Cloud Atlas, Science Fiction, and the Origins of Religion

I just finished reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and I liked this remarkable book a great deal. The book is structured as six “nesting doll” stories, each with a different cast of characters, written in a different genre, set in a different time. Each story is, in turn, interrupted by the next one; after the sixth story is told in full, the stories resolve in reverse order. As I wrote on Twitter,

I won’t write a full review, but I wanted to comment on one element. The sixth story, set in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii of the far future, features a religious system that regards as divine a character from an earlier story. This is a common trope in science fiction: some remarkable, but ultimately reasonable and nonreligious event or person becomes the basis for a religion after centuries of distortion, misunderstandings, and half-remembered truths. Half-remembered truth + time + distortion = religion.

Science fiction that uses this formula shares the same assumptions as classic Liberal Christianity of the 18th and 19th centuries. Both assume there’s something true, more or less, at the core of religion, but that truth can be explained in purely naturalistic terms. The “religious” elements of religion, meanwhile — miracles, belief in the divinity of the founders, metaphysical claims, prayers and other rites — accumulated slowly as the original truths were forgotten or misunderstood. While the religion may have begun as a new philosophy or social movement, it was never intended to be a “religion.”

This strikes me as exactly the opposite of how religions are actually founded. Whatever the event or teaching that launches the religion, its religious nature is immediately apparent, and the movement is regarded as a religion during the lifetime of the founder or shortly thereafter. Whatever truth or falsehood these movements possess is there from the very beginning. If anything, the passage of time tends to make the religions less mystical, as they move away from the ecstatic experiences of the founding generations and settle into systematized belief.

Let’s set aside older religions for the moment and instead just consider religions whose origins were well-recorded by outsiders, such as Sikhism, Bahá’í, Mormonism, and Scientology. Each of these featured a founder who made radical new claims about the nature of reality and claimed to have received these insights through an otherworldly experience. Religious elements and rituals were present from the very beginning (and were usually the innovations of the founder), and the sacred texts of the religions were written by either the founder or his followers. Though their origins are less well-documented by outside obervers, I think the same basic pattern would apply to Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and other older religions. Hinduism, classical paganism, and traditional animism may fit the “time + distortion” model, but their origins lay so far in the past that theories about their foundations can only be conjecture.

By the way, I also enjoyed David Mitchell’s 2011 novel The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’m adding the rest of his novels to my “to read” list.

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