The Seven Deadly Sins of Religion in Science Fiction (from io9)

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Back in 2009, Charlie Jane Anders published a nifty blogpost on io9 in the midst of the BSG finale, last of the LOST episodes, and after the aftermath of Heroes, about how NOT to put religion in your science fiction.  Things she was tired of seeing, but also things she believed you might also be tired of seeing.  The blog post still feels relevant, though you can argue her points.  Certainly it pertains to Tess 18’s theme of faith in science fiction and fantasy–and challenges us to come up with ways to avoid putting faith in science fiction badly.  We’ve mentioned a few of them ourselves here.  But maybe we can post a bigger response.  Try putting one of your “deadly sins” of putting religion in science fiction (or fantasy) in the comments section of our blog here–and let’s see if we can come up with our own version of this list.

 

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The 7 Deadly Sins of Religion in Science Fiction.  

Religion is a huge part of science fiction – and it makes the genre better and more fascinating, as Battlestar Galactica proved. But there are seven mistakes SF should avoid in portraying the spiritual realm.

BSG wouldn’t have been nearly as epic if it hadn’t included spiritual themes from the beginning. The inclusion of religious elements added a way bigger scope and grandeur to the story of humanity’s last remnants struggling to survive – and it was realistic, since you’d expect people to be asking the big theological questions in that situation.

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. But just like other science fiction elements, like first contact, time travel and space battles, science fictional religion can be done well – or it can be cheesy and weird.

Here are seven mistakes science fiction sometimes makes in handling religion (and I freely admit I was influenced to think about this by all the comments on Annalee’s final BSG recap and some of our other posts):

1. The cargo cult. Yes, I know, the gods really must be crazy. But I’m really sick of stories about primitive peoples who discover high technology and start worshipping it. Or the descendants of high-tech people, who have become primitive and started worshipping their ancestors’ technology. Like the Ewoks worshipping C-3PO, or the desert people worshipping the spacesuit in Doctor Who‘s “Planet Of Fire.” There’s usually an undertone of “See? This proves religion is teh stupid.” Also horrible: robots worshipping the people who made them, or aliens worshipping humans. Or aliens worshipping Ferengi.

The 7 Deadly Sins Of Religion In Science FictionEXPAND

2. The cheap Jesus. There’s nothing wrong with having a messianic figure in your science fiction – I’m not trying to take all the fun out of everything here – but don’t just pull the Jesus imagery out of thin air and expect it to mean something. Yes, I’m looking at you, crucified Neo. And I’m looking at you, Jesus H. Baltar. (And even though I love the ending of Doctor Who‘s “Last Of The Time Lords,” I’m also looking at you, floaty cruciform Doctor.) The indispensible TVTropes website has a great list of “random religious symbolism tossed in for no reason” moments.

3. The dumb space gods. Whenever we actually meet a god or gods in science fiction, it’s almost always a letdown. (There are exceptions – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine managed to have our heroes meet the timeless Prophets inside the wormhole, without ever losing their mystique.) Usually, though, when we meet a god or a godlike alien, it’s a cheesy old guy with a funny beard. Or it’s Jodie Foster’s condescending dad.

For the other 4 deadly sins…. seek out this link:  http://io9.com/5185748/the-7-deadly-sins-of-religion-in-science-fiction

About jstueart

Jerome writes science fiction/ fantasy and LGBT fiction and has been published in many magazines and journals. His first novel, One Nation Under Gods, is forthcoming from ChiZine Publications in Nov 2016. He's co-editor of Wrestling with Gods: Tesseracts 18 from EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing and of Imaginarium 4 from ChiZine Publications. He makes his home between the Yukon Territory and Ohio.

2 responses »

  1. Not sure if I can think of a specific bad example (perhaps some episodes of Star Trek: TNG), but one thing that bugs me is when religion is presented as inherently outdated or irrelevant. That is, if the “religious” people or culture are merely clinging to old ways for the sake of… being backward. I think any portrayal of religion as merely that ignores the fact that faith has a huge impact on people’s daily lives and is constantly remoulded in every generation to be relevant to what the believers need it to do. If they need to cling to some former glory days, that is one thing; but that’s not necessarily the default.
    I like the handling of witchcraft and sorcery in Steven Brust’s Jhereg books. Witchcraft was practised by Easterners whereas the reigning Dragaerans, with their connection to the Imperial Orb, were enabled to practise sorcery and disdained to even learn about witchcraft. Neither belief or practice was portrayed as the One True Way, and in the context of the fantasy world he created, they both worked — but they were very much tied to the culture and self-identification of the practitioners.

  2. I agree, David. Religious people as automatically backwards folks who can’t think is a trope that needs to end. Yes, there are those examples—but there are many many people who are intelligent thinkers, even progressive thinkers. I’ll have to check out Brust’s books.

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