What Is Religion Actually For?: Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury Weigh In

In the nine­teen-six­ties, the music media encour­aged the notion that a young rock-and-roll fan had to side with either the Bea­t­les or their rivals, the Rolling Stones. On some lev­el, it must have made sense, giv­en the grow­ing aes­thet­ic divide between the music the two world-famous groups were putting out. But, at bot­tom, not only was there no rival­ry between the bands (it was an inven­tion of the music papers), there was no real need, of course, to choose one or the oth­er. In the fifties, some­thing of the same dynam­ic must have obtained between Ray Brad­bury and Isaac Asi­mov, two pop­u­lar genre writ­ers, each with his own world­view.

Brad­bury and Asi­mov had much in com­mon: both were (prob­a­bly) born in 1920, both attend­ed the very first World Sci­ence Fic­tion Con­ven­tion in 1939, both began pub­lish­ing in pulp mag­a­zines in the for­ties, and both had an aver­sion to air­planes. That Brad­bury spent most of his life in Cal­i­for­nia and Asi­mov in New York made for a poten­tial­ly inter­est­ing cul­tur­al con­trast, though it nev­er seems to have been played up. Still, it may explain some­thing of the basic dif­fer­ence between the two writ­ers as it comes through in the video above, a com­pi­la­tion of talk-show clips in which Brad­bury and Asi­mov respond to ques­tions about their reli­gious beliefs, or lack there­of.

Asi­mov may have writ­ten a guide to the Bible, but he was hard­ly a lit­er­al­ist, call­ing the first chap­ters of Gen­e­sis “the sixth-cen­tu­ry BC ver­sion of how the world might have start­ed. We’ve improved on that since. I don’t believe that those are God’s words. Those are the words of men, try­ing to make the most sense that they could out of the infor­ma­tion they had at the time.” In a lat­er clip, Brad­bury, for his part, con­fess­es to a belief in not just Gen­e­sis, but also Dar­win and even Jean-Bap­tiste Lamar­ck, who the­o­rized that char­ac­ter­is­tics acquired in an organ­is­m’s life­time could be passed down to the next gen­er­a­tion. “Noth­ing is proven,” he declares, “so there’s room for a reli­gious del­i­catessen.”

One sens­es that Asi­mov would­n’t have agreed, and indeed, would have been per­fect­ly sat­is­fied with a reg­u­lar del­i­catessen. Though both he and Brad­bury became famous as sci­ence-fic­tion writ­ers around the same time — to say noth­ing of their copi­ous writ­ing in oth­er gen­res — they pos­sessed high­ly dis­tinct imag­i­na­tions. That works like Fahren­heit 451 and the Foun­da­tion tril­o­gy attract­ed such dif­fer­ent read­er­ships is explic­a­ble in part through Brad­bury’s insis­tence that “there’s room to believe it all” and Asi­mov’s dis­missal of what he saw as every “get-rich quick scheme of the mind” ped­dled by “con men of the spir­it”: each point of view as thor­ough­ly Amer­i­can, in its way, as the Bea­t­les and the Stones were thor­ough­ly Eng­lish.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: A Wit­ty, Eru­dite Atheist’s Guide to the World’s Most Famous Book

Ray Brad­bury Explains Why Lit­er­a­ture is the Safe­ty Valve of Civ­i­liza­tion (in Which Case We Need More Lit­er­a­ture!)

Isaac Asi­mov Explains His Three Laws of Robots

Carl Sagan Answers the Ulti­mate Ques­tion: Is There a God? (1994)

50 Famous Aca­d­e­mics & Sci­en­tists Talk About God

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (24)
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  • bobby says:

    The point is reli­gion is just like choos­ing to watch a tele­vi­sion show. You can sam­ple dif­fer­ent types and no harm will come from it.It is just enter­tain­ment not real­i­ty.

  • JME says:

    Reli­gion had sev­er­al major pur­pos­es:
    1) It solid­i­fied the tribe against the “oth­er.”
    2) The con­cept of the after­life, even if in Hell, made killing oth­ers so much eas­i­er.
    3) It obvi­at­ed the need to do the hard work of think­ing.
    4) If the tribe com­mit­ted atroc­i­ties, they were excused by the sanc­tion of the God.
    5) If the tribe failed, that was explained by the tribe­mem­bers not being pious enough.
    6) The effects of (5) and (6) meant that the priests and rab­bis would always win.

  • Dingo Rex says:

    who cares what untrained Bib­li­cal schol­ars who were non­be­liev­ers think? they dead and know God and Chris­tian­i­ty is real now any­ways. For­ev­er and ever with­out end.

  • David Lodge says:

    Reli­gion was — and is — a means of con­trol­ling the pop­u­la­tion, sure­ly? The priest/vicar/rabbi was seen as your god’s mouth-piece on earth, and if he said that there was an after­life, benef­i­cent or oth­er­wise, the pop­u­lace was usu­al­ly so ill-edu­cat­ed that they dare not con­tra­dict him.

    Thus, the threat of an after­life spent in tor­ment was rather a good incen­tive to toe the line and not rock the Estab­lish­ment boat, as it were. Wit­ness our own law­less times and the con­comi­tant decline of reli­gious belief.

