Religion in Asimov's Writings
This paper discusses how the life and beliefs of an American writer are reflected in his fictional works. Moreover, it answers the questions "How are the aspects of religion and religious beliefs used in the fictional works of a professed atheistic writer, and what is the predominant attitude toward religion in those works?" This paper uses such resources as the novel Foundation, numerous short stories, quotes, and an autobiography to clearly show a parallelism between Isaac Asimov's personal views and beliefs, and his fictional works. More specifically, this paper demonstrates that Asimov's works are opposed to religion and common religious beliefs such as the existence of God, and life after death. It is also shown that these references are often subtle attacks that the unaware reader may never notice.
Isaac Asimov is one of the most prolific writers in American history; with over 500 titles, Asimov has covered almost every major division of the library Dewey decimal system with topics including anatomy, physiology, astronomy, the Bible, biology, chemistry, etymology, geography, Greek mythology, history, humor, mathematics, and physics (Riley, 1975, pp. 16-17). Asimov is most well known, however, for his work in science fiction, and also for being a professed and proud atheist. How, then, are the aspects of religion and religious beliefs used in the fictional works of a professed atheistic writer, and what is the predominant attitude toward religion in those works?
Asimov was born January 2nd, 1920 in Petrovichi, USSR to parents Judah and Anna Asimov, both Orthodox Jews. When Isaac Asimov was 3 years old, his family came to the United States and settled in New York City where his father opened a candy shop. He graduated Boy's High School in Brooklyn at the age of 15 and went on to study chemistry at Columbia University where he earned his B.S. in 1939 and his M.A. in 1941. Asimov served a short time in the military during World War II, and later earned his PhD in 1948, then becoming a faculty member of Boston University as an assistant professor of biochemistry. In 1958 Asimov became a full time writer (Wakeman, 1975, pp. 89-90).
Asimov married Gertrude Blugerman July 26, 1942, and had two children. The two separated in 1970, and divorced November 16, 1973. Asimov later remarried, to Janet Opal Jeppson, on November 30th, 1973. Asimov had no children from this marriage (Seiler & Jenkins, 1999).
According to Asimov's own autobiography (1994), while his parents were Orthodox Jews, he remained without religion simply because no one made an effort to teach him any religion (p. 12). According to Asimov, he was "sometimes suspected of being nonreligious as an act of rebellion against Orthodox parents...but it was not true of me. I have rebelled against nothing. I am, in short, a rationalist and believe only that which reason tells me is so (p. 13)." It has also been suggested that Asimov was a Humanist. Humanists belive that humans alone are responsible for the problems and achievements of society. Humanists would believe that neither good nor evil is produced by supernatural beings, and that the problems of humankind can be solved without such beings (Seiler & Jenkins, 1999). As Asimov put it, "...I am incapable of accepting that existence on faith alone (Asimov, 1995, p. 301)." Asimov perfectly summed up his religious views by saying "I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect that he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time (as cited in Corvallis Secular Society, 1997)."
Although his parents were Jewish, Asimov took great interest in Christianity and moreover, the Bible, even to the point of publishing a two volume set entitled Asimov's Guide to the Bible. How then does Asimov treat this in his fictional works? In his book Gold (1995), Asimov gives his views of science fiction and religion:
I tend to ignore religion in my own stories altogether, except when I absolutely have to have it. ...and, whenever I bring in a religious motif, that religion is bound to be seem vaguely Christian because that is the only religion I know anything about, even though it is not mine. An unsympathetic reader might think that I am "burlesquing" Christianity, but I am not. The too, it is impossible to write science fiction and really ignore religion (pp. 297-302)
It is true that Asimov does not use religion in an abundance in his fictional work, and yet it can be found.
For instance, on the Bible, Asimov says "My experience with Greek myths (and later, the grimmer Norse myths) made it quite obvious to me that I was reading Hebrew myths (Asimov, 1994, p. 13)." This view of the bible is somewhat paralleled in Asimov's short story "The Last Trump" (1990) in which the angel Etheriel is speaking to the archangel Gabriel about the writings of the book of Daniel and the Bible in general and questions their authenticity after being copied by scribes: "I wonder if two words in a row are left unchanged (p. 106)."
