One of the things I like about my writing group, Hopefull Monsters, is we often engage in philosophical discussions about the state of speculative fiction. Recently we had a wide-ranging discussion about the apparent decline in the number of the people who read speculative fiction, and more specifically science fiction. Fellow Monster Richard Zwicker made an observation that at conference panel he had attended, the question about religion and speculative fiction came up, and after a quick poll, no one in attendance considered himself or herself religious. Given that speculative fiction is generally viewed as “anti-religion” (with the exception of a few notable works), this immediately raised the question: Has religion contributed to shrinking readership?
This is an interesting question without an easy answer because the apparent decline in the number of speculative fiction readers, and specifically science fiction readers, is probably related to numerous factors, e.g., the rise in other easily accessible media. Yet science fiction has always had a reputation for being “anti-religion”—true or not doesn’t matter because perception is, in a sense, reality—so perhaps there is something to this. In order to support the hypothesis that religion has contributed directly to the decreasing number of science fiction readers, we must understand the status of religion. If there has been no change in the status of religion in the general population, then declines in readership over that same time period are likely not directly associated with religion itself.
Anyone casually looking at American* politics and media might conclude that religion is on the rise. Over the past decade, the “religious right” has risen to a level where it wields considerable political power within the country. If this conclusion is true, then declining readership for science fiction (science is a popular whipping boy of the “religious right”) could be related to its “anti-religion” reputation**.
However, a recent study by a Dr. Mark Chaves of Duke University, suggests that religion is actually on a downward trend in America. In his paper “The Decline of American Religion?” Dr. Chaves notes that all accepted measures of religion are either stable or have declined in America over the past four decades. As with all scientific studies, the devil (so to speak) is in the details, and Dr. Chaves finds that things like belief in god, heaven and hell, and reading the Bible haven’t changed significantly in America. What has changed are things like a person’s association with a specific religious affiliation, church attendance, and confidence in church leadership. I find this interesting because it appears that belief in religious teachings has remained relatively stable, while participation in organized religious structures (i.e., churches, temples, etc.) has declined. While more people appear to be “spiritual, but not religious,” Dr. Chaves concluded that this “should not be mistaken for an increase in traditional religiosity” and that “every indicator of traditional religiosity is either stable or declining.”
So what does all this mean for science fiction readership? These data suggest that religion is not significant contributor to declining readership. Declining readership is not restricted to science fiction alone, but is a trend across all fiction (see the study “Reading at Risk” by the National Endowment of the Arts). Whether science fiction has been harder hit than other genres, I don’t know. If it has, I would suggest it is due to a decreasing understanding of science, making it less accessible and more challenging for the average American to read. Few Americans get more than one to two science classes in secondary school, and may be “scared” away from science fiction. This seems to be supported by the fact that other sub-genres of speculative fiction (e.g., fantasy) appear to be doing better than the science fiction. So how can we increase science fiction readership? Unfortunately, there appears to be no easy answer.
*I’m going to focus my discussion on America because I have data for this country.
**In the “hardcore” statistical sense, this would be considered a correlation, not a cause-effect relationship, so this line of reasoning does not actually demonstrate a causal link between increasing religion and declining science fiction readership. However, it suggests a link may be present.