Religion in Science Fiction

SF God by Eric Peltier Very often science-fiction writers treat the ideas of religion and spirituality as being quaint at best and harmful at worst.  Characters who believe in a higher power are often ridiculed for their faith, for not supplicating themselves before science as being the be-all/end-all.

There are exceptions to this tendency; however, positive religious SF stories are much harder to track down.  So when I was researching SF markets to submit my own stories to, I was taken aback by Eric James Stone’s “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” in the September issue of Analog.

I read the sample on the website, was hooked, then scrambled to find the full copy of the novelette.  The Kindle subscription to Analog gave me October’s issue.  I went to the only local bookstore that would carry the magazine, and they, too, had October’s.  I finally found the issue on Fictionwise and sat down to finish the story as soon as it downloaded.

The Hook

The reason that “Leviathan” grabbed me is simple: it’s about alien Mormons.

It’s not often that literature deals with Mormons (much less has a first-person LDS narrator), so being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints myself, I was sucked right in.  But the thing is, the Mormonism in “Leviathan” could have just as easily been any other Christian denomination, as its main tenet was the prevention of sexual assault and the cultural implications of said prevention.

When I read Ender’s Game for the first time, I said to myself, “this author has to be Mormon.”  And listening to the afterword on the audiobook, I was right.  Orson Scott Card is.  But his story wasn’t.  No characters actively attended services or even made reference to a spiritual affiliation, if I recall correctly.  The kicker for me was the Wiggin family had the same values toward family and children that I grew up with.  That’s it.

Stone, however, places the LDS Church front and center in “Leviathan,” and he makes no qualms about it.  However, he does provide a counter for the religion in Dr. Merced, a hard-line atheist.  Stone says on his blog:

I think it helped that the story had a sympathetic atheist character who could rationalize to herself the events that the Mormon character believes are the results of divine intervention. That allows the story to fit as “hard science fiction,” while an undeniable deus ex machina ending would not.

He’s right.  Because even as a sympathetic reader, unrestrained proselytizing through literature bothers me, even the brand of spirituality to which I personally subscribe.  This is literature, after all, and not Sunday school.

SF authors must understand the limitations that putting spirituality into a hard SF story can cause.  Only then can they break away from the mold and actually tell their story.

The Fear

What many writers and readers fear is that the inclusion of spirituality in SF could easily be misconstrued as propaganda.  It’s a fine line to walk, but talented authors can and do every day.  There’s a reason that Angels and Demons or The DaVinci Code aren’t anti-Catholic.  Or why the simple inclusion of an LDS protagonist does not automatically make the fiction pro-Mormon.

It’s because of something that mainstream audiences have yet to grasp fully: presentation does not equal promotion.

For instance, just because a movie has a rape scene in it does not mean the filmmakers are saying sexual assault is okay.  Just because a book has an all-male cast of characters, it is not automatically antifeminist.  And a piece of science-fiction that does not bash religion and spirituality does not mean that it is actively trying to convert its readers.

Sometimes literature just includes certain elements to tell the best story possible.  There may not be an agenda.

The problem arises when there actually is an agenda, but it gets handled the wrong way, like in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy. At one point in the third novel, a character who is a former nun says something along the lines of “Christianity is a convenient lie…”  (Thank you, Dickie and Karl for pointing out my mistake regarding the quote and character who said it.)

I have no problem with him espousing an atheist agenda.  Goodness knows C.S. Lewis and countless other authors do the same thing for Christianity; it would be hypocritical to think the other side shouldn’t be given the same opportunity.

Initially, I had thought that the quote was spoken by the narrator, which brings up the following argument from me:

However, instead of assuming that his readers were intelligent enough to make their own decisions about the themes contained within his books, and simply nudging them along by crafting an intricate plot, he has his third-person narrator—not even a character—just tell the reader what to think.

This is promotion rather than presentation because there is no counterpoint to what he says.  The narrator has no boon companion to provide an alternate perspective.  What the narrator says in fiction is typically taken for gospel.

However, that doesn’t stand for this particular example anymore because it was a character who said it.  What does bother me, however, is that it came from an adult character in a series written for children.  Which also gives the target audience the feeling that whatever is said should be taken at face value without questioning it. Which is where I think The Chronicles of Narnia are a better example, not because they espouse Christianity, but because there is still a story to be told that never directly references the religion.  It’s there for those who see it, but it’s not the cornerstone of the narrative, as it is in His Dark Materials.

So in order to avoid seeming as though they are promoting an agenda whenever they really aren’t, most SF writers tend to err on the side of caution by omitting any kind of spirituality from their fiction.  Or, if they do include religion, it is something that bears little to no similarity to anything readers know about, making it little more than set dressing.

The Solution

It’s simple: write a good story.

Analog3bookfanInteresting characters, good plots, fun writing all make the natural inclination to shy way from religion in SF moot.

Do you care what religion Harry Potter is?  What about Ender Wiggin?  Alex Cross?  Odd Thomas? Captain Ahab? Does it really concern you whether or not your protagonists attend mass or Sunday school or nothing at all?  If they’re interesting enough, their biases and beliefs become a part of the character that cannot be dislodged, nor would we want them to be.

If SF writers continue to tack on religion as though it were an afterthought, then there will continue to be the split between promotion/presentation and atheism versus spirituality.  The fear of losing readers or alienating them based on including spirituality in fiction is a little insulting.  I don’t have to agree with everything the characters I read about do, nor do I have to share their same belief systems to want to keep buying the books they’re in.  If they’re atheist, make it for a reason, give them some dimension.  And if they’re religious, do the same thing.

