money, this penny, a word crap’s not gonna work for me. You know, the the founder religion, that’s the way to succeed. 

Oh, yeah. Yeah. Harlan Ellison loves to tell this story. L. Ron Hubbard originally achieved some minor prominence as a science fiction author. He was quite successful in that regard. He was good friends with Joseph Campbell. It was the first editor of analog and any science fiction magazine and an enormously influential guy had developing some of the Silver Age authors. And Ellison swears up and down that he was attending and may have been a science fiction writers of America. And but one of the science fiction conventions a couple of years before he published Scientology, Ellison says Hubbard gave a speech in which he said that if you really want to make money, the way to use the speculative talent is not to write stories. It’s to invent a religion. 

He invented a sci fi religion with great sci fi plot points, you know, and this cosmic battle between aliens kind of resulted in our being here and and all that stuff. Just amazing stuff. Time to finish up. Talk to me about nothing sacred. Your second sci fi novel. And you know, what I’m really interested in is what’s the secularist? What’s a skeptic going to get out of reading your sci fi novels or science fiction in general? I like it, but I’m kind of a pop culture consumer. Right. But is there something more to it? 

Oh, I think there can be. I mean, I think good science fiction plays in a fairly sophisticated way with a lot of ideas about religion, about the way society is organized. One of the subjects that I play with in my books is I explore the dark side of Star Trek’s prime directive is usually thought of as being this obvious ethical idea that if you have a more advanced species, they’re going to hold back from interacting with less developed species in ways that will influence their development. But would they hold back during a Holocaust, say there’s an Anglican zigzag there that would they stand aloof from orbit and watch people destroy themselves rather than intervene? Mm hmm. Isn’t it something patronizing to even think in those terms? Well, we’re so superior. We’re not going to interact with these people because it would overturn their rustic folkways. And in both of my novels, it’s a universe where horrible wrong has been done. In that sense, we’ve got a galactic federation with 40000 thousand member worlds and something like thirty two thousand of them are cossetted anthropological preserves, where they send undercover documentarians to make reality shows that are the principal form of entertainment for people at the 8000 world that are allowed to know the score. 

Mm hmm. 

So basically, the the top people in the galaxy are keeping 75 percent of the human race as something like slaves for their entertainment. 

And Tom, about nothing sacred specifically. It’s part of this galactic rapture story. 

Right. Right. It picks up about 20 years after the action in galactic rapture. And Earth is in the process of being drummed back out of the Galactic Federation because earth religions have turned out to be so damaging to collect variety. And in the course of all of this, I add, poked fun at so many religions and galactic rapture for nothing sacred. I had to make one up. So I invented a new cultural export from Earth, an immensely popular religion built on 19th and early 20th century German and Russian nihilism. 

You and you know, everybody wears black leather and is kind of kinky. And the the reigning prophet has had this terrible problem. She can’t keep good help because they keep killing themselves. 

That’s great. Tom, thanks a lot for a discussion about science fiction, Athie ism, religion, humor, all that stuff. I really appreciated it. 

Any DJ Grothe? Yeah. Happy day after just another. 

You’ve seen the headlines, Bill seeks to protect students from liberal bias. The right time for an Islamic Reformation. Kansas School Board redefined science. These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. One adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community who could have imagined that reality would need defenders. The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more essential than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values by becoming a friend of the center today. Whether you are interested in the work of psychology and skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine or Center for Inquiry on Campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you’re just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We hosted regional and international conferences, college courses and nationwide campus outreach. You’ll also find out about our new representation at the United Nations, an important national media appearances. We cannot pursue these projects without your help. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one or visiting WW w that center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to enlarge the reality based community. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s episode. Go to our online discussion forums at Center for Inquiry dot net slash forums. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.