CONvergence 2012: The Role of Religion in Science Fiction and Fantasy

This panel featured five authors with different religious backgrounds: Agnostic, an Episcopal minister in training (with an interest in Paganism – not a practicing interest, but a fascination), an atheist with knowledge about Eastern religions, a Church of England priest, and an atheist Unitarian Universalist ex-Catholic.

Some of the themes discussed:

  • Does much of science fiction tend to assume that religion is gone or has lost its relevance? Is this a realistic assumption; religion tends to stick around.
  • Considerations of current religions and how they would adapt to futuristic technology – Amish in space, wondering in which direction Mecca lays when in space.
  • Why is religion rarely mentioned in Steampunk when it was very much a part of Victorian life? Rejecting God for science and invention (Frankenstein was brought up as an obvious exception)? Is it because Steampunk is a punk genre – against status quo/against religion?
  • Why does religion appear to be more prevalent in fantasy than in science fiction? Is it?
  • The portrayal of gods in science fiction and fantasy – the difference between physical, present gods vs. the absent, unknowable god.
  • How do you define a god. If it’s inside and part of the universe, is that a god or a really powerful creature? If god is outside of time and creation can he affect the universe itself?
  • Will we bring our gods into space with us? Discussion of Firefly (Shepherd, Inara’s “Merciful Buddha!”), American Gods.

The panelists went over a few of the stories and universes that embrace religious stories and create new pantheons: BSG, SG Universe, Babylon 5, DS9, Star Wars, Safehold series, Firefly, Sandman comics, American Gods.

I was annoyed when a God of of the Gaps argument came up. An audience member asked “Where is the god in Doctor Who?” One of the panelists suggested that god in Doctor Who can be likened to the Book of Esther, in which God is the hidden force that is always at work. And could perhaps the fact that the TARDIS is always putting the Doctor not where he intends, but where he needs to be – could this be God or Fate at work?

Hmmm…nah. If that’s not God of the Gaps, it’s at least assigning mystical cause to a poorly understood phenomenon. I prefer to think there is no god (other than local socially created religions) in my Doctor Who.

There was an interesting portion of the panel during which the authors spoke about how to write gods into your stories. They discussed that when placing god as a character, you have to have rules about what your god can and can’t do so they don’t steal the spotlight or lead to plot gaps (“Can’t explain it? God did it!”). They also discussed the importance of being careful with other peoples’ deities; not that it’s necessary to respect the mythologies, but to know which rules you are breaking. They urged doing your research before portraying gods that have an established mythos.

At the end of the panel, the moderator sent us away with a few ideas to ponder:

  • Did Jesus die for the aliens in all of the other galaxies, or just the ones in ours?
  • If we survive the next 1000 years, what will religion look like?
  • When we discover warp drive and find new religions in new galaxies will we adopt those?
CONvergence 2012: The Role of Religion in Science Fiction and Fantasy
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17 thoughts on “CONvergence 2012: The Role of Religion in Science Fiction and Fantasy

      1. Brianne, If you have not read the Hyperion Cantos you’re missing a real treat. Simmons is an exceptionally gifted author and the four novels of his Hyperion series are among the few I’ve read more than once. Get thee to a bookseller post-haste! You’re welcome.

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    And could perhaps the fact that the TARDIS is always putting the Doctor not where he intends, but where he needs to be – could this be God or Fate at work?

    Nah. Don’t think so. I think that’s just the TARDIS itself (herself?). No God required. The universe in Doctor Who seems pretty godless, except for some ‘false gods’ and would-be gods and all that.

    On the topic of religion in steampunk, it’s funny but I’ve just started work on a comic book in the steampunk genre in which religion is actually a key element.

    1. 2.1

      mmm, the tardis, perhaps feeding the doctor the information needed about the particular place and time, not fully detailed, knowing the timeline well enough to know he went there, though not exactly when, and survived… kind of like the galactic library ep, him from the future making a copy of his friend, knowing he’d need it.

  2. 3

    Stargate: SG-1 has always seemed to me to be the most blatantly atheistic show on television, always showing beings presenting themselves as gods and being taken down… but without anything like a “true god” in sight. Even the Ascended were presented as merely being “more advanced” in a vaguely non-material way. The subtext of the series, from start to finish, was “All gods are false gods.” One of many reasons I still love it.

    1. 3.1

      Stargate SG-1 was anti-religious. The most fervent Christian, Kinsey, was a deranged, power-mad fundamentalist, who viewed society as corrupt and desperately in need of him as savior. The fundamentalist Christians on another planet were willing followers of an nasty leader who unbeknownst to them was an evil alien. I can’t think of any overt Christians who were portrayed favorably.

      1. It was often that as well, to at least some degree, and I thought it awesome that the show was able to get away that in the USA. Something that has often amused me about Stargate fandom was the numbers of religious people I met who loved it; in their approval of the takedowns of “false gods” on the show it never seemed to occur to them to notice that there was no depiction or mention of a “true” god. Perhaps some of them noticed it in the final two seasons, as you allude in your comment.

      2. C’mon – did you miss the part where they mentioned that Carter was a Christian?

        It seemed tacked-on and didn’t make much sense, but they did it.

        What I find HILARIOUS – is that they were fighting against the people spreading “Origin” or the “Book of Origin”.

        Origen of Alexandria compiled versions of the OT.

        I do not think that is a coincidence.

        Stargate SG1 just seemed to get more and more blatantly atheistic as it went.

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    Many people seem to think that “galaxy” is somehow a synonym for “planetary system”, like saying “from another galaxy” instead of “from another planetary system”.

    The question of whether Jesus Christ had to die for the sins of ET’s was raised by Thomas Paine in Age of Reason. Yes, that American Revolutionary activist. He asked if Jesus Christ had to die and die and die on planet after planet after planet.

    1. ik

      I have heard an alternative idea that people are reedemed in an expanding light cone from whereever the Star Of Bethlehem supernovad.

      – Islam has already had to deal with space travel. IN Low Earth Orbit, the periods of light and dark last ninety minutes, use of a prayer mat is impractical, and you are not far away from earth that Mecca can be Earthward but you are moving very, very fast. Computer programs were used to solve these problems for the first practicing Muslim astronaut.

      – IIRC Amish are more all about self-suficiency than rejecting tech. Some elements of them embrace more tech than is usually thoguht, as long as it remains somethign that they can maintain. Eventually some products of industry will become as common as air and water, and they might start using a lot more advanced tech.

      – I would define a god mainly by whether religion forms around it.

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    When we discover warp drive and find new religions in new galaxies will we adopt those?

    Based on our planet’s history, I think it would be more a matter of exploiting their resources while forcing them to adopt our religions. Or at least trying; I guess it depends on whether the people in other galaxies are able to fight us off.

  5. 7

    David Drake’s science fiction tends to have religion in it. It’s a pretty interesting mutation of Christianity, “The Church of The Lord’s Universe”, the major tenet of which is that God wants humanity to spread throughout space, so each group of people can hive up with those with whom they agree, and so live at peace. Drake doesn’t have any false illusions about it working, and says so, but it adds an interesting dimension.

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