37

It's clear that questions about religious texts cause friction. So should we ban questions that are specifically about religious texts? If so, how wide should the ban be: only about the Bible (which is what generates the most contention), or more general? Note that we must not overreach — we're not going to ban Star Wars even if some people declare their religion as Jedi.

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    Not all such questions cause friction. E.G. In How did Indy know to not look at the Ark? their was no sign of friction. – Andrew Thompson Jan 26 '13 at 3:37
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    @AndrewThompson: Yes, because Indiana Jones is not a religious text. If a work of fiction uses symbols or other elements from religion, it's fine. The problem is with questions which try to assert that a specific religious text is (in their eyes) a science fiction or fantasy text, and this will lead to trolling questions which ask for a scientific explanation of miracles, or are just plainly making fun of someone's religion. – vsz Feb 17 '13 at 20:05
29

Here's the question you should be asking yourself: Would a reasonable person walking into a bookstore expect to see a copy of the Bible, Koran or other widely-recognized religious text in the Science Fiction and Fantasy section, unless somebody put it there to make a statement?


Let me offer a concrete example.

The Last Question is a sweeping short story by Isaac Asimov, about the universe running down due to entropy. Without giving too much of the story away, the last question is "Can entropy be reversed?" It is a question posed to a massive supercomputer, which spends centuries trying to solve it.

I think it's reasonable to say that this short story has significant religious undertones. Now, if it were possible for me to write a constructive question that asks how this story relates to Christian theology, I would say that the question would be on-topic, because the primary subject is an unambiguously SFF short story.

If, on the other hand, I managed to write a constructive question that asks how Genesis 1:3 of the Old Testament is illuminated by this story, I would have to say that such a question would be squarely off-topic, because the principal subject of the question deals with a work that is not SFF, but rather uses an SFF story periperally to make a point about religion.

For all those questions that are various shades of gray between these two examples, the mods for SFF should ask: Does this question make the site a better Science Fiction and Fantasy site? Does it adequately and constructively serve the mission of the SFF participants?

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    No, because it's older than SF as a genre. I wouldn't expect Gulliver's Travels to be in the SF section, or (usually) Frankenstein. Nor Animal's Farm, which is SF by any reasonable reading of its contents (it's a political allegory, but so are many of Le Guin's writings, and she's published by SF imprints). So this criterion does not give a meaningful answer. – user56 Dec 19 '11 at 0:56
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    Questions about well-known religious texts are off-topic by definition, since they are widely recognized as non-fiction works. Splitting hairs over what some consider to be magic cannot possibly end well. – Robert Harvey Dec 19 '11 at 0:59
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    @Gilles Frankenstein is as tradiitonal Sci Fi as you can get...just because the classification wasn't used back then doesn't make it less accurate. You couldn't say the Victorian Era didn't exist because THEY didn't call it that after all. – Ben Brocka Dec 31 '11 at 2:53
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    @BenBrocka That's exactly my point: Frankenstein isn't classified as SF because the category didn't exist back then, yet it's a textbook example of SF. And going back in time, the line between science fiction and philosophical metaphors is often blurry (Dante's Inferno?), and between fantasy and mythology (Ovid's Metamorphoses?). Our previously accepted policy is to be inclusive in such circumstances; the Bible is the first sticking point we've had along these lines. – user56 Dec 31 '11 at 15:52
  • We wouldn't expect to find "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in the Science Fiction and Fantasy section either, but that doesn't make it non-fiction. – Theo Brinkman May 18 '16 at 19:22
  • @TheoBrinkman: Who would you be poking by putting that book there? – Robert Harvey May 18 '16 at 20:10
  • @RobertHarvey: The statement at the top of this answer was, "Here's the question...: Would a reasonable person walking into a bookstore expect to see a copy of the Bible, Koran or other widely-recognized religious text in the Science Fiction and Fantasy section,...?" I'd expect to find WAoVW in the Mystery section, not the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section. That expectation has no bearing on whether or not it is fiction or non-fiction. Whether someone might be offended by the odd shelving also has no bearing on it. It's a flaw in the proposed question. – Theo Brinkman May 18 '16 at 20:33
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    @TheoBrinkman: You're missing the point. Nobody cares if WAoVW is in the wrong section of the bookstore, from a political or religious perspective. You carefully cherry-picked out the part of my assertion that said "...unless somebody put it there to make a [statement]." – Robert Harvey May 18 '16 at 20:44
  • The point is that whether some arbitrary person is or is not upset by finding a particular book on an unusual shelf has no bearing on whether or not said book is non-fiction, fiction, or sci-fi/fantasy in particular. The question at the top of your answer doesn't actually provide a guideline more helpful than, "Is it possible that someone (literally anyone) might be offended by seeing this question here?" You go on to say that 'how does this story relate to christian theology' is fine when kept general, but not when it refers to a specific piece of christian theology. – Theo Brinkman May 18 '16 at 21:01
  • @TheoBrinkman: You're right; whether some arbitrary person is or is not upset by finding a particular book on an unusual shelf has no bearing on whether or not said book is non-fiction, fiction, or sci-fi/fantasy in particular. But that's not what I said; I said a reasonable person would not expect to find the Bible in the SFF section. – Robert Harvey May 18 '16 at 21:42
  • And a reasonable person wouldn't be upset to see it there. Perplexed? Sure. Surprised? Sure. An, likewise, a reasonable person wouldn't expect to see WaoVW there either. The question you proposed as the foundation of your answer has literally no bearing on the situation, and the examples you give of ok/not ok amount to 'generic good', 'specific bad'. – Theo Brinkman May 20 '16 at 16:42
  • @TheoBrinkman: I don't expect you to agree. I see a lot of pedantry here about how to specifically identify a sci-fi/fantasy book, but I don't see the issue as that complicated; I think it is self-evident. – Robert Harvey May 20 '16 at 16:43
22

