Religion and the Decline of Science Fiction

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.

About D. Thomas Minton

Writer of speculative fiction
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5 Responses to Religion and the Decline of Science Fiction

  1. Daz says:

    I was talking about this with a workmate, a fellow fan, just the other day. We wondered if maybe it’s a case of false expectations. Like it or not, most people’s first exposure these days is via film and TV, both of which present a very narrow view of what constitutes SF (showing my age—I never call it sci-fi). Possibly many first-time readers are picking up books with the expectation of more of the same, and are put off when they don’t get what they expect. Fantasy, on the other hand, especially horror and sword & sorcery, tends to be very much the same in print as one the screen.

    Another thought. Religion may not be the primary cause, but the general anti-science stance that the more fundamentalist version promotes, along with the semi-related right-wing denial of scientific truths like AGW and evolution, could still be a factor. Be interesting to know if there’s a noticeable trend linking countries’ stance on science education to SF readership.

    • I’m sure many things contribute to this, both directly and indirectly. Religion in American has certainly influenced what our public schools teach, from the books read to how science is taught. There seems to be an increase in anti-science attitude, but I don’t know if this is real or not.

  2. Marc Schuster says:

    Your last point about the decreasing understanding of science is a good one. I wonder, too, if we live in an era where magic (along with fantasy) is more attractive to us than science because people don’t have to think too hard about it. More to the point, understanding science involves effort. Magic, by way of contrast, is a gift. Either you’re born with it (like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker) or you’re not. And if you’re born with it, all you really need to do is believe in yourself (really, really believe!), and your latent magical powers will surface. This notion could also correspond with the trend toward unearned confidence among many in the United States…

    • I think the easy with which you can read fantasy plays some role. Reading something based in science requires thought, and as science education grows weaker, it I think it gets harder to read science fiction. A good poont

  3. Pingback: Who’s Reading My Book and How Did They Find It? | D. Thomas Minton

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