Religion in science fiction

I’ve enjoyed science fiction ever since I first discovered it in fourth or fifth grade (after exhausting the meager resources on Greek mythology in the children’s section of the local library). While I enjoy some sci-fi merely for a fascinating story (especially those that deal with time travel or applying scientific principles to unscientific subjects such as magic), my favorites are those where the primary focus is on people and their deepest motivations, and the futuristic setting is only a vehicle to tell the story.

Most of the time sci-fi seems to steer clear of religion, whether because it is assumed that in the future only a radical fringe element will still accept religious dogma, or because in today’s society science and religion are seen as fields with virtually nothing in common. (Or perhaps because it is so difficult to do a good job incorporating religion into fiction, without being either condescending or preachy.)

A few stories effectively deal with issues of ethics and the meaning of being human without reference to religion per se. And there are a few writers I am familiar with who write from an overtly religious perspective, such as Stephen Lawhead and James Blish. I have one whole anthology of Catholic science fiction, which particularly interested me because of the unusual perspective – unusual to me, anyway, as most of the time references to the Catholic Church in science fiction/fantasy present a very negative view of the Church.

One advantage science fiction has, over ordinary fiction, when it comes to discussing religious matters, is that the debate can be framed in terms of religions that don’t actually exist. Any fictional references to actual world religions (e.g. Christianity, Judaism, Islam) is bound to evoke strong emotional reactions (whether for or against these religions). But an extraterrestrial race of people worshipping a god or gods never known on Earth – here is an opportunity to examine religious faith without quite as much knee-jerking going on.

I didn’t watch Babylon 5 regularly, but it was sometimes on when we visited some friends, where my husband played Dungeons and Dragons and I chatted with the other wives who didn’t play. I remember one episode (which an internet search tells me was titled “Believers”), in which a child will die unless he has surgery, and the parents refuse to allow it because their religion says that cutting open the body will allow the spirit to escape.

The doctor, unable to stand by and let the child die, operates on him without the parents’ knowledge and against their wishes (and against his captain’s orders). He thinks that when they see their child well again, clearly still the same person rather than a soulless body, they will appreciate how he saved their only child’s life. Instead they are horrified.

Believing the teaching of their religion rather than the evidence of their child assuring them he is fine, they mourn his death. They later take him with them, however, and too late the doctor realizes they consider the body only a zombie-like shell and intend to kill it. He rushes to their room but it is too late. That scene haunted me for weeks (months?) after seeing the episode. Even now, fifteen years later, I find the thought of it chilling.

It is a far more extreme version of what we do sometimes read about in the news, where a child has died for lack of treatment because, for religious reasons, the parents refused to allow appropriate medical treatment. As a religious person myself, I can understand the view that obedience to God is more important than physical life, but I don’t know of any forms of life-saving medical treatment that I would consider inherently opposed to God.

I can’t say that such a treatment couldnot exist. It would clearly be immoral to forcibly take essential organs from one person in order to save another’s life, and I would hope that no parents would want to kill one child (whether their own or someone else’s) in order to save another. That would include, in my opinion, the killing of clones bred for that purpose.

Before the first successful cloning of animals brought into focus how the whole business of cloning would work, I imagined a sci-fi plot based on the idea. People would have themselves cloned in order to always have a healthy body available in case of injury or death. It also required the existence of technology that could make a “backup” of one’s memories, personality, etc. at a given point in time. This would then be loaded into the clone, resulting in a perfect copy of the person in a healthy body, at which time the defective body could be disposed of.

With the “Believers” episode in mind, I imagined parents convicted of murder for failing to provide a clone for their child, based on their religious belief that the spirit of one person could not be transferred to the body of another, even if the result appeared to be that same person. My story, of course, had been premised on the assumption that the clones could be maintained in some kind of mindless stasis. Once cloning of animals became a reality, however, I realized that a child’s body could hardly develop normally without both mind and body being active.