I think that a ban on questions on religious works is appropriate. It leaves us open to too much controversial debate, potentially offended visitors, and the likelihood of duplicated content with other SE sites (i.e. the ones dedicated towards those specific religions).

As for how we define the scope of religious topics, I think it is fair to use the organization of typical franchise brick-and-mortar book stores. If it would be reasonable to expect that a book on the topic at hand would likely be found in the religion section (e.g. relating to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Taoism, Wicca, etc.) then it is off-topic. Books typically put into mythology, history, etc. would likely be considered "non-religious".

To be safe, I believe that anything likely to be found under the "New Age" section should also be treated as religion.

One major disclaimer: if any question that would fall under the religious description above can be tied directly to a specific work of fiction, then it is acceptable.

  • Example 1:even though this book deals with religious topics, it does it from a self-professed fictional standpoint.

  • Example 2: Even though many books on reincarnation can be found in the New Age section, and it is a component of several major religions, questions about whether Baron Harkonnen was actually spiritually reincarnated in Alia in the Dune saga would be entirely on topic.

  • Example 3: His Dark Materials trilogy which has strong religious undertones, and is religiously controversial, is on topic as it is first and foremost a work of fiction.

  • Example 4: questions tying C. S. Lewis's character Aslan with Christian themes of sacrifice, martyrdom, and ressurrection are on topic.

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    Please define “New Age”; I believe I've seen that in a US bookstore, but I don't know what falls under it, and it's not a known concept in my part of the world. – user56 Dec 19 '11 at 0:26
  • @DVK I was referring to the corruption of Alia by the genetic memory of the Baron. I wouldn't personally call it reincarnation, but I could conceive of possible questions relating the genetic memory of the Baron to the concept of reincarnation. I mention it only as a hypothetical example, and did not intend to imply that there was a clear cut reference to reincarnation in the Dune saga. – Beofett Dec 19 '11 at 1:00
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    @Gilles I'm not sure I can adequately define it. There is frequently a section of shelves near the religious section of book stores labeled "New Age", but the contents vary from store to store, and range from "anything that isn't an Abrahamic religion" to titles that focus on meditation. This may be a decent description. – Beofett Dec 19 '11 at 1:05
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    @Gilles - New Age is "hippie spirituality". Basically, somewhat-religious/spiritual stuff that got picked up by the flower power generation as rebellion against the square and old religion of their forefathers. Frequently though not necessarily, a mashup of Eastern religions (Taoism, Buddhism, sometimes Hinduism); Paganism/Wicca and all sorts of bespoke mystical/weird stuff (auras, meditation, reincarnation, astrology, Blavatsky occultism, gnosticism, etc...); as well as LSD/MJ/whatnot. Way out, dude. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Dec 19 '11 at 1:36
  • @DVK i clarified my Dune example. – Beofett Dec 19 '11 at 1:38
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    But what about Philip K Dicks gnostic beliefs, and VALIS ( which I am currently reading )? It is a "religious" book, albeit pretending to be a work of fiction. And Stephen Lawhead wrote some fantasy works that were clearly also religious explorations. The problem is that the line is not always clear. I think religious books are off topic, but the boundary is a very challenging one to set, IMO. – Schroedingers Cat Dec 21 '11 at 17:23
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    @Schroedingers Every Philip K Dick book I've seen (including VALIS) has been kept on the Science-Fiction/Fantasy shelf of the book store. I've never seen him in Religion or New Age. I thought my examples were pretty clear in identifying fantasy works that are also religious explorations as on-topic. The examples you provided are pretty clear, as they are primarily (by your description) fantasy works. – Beofett Dec 21 '11 at 17:33
  • I think these should be on topic. I just wanted to make it clear that there are a number of books or authors which are not so clearly on one side or the other. So I agree with you, but I think it is not always easy. – Schroedingers Cat Dec 21 '11 at 19:53
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    If Jedi is now a recognized religion is some areas, would this result in Star Wars becoming off-topic? – erdiede Jan 14 '12 at 20:43
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    @erdiede only if all Star Wars material gets relocated to the religion section of major book stores, which seems unlikely. However, if there were a Jedi "bible" published that specifically focused on Jedi as a modern religion, then questions on that specific book, or questions focusing on the modern religion, instead of the acknowledged fictional universe, would be off topic. – Beofett Jan 14 '12 at 22:24
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    You might also want to consider that religious texts sometimes contain works that are explicitly (within the work itself) described as fictional; parables and the like. – Valorum May 7 '16 at 9:58
13

