The Role of Religion

Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg note the importance of religion in the science fiction novel Nightfall. [1]  Nightfall is about a world that has six suns and has perpetual light.  All the people have a collective, instinctual fear of darkness.  An amusement park ride that placed people in darkness is shut down because so many experience such terror that they become mentally unbalanced and some die.  The dominant religion is the Apostles of Flame and they predict a coming darkness, the appearance of stars, and the world ending in fire.  Needless to say, the general population considers them to be, at best, eccentric.  But the astronomers on this world discover that every 2,049 years the five suns set, the remaining sun is eclipsed by another planet, and darkness descends on the world.  Archeology shows several previous civilizations that have ended in fire and the time between the fires is 2,049 years.  The book spends considerable time on the conflict between the scientists and religion.

The book is notable because it demonstrates that scientists have prejudices and assumptions (taking certain facts on faith) like religion does.  It also points out the problems with religion:  a tendency to be dogmatic and unwilling to change.  In the end, after the darkness and the catastrophe it brings, several scientists decide to join the Apostles of Flame because they decide it is the best way to rebuild their civilization and to prepare for the next darkness.

Nightfall asks how one should pass critical information down several centuries and suggests that religion is the best way.  This makes sense because religion codifies and preserved the values that God knows work best and previous generations have sought to preserve that knowledge.  This is why religion is sometimes seen as dogmatic and unwilling to change.  The values religion espouses should not change even though a particular generation would like to “bend the rules” for its own advantage.  The problem we face is to decide whether the values religion espouses are God’s values or if these values are simply human tradition that has been passed off as God’s commands.  However, as Nightfall shows, religion is timeless; it provides us with values that work even though at times it does not communicate those ideas well.  Each age needs people who can interpret the timeless concepts of religion for that age.  Each age need people who can express the values at the core of all of the world’s great religions:  belief in God, the golden rule, respect for life, the principles of life as set forth in the Ten Commandments.

Throughout history it has been the task of religion to teach us what is right and wrong, to teach us what values we should hold, to hold forth a vision of what our world should be like.  Durant in explaining Kant’s belief in religion states that “when mere creed or ceremonies usurp priority over moral excellence, religion has disappeared. . .Churches and dogmas have value only in so far as they assist the moral development of the race.” [2]   Will and Ariel Durant state:  “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion”. [3]  In spite of all the criticism leveled at it (and it deserves some of the criticism), religion is the leading institution of our lives because it reminds us that the material world is not all that is and it addresses what our values should be.


[1]   Isaac Isimov and Robert Silverberg, Nightfall (New York:  Doubleday, 1990).

[2]   Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1953), p. 212.

[3]   Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1968), p. 51.

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