The reason that religion in SF fails is because it is so often tacked on.  Characters are Catholic or Mormon or Baptist for no reason other than to say that they are.  The converse is true, too, with characters being atheist for no reason other than that they’re scientists.  For some reason scientists in SF have to believe in nothing but what is quantifiable, which makes them generally uninteresting to me.  I have yet to meet a scientist in real life who does not have a staunch belief in something greater than him or her; it may not be God, but there’s an inherent sense of wonder and curiosity in the scientists I know that fictionalized scientists often lack.

The lack of religion in SF is an open invitation for writers.  Eric Stone’s “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” is a shining example of a hard science-fiction story that deals with faith in a way that nothing in it comes across as promotion.  It is just presentation.  If he can do it, others can, too.

If anything, SF writers need to see this gap in the genre and try to fill it instead of skirting around it.  Religion and science don’t have to be at odds in literature anymore than they do in the real world, but it’s going to take some reevaluation of the genre and its popular archetypes before that will happen.

63 thoughts on “Religion in Science Fiction

  1. Ive often wondered why authors stray way from religion in sci-fi. If nothing else, it provides for interesting stories and conflicts, but it can also add depth to the characters and the world. But I suppose it’s just not easy to work into the story, or easier to cast the religious characters as dull idiots to offset the science basis of the story.

    I would jus submit a small correction concerning His Dark Materials. While the context of the books is pretty anti-religion, the quote you mention is slightly different. I can’t remember the entire line, but it’s more along the “Christianity is a convenient lie…” lines. It was also the character Mary Malone who says this, not the impassive narrator, and given that Mary is a former nun who eschews religion for love (which she never found), her view on Christianity is well founded within her history. While I love the books, I can sympathize with you there because the belief of the author can sometimes overshadow the story he/she is telling.
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    • I guess that’s one of the problems that comes with me having listened to the series on audiobook. I really could have sworn that it was the narrator that did it. I can get a character saying that, though I have a little problem with it taking such a blatant form in children’s literature. The reason that C.S. Lewis is so respected is that if a person chooses to ignore the Christian allegory, there’s still a good story to be told. I don’t feel that’s the case with His Dark Materials if one ignores the atheist agenda; it falls flat.

  2. It’s uncanny that this article was posted no more than half an hour after I had an amazing idea for a sci-fi/religion story! I’ve actually started to jot down these ideas in GoogleDocs; I’m convinced that there’s a winner in the pile somewhere; if only I had the desire/dedication to write something longer than a tweet.

    Regarding the lack of positive religious characters in sci-fi, I had always assumed that most of the genre’s writers were, like myself, atheists (though I’m completely laissez-faire; I’m certainly not in the Richard Dawkins school of quasi-militant atheism). Sci-fi’s draw, for me at least, is in its plausibility; something I couldn’t find in the hundreds of hours of Catholicism we’re exposed to in primary-level education in the Emerald Isles.

    I’m not sure if you’ve ever read Endymion by Dan Simmons but, if you’re looking for positive portrayals of religious characters, Father-Captain DeSoya and his crew are prime examples. They’re devout, though they aren’t drones that blindly follow orders. I guess I could go so far as to say that they exemplify the good side of religion without becoming automatons, without losing their credibility.

    • I, too, have a start of a religious SF story, but I have no idea where to take it from the first few lines of dialogue I have written out.

      You’re right: it takes dedication to write anything. So do it!

      I get the idea of plausibility in SF. In fact, that’s why I love good, hard SF because even if the science is all speculative, I can say to myself “I can see that.” However, what is not plausible to me is to have any religious character branded as a fanatic or simpleton because they choose to be spiritual. I live in the Bible Belt, so I know firsthand the kind of ignorant religious fanaticism that can become harmful, but I also see some of the most intelligent people I know making Christianity one of their main priorities. In real life, I don’t have a problem withe either side; in literature, I’d just like to see a balance because it seems unrealistic to me.

      Everyone tells me I need to read Dan Simmons. I’ve never read any of his stuff, so I guess I need to get on that.

  3. Idle thought: Could Prenden2′s closing thought work for “evil” too?
    As in:
    “exemplify the evil side of religion without becoming automatons, without losing their credibility”?

    Certainly, like anything affiliated with mortals, there is the potential for evil and abuse within religion (just as there is potential for really good actions). Religion is, on the whole, usually concerned with good, but some nefarious individuals do turn the power and sociological structures to evil. Thing is, in literature, this is almost always just a caricature of the author’s particular bias against religion, rather than any serious and honest study of the fallibility of humans in a system that seeks perfection. The nefarious anti-religion automaton is no more believable (or interesting) than Mary Magdeline Sue.

    …that tangent run, great article, Beej! I’m no fan of religion in fiction, despite being a very religious person myself (LDS as well). Far too often, it just isn’t done well, or is intentionally done badly to set religion on a strawman pedestal. Too many writers are what I call “doctrinally dysfunctional”, more concerned with promoting an agenda than telling a story as honestly as possible (and yes, fiction can be honest to the realities of human life). I just don’t enjoy that sort of writing. The Ministry of Truth hasn’t converted me yet.
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    • Heh, Mary Magdalene Sue. Good one. :)

      I agree, the caricature of religious/atheist is not fun or interesting to me. I want to know why and how a person believes the way he or she does. The fact that they “just do” is just not interesting.