Sorry for putting in a 2nd answer, but this is quite different than any others here. Something was bothering me about the question that kicked this off and about our discussion, and I finally realized what it was that bothers me and how to explain what I think the limits should be here.

For reference, the question that started the discussion was, "How did Noah fit all the animals in the Ark?"

This question makes the assumption that a story that's part of the core of a particular religion is fiction (either SF or F). While the majority (last I looked at demographics) do not take the Bible literally, it is well known that there ar also many people who do take it literally. While it may be asked without malice, I have known non-believers who will bring up questions like this in conversation out of malice or arrogance.

I know of people who have done that kind of thing because they think if they point out inconsistencies in someone's faith, they'll just suddenly drop their beliefs. I've known others who do it just to taunt and be mean, and others who are so arrogantly proud of having no need to believe (as they might put it) that they need to intentionally ask such questions as a way of saying, "Your beliefs are stupid."

And, once in a great while, and mean a very great while, I hear someone ask a question like that of a believer for the purpose of honest and open discussion and an attempt to understand another person and their faith.

But, in my life, I've seen questions like that asked more out of malice or arrogance than out of open curiosity. I'd dare to say 99% of the time such questions are more from a negative intent than a positive one.

On the other hand, asking about Titans and why they weren't as powerful as the Greek Gods deals with what, to some, is a religion (as someone pointed out to me). But it's not posed in a way that it is disrespectful of the religion involved with the question and with possible answers.

So it comes back down to respect for other religions and points already made.

I think an easy litmus test for questions on religion would be to ask, "Does this question/answer/post imply that a religion or a notable part of a religion is either false, malicious, or misleading?"

I think this question will eliminate the vast majority of disrespectful questions about religion. It provides a clear and objective line and rule to follow. The ones that are left that are disrespectful or offensive will likely be covered by normal rules and expectations about courtesy.

In other words, religious questions are not necessarily off topic, but ones that lead to a "Yes" answer to the above question are disallowed.

