This post had to happen. I just saw The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and it was excellent.
It was also a classic superheroes movie, and you know what that means. (In case you don’t — it means physics has taken an extended vacation.)
Also: all the spoilers! So, if you haven’t seen the movie, go do that first.
But I will say: Joss Whedon, trolling level expert.
Despite having developed in entirely different environments, with entirely different histories, fictional cultures very often believe things that are similar to one or more human religions. Sometimes the similarity is nearly perfect. TVTropes calls that the Lowest Cosmic Denominator. For the particular case of Christianity being duplicated, it becomes “Crystal Dragon Jesus“. But does this make sense?
Note that there is a hard distinction between ethics and religion. Ethics is prescriptive statements about behavior. Religion is descriptive statements about the universe that assert some supernatural element. “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life” is an ethical statement. “If you murder, your self will spend its next incarnation in one of the Naraka realms” is a religious one.
Some things about religions in the fantasy literature make an abundant amount of sense. If there are zombies running around that a priest can turn back by waving a particular symbol, or if the armies of the Valar are fighting Morgoth across a continent, or if there is a reincarnating elemental-power kung-fu master saving the world every generation, it is quite obvious that something important is going on.
But this does raise a question of terminology: I have defined religion as characterized by belief in something supernatural. But if Aslan is running around the landscape fighting Tash, isn’t that automatically now part of the normal world? Belief in something we would call supernatural is irrelevant if it is an everyday occurrence. And religion no longer applies.
Terry Pratchett plays with this in Discworld. In that setting, gods exist, many of them. But they only have as much power as they have true believers. The Great God Om is significantly inconvenienced when he comes down to the Disc and finds that he only has one faithful follower left, leaving him incarnated as a maimed tortoise. Because most of the Discworld gods are gratuitously cruel, much of the population of the Disc is quietly Nay Theistic to avoid giving them more power than they have (“Of course they exist. But don’t go around believe’n in ’em. It only encourages ’em”). It’s rather like being in a city dominated by rival mafia dons: either you get one to protect you, or you keep your head down to avoid the attention. Vocal atheists tend to get hit by lightning by the gods that do have power, and so the surviving population of them are mainly fireproof golems. This being Pratchett, the social commentary is of course quite deliberate.
Human Religions in SciFi
When an author has incorporated religion(s) into a science fiction setting, particularly those set in the future, human societies tend to have those religions either be current ones or be similar in many ways. This makes sense if there has indeed been historical continuity, but it is important to remember that all real religions change dramatically over decades and centuries. Special mention here goes to Dune, where Frank Herbert took some liberties with Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam to create the Zensunni adepts. Furthermore, Dune has the Bene Gesserit, who exploit religion for their own political ends – deliberately seeding legends on planets for the protection of their agents.
Herbert also did something very important with Dune: he did the research. Herbert was raised Catholic and became an atheistic Zen Buddhist later in life, but he took care to incorporate Muslim and Jewish as well as Christian and Buddhist elements into his world-building. That level of preparation is rare. It is far too easy to fall into Write What You Know while not doing the research and also into Author Appeal, and produce a fictional culture that is dominated by only a single religion that the author is familiar with or professes themselves or a complete lack of religion if the author is an agnostic or atheist. I do not have the statistics to back up the statement, but it seems to me that there is an excess of Christian themes in at least the English-language scifi and fantasy literature as compared to the actual worldwide distribution of religions (although this is perhaps offset by religion or the lack thereof not being that important in many scifi and fantasy works).
There is a related problem, where a fictional culture that is supposed to be one specific religion is portrayed as something else entirely. In Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and a lot of other works, Wicca is misrepresented. Going back a few decades and somewhat more abstracted, James Blish was significantly confused about 1950s Catholic doctrine when he wrote “A Case of Conscience“. There are far too many badly-intentioned examples. Some misrepresentation is people not doing the research. Some is people wanting to make a religion look as bad (or good) as possible.
For scifi aliens, there shouldn’t be anything exactly identical in an alien religion as compared to any human religion – there are two entirely different histories. Again, this is religion and not ethics. There are two themes that work as an excuse for there being too many identical elements: ancient astronauts or time travel. In Babylon 5, everyone thinks that the Vorlons look like angels. That was deliberately engineered by the Vorlons, who liked to go around the galaxy hacking the genetics of non-technological races so that they would like flying bilaterally-symmetric glowing figures. Babylon 5 also had a messianic religion centered around Valen, a Minbari prophet who said that he would return in the future. That was explained by Valen being a time traveler, Jeffrey Sinclair, who was born a thousand years later.
