Every day, we see our two bitterest rivals, science and faith, duking it out in schools, in churches, and in the political sphere—all over the American superstructure. The fundamentalists on both sides of the rope shriek about their incompatibility: There can be only one, they clamor, like it will take some sort of Thunderdome to decide the matter. Science, after all, relies on empirical evidence—on what can be tangibly observed and predicted—while religion allows for, and perhaps even requires, unseen and supernatural causation. But are these two facets of human experience—the physical and the metaphysical—truly an unbridgeable binary opposition? Couldn’t a minute epistemological shift in the focus change the paradigm, rendering the two, suddenly, compatible? This is what Anthony Boucher suggests in his short story “The Quest for Saint Aquin,” in which a technophobic Christian is led to a renewed belief in God through contact with his robot donkey and the uncorrupted body of a saint that conceals a big secret. Boucher’s bildungsroman proposes a way to synthesize the thesis/antithesis of science and faith: he suggests that our technology, through its very logic, can provide a point of access to the divine. Let science contend with the finite, he offers, and give to the human heart the task of grappling with the infinite—that ultimate metaphor for God.
Leave it to science fiction—the fiction that feeds and is fed by actual science—to give us the reductio ad absurdum argument that can follow this line of inquiry to its logical conclusion: in this story, science has won the fight, and has flipped the balance of power. It hasn’t conquered religious thirst entirely, but its tactics are highly coercive. Boucher’s doubting hero (aptly named Thomas) and his religious compatriots of various faiths have to practice secretly, because their dystopic world is ruled by the “Techarchy,” which has outlawed religion and forced the spiritual underground. Boucher here inverts a popular modern trope: he recasts the Technarchy as the fundamental extremists that many religious groups are today, with a calcified, outdated dogma that allows only for the strictest interpretation of science. The inversion isn’t such a leap. Scientists are prone, like the faithful, to zealotry. In his article “When Bad Theories Happen to Good Scientists,” Wall Street Journal science writer Matt Ridley notes that professionals in the field, “…not only become strongly attached to their own theories; they perpetually look for evidence that supports rather than challenges [them],” and that, moreover, “One of the alarming things about confirmation bias is that it seems to get worse with greater expertise” (Ridley). At its basest, science mimics religion’s intractability. As its best, scientists, like Thomas, go on quests to reveal and build contexts for the mysteries of our universe and all who live here. But it takes a special kind of scientist (and a special kind of religious hero), who is flexible enough—receptive enough to change, and full of awareness of his own ignorance—to be open to new scientific and/or spiritual truths.
The Christian seekers in Boucher’s story are flexible: in contrast to the Technarchy, they are as “…poor and persecuted as the primitive church” (379), drawing Ichthys fish into the dust and arranging their dinnerware in crosses to signal their faith to one another. In a sense, the persecution these Christians suffer has purified them, so they have chosen to worship because they, “…believe in the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God—not because they can further their political aspirations, their social ambitions, their business contacts” (Boucher, 378). These more cynical reasons, the text suggests, are what motivate many believers today. Boucher’s Christians haven’t the time or resources to quibble over trifles such as creation vs. evolution or how literally we should interpret the bible. The inversion of power, from religion to science, brings to the reader’s mind the persecution of early scientists at the hands of the church, because they challenged the closely-guarded beliefs of powerful Christians. It is this uncompromising guarding of belief, from whichever side it springs, that Boucher warns us is the real enemy. Truth is not what this enemy fights for. It is those with too much power, Boucher suggests, who are most vulnerable to fanaticism.
