Science fiction has a very variable relationship with religion and faith. Both its pulp adventure roots and its lofty scientific ideals initially pushed it into a shallow and oppositional relationship with religion. But when it gets to grip with faith, sci-fi can create something powerful.

In a recent Guardian blog, Damien Walter asked whether God has a place in science fiction. For me, this misses a more human question. Opinions vary greatly on whether God is present in our lives. But that people experience faith, a set of religious ideas and emotional experiences, is hard to deny. And that experience has been important throughout human history.

In as far as it tackled religion, early sci-fi was concerned with the trappings and rituals rather than the emotional experience. Pulp stories used religion as a sign of the exotic, of strange foreign people the heroes should civilise/shoot/snog. More idea-oriented stories tended to set up religion as a source of superstitions, to be reasoned with and debunked. When elements of real religions turned up it was so that authors could offer rational alternatives, as in Arthur C Clarke’s depiction of the Bethlehem star as a nova (The Star, 1955) or Lucifer as a misunderstanding of our alien saviours (Childhood’s End, 1953).

In recent decades, things have got more complicated. We’ve seen Iain M Banks explore the alienness of transcendence in The Hydrogen Sonata and the emotional impact of a man-made Hell in Surface Detail. Julian May‘s Saga of the Exiles and Galactic Milieu books are full of Catholic characters, as well as a transcendent future based on the theology of real Catholic scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (a guy with some pretty wacky ideas for a Jesuit – a century or two earlier the Inquisition would have taken their flaming torches to him). The rebooted Battlestar Galactica, though not always sophisticated or coherent in its handling of faith, did place religion centre stage.

For my money, the best example is Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. This uses an intriguing sci-fi setting to explore the emotional experience of faith. It made a belief system that is alien to me – Jesuit-flavoured Catholicism – feel real, meaningful and comprehensible. And it used it to shine light on its sci-fi concepts.

Sure, there are still a lot of poor portrayals of religion in sci-fi (I’m looking at you Star Trek, with your ‘this whole planet worships the cheese god‘ approach). But there are poor portrayals of everything. What matters is what the good examples do, and science fiction can do faith well.
So what do you think? Know some particularly good or bad examples I’ve missed? Think I’m completely off the mark? Have faith in every word I write? Let me know.

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Comments
  1. malwen says:

    Glad you mentioned The Sparrow. It is the title that popped into my mind as soon as I started reading this post. I think I have read more fantasy than SF, so am used to religion being a significant factor in numerous stories.

    • That’s an interesting point, about religion turning up more in fantasy. I wonder if it’s something about the roots of the genre – Tolkien’s interest in mythology, Lewis’s Christian metaphors – or whether people are just more comfortable writing about religion when they’re not trying to extrapolate from the real world, and maybe have less risk of offending people. But one of my all time favourite fantasy stories is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books, which are all about the religion.

  2. glenatron says:

    I am a big fan of The Sparrow as well. The other Sci-fi series that I found really left me with a lot of thoughts about faith and religion is Dan Simmons “Hyperion/Endymion” books- again these feature Catholicism strongly, but also other religions, AI and what human evolution might mean. All whilst being an extended gyre on Keats, Chaucer and a whole lot of other literature. I really enjoyed them.

    • Thanks for the recommendation – Simmons is now going on the to-read list (which could already keep me busy for a year, but never mind that). Makes me wonder why it’s so often Catholicism that features in sci-fi, whether it’s about its strong aesthetics or Catholic writers feeling more inclined to put their religion into their novels.

  3. […] love to see genre literature explore religion. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the vicarious thrill of the non-believer getting inside […]

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