Other times there is a partial excuse for Crystal Dragon Jesus. If the religion of an alien culture is defined by the needs of the plot the writer wants to do, they will slant the world-building appropriately. Taking one more from Babylon 5: the Centauri were themed like the Roman Empire, so they have an extensive pantheon of various misbehaving gods and an imperial cult where emperors are elevated to godhood. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the writers wanted to make the Captain into an actual messiah, so Bajor has a religion based around dual gods – good and evil – who are both actually Starfish Aliens that like to live inside wormholes. Captain Sisko becomes the emissary of the good ones (“The Prophets”), and disappears into heaven/closed time-like curves inside the wormhole at the end. Cargo Cults are popular in science fiction too, as a way for otherwise technologically-limited groups to have access to something without being able to replicate it.
But, these excuses for similarities aside, why should aliens have anything like human religions at all?
The origins of many individual human religions are argued. But a tendency to invoke supernatural explanations to phenomena is obviously common among humans, and has been for a very long time. Anthropological models of the development of religion describe religions as an emergent property or byproduct of known cognitive biases of human brains. We tend to assume correlation and causation even where neither exists, tend to falsely assume intelligent intent, and are easily manipulated by even entirely false fears. We fool ourselves into being more sure of our statements than we actually are, over-estimate how much others agree with us or how much we disagree with them, and like beliefs that we know others hold better. We also reflexively divide others into people in our group and outsiders, and favor the in-group over the out-group.
And so unless their members are very careful to avoid it, human societies quite rapidly develop numerous elaborate and very specific fictional scenarios to try and explain things that may not even exist. And things can get very dangerously confused when those different scenarios conflict with each other. To use TVTropes vocabulary again, religions are very devoted fandoms.
Would intelligent aliens necessarily have any of the same biases that we have? And if they didn’t have one or another, would religions as humans make them still appear or not? If not, what else might emerge instead?
Is some level of in-group favoritism inevitable for an intelligent species? Or can intelligence develop without it, automatically valuing all members of the species equally? What society evolves from that, and would something recognizably similar to human religions appear? Can we say that any religious institutions that do appear would be far less hierarchical, and perhaps far less important in society, if people did not often evaluate the needs of those who share particular beliefs in some supernatural concepts above those of those who do not?
Of course, given such a large difference in cognition, many things other than religion would be different. I played with this with the ursians, where over-valuing the in-group leads to a genetic diversity crisis quickly and so they have less such favoritism than humans do. This shows up in their sexual ethics, which are different from human norms because that was what optimized survival. But I have not considered what religions they might or might not have.
Pareidolia makes most of us prone to see human faces and figures and other patterns we consider significant everywhere. Clouds, sand dunes and hills, the shells of crabs, a colon and a single parentheses (parenthesis?). Some level of pareidolia is an evolutionary advantage: it is good for any animal to be sensitive to patterns corresponding to its prey, its predators, and others of its species. But consider an alien species with much less permitting pareidolia than we have. They would not have emoticons, and very different art. They would also not have people asserting that random patterns of char on toast was a miraculous appearance of a religious figure, or that the reflection of light off of a polished steel dome was a sign from God. Would such people still come up with anything we would call a religion? If so, what might it be like?
And one more:
Agent detection is the tendency to assume an intelligent intent where one does not necessarily exist. We do it very easily – just consider how we anthropomorphize even relatively simple devices, such as dice or a deck of cards. Taking a more complex system: when did you last complain that your computer is out to get you? This can be explained as having a survival advantage: anything that could potentially indicate actions by a predator or an adversary should be approached with caution, and false positives cost far less than false negatives.
I don’t think an intelligent species could evolve without some level of agent detection. Part of any successful intelligence has to be being able to identify other intelligences; wither to cooperate, confront, or avoid them. But like pareidolia, we could consider a species where the criteria for what makes them think “there is intent there” are more or less stringent or just different. How does that change a society, as well as any tendency for religions to appear or not?
Many of these questions may seem a bit abstract, but I think they’re useful to think about. Truly realistic alien cultures will differ from human norms in ways that are not simply derived from their environments, and recognizing and confronting the biases inherent in how we think shows some possibilities to explore. I’ve focused on religion or the lack thereof here, but this extends to everything that such aliens might think or do.