  • Brian says:

    How can two dead guys weigh in on any­thing???

    Wow…Dingo is right…won’t you guys be sur­prised in the afterlife…Say hi to Carl Sagan while your down there..

  • evan says:

    Brian…it’s “you’re.” The reli­gious are typ­i­cal­ly illit­er­ate.

  • Garman Lord says:

    These guys are spec­u­la­tive fic­tion writ­ers, not sci­en­tists, so do let’s make allowances. I’m a writer myself, some­times spec­u­la­tive, but most­ly striv­ing to enter­tain. Care for some enter­tain­ment? Go to Ama­zon, books, search term Gar­man Lord. What enter­tains me is the thought that there are three kinds of deep thinkers in the world, sci­en­tists, the­olo­gians and philoso­phers, all writ­ing, sup­pos­ed­ly, about the same thing, ulti­mate real­i­ty, so why are all their descrip­tions of ulti­mate real­i­ty all so ulti­mate­ly dif­fer­ent? I like to bear that conun­drum in mind as I write and spec­u­late; it keeps me from get­ting cocky.

  • Don says:

    The real fan­ta­sy is believ­ing that evo­lu­tion is respon­si­ble for the world around us.
    Every­one agrees that it is utter­ly ridicu­lous to believe that the key­board that I am cur­rent­ly typ­ing on evolved from bil­lions of years… yet peo­ple believe that the hand and fin­gers that I use to type this mes­sage, which is infi­nite­ly more advanced than this key­board… was evolved over bil­lions of years.

    Evo­lu­tion is super attrac­tive sim­ply because there is no “high­er author­i­ty” to account to.
    What real evi­dence do we have to show Evo­lu­tion is true? There are no tran­si­tion fos­sils across species. What sci­en­tif­ic method can we val­i­date our the­o­ries are true from some­thing that hap­pened bil­lions of years ago? How does evo­lu­tion explain where intel­li­gence came from? It is all tech­nob­a­b­ble that you real­ly have to take by faith… actu­al­ly more like blind faith.

    No think you… frankly I do not have enough faith to believe in evo­lu­tion.

  • Robert Jansen says:

    Any­one with a mod­icum of train­ing in phi­los­o­phy and log­ic under­stands the con­cept of mag­i­cal think­ing.

    A rea­son­ably com­pre­hen­sive intro­duc­tion to the study of phi­los­o­phy includes Descartes, and the ori­gin of skep­ti­cal phi­los­o­phy.

    It also includes a study of why proofs of the exis­tence of a Deity inevitably fail.

    What’s left is the sci­en­tif­ic method.

    It has an advan­tage reli­gion lacks: it works.

  • Bob says:

    Where’s the evi­dence of God’s exis­tence? Oh… that’s right, there’s faith. You don’t need proof when you have faith.

  • Father Bob says:

    You have the gist of it but you have some errors that need to be addressed. It was the Code of Ham­mura­bi that was the mod­el for “law” and how crimes would be han­dled. It pre­ced­ed the bible by about 300 years. But it was Chris­tian­i­ty with sim­i­lar Mosa­ic law that was more than like­ly respon­si­ble for pro­lif­er­at­ing the con­cept through­out the west­ern world. It was elf-serv­ing priests who are respon­si­ble for twist­ing reli­gion so that they could favor their own pock­et books and banks in their dogged deter­mi­na­tion for the bible to be tak­en as the lit­er­al word of God. Sure­ly the word was giv­en with some flex­i­bil­i­ty to allow it to remain rel­e­vant to the chang­ing times. I mean, if some­thing was meant to endure through­out eter­ni­ty, there would absolute­ly have to be room for inter­pre­ta­tion. I believe that’s what the arti­cle was infer­ring.

  • Tina says:

    Why is there so much vit­ri­ol on both sides of this dia­logue? “The reli­gious are typ­i­cal­ly illit­er­ate”. “The irre­li­gious are typ­i­cal­ly mean and spite­ful”. Nei­ther com­ment does much to advance the con­ver­sa­tion — it just demon­strates a fear of per­spec­tive of oth­ers so it is eas­i­er to shut them down with insults. Let’s have real, thought­ful, respect­ful con­ver­sa­tions. Let’s stop bash­ing each oth­er and pick­ing out micro­scop­ic defects (that we all have) and start lis­ten­ing to each oth­er.

  • DZ says:

    Reli­gion was the first sci­ence, sci­ence the first reli­gion.
    It all had to do with try­ing to explain:
    the sun
    the moon

    All the oth­er shit came lat­er.

  • M. Cole says:

    Ok. I read it. It’s a ram­bling arti­cle about 2 dead men who did­n’t con­done or prac­tice “reli­gion.” From a Chris­t­ian per­spec­tive, that’s their choice since we are giv­en free will. The prob­lem with that lies with­in the fact that no one we know–outside Jesus Christ– has ever been doc­u­ment­ed as hav­ing “descend­ed into hell” at death, only to rise again to ascend to heav­en, again, with the watch­ful eyes of wit­ness­es to that fact. While they’re both great writ­ers, I don’t read them for their reli­gious beliefs.