One sci-fi series where religion played a prominent role was Stargate SG-1, especially in the last few seasons. From the beginning, the SG-1 team had been opposing powerful beings that claimed to be gods and used their apparently supernatural powers to enforce worship by their followers. In the early seasons, however, the powerful beings were clearly vulnerable to earth weapons, and bringing freedom to their enslaved followers involved proving by that their “gods” were not gods at all, then helping them achieve military victory.

In later seasons, a new threat developed, from powerful priors sent to convert worlds to the worship of the Ori. The SG-1 team did not believe that the Ori were gods – to begin with, no being worthy of being called God would require slaughter of those who did not believe in them, as the priors did, presumably at the direction of their masters. Eventually SG-1 learned that the Ori were “ascended beings” who were energized somehow by the devotion of their followers (how this worked was never explained).

As ascended beings (there are others besides the Ori, some who are kindly disposed to humans, while most refuse to be involved in their affairs) are invisible, SG-1 found it very hard to convince potential converts of their mistake. They no more wanted to use force to prevent people from following the Ori than to see force used to coerce that worship, but as the military might of the Ori’s followers grew, they came to see force of some kind as the only way to prevent universal enslavement or death.

Eventually – through a rather complicated storyline involving Merlin and Morgan le Fay – SG-1 is able to destroy the Ori (at least they think so – it’s hard to verify the death of invisible beings). But the priors and their followers continue on their murderous business of converting the galaxy, and they also turn their attention to Earth. Just last night we watched the direct-to-DVD movie Ark of Truth (apparently made when the series was cancelled after the tenth season, to tie up loose ends and bring the series to a satisfying close), where a technology is revealed seems to be the only hope.

The device is apparently capable of “brainwashing” the person exposed to it, to believe what it has been programmed to make them believe. In this case, it had been programmed – millions of years ago – to cause people to know that the Ori are not gods. But those who created it decided (though not unanimously) that actually using their invention would violate people’s free will, even if what it convinced them to believe was no more than the truth.

SG-1 is likewise reluctant to use the device, but in the end it remains their last and only resort. Once the leader of all the priors is convinced, the vast missionary/military movement simply dissolves. Devout followers are left wondering what to believe, now that they “gods” turn out to be false. Is there something worth salvaging in terms of the religion’s moral teaching (as actually taught in its holy book, not as interpreted by the power-hungry priors)? How do they deal with atrocities committed in the name of their faith?

It’s easy enough, of course, to draw parallels to actual Earth religions. What evidence is there to support certain religious beliefs, that could not alternately be interpreted to support different beliefs or no beliefs? Do the atrocities committed by people in the name of their God reflect on the validity of the faith they claim? Are people freely choosing their religion if they are threatened with death for unbelief? What if the threat is not of physical death, but of torment in hell?

Naturally the series only raises questions, it doesn’t give answers, except to firmly side with the cause of religious freedom for all – including those who do not believe in any gods. Of course, it’s not the role of fiction to give those answers, only to illustrate how people deal with those questions in a true-to-life situation. The sci-fi elements of the situation are not true-to-life, naturally, but – at least in good science fiction – the people themselves are. And that’s why I like these stories so much.

2 Responses to Religion in science fiction

  1. tammie says:

    i know that one point of view–and it seems to have a measure of validity to me–is that blood transfusions and organ transplants are similar to cannibalism. if someone feels that way, i would question whether they should be forced to receive that kind of treatment for themselves or for their dependents.

  2. Pauline says:

    Tammie,
    I can understand not forcing someone who believes that way, and I can understand their view a little better when you compare it to cannibalism (I just had heard the argument that it was wrong to get a blood transfusion because “the life is in the blood” but not why that was wrong if it was given freely).

    Of course, one thing wrong with cannibalism is that it treats humans the same as animals, just another food source. Whereas blood transfusions have to come from another human. Some animal organs have been used in transplants (my uncle got a calf valve for his heart, and greatly appreciated it), but most are from humans precisely because humans are different from animals and their body parts aren’t interchangeable.

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