      I’d be fine with it being left out, as long as–as I said above–there were a balance to it. I’m fine with not knowing anything about the religious beliefs of my characters one way or another as long as they don’t impact the stories. When they begin to impact the narrative, there needs to be some fleshing out.

  4. Thank you for tackling this subject matter. The connection between religion and sci-fi has been noted increasingly by academics at the intersection of religion and pop culture, including James McGrath at the Exploring Our Matrix blog, Douglas Cowan in his new book Sacred Space (Baylor University Press, 2010), and my own blog TheoFantastique. The connection of sci-fi to the specific religion of Mormonism is an interesting topic in its own right as well. Thanks again.

    • Thanks for the links to the blogs! I’ll get to adding those to my RSS feeds. :)

      I agree that looking at Mormonism in conjunction with SF is interesting, which is why “Leviathan” really stuck out to me. It’s rare someone gets it right in such a way without having to hide the doctrinal elements.

  5. In general, religion and spiritual topics are a huge part of science fiction – if you’re really determined to avoid them altogether, you’re probably stuck with a few golden age novels, and a handful of Lost In Space reruns.

    • I’m not sure where you got that I wanted to avoid those topics; I want to embrace them, only the genre seems to be full of two-dimensional characters who either love or hate religion/spirituality for no reason other than to say they do. I want more realistic representations of faith and belief.

  6. I like this topic a lot. Actually, when I read Ender’s game for the first time, I left it with the conviction that Card was a deeply religious person, or at least had enough understanding of what it was like to be one to portray it well. It was only significantly later that I found out that he was. I think that element is one of the reasons I find his books so compelling and keep returning to them.

    I find sci-fi that ignores religious issues completely to be a little bit hollow, actually. Whether or not it is going to be important in the lives of humanity of the future, it’s a part of nearly everyone’s experience now (whether positive or negative) and to completely ignore that, well, it’s conspicuous by its absence. If there is no religion in the future, what happened to it? Very rarely do I read a sci-fi story where the mention of religious issues is irrelevant, just given the subject matter of sci-fi, a lot of ethical questions are raised and the glaring lack of any religious treatment makes the world feel two dimensional and incomplete.

    Then again, I too am a pretty deeply religious person (not LDS though, Catholic) so maybe it only strikes me that way because I expect it to?
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    • I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees that in OSC without having known it beforehand. He lost me around Xenocide, so I haven’t finished the Ender series. I intend to, though.

      I agree with you; I don’t don’t see how the humanity being speculated about could turn so completely from an institution that has dictated the course of history for thousands of years. Its absence is far weightier than its inclusion. If it’s irrelevant to the narrative, fine. But if it’s just a topic the writer wants to avoid, then it’s time to reevaluate both the story and the author.

      I may be the same way, Rhii. Because I’m fairly religious, I wonder if I’m looking for it to be included where someone else might not. We all have our biases, after all.

      • “I don’t don’t see how the humanity being speculated about could turn so completely from an institution that has dictated the course of history for thousands of years.”

        Well, if you look at the census figures over the last century or so of any Western country other than the USA, it becomes easier to see. Although personally I suspect the trend is more likely to flatten out than continue linearly, and there will always be a small religious minority (maybe 5% of the population) even centuries into the future.
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  7. We live in an age where science has taken the place that religion once had in the middle ages. It gives people answers and is fundamental to their world view. But religion is still there, too. Why not call religion philosophy. Scientists believe in something, philosophers believe in something, religious people believe in something, too.

    But you are right, the common science fiction representation of religion is a conflicted one, where religion is backward, fanatic, usually negatively connotated. Is it so awfully complicated to take religion as part of a fictional world, more or less important, just like it was and is in our world?

    I think Ronald D. Moore did a very good job with religion and Battlestar Galactica. To be honest, I would have enjoyed the series without the religious touch as a pure space opera. Maybe even more.

    I liked this quotation, and I found it again on Wikipedia: “You can look at this saga any way you want—as political drama, religious debate, psychological suspenser, sci-fi adventure, deep metaphor or just plain fun—and it’s scintillating from every angle”

    I wonder why baby tips says religion and spiritual topics are a huge part of science fiction. It is either stomping religion or it is some kind of new age spirituality inspired by technology and science, or it is notably absent.

    I do not find it in Ian Banks “Culture” universe, I can find it in Scientology’s “Dianetics”. I do not find it in Star Trek except in DS9, which was a rather failed attempt to mix religion with science fiction. Or did you care for the Bajoran wormhole gods and oh so evil Pah Wraiths? I found them rather trite.

    Ronald D. Moore was also a writer for DS9, but there I remember him mostly for the great Klingon episodes. I think he salvaged the idea of religion in science fiction for BSG.

    If we want complex science fiction universes, religion is a major factor that cannot be treated superficially. I think this is also the reason why many SciFi authors ignore the field. Maybe it is really better not to write simplistic stereotypes if you don’t want to go the full distance. But authors imagined whole worlds, incredibly detailed, so I think there is no reason why they should not be able to do better with religion in their novels.

    Maybe there is another reason: It could be too easy to piss people off when they do that. Religion is highly controversial and dangerous terrain, after all.

