In 1995, the estate of Isaac Asimov published Gold, a collection of the late author’s short stories and essays. In one of the essays, a 1984 piece entitled “Religion and Science Fiction,” Asimov, a self-described atheist, wrote:
… It is impossible to write science fiction and really ignore religion. What if we find intelligent beings on other worlds. Do they have a religion? Is our God universal, and is he/she/it their God as well? What do we do about it? What do they do about it? … This point is almost never taken up but, since it would certainly arise if such beings were discovered in actual fact, science fiction loses touch with reality in taking the easy way out and pretending religion doesn’t exist.
That has, in my view, been one of the enduring difficulties of sci-fi. What role does religion play in a sci-fi narrative? Is God, or any deities, a part of that narrative? And how does that play into a realm where extraterrestrial life is a possibility?
Science fiction is a broad genre that encompasses literature, TV, and film, so it’s probably not surprising that the genre has answered these questions in a myriad of different ways. I want to focus here on three of the more significant approaches.
1. Ignore religion, or marginalize it to crackpot status.
When I first started reading science fiction as an adolescent, I began with the “grand masters,” including Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov. In most of those books, the author either confined religion to a few naïve nuts, or pretended it didn’t exist at all. Asimov, in “Religion and Science Fiction,” admitted (in contradistinction to his comments above) that he didn’t write about religion unless he absolutely had to, and the same seems to have held true for many of the genre’s luminaries.
The kind of sci-fi the author is shooting for seems to shape how true this is. In my experience, hard science fiction, which is rooted in the natural sciences, is more likely to eschew religion than soft science fiction, which is rooted in the social sciences. Hard science fiction often places more emphasis on explaining everything – usually scientifically – and those explanations rarely seem to involve anything other than natural science. (See: The Martian.) Soft science fiction is more apt to explore matters of society and culture and thus more likely to incorporate religious elements. (See: Dune.)
2. Create a substitute for God (probably with aliens).
In 1997, Warner Bros. released Contact, a film based on the Carl Sagan novel of the same name. Both the book and the movie mostly portray religion as an obstacle to progress – in the film, Christian fanatics actually blow up a device meant to contact aliens – but the most interesting part of the whole storyline, to me, is the endgame. The film and book differ slightly in the climax, but in the film, the (atheist) protagonist, Ellie, meets and talks with powerful aliens who seek to help draw humanity into a larger galactic community.
When I first saw that scene, I thought, “wait, you just substituted a religious savior for an alien one.”
The “god-alien” archetype is remarkably common in science fiction. Heinlein, though not much for matters of faith, nevertheless concocted a hippie alien Jesus for his critically acclaimed Stranger in a Strange Land. Dune eventually turns its primary protagonist, Paul Atreides, into Muad’Dib, a quasi-god whose reign lasts … well, a very long time. Hyperion, which won the Hugo Award in 1990, featured a mysterious, almost supernatural being of immense power known as the Shrike.
God-aliens are even more prevalent on screen. Stargate – from the film to the various TV installments – turned practically every deity in Earth religious history as some wicked alien bent on destruction. Star Wars, which initially characterized the Force as a mysterious religious power, decided in Episode I to chalk all the pushing, mind tricks, and lightning up to an intelligent microscopic life form whose name I will not mention. And then there’s Star Trek, which was loaded with gold-aliens, from the Original Series (Gary Mitchell, Apollo, Trelane) and its subsequent films (V’Ger, Sha Ka Ree) to The Next Generation’s Q.
3. Explore religion
When Gene Roddenberry died in 1991, Star Trek changed in many ways, but none of them was more striking than the franchise’s approach to religion. (One Star Trek producer wrapped a blindfold around a bust of the late Trek creator.) Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which debuted in 1993, made Commander (and later Captain) Benjamin Sisko a reluctant player in a galactic battle between two sides of Bajoran religion, the Prophets and the Pah Wraiths. Star Trek: Voyager’s first officer, Chakotay, a Native American, was easily the most high-profile character in franchise history to profess religion of any sort.
Other on-screen franchises have explored religion, both before and after Trek. Battlestar Galactica, in both of its incarnations, wove theological issues into its central consciousness, both from the vantage point of the humans and the Cylons. (The series finale also dipped its toes into god-alien territory.) Following Star Wars: Episode I, certain Force-creating life forms were never mentioned again, and by Episode VII the more mysterious nature of the Force was once again the norm.
As for literature? There isn’t a lot – outside of explicitly Christian fiction, at least – although there are some examples. Frank Herbert’s Dune is steeped in culture, with one of the more fleshed-out religions you’re likely to see in science fiction. Orson Scott Card, a Mormon, has written extensively, and respectfully, about religions of all kinds in his Ender and Bean novels.
While Asimov’s point that “science fiction loses touch with reality in taking the easy way out and pretending religion doesn’t exist” is a noble one, as a matter of practice science fiction takes wildly divergent approaches to religion. And while TV and film seem to have made progress in grappling with these issues, sci-fi literature does not seem to explore religious issues to the same extent that other speculative fiction genres, like fantasy, do. To what extent that will change down the road? I have no idea.
So what do you think? What do you make of the current state of religion in science fiction? Are there any novels, shows, movies, or trends that I might have missed?