Foundation, (1974) one of Asimov's most famous and popular novels, deals with religion in a rather negative light, and strikingly resembles Christianity. In the novel, a group known as the Foundation is assembled by Hari Seldon, to harbor science and art during the fall of the Galactic Empire. The foundation grows in power over the years, using trade and religion to control neighboring planets and systems. The religion is described as follows:
...all this talk of about the Prophet Hari Seldon and how he appointed the Foundation to carry on his commandments that there might some day be a return of the Earthly paradise: and how anyone who disobeys his commandments will be destroyed for eternity. They believe it. (p. 103)
The parallelism to Christianity is apparent: the Prophet Hari Seldon represents Jesus Christ, the Foundation is organized religion, the commandments are similar to those given to Moses in the old testament, the Earthly paradise is Heaven, and to be destroyed for eternity is the Christian idea of Hell.
Another aspect of religion in Foundation is how that religion is portrayed and used. The following quotes sum up the religion in the novel:
The religion-- which the Foundation has fostered and encouraged, mind you-- is built on strictly authoritarian lines. The priesthood has sole control of the instruments of science we have given Anacreon, but they've learned to handle these tools only empirically. They believe in this religion entirely and in the ...oh...spiritual value of the power they handle...The Foundation has fostered this delusion assiduously (pp. 106-107).
I started that way at first because the barbarians looked upon our science as a sort of magical sorcery, and it was easiest to get them to accept it on that basis. The priesthood built itself and if we help it along we are only following the line of least resistance (p. 86).
To the people of Anacreon he was high priest, representative of that foundation which, to those 'barbarians' was the acme of mystery and the physical center of this religion they had created-- with Hardin's help-- in the last three decades (p. 89).
These examples of Asimov's work reveal some interesting views on religion. First, it is said that those that believe are "barbarians," and that religion is a "delusion." Also, these examples suggest that religion is created by man as a tool to control and manipulate the ignorant and uneducated. It is one of Asimov's beliefs that "To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today." Asimov also said:
I would not be satisfied to have my kids choose to be religious without trying to argue them out of it, just as I would not be satisfied to have them decide to smoke regularly or engage in any other practice I consider detrimental to mind or body (as cited in Corvallis Secular Society, 1997).
One of the most apparent similarities between Asimov's own beliefs and his fictional work comes in the area of life after death. Asimov says:
It is entirely because such thoughts are so comforting and so exhilarating, and so remove us from the otherwise dreadful thought of death, that the afterlife is accepted by the vast majority, even in the absolute absence of any evidence for its existence (Asimov, 1994, p.332).
When asked what he would do if he were wrong and were faced with his creator, Asimov said "I would say, Lord, you should have given us more evidence (Asimov, 1994, p.333)."
Asimov has also stated that the common conceptions of Hell, as well as Heaven, do no appeal to him:
What human being with a modicum of intelligence could stand any of such Heavens, or the other that people have invented, for very long? Where is there a Heaven with an opportunity for reading, for writing, for exploring, for interesting conversation, for scientific investigation? I never heard of one (Asimov, 1994, p. 333).
This belief is taken to its fullest extent when Asimov states he would choose oblivion over an afterlife: "There is nothing frightening about an eternal dreamless sleep. Surely it is better than eternal torment in Hell and eternal boredom in Heaven (Asimov, 1994, p.333)."
This view on the afterlife is exemplified in Asimov's science fiction works as well. In the short story "The Last Trump," (1990) Asimov paints a picture of a world that was destroyed by atomic war. The time of "resurrection" was at hand as the dead rose from their graves in a new Earthly paradise free of all hate, lust, and pain. All material possessions were destroyed, including clothes. It is presented as a great irony that at a time when all are nude, lust is absent. And those that lived for war, cannot kill their enemies. It is Asimov's contention, in fact, that the lusts and vices of life are what make it worth living, and that the afterlife would be pointless:
The Dantean conceptions of Inferno were childish and unworthy of the divine imagination: fire and torture. Boredom is much more subtle. The inner torture of a mind unable to escape itself in any way, condemned to fester in its own exuding mental pus for all time is much more fitting. Oh, yes, my friend, we have been judged, and condemned, too, and this is not Heaven, but hell (p. 118).