    • I loved what Moore did with religion in BSG. However, I find what he’s doing in Caprica to be forced. He’s making the polytheistic society act and think just like a monotheistic one would, and that bothers me. It was so rich and embedded in the narrative of BSG, and I expected more out of the prequel series where it was a part of the world many people took for granted.

      I’ve never seen DS9. Well, I’ve seen the first few discs of the DVDs. My dad and I will probably get to those after we finish Stargate Atlantis, but I’m not familiar with the Bajoran religion part of it at all.

      As much as I love the ancient religion part of Stargate SG-1 that it was superficial in terms of actual spirituality. Because the religions it deals with are all legends, there is no real depth there. It’s hard to deal with well; I appreciate that. I just wish more authors would give it a shot because something so controversial and dangerous has the best payoff if it’s done well.

  8. Interesting and telling how your recollection of the anti-Christianity statement in Philip Pullman’s trilogy was wrong on every point. Most likely, all of your opinions about what SF stories often/generally/always do with the issue of religion are similarly off-base and distorted. Our beliefs and pre-existing opinions distort what we read.

    Kind of like when I read Ender’s Game (knowing at that point what a despicable blob of slime O.S. Card is), and all I could see in it was a kiddy-porn parade of naked pre-adolescent boys and a paean to sibling incest.

    • Karl, I have fixed the original post to reflect the mistake I made.

      I don’t see how it’s “telling,” though. I make no qualms about being Christian, myself. However, I don’t hold anything against His Dark Materials or other literature that has no religious significance or is atheist. I have a problem with His Dark Materials because Pullman writes solely to spread his agenda rather than tell a story. Which is a philosophical difference of a different sort. It’s been a few years since I read the Pullman series. Maybe I should go back and re-read with a more finely-tuned eye.

      I don’t see how you get that from Ender’s Game at all. The siblings were close, but I don’t honestly see how having a close, intellectual relationship leads to incest, or how it can even be taken as such. Especially after reading the rest of the series where Peter and Valentine grow apart because she hates how he manipulates her. As for OSC himself, why is he a despicable blob of slime? I certainly do not agree with many of his politics or stance on things, but I don’t see him as a bad person for having them, and they certainly don’t affect the caliber of his writing.

    • Part of the reason why I stopped reading SF for a long time was that anti-religious bias. I can think of a ton of books which trash religion very easily, and a quite a few more who don’t get how absurd their statements are. Many times it’s explicit: Pullman has never shied away from being the anti-lewis, and some books kill God off completely. Towing Jehovah is one.

      Sometimes it’s simpler. Pratchett in Discworld always makes pains to say in his novels that people create their own God. But to a religious believer that’s hilariously wrong, because it’s like Baron Muchausen pulling himself out of the sea by his own bootstraps. God acted on the world way before any believer had any idea of Him.

      Or in Snow Crash we are treated to people speaking in tongues due to a virus, and one supposedly devout catholic having no qualms about hacking into them to see, or never even touching this from a catholic view, despite Pentecost being as much a part of their faith as any other.
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      • I had no idea that Snow Crash dealt with that. I’ve got it on my Wish List, so I’ll get around to it, eventually. My problem more than anything is that it has to be one extreme or the other in a lot of fiction, with very rarely finding a comfortable middle ground that resembles reality. Even in the Bible Belt here, religion doesn’t permeate our day-to-day lives as much as you’d think. Most people don’t go around trying to convert people or avoid being converted, but whenever religion is brought up in much SF, that’s the way it’s approached.

  9. I will have to disagree with Longasc on the arrangement of philosophy as religion. They are two distinct things in that a philosopher does not have to believe in anything, but religion requires a belief structure. For a philosopher, one must only adhere to the possibilities of different schools of thought and belief, but does not need to adhere to any specific one of them (though often a philosopher will adhere to one or more). For the religious, an obvious belief structure must be in place. Usually, this belief structure will then set the school of philosophy of which the person will follow. Religion is also used to explain mysteries, where as philosophy only needs to question without explaining. This is generally why differing philosophers are seen as having discussions and differing religious followers seen as having arguments. We can all agree the question exists, but without evidence it is hard to declare the answers.

    Personally, I like religion, I like believing in something. But I would openly admit that the world would be a more peaceful place if there were more philosophers in control vs the religious. Even for religious people. Mostly due to a philosopher is a lot less likely to condemn you for your beliefs, only tell you he/she disagrees with you.

    Of course this does not prevent zealous philosophers as there are zealous religious followers. However, the fact is that religion promotes zealous behavior more so than philosophy.

    The issue of religion in fiction comes from the fact that from believing in a certain faith-based ideal, you are automatically threatening yourself with the possibility that you could be wrong. I don’t care if you are Billy Graham back from the grave after having tea with God. Human nature instills doubt in us, hence why hope is always considered such an important quality for the human condition. This gives way to the possibility that someone else may be right and makes any reference to other beliefs a threat.

    Usually, the less sure someone is of their religion, the more defensive they become about the idea of other possibilities. Unfortunately, this often comes from the religions themselves, as most tend to have a provision for punishment for those who don’t adhere “properly,” or show any inherent doubt. The mention of any other belief structure (even without the promotion thereof) often exacerbates this situation. This also creates a huge difference between philosophy and religion, as philosophy is built on the idea there are multiple possibilities, and there is no punishment, per se, for any single ideal. There are only the negative affects. The cons vs the pros, as it were. But there is no active punishment for following one philosophy or another. You will not be excommunicated for being an act utilitarian instead of a rule utilitarian.