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    I think the FAQ should be updated with that bolded part:**Does this question/answer/post imply that a religion or a notable part of a religion is either false, malicious, or misleading?"** – OghmaOsiris Dec 31 '11 at 0:37
  • I put a lot of thought into this and tried to present a subjective way to handle the situation. It would be really helpful to know why there's a downvote here, or why it was necessary to downvote as opposed to stating one's disagreement with the content. – Tango Dec 31 '11 at 0:50
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    I disagree with this litmus test because it's overly broad and unenforceable. For just about any statement, you'll find someone who thinks this statement implies that one of their religious belief is false. It's no different from “if it offends someone, delete it”, and if we do that we might as well close the site. – user56 Dec 31 '11 at 1:39
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    I'm with @Gilles on this - rude / offensive content is already disallowed by the FAQ. Closing and / or flagging is a completely appropriate response to that, and allows the system and community the flexibility to react to a wide range of offenses: for instance, a question asked purely to mock someone's favorite series of fantasy books. The underlying problem here is that y'all are afraid to draw a distinction between fiction and non-fiction; I doubt anyone read the question that sparked this and failed to realize it was intended to be offensive. – Shog9 Dec 31 '11 at 5:47
  • @Shog9: I felt, from the start, that it was intended to be offensive. But as for the line of fiction/non-fiction, that's not as objective as one may want. I know people that consider stories from one religion a fact and from another religion as myth and others who have the opposite opinion. I'm looking at this as trying to find a guideline that can be used for what is out of bounds. But, beyond that, yes, if it's offensive, it should be deleted. It'd just be nice if there were an objective way to evaluate posts that cross the line as early as possible by moderators. – Tango Dec 31 '11 at 6:07
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    The problem I have with this definition is that it still allows religious topics to be categorized as sci-fi. If someone were to ask a question about the parables of Jesus, I believe it could be done without requiring a "yes" answer to your litmus test question (as I understand it, there is a lesser expectation, or possibly no expectation, that the parables are literally true stories, so calling them fiction would arguably not be considered an implication that the religion is false, malicious, or misleading). However, I still don't feel such a question would be on-topic for our site. – Beofett Dec 31 '11 at 14:59
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    @Shog9 I do not consider the question that sparked the discussion to be offensive, and I do not know whether it was intended as such. I get the feeling that most people involved in this discussion want to treat it as offensive just because it assumes that the text at hand is fiction. – user56 Dec 31 '11 at 15:43
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    @Gilles Correction: most people treating it as offensive are doing so because it is a reasonable assumption that people who base their entire belief structure on the assumption that the text at hand is fact will be offended by assumptions that it is fiction. As I said before, I don't believe it to be a work of fact, but I respect the different opinions of those who do believe it to be a work of fact, which is the whole crux of the argument. – Beofett Dec 31 '11 at 16:11
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    @Beofett: Within the next couple days, I'll be posting a few questions that touch on religion that I think are examples of questions that should be allowed. (I want to make sure I'm clear in what I'm asking, so I need to make sure the focus is clear, which will take a little time.) – Tango Dec 31 '11 at 16:23
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My vote for DVK's #2 but with a small adjustment:

Don't limit this exclusion to religions, but to particular books.

E.g. a question about Jewish religion in Dune books is on topic because Dune is clearly a work of fiction, even though it involves a religious group which exists in real life. On the other hand, questions about something described in a religious book are off topic not because they are about religion but because the book is a religious one.

The example with newly emerging Jedi religion is actually a very good one for making that comparison. Questions about the Jedi in Star Wars universe are obviously on topic. Now, imagine that our real world followers of Jediism actually write their religious book with sermons and all that. Questions about topics and events in that hypothetical book should be off topic. That is, assuming that George Lucas doesn't sue them out of existence first.

EDIT: My position on the matter is focused almost exclusively to the aspect of a question being on or off topic. As for respecting other peoples beliefs and not offending them, I think that this should apply to any post on SE regardless of whether it is about religion or gardening. Not actively trying to insult someone is in the FAQ of every SE site, specifically Be nice. That said, when it comes to religion people tend to be a bit more touchy and that probably requires an extra level of tactfulness when dealing with such questions. But the attitude of not being a jerk should definitely not be limited to dealing with religion related topics.

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    “Be nice” works both ways, it also means we must allow people to read the Bible in a non Jewish/Christian perspective, even if Jews/Christians don't like that reading. Anyone can be offended by anything. I don't like Windows and prefer Linux, should I then go and flag every post recommending Windows on Super User as offensive? – user56 Dec 19 '11 at 1:06
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    @Gilles: No, but you should flag a question calling Windows a huge bug and its users a bunch of M$ sheep. It is usually very obvious when someone wants to be rude. – Goran Jovic Dec 19 '11 at 8:21
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    And you should flag a question recommending Windows because Linux is an operating system used by a bunch of jobless hackers, pirates and terrorists, if you want a pro-Linux example :) – Goran Jovic Dec 19 '11 at 8:35
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    For the record, there are no real Jedi. Those that claim to be following the tenets of the Jedi are not Jedi. If someone was to write a pseudo - religious text from a Jedi perspective, it would be firmly on-topic as a piece of fan-fiction – Valorum May 6 '16 at 9:25
1

I can support questions regarding religious texts as being off-topic for purely pragmatic reasons, but not for logical ones.

Pragmatically

People can be extremely sensitive regarding their religion, and we're all trying to be nice here. If people could simply respect each other's beliefs and not get offended, then it would be fine, but far too few people can.

I don't want anyone to emotionally implode and rage quit the site because the site recognizes the reality that not everyone believes in their religion by allowing individuals to ask questions in line with their beliefs.

In other words, we're more likely to horribly offend someone by allowing these questions than by not allowing them, even though that's a little offensive as well.

Logically

No religion has a majority share of the world's population. For any religion, the people that believe in it literally are a minority.