This idea is carried to its fullest extent in the short story "The Last Answer" (1986). An atheistic physicist dies, and is carried to what he believes to be an afterlife. He soon finds out that he is the prisoner of an all-powerful being that used a "nexus of electromagnetic forces" to imitate the workings of his brain, in essence giving the man immortality. The catch is that the man's purpose for eternity is simply to think. The universe was created for the amusement of the all-powerful being, and the man has no choice but to exist for all eternity to please the being. The last answer that the man intends to spend eternity thinking about, is how to end the existence of "god." "For what could any Entity, conscious of eternal existence, want-but an end? (P. 356)"
Asimov sums up his atheistic view of the afterlife by saying, "I am not afraid of dying and going to Hell or (what would be considerably worse) going to the popularized version of Heaven. I expect death to be nothingness and, for removing me from all possible fears of death, I am thankful to atheism (as cited in Corvallis Secular Society, 1997)."
Asimov's objection to God also stems from his objection to the idea of the afterlife. Asimov says, "I would also want a God who would not allow a Hell. Infinite torture can only be a punishment for infinite evil, and I don't believe that infinite evil can be said to exist even in the case of a Hitler (Asimov, 1994, p. 334)." Along with this, Asimov's views as a humanist are brought out clearly in one of his most famous short stories, "The Last Question." The story spans the entire existence of the universe, and the plot reveals the existence of God. In the near future, man has invented a super computer known as a Multivac. The computer is asked if entropy (the winding down or loss of energy in the universe) can be reversed. The computer says that not enough data is available. The story progresses many eons and through the years, the computers evolve along with man, and at each stage, it is asked if entropy can be reversed, and the answer always comes back that there is not enough data at that time. In the final stage, human kind has evolved into one mind free of body, and co-exists with the computer which exists in hyperspace. As the universe come to an end and man fades out, the computer discovers how to reverse entropy, and says "Let there be light (P. 246)."
This incredible science fiction story has the underlying theme that man created God, and that the problems of society can be solved only by man, or man's creation, and that a supernatural being is not needed. This is a direct representation of Asimov's humanist beliefs.
Overall, it can be seen that Asimov does use religious themes in his works, and often they resemble Christian motifs. The use of religion is not intended, according to Asimov, to burlesque religion, but to profess his beliefs against the existence of a god, or an afterlife.
Asimov, I. (1974). The Foundation trilogy. New York: Equinox.
Asimov, I. (1994). I. Asimov: a memoir. New York: Doubleday.
Asimov, I. (1986). The last answer. In Robot dreams (pp. 350-356). New York: Berkley Publishing Group.
Asimov, I. (1990). The last trump. In The complete stories (pp. 106-119). New York: Doubleday.
Asimov, I. (1986). The last question. In Robot dreams (pp. 234-246). New York: Berkley Publishing Group.
Asimov, I. (1995). Religion and science fiction. In Gold (pp. 297-302). New York: Harper Collins.
Corvallis Secular Society (1997). Isaac Asimov on religion retrieved May 9, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://css.peak.org/newsletter/1997/aug97/asimov.html
Riley, C. (ed). (1975). Isaac Asimov. In Contemporary literary criticism (pp. 16-17). Detroit: Gale Research Company.
Seiler & Jenkins, J.H. (comp). (1999). Frequently asked questions about Isaac Asimov Retrieved May 5, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.clark.net/pub/edseiler/WWW/asimov_FAQ.html
Wakeman, J. (ed). (1975). Isaac Asimov. In World authors 1950-1970 (pp.89-90). New York: The H.W. Wilson Company.