deus ex cerebrum

A recent Science in My Fiction post asks a few questions about the logistics of religion as a part of worldbuilding for science fiction and fantasy stories. All its questions are fun to speculate upon, but in hindsight, there’s a relevant science question missing from the list: If religion is a product of human brain function, as it appears to be, does it make sense for non-human characters in fiction to have religion?

There is evidence that Neanderthals were the only other species on Earth that ever shared our capacity for religion. But they were so closely related to modern humans that our two species were able to interbreed. That makes sense, though; if we and they were alike enough to be reproductively compatible, then of course we should have shared comparable mental capacities. Other apes may possess great empathy and intelligence, but their minds aren’t organized in such a way that religion has emerged in their societies.

For that matter, there are other species with so much apparent intelligence that some scientists suggest we should acknowledge their personhood. But although they may one day be recognized as people in their own right, there is still no indication that dolphins or whales practice religion, or that their brains are organized in ways that would allow them to conceive of it.

But what about aliens and elves? Surely any species as advanced as humans must have developed at least some kind of spirituality, right? Maybe, maybe not. First, consider their needs. Do their societies depend on hierarchies and ritual? Well, that’s certainly a common feature of fictional non-human civilizations. Do they generally feel that “biology lacks critical and highly desirable features“? That sounds like too impractical a worldview to persist in any successful society, yet we know from experience that it is persistent in spite of our tendency to weaponize it. Indeed, if non-human cultures evolved to be as dominated by daring-yet-insecure individuals as human cultures, then it follows that they might share our gravitation toward extremes. In fact, if their brains are as vulnerable to elevated carbon dioxide levels and damage as ours, then there could very well be as many visionary aliens and elves as there are humans.

So non-human religion is possible, but is it necessary? Nobody can say for sure without some basis for comparison, but it sure is fun to think about:

-If non-human civilizations evolved without the capacity for religious belief, what other social features might be absent from their cultures? What features might be present instead?

-What capacities might be diminished or missing from the human mind related to the emergence of spirituality?

-If non-human sapients lack religion, how do they modulate anxiety? Or other impulses, for that matter?

With regard to life, this comes down to the questions ‘how alien can alien be?’ and ‘how alien can we comprehend?’. The truth is that we can’t know. But we can speculate about the unknowable, and that’s where fiction comes in.

Tell us: What are your favorite non-religious science fiction and fantasy civilizations? What other inhuman characterizations do you enjoy?

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