  • Donald says:

    All agnos­tic and athe­ist always call it a reli­gion. How­ev­er, it is about you hav­ing a rela­tion­ship with Christ Jesus. Whom by the way has full doc­u­men­ta­tion of 500 wit­ness­es of him being alive after death. It is your soul that we are talk­ing about. Where do you want your soul to be? In Heav­en, where you are loved, cared for, mer­ci­ful, kind, com­pas­sion­ate, hum­ble, for­giv­en, are all the qual­i­ties of. Or per­haps you want the oppo­site there of, hate, anger, envi­ous, jeal­ous, mock­ing, self­ish, a place of no water to quench you thirst, the absence of God whom cre­at­ed you, con­stant bul­ly­ing by the dark angles whom where thrown out of Heav­en. Ulti­mate­ly it is your choice, as is giv­en to you from God. Just in case you choose Christ, repent your sins pub­licly with wit­ness­es, be gen­uine and sin­cere for he will know. Ask for him to come into you, body, mind, soul and spir­it in his name, Christ Jesus. Get con­nect­ed to him, through the spir­it (his helper) by read­ing the Bible and pray dai­ly or as often you are com­pelled. Just for your info, my very 1st verse writ­ten upon my heart is from the Book of Math­ew, Chap­ter 7, verse 14; “Small is that door, nar­row is the path that leads to life and few will find it.” That door is opened by Christ, either he and you have a rela­tion­ship or not, for he will know, whom opens or clos­es that door. Nar­row is the path, that being the exam­ple Christ had used and demon­strat­ed while here upon earth. Remem­ber I will not judge you in your choice, for it is God’s and Christ’s alone. I am a fel­low cit­i­zen in the King­dom of Christ. Let me be the 1st to say wel­come broth­er or sis­ter. Have a Blessed day every­one.

  • Darleen says:

    True reli­gion is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, body, and soul, and to love your neigh­bor as your­self.” This is of course a seem­ing over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion…

  • Erika says:

    Evo­lu­tion and a high­er author­i­ty aren’t mutu­al­ly exclu­sive. High­er author­i­ty’s pulling the Evo­lu­tion strings.

  • David Hutchinson says:

    A fas­ci­nat­ing book for enquir­ing minds is Dr. Armand M. Nicholi’s “The Ques­tion of God”, sub­ti­tled “C.S.Lewis and Sig­mund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Mean­ing of Life”. If you saw the recent movie FREUD’S LAST SESSION (2023) with Antho­ny Hop­kins, the book is a much more far-reach­ing and pro­found exam­i­na­tion of the con­vic­tions of two of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry’s most influ­en­tial thinkers. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, you can’t “get at” God from an anthro­po­log­i­cal or his­tor­i­cal angle. It needs to be from a per­son­al angle, which is what this book does.

  • Theo Collins says:

    So many peo­ple talk­ing about the opin­ions of “two dead writ­ers, who aren’t even sci­en­tists”, this in defense of ideas writ­ten down by peo­ple who are also dead and also not sci­en­tists.

  • Harry Butz says:

    Cita­tion Need­ed!!

  • Stephen says:

    Reli­gion is what­ev­er any­one choos­es to believe about any­thing and every­thing they don’t under­stand.
    No one real­ly knows and no one ever will know what the ulti­mate truths are.
    The under­ly­ing prob­lem with reli­gion comes from those self-appoint­ed indi­vid­u­als or groups of indi­vid­u­als who have con­coct­ed it into serv­ing their own self­ish inter­ests for pow­er, wealth, or any myr­i­ad of oth­er anti-social rea­sons whether seem­ing­ly well intend­ed or not.
    The only avenue remote­ly capa­ble of reach­ing the truth is sci­ence.
    There is not a sin­gle reli­gion, faith, belief, pro­nounce­ment or writ­ing that has ever answered any ques­tion of who we are; where we came from; or why we are here.
    Vir­tu­al­ly every bit of our com­pendi­um of knowl­edge cur­rent­ly in exis­tence has come from sci­ence.
    So I’m going with that.

  • David Hutchinson says:

    “Vir­tu­al­ly every bit of our com­pendi­um of knowl­edge cur­rent­ly in exis­tence has come from sci­ence.” Every bit? As a per­son trained in the phys­i­cal sci­ences, I kind of doubt the sweep­ing gen­er­al­i­ty of that state­ment. Sci­ence is very mod­el-dri­ven. Some would claim that sci­ence can explain every­thing. I have to counter that by say­ing that sci­ence does­n’t explain; it describes. Sci­ence (as you said) can answer the ques­tion “How?”, but it can’t answer the ques­tion “Why?”. And you should give a lit­tle cred­it to phi­los­o­phy and math­e­mat­ics. Two words: Gödel’s The­o­rem.

  • LJ says:

    Ray Brad­bury had a high school edu­ca­tion. But an amaz­ing imag­i­na­tion…
    Issac Asi­mov how­ev­er was a sci­en­tist, and also wrote Non Fic­tion. We was a Bio Chem­istry Pro­fes­sor. No allowances need­ed.

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