    Another issue that comes up with religion and fictional writing is that religion is often accused of being fiction. This instantly creates animosity between the two. The religious would naturally want to be as far separated from fiction as possible. Or worse, do away with it completely. Nothing like a good old book burning!

    Religion is touchy for both sides, the audience and the author. If the author chooses to allow religion to play an obvious part in the fiction, he/she threatens to alienate readers. And opposite, if a religious person reads fiction with a differing religious ideal, it threatens a weakness to that person’s own beliefs. It might make them think something “better” is out there, thus enacting certain punishments, internal or external.

  10. I agree that a part of “The Solution” is to write a good story, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it.

    To a lot of people – Believers and Atheists alike – SF is seen as the purview of Secular Humanism, and no gods are allowed in the clubhouse. It’s not just a question of a character’s religious views being handled well or badly, it’s that there’s a considerably large segment that will not accept the character having religious views at all. There’s a large number of diehard fans who’ll go balistic at any mention of God or the supernatural or whatever becuase “There won’t be any religion in space.” I know a number of Trekies who won’t watch Babylon 5 because recognizable human religions turn up in it again and again (Ivonova’s an Orthodox Jew, Father Mallory is Catholic, I believe Lise is a Baptists, and I think we’re supposed to believe that Catherine was Buddhist, though they never actually said. There are name-checks for the pope and the dali lama, etc) Some of these same Trekies are willing to tolerate Battlestar Galactica because it has hot naked chicks kissing, but that doesn’t really help us out in terms of theological discourse, does it? And many refuse to watch it becasue of the Cylon God.

    On the other side of the asile, in my church, there are people who don’t believe any kind of religious SF can be done, even though it has been done many times, with varying degrees of success (Generally little, however: most religious SF is dredful). Opinion varies between “SF is evil” and “It is beneath the dignity of God to be discussed in SF.” As a kid in 1979, I remember how upset people were that Satan turned up in the original Battlestar Galactica (And they made it quite clear it really was him) for just those reasons.

    And don’t even get me started on those folks who want to write “Lawful Science Fiction,” ie cautionary tales about boring near-future dystopias decrying the UN, biomedical research, etc, and no one’s allowed to write about aliens, the distant future, the distant past, space colonization, etc, because since that stuff isn’t mentioned in the Bible, it’s sinful.

    Crazy!

    I do totally agree that “Writing a good story” goes a long way towards fixing this, but the audience is pretty fragmented and ideologically driven. There’s a lot of people on all sides who will find “A good story” to be a personal attack.

    It’s curious to me that you didn’t bring up Philip K. Dick in a discussion on religious SF.
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    • Phillip K Dick is Gnostic, but I’m not sure how far he goes with it as an actual creed, as opposed to taking the themes of reality being illusion, etc. Gnosticism in a way is parasitic: it only flourishes when it attaches itself to another religion and borrows it’s structure. Best example is the Matrix Movie, where we both have the concept of secret knowledge (the pill) and the typical basis of most christian gnostic thought. Neo as the jesus figure who is killed by an evil God (the machine’s wil) to redeem us.
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  11. >>I don’t see how it’s “telling,” though.
    >>As for OSC himself, why is he a despicable blob of slime?

    You’re being disingenuous on both these points. I’m not interested in playing that sort of pseudo-intellectual game, so I’m outa here.

  12. The problem is not that they don’t address religion or religious themes, but that when they do everyone is a fundamentalist opposed to “science” and is often the villain of the piece. Or what they do is “explain away” religion by giving it a naturalistic cause or try to do so through author mouthpieces. I’ve read very few that even understand the basic motivations behind belief of any kind.

    I think that is why science fiction has become such a weak genre, because it neglects a whole side or aspect of people’s existence when it isn’t actively hostile to it. I cna’t find the quote, but I remember Christopher Stasheff mentioning the reason why he wrote Her Majesty’s Wizard was to write a fantasy novel where religion actually mattered and people believed in it, and how many fantasy books never really touched it.

    For decent treatments of religion in SF, there’s Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, James Blish’s A Case for Conscience, Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilla plus hi story “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet,and Frank Herbert’s Dragon in the Sea.
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  14. Mmm, what about Lost? Much in the way of “science-fictiony” elements, from the structures of the Dharma Initiative to the blatant use of Time Travel, and yet its End has a strong spiritual slant to it — the Sideways Timeline being a “final iteration” or “afterlife” where the characters all enter the Light, in a Church which has a stained glass window representing six different religions. An excellent meditation on Death, at the very least!

    I personally loved the religious tones of BSG, though the polytheistic elements were never handled very well… they might do better to actually have some polytheistic writers on their team, perhaps.

    As to Philip K Dick, Divine Invasion is an excellent example of religion embedded in an SF framework. Valis too, though it’s less SF and more “speculative fiction” and deeply autobiographical. (Haven’t finished Timothy Archer yet — again, not much if anything in the way of SF.)

