Religion in Science Fiction

Wow, just putting “religion” and “science” in the same sentence seems enough to ignite a firestorm of controversy, but I’ve been thinking lately about the presence (or lack) of religion in science fiction. Religion fares pretty well in fantasy, with the gods often showing up to speak up for themselves, but religion has not fared nearly as well in science fiction.

Much of this is because of the ongoing culture war between science and religion here in America. Proponents of science don’t want to see religion in their science fiction because, after all, it’s SCIENCE fiction, not religious fiction. Also, it’s the future, and I know some proponents of science who assume that in the future, these primitive notions of deities and sacred energies will have been put behind us. Meanwhile, I know a number of religious folks who attribute all manner of evil and malevolence to scientists. Of course, many of them attribute similar attributes to science fiction, so I don’t imagine they’re all that surprised or upset at the rarity of religion within it.

Personally, I don’t have much patience for either side in this particular culture war. I consider myself both a person of faith and a scientist. I see their proper roles in largely non-intersecting spheres of my intellectual life, and I find worldviews that must sacrifice one to promote the other to be close-minded and often point to poor uses of science and/or religion. But that’s not what this particular essay is about.

Instead, I want to talk about the role religions can play in our sci-fi. Rather than assume that such primitive notions will fade with the advancement of technology, I’m going to assume that human nature will remain largely unchanged. (Or at the very least, it’s easier to have sympathetic characters whose human nature has not changed much from ours.) And from the old campfires to modern cathedrals, humans seem to be wired for some kind of supernatural belief. Whether that’s a quirk of evolution or the fingerprints of the divine I leave as an exercise to the reader. But I think that if there are still humans in a thousand years, there will still be believers.

But what will they believe?

Well, I think it’s pretty easy to argue that most of the major religions today will still be around. If nothing else, they’ve already proven their staying power. A faith might be dwindling in one part of the world only to be finding new strength in another. Notably, while Christianity may be faltering in Europe, it is surging in Africa. Also, while I’ve heard some predict the doom of Islam given the violent schisms in that faith, I suspect that it will survive as well as Christianity made it past Luther and Henry VIII. (And yes, I’m watching The Tudors again.)

But you can still have some fun with them. In my upcoming book, Beneath the Sky, I slipped in a little reference to the “Third Reformation” of the Christian church. Third? Whatever happened to the second? This one is somewhat farcical, but I have read of the Reformed Church of Elvis. Reformed, eh? I guess after the great sequin scandal of 2188, something had to be done.

There could also be some entirely new religions, and in the creative arts, that’s a great canvas to spread out on. It could be a new branch of an existing religion, maybe Rama’s Soldiers. Or you could mix and match elements from current or old religions, maybe bringing Mayan beliefs forward to the disenchanted descendants of Mesoamerica.

You can also return to less codified religious beliefs, such as animism or the worship of physical elements such as the sun or sea. You might think these restricted to primitives, but I can imagine them being employed in more advanced philosophies. Animism could be an ethical argument in favor of veganism or at the very least for the better treatment and respect for meat animals. Sun worship, or for that matter ocean worship, tree worship, or whatever, could signify a deeper connection to and respect for the natural world. In this kind of system, the sun need not become the personified Ra to be worshipped. Rather, believers need only develop rituals and practices to express their appreciation for the friendly star and the universe that placed it there.

You can even invent a few things out of whole cloth, like a philosopher who starts a new movement. In my Hudson Confederacy universe, I’ve made oblique references to a Master Shiana and his epic tome “The Path of Fury”. I haven’t figured them out yet, but so far, they don’t look like folks you want to cross. I suspect it’s going to be some kind of machismic refutation of elements of Confusionism or some other reasonably sane or ethical belief system.

But whatever it is that they happen to believe, it’s what they do that makes for interesting stories. Certainly, not every story with religion in it needs to be a holy war, but at the very least, I like to see characters with religious beliefs and see how those beliefs affect their actions. For example, consider a murderer and his punishment. Will the disciple of Master Shiana be vengeful? Will the devout Catholic urge forgiveness? Or will the animist say that it is time to release his spirit back into the Great River?