I think there is a dearth of good science fiction that explores these themes. We have space opera, where the aliens are often indistinguishable from humans in how they think. Other works have aliens whose thought patterns are said to be incomprehensible, but that usually seems to me as as excuse to skimp on the world-building. There is a large body of literature (including some of my own attempts) that explores how cultures and behaviors can be directly changed by the environment a species lives in, but that usually assumes ‘like humanity unless noted’. Given that Most Writers Are Human, it is hard to work through the implications of alien cognition consistently. Does anyone know of such a work?
We’ve talked about how many different fictional universes would be dramatically different if whatever characters or technology they have in them were to be publicly known in real life, with a particular focus on economics and sociology. This obviously poses a problem for an author: how can you write a straight-forward detective story featuring a vampire detective when the readers will be focused on the incongruity of nobody using magic to make a million dollars?
One way to do this is to establish a convention that while the world may look like the real world, that is just the outward appearance. There is a Masquerade – an organized effort to hide the flying saucers / vampires / wizards / witches / parallel dimensions / alien space bats from the muggles. But this has its own problems.
Why is there a Masquerade?
Why are characters with fantastic skills hiding from the world? There have been many different in-story reasons for this, ranging from the all-too-realistic to the entirely absurd.
The reason many mutants have secret identities in the X-Men comics is all-too-realistic. Society sets up the Masquerade, forcing the mutants to either hide their skills or be discriminated against for not being ‘normal’. In real life, society has forced masquerades into existence for no good reason at all. This analogy is not lost on the Marvel comics staff. But this form of masquerade only goes so far. It only works as long as the population has some idea, however distorted and mistaken, of who they are forcing into hiding: the world has already been partially unmasqued. In the Marvel comic universe, everyone knows that mutants exist, even if they don’t know who the mutants are. Why would a group hide from the world so well that nobody believes or even knows to not believe that they exist? And why would someone discovering something extraordinary not tell others about it?
Perhaps the default version is “but they wouldn’t believe me if I told them”. That one might work for the first time Lucy Pevensie goes to Narnia, with the portal to the other world opening and closing at the whim of a not-particularly-kind deity. But it’s absurd when the group with the supernatural skill can prove what they have. We need another motivation for people to stay silent.
The term Masquerade as we’re using it here comes from Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children”, where it is used by the Howard Families, a small group of people selectively bred for longer lifespans, to refer to their hiding from the ephemerals around them. There the motivation was to avoid attention and people trying to steal the secrets of their immortality. In that story, the Masquerade is eventually broken and society is angry at the immortals, not believing that they were simply selected for long lifespans – although there is no good reason for that, since the Howards’ lives are well documented. Here the Masquerade came from fear. But if someone had been public about living longer in the past, then the Masquerade would not have been necessary. So the fear was misplaced, and doesn’t work as a motivation.
In Harry Potter, we’re told the wizards hide because otherwise “people would want magical solutions to their problems”. That’s not a good reason either. People wanting magical solutions to their problems is a great opportunity to make a lot of money. In order for the Masquerade to make sense, it has to be in the self-interest of the groups that are hiding to stay hidden.
In Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Vampire: The Masquerade and some other vampire settings, the Masquerade is justified by the various groups of vampires agreeing to hide from humans because otherwise we’d all gang up on them and kill them until they died from it. That’s a pretty good reason, and it’s enforced in Vampire by a group of vampire enforcers taking down anyone who does try to go public and in Buffy by stakes, scythes, and rocket launchers. A similar reason is invoked in The Dresden Files. And in Mage: The Ascension, there are non-sympathetic Men In Black hunting down anyone who is doing unsanctioned magic.
But even these self-interested Masquerades tend not to work out, because while it may be in the interest of the group to remain unknown to the world, there is always a million-dollar incentive for each individual to be the one who goes public. We’ll come back to this at the end, after we show that even the best-maintained Masquerade couldn’t survive anyway.
How is there a Masquerade?
