A Case of Conscience is the book that got me into thinking about how speculative fiction could link up with religion, and it’s the first book many people think about when they talk about how religion interfaces with speculative fiction.
It tells the tale of Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit scientist and biologist/biochemist, who is one of a four-man team studying the planet Lithia. On Lithia lives a utopian society: the native Lithians have no war, poverty, or conflict of any kind, but they also have no religion, no concept of God or of faith at all. For Ruiz-Sanchez, who follows Catholic teaching, reconciling this fact leads him to something that he sees as an inescapable conclusion — since the definition of hell is the absence of God, a state chosen by Lucifer during the Fall, the Lithians must be creations of Satan. Ruiz-Sanchez is supported in this belief by the observation that Lithia is a place meant to convince humanity that moral and ethical decisions can be made in absence of God, a position which Ruiz-Sanchez’s espoused Catholicism stands staunchly against. What shall he do about it?
Ruiz-Sanchez’s conviction calls back to the ancient conflict between the Persian religion of Manichaeism and the theologians of early Christianity. Manichaeism — which would end up being classified as a heresy by the Catholic Church — taught that the cosmos was a dualistic conflict between a god of light and a god of darkness. Painting Satan as a being equal to God, with creative powers of his own, the hallmark of the teachings of Mani, capitalizes on the confusion and duality Ruiz-Sanchez feels himself: can the Lithians teach their incredible peace to humanity, or should they be cut off from Earth forever to save humanity? Would human sin ruin the Lithians? Should it?
The novel, reworked from an earlier novella and a winner of the 1959 Hugo award for best novel, touches on a number of interesting topics. The disrespectful attitude of politicians and scientists towards Lithia, its natural resources and its people echoes the attitudes of historical western imperialists eager to plunder the New World for gold and slaves; likewise, the human culture in which the Lithian child Egtverchi is raised and wreaks havoc remains a sinister mirror of the Cold War rhetoric Blish was living through at the time. It is also good to remember that this book was also written before the reforms of Vatican II and only eight years after Pope Pius XII’s Humani Generis declared that there wasn’t necessarily conflict between evolution and faith (and decades before the 1996 declaration by Pope John Paul II that human evolution was accepted by the Church).
Most interesting to today’s society, however, is the question of whether morality can exist without the guidance and presence of God. Catholicism is firm on the subject: God is the source of all that is and all that is moral and true. Ruiz-Sanchez would say no; many atheists and agnostics would say yes; many Christian faithful may not be able to provide an answer. It’s certainly evident that many people who do not believe in God still believe in human kindness, in rights for all, in love and in family. It is also certainly evident that wars have been fought in the name of God and religion. If secular morality lines up with Christian thought — love for the neighbor, love for the poor– is it truly devoid of God? Did Ruiz-Sanchez have to worry at all — or, in today’s secular society, would he have considered his nightmare to have come true?
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— James Blish @ The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
— Kirkus: The Big Ideas of James Blish
— The Templeton Gate: The Works of James Blish
— The Gnostic Society: Manichaean Writings