    Finally, what about Avatar? Despite its clumsy ending, Pandora is certainly a religious society — and not one based on the typical major religions around here, but rather a planetary or Gaian eco-spirituality. Reminds me of Ursula K LeGuin’s “The Word For World is Forest.”

    p.s. For some devilishly good literature featuring religiously motivated characters, try Flannery O’Connor: “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”
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  15. >>>Phillip K Dick is Gnostic, but I’m not sure how far he goes with it as an actual creed, as opposed to taking the themes of reality being illusion, etc. Gnosticism in a way is parasitic: it only flourishes when it attaches itself to another religion and borrows it’s structure.<<<

    Well, he was definitely Gnostic-y. There's not an actual creed per se, since the movement died out about 1600 years ago, excepting the Mandeans in the swamps of Iran and Iraq, and Mr. Dick certainly wasn't associated with them. He liked the 'illusory' aspect of it, as it matched stuff that was going on in his life. Some of the things he attributes to Gnosticism are…uhm…very 1970s, and very third-hand. He lived and worked before things like the Nag Hamadi codices were available in translation.

    It never occurred to me that Gnosticism is parasitic. I've studied it on and off for years, but I never really heard that before, and I guess it kind of is. Good call!
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    • I never thought of Gnosticism as parasitic, either. It’s a very intriguing concept, and one I’ll look into further. It’s a very good observation, especially with how a lot of Dick’s works end up dealing with social parasites as well as spiritual, too.

  16. >>>Mmm, what about Lost? Much in the way of “science-fictiony” elements, from the structures of the Dharma Initiative to the blatant use of Time Travel, and yet its End has a strong spiritual slant to it — the Sideways Timeline being a “final iteration” or “afterlife” where the characters all enter the Light, in a Church which has a stained glass window representing six different religions. An excellent meditation on Death, at the very least!<<<

    Man, a lot of people got all kinds of upset at that! They got really mad at the perceived universalism of it, and completely overlooked the fact that it takes place in a church with a big statue of Jesus outside.

    There's a kind of Zoroastrian thing going on between Jacob and Blackie, one the creator, the other the corrupter, the world itself is the battleground, the outcome in Zoroastrianism isn't entirely assure, and plain ol' flawed irritating humans determine the fate of the world. Black vs. White, Good vs. Bad, equal and opposites, which had of course been a theme of the show since day one.
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    • I wondered about that Jesus, too. I liked the amalgam of the stained-glass window, but I thought the statue out front was a bit odd for a universal church. It never really bothered me, but it did strike me as odd. I guess it had to be that way for TV because it’s an easy way to get across to mainstream viewers that they’re in a church without coming out and saying it.

  17. >>>The problem is not that they don’t address religion or religious themes, but that when they do everyone is a fundamentalist opposed to “science” and is often the villain of the piece. Or what they do is “explain away” religion by giving it a naturalistic cause or try to do so through author mouthpieces. I’ve read very few that even understand the basic motivations behind belief of any kind.<<<

    That's the majority, though it goes both ways. There's books where science is regarded as bad, and where believers are entirely-too-perfect. I think the problem is that SF is at root very rationalistic, and faith is, well, *not.* If you're predominantly left-brained, you're going to think Star Trek is ideal, with its total lack of religion, culture, love, money, art, music, moral ambiguity, politics, and all the other stuff that's so darn interesting about life. If you're predominantly right-brained, you're going to see the show as cheezy, fake, pretentious, boring, flat, with superficial worldbuilding, strawman moral arguments, and generally threadbare characterization surrounding anemic action pieces. If you're sort of mid-brained, you're simply going to avoid the show entirely and watch Babylon 5.

    Speaking of which, I think J. Michael Straczynski (An athiest) said it best: “Faith and reason are the shoes on your feet. You’ll travel further with both together than you ever would with one alone.”
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  18. No mention is made of Frank Herbert’s “The Jesus Incident” and “The Lazarus Effect”, nor of a story by Arthur C. Clark, I believe, about a Jesuit priest who finds that the Star of Bethlehem, was one that harbored a great civilization on its surrounding planets. These stories make you think about your faith, and what it really means, in a similar way as does the OT.

    • I love Clarke for that very reason. I’ve not read that particular story (do you know the name so I can find it?), but even in The Sentinel, 2001′s precursor, he touches on the idea of something being older and greater with a near-spiritual reverence.

      • >>>he touches on the idea of something being older and greater with a near-spiritual reverence.<<<

        Clarke was, as far as I'm aware, a very avowed atheist. He's famous for saying "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," and I suspect his vaguely spiritual bits (such as angels flying around at the end of the world in "Childhood's End") are basically just a variation on that theme. They're not magical, the people in the book just see them that way.

        Come to think of it, Clarke *expressly* says Christianity isn't true in "Childhood's End." And I seem to remember mention of a cult in "Rendezvous with Rama" that believed Jesus was an alien.
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  19. Thank you for an excellent blog. It is true that the key to a good story with a religious element is to write a good story rather than a didactic exercise. As writer and told ad infinitum, “show, don’t tell.” I wonder if some editors interpret even a well-written story as propaganda if they see religion portrayed in a positive light. But Eric’s story shows that is is possible to get a good story published in a mainstream journal if it is well-written. Some writers of “Christian literature” recognize that it is more important to show than to tell–the later works of Frank Peretti and the novels of Ted Dekker are examples. Many of their novels could easily pass for mainstream literature. Among mainstream writers, Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein series is clearly Christian in tone, sometimes to the point of being didactic–though they tell good stories. Your advice is good–keep writing, work on making the story as good as it can possibly be, and send it out. That is within the writer’s power–an editor’s potential bias against religion is not.

