Science and religion have an uneasy relationship. Margaret Atwood, known for her literary science fiction, thinks the future holds in store a religion that combines the two. She takes her lessons from a past charted by contemporary religious scholar Karen Armstrong.
Armstrong is a religious scholar who has studied the history of belief. In her latest book, The Case for God, she looks at the relationship between science and religion. The current conflict between the two, with Darwin's theory of evolution as a flash point, is not in keeping with historical interpretations of scripture.
"Darwin came along and found a natural explanation for life itself," Armstrong says. But she notes that at an earlier point, this wouldn't have caused conflict. "Saint Augustine had ... laid down an important principle ... that if a scriptural text contradicts science, you must give it an allegorical interpretation."
While Armstrong's work looks at the lessons of the past, Atwood extrapolates from the past to create visions of the future. One of Atwood's best known novels is The Handmaid's Tale, which imagines a future in which America has become a Christian fundamentalist theocracy.
Atwood says science fiction became necessary when the contradictions between objective reality and religious orthodoxy became too difficult to ignore.
"Those things that we used to just believe in all the time went to Planet X where they are alive and well," Atwood says by way of explaining the alternate realities that populate the genre. "Angels with flaming swords, the burning bush that speaks, you know, all of those really quite science fiction things in the Bible."
Looking For Meaning
Armstrong says her research into the history of religion demonstrates that science and religion are two very different kinds of knowledge.
"Religion is not answering our scientific questions about, 'How did the world come into being?' " Armstrong says. "That's a question for science. Religion is asking us to consider these problems that always occur to human beings: 'Why is life so filled with pain? What is the nature of happiness? What is the meaning of our mortality?' "
Armstrong sees the role of religion as a guiding force for ethical behavior. Atwood brings that notion to life in her newest novel, The Year of the Flood. It's set in a dystopian near future where genetic engineering has ravaged much of the planet and survivors have created a new religion based on preservation.
"This group, which is called God's Gardeners, has taken it to an extreme that not everybody will be able to do," Atwood explains. "They live on rooftops in slums in which they have vegetable gardens. They keep bees. And they are strictly vegetarian, unless you get really, really hungry. In which case you have to start at the bottom of the food chain and work up. And they make everything out of recycled castoffs and junk."
Rooted In Reality
Atwood points out that the beginnings of her religion of the future have already appeared in the present.
"Indeed, we now have the Green Bible among us, which I did not know when I was writing this book," Atwood marvels. "[It] has tasteful linen covers, ecologically correct paper ... and a list at the end of useful things which you can do to be a more worthy 'green' person."
For her novel, Atwood created a new pantheon of saints, including Rachel Carson, Al Gore and the murdered conservationist Dian Fossey. Fossey figures into one of the hymns Atwood wrote for God's Gardeners:
Today we praise our Saint Dian
Whose blood for bounteous life was spilled
Although She interposed her faith
One species more was killed ...
Atwood's environmentally based religion dovetails with an idea at the core of Armstrong's understanding of faith.
"The creation story was therapeutic," Armstrong says. "It was telling us how to be creative ourselves and, indeed, how to keep the cosmos in balance. Men and women and gods had to work together to keep this fragile ecostructure together."
Armstrong's philosophical ecosystem is reflected in Atwood's futuristic religion. But even though God's Gardeners feels like a real religion, Atwood is not ready to step up to the pulpit, despite a literary precedent.
"Well, not quite in the same way that L. Ron Hubbard did," Atwood says with a chuckle. "I don't have any adherents yet. But, who knows?"
Margaret Atwood has been writing original and provocative works of fiction for nearly a half-century. The Year of the Flood, her 63rd book, is her third work of speculative fiction. She has an uncanny ability to spin timely, very plausible and sometimes even terrifyingly prescient tales.
1985's landmark The Handmaid's Tale posited a theocracy that controls women's childbearing. Oryx and Crake, published in 2003, at the outbreak of the SARS epidemic, is narrated by a survivor of a biological disaster.
In The Year of the Flood Atwood imagines a country run by a corporate elite and policed by a corporate security force (CorpsSeCorps) trained in "Internal Rendition." Genetic engineers have invented hybrid creatures, like the liobam, a lion-lamb mix, and recreational meds such as BlyssPluss, a sex drug that promises multiple orgasms with no medical risk. These scientists are working toward the ultimate goal — immortality. Meanwhile, the balance between the human and natural worlds has gone awry, with "great dead zones" in major bodies of water and many animals passing into extinction.
Atwood is close enough to recent headlines and sophisticated scientific research to make her invented universe believable. And, she reminds us, scientists are capable of terrible, Earth-changing errors.
As The Year of the Flood opens, most of the human population has been wiped out by a fast-moving airborne plague. Toby and Ren, two women associated with a nature-embracing group called God's Gardeners, are among the few still alive. The cult's founder, Adam One, has warned of doomsday by Waterless Flood, and set up a series of food storehouses dubbed "Ararats" in anticipation of disaster.
Toby is holed up in a former spa, using her Gardener skills — gardening, foraging, using herbal medicines and, if necessary, a gun — to survive in the wilderness. Ren, a trapeze dancer at a high-end sex club, has stayed alive because she's locked in quarantine while awaiting test results after a client ripped her Biofilm Bodyglove.
As Toby and Ren struggle to find others, and to fend off nightmarish predators, they tell the stories of God's Gardeners, with its Edencliff Rooftop Garden blooming in the midst of urban slums, and the increasingly repressive years leading up to the pandemic they have both survived.
There are slow-going parts — the section breaks made up of sermons by Adam One, founder of the Gardeners, and songs from "The God's Gardeners Oral Hymnbook" are difficult to decipher at first. But even here, it's hard not to chuckle at Atwood's inventive naming of saints' days (Saints Rachel Carson and Euell Gibbons, among others) and to wonder what dire events are in store as the sermons and hymns become increasingly ominous.
Atwood orchestrates her narratives into a heart-pounding, mysterious and surprisingly touching finale. She enchants us so convincingly that after her spell is over, the "real" world seems temporarily transformed. The Year of the Flood is both a warning and a gift.