Calculating God, by Robert J. Sawyer. Tor Books, 2000. 334 pp.
...in which aliens land on Earth and say "Take me to your paleontologists."
The premise and plot of this book (which was a finalist for the Hugo Award!) are fairly simple: A group of aliens come to visit Earth, and request to see paleontologists and other scientists around the world. Their purpose for exploring the universe is to prove the existence of a god. The story follows one particular alien, Hollus, and a paleontologist Tom Jericho, who works at the Royal Ontario Museum. Hollus believes in a god, and Tom is a die-hard atheist. This book, a very, very satisfying throwback to classical science fiction, is less about plot and more about the conversations that take place between Hollus and Tom.
This book should appeal to anyone who enjoys science fiction, including atheists, religious folk, and everyone in between. The aliens' perception of god is not really a religious perception... they believe in a god, but they don't worship god, they don't attach any kind of morality or dogma to their belief in god; they simply believe god exists and has, in some sense, impacted how life came to be on various worlds. They don't pray, they don't have churches. The way in which the aliens explain their belief in god is neither spiritual nor anti-science; in fact, they explain god almost purely in terms of science, and they do so in a way that does not at all interfere with principles like the antiquity of earth or evolution. There is nothing mystical or omnipotent about their god; to them, god, like everything else, follows a cycle of life that ends in death.
Tom, as an atheist and scientist (a vertebrate paleontologist), disagrees with the aliens' belief system, for two reasons. First, as a human on Earth, the concepts of "God", "religion", "morality", and "souls" are inextricably linked; the aliens do not have these limitations in their beliefs. The second reason is that Tom, through absolutely no fault of his own, is dying of cancer. Because many theistic religions on earth would call this the "will of God", Tom is very understandably not jumping with joy at the chance to join a church.
Because most of the scientific evidence that the aliens cite for god's existence is evidence from other planets, that also means that most of the science has been fabricated for the purpose of this book. As a result, I don't think this book was intended to convince people of the existence of a god, nor was it meant to be any kind of declaration of beliefs on the author's part. Indeed, the main atheist character is portrayed in a much, MUCH more sympathetic light than the religious fundamentalist characters that appear in the book. Instead, I think it's meant to be read as an interesting hypothetical conversation, and the reader can take from it what they like.
In the end, my own religious and scientific convictions remained completely unchanged after reading this book, but I am still very glad to have read it because it was extremely interesting, well-written, and nicely thought out. To people who know that science fiction is more than space battles and weird looking aliens, this book should be a refreshing read.