The War of the Worlds: Faith vs. Cowardice

Though typically memorialized as one of the earliest exemplars of the science-fiction genre, "War of the Worlds" offers a biting commentary on the futility and uselessness of the theologically-inclined, and especially clerics.

When trouble starts, who do you want by your side? A Navy Seal, or an Army Ranger? How about the world’s best mixed martial arts fighter? Maybe anyone with a sufficiently powerful firearm and the courage and know-how to use it?

Few today, I’d imagine, would clamor for a priest. What good is a priest in a knife fight or when the bullets start flying? I’d imagine the many millions who have never met, let alone befriended, a cleric would wonder if priests are even capable of the courage necessary in a real conflict.

That’s certainly the opinion of the great science-fiction writer H.G. Wells, who presents a less than sympathetic portrayal of priests in his novel The War of the Worlds, first published in 1898. Though typically memorialized as one of the earliest (and greatest) exemplars of the science-fiction genre—and the subgenre of man versus alien—the book offers a biting commentary on the futility and uselessness of the theologically-inclined, and especially clerics.

The War of the Worlds is told from the perspective of an amateur astronomer living in Surrey, outside London, in the 1890s. An artificial cylinder, originally thought to be a meteor, lands not far from the narrator’s home. Inside are Martians, who make short shrift of innocent onlookers by incinerating them with a heat ray. Soon thereafter, more Martians arrive, using massive tripod machines to batter civilians and soldiers alike as they rampage toward London. The invaders, it becomes apparent, aim to annihilate mankind, who are little more than a source of sustenance.

During the escape from his home, the narrator encounters a crazed Church of England cleric also fleeing the Martians who have destroyed his home and his church. His religion rocked by the calamitous events, the priest’s faith seems more to immobilize than inspire him. “Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done?” he asks. “All our work undone, all the work.”

The protagonist tries to reason with the curate, but it’s no use. “This must be the beginning of the end,” declares the unnerved clergyman. “The end! The great and terrible day of the Lord! When men shall call upon the mountains and the rocks to fall upon them and hide them.” In response, the protagonist, a true pragmatist, asks: “What good is religion if it collapses under calamity? Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men! Did you think God had exempted Weybridge? He is not an insurance agent, man!”

Eventually, the two hide in an abandoned house. The curate is increasingly untethered from reality, oscillating between embarrassing cowardice and unhinged fanaticism. The narrator refers to the prelate’s “stupid rigidity of mind” and his lack of restraint in gluttonously devouring what little food and drink remain in the house. “He was one of those weak creatures, void of pride, timorous, anemic, hateful souls, full of shifty cunning, who face neither God nor man, who face not even themselves.” Suffice it to say that things do not end well for the clergyman.

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