the future of religion: how McDonald and Gibson describe new religiosities

I’m starting Ian McDonald’s no longer new book River of Gods about a futuristic India in 2047. I find it interesting that scifi is getting back into religion – and not to debunk or lash away at it. The new science(fiction) of religion is positive and encouraging, and it certainly sees a great future for this oldest of human cultural activities – though not quite in ways theologians might approve of (except perhaps Graham Ward, but that is for another post).

In this post i want to compare the last two bits of scifi i’ve read, namely William Gibson’s marvelous Spook Country and Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, in order to tease out their views of what religion is/might become. There are a number of striking similarities in their views:

  1. Religion is closely associated with computers/the internet/IT/technology. In Gibson this works out (narratively) as a parallelism, that might not even be quite intentional: the gods of the imported cuban religion and virtual art are both geographically locatable, though invisible, realities. Religion is not mediated by technology for Gibson, but it seems to have the same structure, the same hermeneutical framework, whatever that might mean.
    For McDonald on the other hand, religion fuses completely with computer programming, specifically with getting rid of artificially intelligent and autonomous software. Exorcism is redefined as getting rid of computer viruses: the protagonist calls on programs called Kali, Ganesh or Shiva to get rid of aeai that have gone bad. The warfare of the Mahabharata has been transfered into the electronic world.
  2. Religion is foreign. Gibson’s two religions are heretical medieval sects and cuban pre-christian religion. McDonald deals with Indian religion (shiva, kali, ganesha, etc.). Christianity or Buddhism are apparently much too simple and boring. The new religion has to be able to compete with the excitement of the internets, the iPod and whatever new craze has escaped from Japan. New Testament allegories just won’t cut it. We need weird, powerful and otherwise fancy gods now. Kali, not Jesus, can p0wn n00bs out there on teh internets.
  3. Religious realities exist on non-human levels (in this they both maintain a very traditional view of religion, much more traditional than what most professors of theology are currently teaching in their western universities). The other-worldliness of religion seems the attractive bit. I think this has to do with the fact that our world has become itself such a (virtual but also very real) multiverse that the ‘invisible realm’ that has so long been associated with religion, but that modernity tried to do away with, is actually the only bit that the new world is ready to keep more or less as is. This is suddenly what makes religion credible again.
  4. Religion is eminently useful and practical. In Gibson, the gods are always helping the protagonist, though the author leaves it open how exactly this is to be understood. What is clear is that the heros religion gives him an edge on the others. Its good religion. In McDonald religion is what you have to use to get rid of possessed robots and other hardware. It is a tool.

The take home for me is this: Dawkins and co. are old school: they don’t realize that they are beating a dead horse, one which has already re-incarnated (probably without the chinese government’s approval) into something much more powerful. Religion doesn’t die. It just changes. At times so radically that many refuse to see the new incarnation as a religion at all (Judaism, Christianity, and afaik Buddhism, were all first branded atheisms). What is new about the new religiosity that Gibson and McDonald envision is that it has adopted the language of the new webbified world to express itself, but to do this it had to give up a lot. Namely all those things that the fundamentalists (be they pro or anti religion) find so essential to religion. What is left, of course, is the (new) true essence of religion: the fact that it doesn’t have one!

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One Comment to “the future of religion: how McDonald and Gibson describe new religiosities”

  1. Will pick up the book…and ur sentiments match mine fully. Hoots to Dawkins et al. Tahnx for a good read…keep up the good work…

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