How do you prevent Muggles from walking into Hogwarts? Sure, it may be impossible to label on a map and loaded up with nothing-to-see-here, but why doesn’t it and all the other wizard enclaves show up on airplane and satellite imagery? A Wizard Did It only works so well. If high concentrations of unspecified “magical energy” fry electronics, then people will notice the bizarre dead spot on the train platform where their cell phones suddenly crash and start tapping on the wall. Dragons flying around will set off air-traffic control radar, to say nothing of people’s reaction to a flying car. Actually, Harry Potter’s masquerade has more holes than the Menger sponge. It’s as bad as how almost everybody misses that Superman is obviously Clark Kent and Batman is almost as obviously Bruce Wayne. Let’s try something else.
In The Dresden Files, the masquerade is maintained by the “Unseelie Accords”, a set of agreements between various magical groups to not reveal their presence to the world. The different groups all hate each others’ guts, but aren’t willing to risk total destruction by angry normals (or by vampires or faerie who are angry at being revealed). This is an okay setup, but somehow it survives vampire bodies showing up in a Chicago morgue, a wizard fighting horror-movie monsters in a hotel convention center, and a horde of zombies being hunted through a city by a resurrected T. Rex. That’s bad enough. Then Jim Butcher turns it up to eleven.
Harry Dresden (listed in the Chicago yellow pages as “wizard”) and a group of his friends are fighting an army of vampires at Chichen Itza. Near the beginning of the fight, Dresden briefly negates gravity over a large area and focuses the force into a very small area, smashing a field of vampires into the ground. It produces a minor earthquake. Cool story, isn’t it? The problem for the Masquerade is that there are several different global seismic monitoring networks specifically looking for small near-surface earthquakes emanating from point sources well away from established faults – because that’s what a nuclear detonation looks like. Everyone with a seismometer now thinks that a nuke went off in the Yucatan.
From there, the Masquerade would fail quickly. 30 minutes or less will put blurry spy-satellite imagery of Dresden’s team fighting vampires on a large number of computer monitors. If I read the US-Mexico airspace and joint defense agreements and approximate aircraft base positions correctly, within an hour there would be high-speed jets from US Air Force bases along the Gulf over Chichen Itza doing close recon, closely followed by Mexican aircraft and probably some curious private planes and helicopters from Cancun. And then neither the vampires nor the wizards could hide from the world, even if they all teleported away immediately. The Masquerade may have been set up by the Wizard Who Did It, but Muggles Do It Better.
Why Isn’t The Masquerade Brought Down?
If Masquerades are so easily broken and there are such large rewards for being a whistleblower, how can a Masquerade last in a story for any length of time? This one is actually easy to answer: if the Masquerade fails, the story changes too much and the author(s) can’t write a sequel.
There may be in-story reasons why nobody has brought down the Masquerade, especially if there is an organization dedicated to maintaining it. If showing the world that aliens exist will summon the MIB and lead to you and everybody else in the world being immediately mind-wiped then perhaps fame and wealth isn’t as much of an incentive. But where is the supernatural equivalent of Wikileaks or radical open-source? And if there isn’t a penalty for going public, the Masquerade doesn’t make any sense at all.
Even if there is a penalty for going public, you just need to do so untraceably. Gather compelling evidence of whatever The Masquerade is hiding. Use dummy email accounts and free wifi to get copies of it printed and mailed to hundreds of different groups at once. University science departments may be deluged with crackpot manuscripts, but most get looked at for a few minutes, so you have a chance of being taken seriously. Once again, Wikileaks is the model. For physical evidence, shuffle it through mail forwarding services a couple of times and not even you will know exactly where it has been before it gets where it needs to go. A few pebbles from Narnia would be enough for the geochemists; a dragon egg makes the biologists go wild; vampire skulls sent to an anthropologist shows that they exist.
Granted, it’s not quite that simple. It would be a huge leap from “you found a place with isotope ratios that don’t match anything in the solar system” to “you were in a land of talking animals ruled over by C.S. Lewis’ version of Jesus personified as a lion”. And “there are humanoids with large retractable canines and strange bones that disintegrate in sunlight” isn’t the same as “we need to find the vampire leaders and convince them that they and their followers should drink pig’s blood rather than human”. But as soon as the basic supernatural element of whatever Masquerade you are bringing down is illustrated, everyone would be willing to listen and to invest considerable effort in what you say.
So it is very hard to have a convincing Masquerade in a story. I suppose you could specify some sort of universal law that the Masquerade cannot be broken, but that would be an arbitrary law enforced by a trickster god. It’s probably best to simply go with authorial fiat and acknowledge the inconsistency.