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God In Space: Religion in Science Fiction

What is the nature of faith? What does it mean to have a belief in a higher power, a resolve that God is ultimately just, and that everything happens for a reason? Why are we here? These are questions people have struggled with for millennia, and they’ve been at the root of countless world religious formed to explain the world surrounding us, from early humans drawing on the walls of caves in France to youth marching in the streets today.

While a growing percentage of the globe may identify as atheist or agnostic, religion plays a huge role in global life. The Catholic Church is struggling to make itself relevant again with a new, radical pope at the helm — evidently, his role in the Argentine junta has been forgotten in light of his humble lifestyle and willingness to take selfies with fans. The world’s population of Muslims is growing by leaps and bounds, while Mormon evangelists march across the globe and conversion to Buddhism has become something of a trend for white Westerners. Judaism abides, as it ever did, burning strong even under times of duress, one of the oldest surviving religions.

Faith is a little-explored concept in pop culture. Most characters and settings are secular, with throwaway comments about faith, if any — faith is more likely to be the target of satire and mockery than it is to be taken seriously, unless one is referring to serious black-and-white Holocaust movies. The most likely setting for faith is in the bizarre subgenre of Christian literature, populated by ‘clean’ publishing immigrants targeting a demographic that wants sweet mysteries and softpedaled love stories.

Yet, there’s one genre where explorations of faith occur repeatedly and seriously, and it’s not necessarily the one people might expect, but, in its own strange way, it’s utterly appropriate. Science fiction is the home of explorations of religion past, present, and future, especially in generation ship settings, where humanity is crammed together for decades and sometimes millennia in search of a new home after the destruction of Earth or some other former habitation. Gathered on board and entrusted with the future of their society, culture, and race, humans in such settings seem drawn to expressions of faith.

Perhaps to process their experiences, to justify their continued existence in a world where everything they know has crumbled. Perhaps to maintain hope that something lies on the other side of the mountain — or universe — though they haven’t seen it yet. Faith may have appeared in programmes like LOST, where some fans were disappointed with the surprise Jesus though it was hardly a surprise, given the setup and the context, but while some science fiction has explored faith, generation ship narratives have honed the subject to a point, confronting readers and viewers with questions about the nature of humanity and the existence of God.

Battlestar Galactica’s four seasons took on a battle of two faiths as human and cylon met and diverged. Humans, with their polytheism and arrogance, created the cylons, who rebelled against their human masters before disappearing — and returning with a one, single G-d who justified their attempt at utterly destroying humanity. Along the way, human and cylon alike began to question their religious beliefs and attitudes, with a series that brought on larger challenges for readers.

The conflict between monotheism and polytheism in the West appears largely won — many Westerners believe in a single God, though they may differ on the specifics of their religious attitudes. Some argue that their deity is the one true face of G-d, while other accept and welcome the notion that all Gods are one. In the world of Battlestar Galactica, it’s alive and well from the start. This is a series that does not pull punches when it comes to faith, requiring viewers to address the subject from the start and to think about the role of faith in the lives and histories of the characters.

From the opening episode, where a priest conducts a solemn swearing-in ceremony for a newly appointed president, to the closing moments of the show, Battlestar Galactica is fundamentally not just about the survival of humanity in the face of tremendous odds, but the survival of faith. And, moreover, the construction of a new and dominant faith created through a merging of complicated religious beliefs. Science fiction posits that faith is universal, and that it’s a key component of building new worlds, that humans need to believe to survive.

Phoebe North’s Starglass and followup Starbreak explored a different scenario, that of a generation ship fleeing the destruction of Earth, but also the potential destruction of Jewish culture. Set several generations after the ship has left Earth, it posits some interesting questions not about the evolution of faith, but about the persistence of same — how does an intact religion hold up under generations of stress and pressure?

Set in a landscape where the Jewish community made a decision to resolutely cling to its faith as it sets out in search of a new world — a planet many believed was specifically created and set aside for them as a divide act of G-d — Starglass takes readers into a world where the precepts of the Torah have become so twisted that at times the faith about the Asherah doesn’t look anything like Judaism as we know it. Is the collapse of faith a natural evolution in response to the passage of time, a result of cultural shifts caused by warring political powers within the context of the strained relations on the crowded ship, or something else?

North makes her readers think about these issues as familiar flickers of Judaism — like Shabbat candles — are overshadowed by the overtones of a much more conservative and at times actively misogynistic interpretation of Judaism in the context of a society that is relying on its cis women to perpetuate humanity. (And, in the world of generation ships, transgender people likely wouldn’t be welcomed at all, as trans women would be regarded as fakes and trans men as traitors.)

Yet, when the Asherah arrives at its destination, Terra learns the troubling truth behind the planet their leaders tell them is theirs to settle under divine mandate: someone else already lives there, and that someone has their own culture, faith, and belief systems. Starglass becomes about a complicated collision of cultures and beliefs, much like Battlestar Galactica, and, like The Sparrow, another work of science fiction in which faith figures prominently, first contact does not necessarily go well. All of these texts invite speculation not just about human nature and behaviour, but the nature of faith.

All of these texts — and the many more that take on faith in a science fiction context — doesn’t just present us with interesting imaginations of the future. They also challenge us to confront the role of faith in our lives now, pushing readers to consider their relationship to faith and their own cultural values. Is this, perhaps, better than the evangelical and isolationist media put out by conservative Christians interested only in driving home their interpretation of faith and God?