    • I agree. One of the reasons that Koontz’s Frankenstein series works so well is because it deals with that it means to be a god. Victor really is the mad scientist, but with his creations seeing him as their god and Deucalion working against him, I loved how it dealt with other literary and religious parallels.

      And it’s a good story, with those other elements making the backdrop, there for those who want them, but not overpowering to someone who doesn’t. And that’s what I mean by writing a good story takes care of the inclusion of religion. It doesn’t have to be at the forefront or labeled as religious SF to be important.

  20. Just for the record, Captain Ahab — like his first mate and the owners of the Pequod — is a Quaker. These Nantucket Quakers, says the narrator, are “the most sanguinary of all sailors and whale-hunters. They are fighting Quakers; they are Quakers with a vengeance.”

    Admittedly, Melville never explicitly states that *Ahab* is a Quaker, as he does for Peleg, Bildad, and Starbuck. But the implication is clear. You can hear it in the way he talks — and the way he thinks:

    “[T]here are instances among them of men, who, named with Scripture names — a singularly common fashion on the island — and in childhood naturally imbibing the stately dramatic thee and thou of the Quaker idiom; still, from the audacious, daring, and boundless adventure of their subsequent lives, strangely blend with these unoutgrown peculiarities, a thousand bold dashes of character, not unworthy a Scandinavian sea-king, or a poetical Pagan Roman. And when these things unite in a man of greatly superior natural force, with a globular brain and a ponderous heart . . . that man makes one in a whole nation’s census — a mighty pageant creature, formed for noble tragedies.” (Moby-Dick, Chapter XVI).

    • But does Ahab being a Quaker make a difference to the story being told? Sure, it fleshes out the story and the character, but does his religious views and upbringing matter in the hunt for the white whale? Since he’s never explicitly stated as being a Quaker, I don’t think it matters to the //narrative// but I think it’s important to the //character// which are two different things. It means that Melville was a good writer because we know it’s there, but that it doesn’t feel like propaganda or try to influence the way readers feel one way or another.

  21. I would recommend a look at Mary Doria Russell’s ‘The Sparrow’ and ‘Children of God’, both published about ten years ago. The books are in the spirit of LeGuin (Russell had a background in social anthropology before she turned to writing), and they tell a First Contact story of an expeditionary mission financed by the Vatican (launched in the spirit of early Jesuit missions to the Americas).

    The team is led by a very talented Jesuit scholar and includes several scientists (most of them secular) trained in xeno-biology and other relevant fields. It really is a First Contact dream team, which is why everyone is stunned when the mission goes badly, badly wrong. The reason doesn’t have to do with religion, but as the mystery gradually unfolds, Russell digs into the crisis of faith the Jesuit scholar undergoes when he returns to Earth as the sole survivor.

    I thought they were very interesting books, and deserve a mention in a discussion of religion in science fiction: http://www.marydoriarussell.net/?page_id=14

  22. The premise is false. There is a lot of discussion and exploration of religious issues in science fiction, and in fact, some works that are considered classics of the genre feature religion and religious beliefs (e.g. “Stranger In A Strange Land”, “The 9 Billion Names of God”). This essay says more about the author’s familiarity with SF than it does about religion in SF. I wonder what other genre (beside actual faith-based literature) features MORE discussion of religion? Mystery? Crime? Romance?

    • It’s not that there isn’t discussion of religion in SF, it’s the quality of the discussion. It’s so often one-sided (like you said, though: not always) that it feels as though writers who actually deal with religion in SF in a way that’s not stereotypical get the short end of the stick. Sure, there are great examples of religion in SF like Heinlein and Herbert, but for every one of those is a half dozen stories that deal with spirituality being for the weak-minded and ignorant.

      There’s a reason those are the classics: they’re the ones who do it well. We can’t overlook those that never became classics, though, and those that perpetuate the stereotypes both for and against the religious.

    • There’s very little discussion and exploration of *traditional* religion in SF. There’s not a lot of “Christians in Space” stuff, unless it’s to lambaste Christians, there’s very little Jewish SF that I’m aware of, and most of that is rather hokey-jokey, if Muslims turn up in SF at all, outside of the faux Islam in Dune, I can’t really think of it. Not beyond background stuff – the “Islando-turks” in Starship Trooper, the mention that there were Muslims on Mars in Robinson’s “Mars” trilogy, etc. Buddhism turns up now and again, presumably as that’s kind of trendy. Sikhism? Baha’I? Absent.

      There’s exceptions, though most of them are dreadful. Stuff that I would call “Christian Propaganda Fiction,” which is fine if you like that sort of thing, but as a Christian myself, I’m not terribly interested in preaching to the choir, and I’m far less interested in attempts to use Time Machines and Nephilim Moonbases to “prove” the earth is only 6000 years old. Just not my bag. There’s exceptions to the exceptions which are pretty darn good, but the trick is that the author has to be willing to take theological risks that will disturb and probably frighten his/her audience.

      I’m new here, so it’s not my place to presume what the author meant when he wrote this article, but I’d guess he probably meant the lack of *Traditional* religion in SF, in anything like a postive sense.
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  23. A potential “problem” of taking religion more seriously in sci fi is that it just ends up being too tempting to make it overpower the story. I know network tv is not exactly what you have in mind when you are talking about “sci fi writers,” but let me just use a series as an example: the x files. The x files are one of the most popular sci fi series ever, and early on religion was done in a sort of sensible way. There was the juxtaposition of Mulder’s atheism with his willingness to believe anything, or Scully’s Catholicism-turned-agnosticism-turned-Catholicism again, and it was always done in a decent way.