While it can be fun to steep yourself into one particular monoculture and play with all its little permutations, it’s the intersection between these beliefs that I find most interesting. I already said that not every story has to be a holy war, but to be clear, not every story CAN be a holy war. Muslims will walk past St. Nike’s cathedral on Ganymede. Buddhists will book passage with the Jewish interstellar captain. And yes, even the Martian Reformed Baptist will buy his new regolith concrete mixer from the hedonistic neo-Mayan. He just won’t go swimming with him.

Now, before I go off and leave the impression that religion is entirely absent from SF, I want to toss a few places I’ve seen it:

  • Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai universe had a religious movement called “The Friendlies”. I never got a good feel for their beliefs, and all too often they were mostly presented as trouble-makers.
  • Mary Doria Russel’s The Sparrow was about a first contact mission between aliens and… the Jesuits.
  • Babylon 5 delved into a number of different religious systems, complete with discussions of souls, reverence for the Book of G’Quon, and even notions of sin and forgiveness.
  • Sharon Shinn’s Samaria series is an excellent mix of religion and science fiction, though the SF elements do not become readily apparent until later in the series. I’m currently working my way through book 4 of 5, so NO SPOILERS!!!
  • And the more recent Battlestar Galactica reboot dealt with some serious pantheistic-monotheistic friction. (But again, my wife has not yet seen them all, so NO SPOILERS!)

Any others that you’ve enjoyed? Any that you’ve detested?

And finally, a little plug. I will be releasing my first novel very soon, hopefully by the end of this week. It deals with a group of neo-Calvinists heading off to found their own colony, but something happens along the way. Stay tuned through the week to find out just what that is.

9 thoughts on “Religion in Science Fiction

  1. How sneaky can God be? If some God created the universe then wouldn’t He/She/It have to know all about reality and therefore science. Science is nothing but the study of how reality works. What if God does not give a damn about religion? What if God knows religion is nothing but a scam run by people pretending they know about God? Then wouldn’t God know that too? So what if God put relativity into the Bible? How did Melchizedek not have a mother? How was Enoch translated?


    • As I said, this entry isn’t about the debate between religion and science. That debate is happening plenty of other places.

      This one is about religion in science fiction.

  2. Your examples didn’t include any of Elizabeth Moon’s space opera. The Heris Serrano books included a variety of religious faiths practiced on different worlds.

    I have issues with Calvinism, personally. I’m not sure I myself could write a sympathtic Calvinist. Others have created Calvinist characters I liked, most notably Neal Stephenson (Daniel Waterhouse in his Baroque Cycle) but that’s as much historical fiction as anything else. (And Daniel had the example of extreme zealots to show him what zealotry could get you into, including your grave….)

    • I guess I didn’t remember the religious aspects of Moon’s Serrano books. I might need you to remind me of bits.

      Yeah, it is hard to write a sympathetic Calvinist when he pretty much thinks your either already in or already damned. I think I did a decent job of making at least some of them sympathetic. Some less so, but those are the breaks. You’re either already sympathetic or already damned by some all-powerful entity, i.e. the author. 😉

  3. Arthur C. Clarke – Nine Billion Names of God
    Zelazny – Lord of Light – Though here, it was more a manipulation of religious ethos than religion itself but it was done very well indeed.

    There must have been other stuff but I suspect I just tuned it out.

    There was a bit at the end of Hyperion series that made me think of the concept of ‘Param Brahm’, some aspects of Vulcan philosophy again remind me of yog and samkhya streams of Hinduism and a lot of the conceptual dialectics in Banks’ books do the same.

    And what is the name of your novel? 🙂

    • I’ve been meaning to check out more Ian Banks. This is as good a reason as any.

      My book is titled, “Beneath the Sky”. I’ll do a big announcement when the print book is available, hopefully in just a few days. Technically the Kindle and Nook links are already live and should be set for worldwide distribution.

  4. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine featured a race called the Bajorians, whose religion mirrored Christianity in some ways.. This wiki link explains in detail:

    I’ll be interested to hear comments on the religious aspects of Caprica when Julia’s finished watching.

    • I confess I dropped out of DS9 in the second season, so all I knew was that the commander was “The Emmisary”. Maybe it’s time to give it another shot since it’s on Netflix streaming.

  5. I shall await the announcement then. I am still very much in the physical-paper kind of books phase, in spite of all the efforts of my kids to get me to get used to the new-fangled e-books. 🙂

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