Thomas has the openness and flexibility needed to seek truths, and the ambition to better mankind with these truths (an ambition often voiced as science’s goal). He exults in the unknown—the world’s secrets and mysteries—as evidence of God’s work. Similarly, over the course of the story, he discovers that just because science has found the answers to some questions, it doesn’t mean it has “conquered” them, or stripped them of their divine magic. Rather, Thomas learns to revel in the mysteries—in the miracles—of the known. Unlike the Technarchs, he takes the time to look up and wonder at the night sky, where, “On that altar at least the candles still burnt openly to the glory of God” (Boucher, 379). The stars, for Thomas, are evidence of God’s sublime power. But he learns that man-made creations, too, have access to grace. Thomas is on a quest to find the body of a saint, whose “…logic [was] such that everyone who heard him was converted to the truth” (Boucher, 384). His conveyance is a sentient robot, a “robass,” who gently tests him, tempts him, and acts as devil’s advocate, finally leading him to the revelation at the heart of the story. After Thomas expresses to the robass that he finds the concept of creating robots “arrogating to [man] himself the powers of [God]” (Boucher, 380), he and the beast have a philosophical exchange that signals the first indication of Thomas’ “conversion:”
Thomas smiled. “You know,” he said, “this might be rather pleasant—having one other being that one can talk to without fear of betrayal, aside from one’s confessor.”
“Being,” the robass repeated. “are you not in danger of lapsing into heretical thoughts[?]”
“To be sure, it is a little difficult to know how to think of you—one who can talk and think but has no soul.”
“Are you sure of that[?]” (Boucher, 381).
Thomas must pause to consider this conundrum. Perhaps, he thinks, it is arrogating to man the power of God to ascertain who has a soul, who doesn’t. These kind of questions—these negotiations with a priori beliefs—also allow scientists (Doubting Thomases in their own right) to make discoveries. It is the final test, after Thomas’ struggles with faith and temptation in the “wilderness,” that completes his transformation. When he and the robass find the body of the Saint, uncorrupted as promised, the robass stamps on the Saint’s hand, exposing the tubes and wires within: Saint Aquin, too, is a robot.
Thomas struggles, anguishes, prays, but ultimately triumphs, because he realizes that:
This perfect logical brain… knew that it was made by man, and its reason forced it to believe that man was made by God. And it saw that its duty lay to man its maker, and beyond him to his Maker, God. Its duty was to convert man, to augment the glory of God. And it converted by the pure force of its perfect brain! (Boucher, 392).
He goes on to synthesize religion and science: “We have trusted too long in faith alone;” he says, “this is not an age of faith. We must call reason to our service” (392-3). Reason, he realizes, will lead to faith, and vice versa. Far from being enemies, these two concepts are mutually reinforcing, challenging and nurturing one another. So what if faith uses a more centripetal form of the scientific method than science does? It is the open-minded, plastic process of gathering knowledge that counts—and the more knowledge, the better.
So went Thomas’ conversion. Thomas and his Saint Aquin the Robot might never manage to convert us, but they might just teach us that the search for how things really are needn’t supplant the metaphysical searching of the spiritual quest. Let’s try to take Boucher’s advice and call reason to our service: let’s let these two old rivals, science and religion, enjoy, at last, a concordat. Perhaps they will unify against their true common enemy: the calcification of belief that leads to extremism on either side. If religion is now the dogmatic one, let science disprove it, and let’s quietly jettison its outdated dogma. But don’t throw the metaphorical baby out with the fundamentalist bathwater. Faith can keep science in check too. If science gets too high and mighty, let’s let faith remind us, in Socrates’ words, that, at heart, we “know nothing” (Plato): that the infinite is beyond our grasp and that there are mysteries and miracles even in what we have already explained. Science and faith, then, can stop their death match, pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and shake hands as friends who want, finally, the same thing; a condition of seeing that allows for both understanding the finite and contemplating the infinite.
Boucher, Anthony. “The Quest for Saint Aquin.” The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One. Ed. Robert Silverberg. New York: Tom Doherty Associates Books. 1998. Pp 378-93. Print.
Plato. The Apology, Phædo and Crito. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Vol. II, Part 1. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com. 2001. Web. 6 Oct. 2015.
Ridley, Matt. “When Bad Theories Happen to Good Scientists.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones and Company, Inc. 20 July, 2012. Web. 11 Oct., 2015.