    But then as the monsters became bigger, badder, and indestructible, the solution the writers found to “solve” the problem was to go all in in terms of religious imagery. A baby conceived under mysterious circumstances, star of Bethlehem and 3 wise men imagery, and a finale where the formerly atheist Mulder grabs a cross and says that maybe there is hope after all…

    • That was actually my favorite part of the new X-Files movie. It dealt with Scully’s Catholicism in a way that never felt as though it were influencing the way we were supposed to feel about her or the story, but it fleshed out a lot of what we knew about the character, filling in the gaps we already had from the series. It was never overpowering.

  24. Coincidentally, I just finished “Ender’s Game”. A small correction to your comments: religion is mentioned several times in the stories, and in fact Ender’s mother is a secret Mormon, while his father is a secret Catholic (I think, Christian anyway). His friend Allai (I don’t know how to spell it, as I listened to it as an audiobook) has a speculated religious background.

    And, although I liked “Ender’s Game” enough to reserve “Speaker For the Dead”, I did get some of the same creepy pedophilia feel from it that another of your commenters had. Maybe a few too many scenes where he went out of his way to describe the boys as naked? Could be just me reading in a time of all the child abuse scandals something written back when it wasn’t such a front-and-center thing.

    As to your original comment, I don’t think there is any more or less religion in SF than in popular novels or romance novels or movies or popular songs. With the millions of strongly held religious traditions out there, including one or two specific ones has the probable outcome of putting off everyone else.

  25. Surely one of the most thought-provoking books in this area was “A Case of Conscience” by James Blish, who I think was also a minister. Its main character is a priest who is also a scientist who is sent to a world where the aliens are decent and honourable but have no concept of faith or religion. So do they have souls – can Christianity apply to them? It’s an interesting idea well developed.

  26. Battlestar Galactica (the new series, not the old one from the 1970s) is probably the best depiction of religion I’ve ever seen on television.

  27. I’m not quite sure how one can write a whole post on religion and sci-fi and not mention Dune. It’s widely believed to be one of the most influential works in modern sci-fi literature, and the whole damn book is about religion (and ecology). Hell, there’s an entire appendix that explains the religious backdrop of the world Herbert has described.

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  29. I’ve been watching some of the DS9 episodes- and despite the commenter who called their take on religion “trite”… I think it was interesting. One of course remember this was television, and set in the Star Trek universe, but some of the episodes were thought provoking-which is the point without coming down on one side or the other. It was refreshing to see characters who had religious beliefs, whether you agree with it or not.

    • You should check out Babylon 5. Religion was a very important part of that show. There were Jews, Christians of various denominations, Buddhists, and various human religions, both real and ones yet to be invented. The alien religions were also pretty important, and much more consistent and thought out than the DS9 ones. (Or Trek religions in general, really.)
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  30. I think you betray your own biases here… you claim that the Narnia books can be read and enjoyed with no apparent recognition of the religious bias, whereas the His Dark Materials books are compromised by the book’s admitted world view.

    I (an atheist who comes from a Christian background) have read and will continue to read the Narnia books many times over the years, and never once have I seen Aslan as anything but what he was–namely, Jesus placed smack in the middle of a fantasy story, except perhaps for when I was very young (we’re talking eight or nine here). There’s no possible way for to read the final book and not see that. Or the third one. Or the first one. Or any of them. The parallels are intentional, even if the story surrounding that motif is pure escapism.

    As for the His Dark Materials series, well, I’ll keep coming back to those as well, with millions of other people who have enjoyed what is a great story. The idea of God as a cruel dictator rather than a benign “watchmaker” is a common one, and the story of Lyra and Will a moving, beautiful story. If you choose to see things as polemics, that’s up to you, but just because an author has a point of view doesn’t mean they aren’t still trying to tell a story.

  31. Has anyone read “JOB: A comedy of justice” by the great RAH lately??? A sci-fi book dealing with one fellow’s faith as he’s put thru trials and tribulations as a test. Very good book.

    • Yeah, though it’s probably at crossed purposes to this discussion, as Heinlein clearly intended it as a slam/parody of religion in general and God in specific. (Remember, Heaven was awful in the book, and Hell was a libertarian paradise) Thus it’s more anti-religious SF than religious. I can’t fault the author for leaving that one out, though I do wish he’s mentioned Dune and some vintage PKD.
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  33. Great post and fascinating comments!

    One writer overlooked (I think) here is Ray Bradbury who often includes Christian themes and characters – the boy who thought he might be the second coming of Jesus, the Martian who changes shape to resemble the person you most want to see (he meets a priest) and the missionaries who land on Mars to convert the Martians only to find they’re already free from sin so have no need of it.
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  34. I do wonder that just as the most spiritually moving songs I’ve heard have been written by non-believers or agnostics, so too have the most interesting SF stories to feature religion or spirituality (in my opinion).

    Russell T. Davies, the award winning television writer created a series called Second Coming which dealt with the subject in a modern setting in a very believable way. Davies’ vision of the new Doctor Who is the subject of many university dissertations for its underlying Christian themes. Not bad for a militant atheist.

    It’s as if Davies wants to explore what he doesn’t believe in, through his stories; his most pressing theme being his fear of death. Death, and life after death, of course is the theme for every episode of Torchwood, explored in increasingly fascinating ways.
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