Therefore, for every religious text, the majority of the world's population considers it a work of fiction.

Furthermore, given that these works include things that appear impossible given our current science, i.e. miracles, they would clearly fall in the realm of science fiction or fantasy.

So, if it weren't for the sensitivity issue, these would be on-topic.

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    No. The fact that a text is erroneous or fraudulent does not make it a work of fiction, at least not in the literary sense, which is what matters here. A bibliography of Fred Hoyle's science fiction would not include his "nonfictional" writings about panspermia or steady-state cosmology, even though those theories are rejected by most scientists. (If he used those theories as background for a novel then that would be science fiction. If I remember right, steady-state cosmology may be implied or suggested somewhere in The Black Cloud.) UFO "contactee" books are not science fiction. – user14111 May 7 '16 at 1:11
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    Likewise, "true ghost stories" are not fantasy. The fact that we may or may not be hurting anyone's feelings by not believing them is beside the point. Fiction (in the sense we're concerned with) is a literary form, and nonfiction does not become fiction merely by being wrong. – user14111 May 7 '16 at 1:15
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    @user14111 Fiction: "Literary type using invented or imaginative writing, instead of real facts, usually written as prose." If you think the miracles in the Bible are made up, then the Bible is fiction, regardless of whether the authors wanted you to think it was true or not. If you think the abductees made up their abductions, then those are science fiction. If you think the ghost hunters made up their encounters, then those are fantasy. – DCShannon May 7 '16 at 1:39
0

I see 3 possibilities:

  1. Limit it to whichever religion would have its own on-topic theological site. A wee bit unfair as there's only 2 or 3 now (I know of Christianity, Judaism, and I'm pretty sure Islam is sitting someplace on Area51).

  2. Limit it to religions that didn't clearly start out from a fiction story. E.g. Chthulu/Jedi/Anything based in Alistair Crawly (sp?), we know for a fact it is based on a work created as fiction. Precise inclusion/exclusion rules should probably be decided by explicit META.scifi.SE voting.

  3. Go all nuanced. E.g. questions that are about Judaism, must be asked in a respectful way (sorry, "magic" tag means the question gets wacked); and be a GOOD question related to religious text treated as creative work. E.g. comparing archetypes in Old Testament with Cryptonomicon's archetype theory.

    If we do this:

    • Any question like that must have a "RELIGION-MAY-OFFEND" tag

    • Any question with that tag requires a separate vote on META.

    • Any nasty comment arguments are aggressively wiped by moderators (as in, erring on the side of over-wiping).

    • The policy must have periodic reviews, and if we find that >66% of such questions are of low collective value to the site within couple of months, we revisit the rules and go for more blanket type of ban.

  • Oh yeah, my personal suggestion is #3 or #1. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Dec 18 '11 at 23:25
  • I like the religion-may-offend tag. I don't think we should need a meta vote for each religious question though. If you see the tag and it seems to be about your religion, either don't look or don't be offended. – Kevin Dec 18 '11 at 23:58
  • My vote for a modified #2. – Goran Jovic Dec 19 '11 at 0:11
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    religion-may-offend idea is crap. What, you think sensitive folks are gonna block this? Right... They'll favorite it... The rest I agree with. – Shog9 Dec 19 '11 at 0:43
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    #1 doesn't make sense: why would the existence of other sites matter? Should we allow the Koran as long as there isn't an Islam site? #3 doesn't work because we don't agree on “respectful” (Mark Trapp writes that “treating the Bible as a work of fantasy or science fiction (…) is demonstrable proof SFF.SE can't handle it with respect”), whereas I see nothing wrong with using the [magic] tag. – user56 Dec 19 '11 at 1:02
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    #2, I'm not sure what that entails. Aren't there people who believe that e.g. Lovecraft's works were dictated by some divine being or visions of some hidden realm and thus don't count as fiction? – user56 Dec 19 '11 at 1:04
  • @Gilles - precisely. We should allow Quran up until there's a better place for it if you go with #1. As far as #3, it works, because as soon as there's a clear disagreement (especially between mods :) it's obvious the topic is off-topic. Basically, #3 is a whitelist, only allowing questions that explicitly demonstrate lack of controvercy. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Dec 19 '11 at 1:46
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    @Gilles - #2: there are some people who believe any random X. However, a vast majority of population believes that Lovecraft's books were intended as fiction, as was Star Wars. This is heavily based on Goran's original points in prior thread. This is a whitelist too (controversy=>delete). It works by practicality - there probably won't be any controversy about Lovecraft; while there clearly was one about Noah's Ark question. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Dec 19 '11 at 1:49

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