Religion in SFF

“Portal to the Depths of Space” by ErikShoemaker is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

There was a discussion not so long ago, on Twitter (I don’t have to remember how to work the shortcode this time … sadly I’ve forgot who posted it and so can’t look for it. Maybe someone will post it in the replies) about how strange, and rather colonialist, to think that in space and in future there is no religion.

If you think about it, it is pretty daft. Why would religion disappear like that? The rather moronic and racist notion of Social Darwinism, if you must know.

I can see religions that have to adjust their thinking. Some Abrahamic religions have sects that interpret their religion such that it is incompatible with meeting alien life – especially wholly alien life – unless they want to … oh, never mind, some of that lot already tend towards such a warped perception of their holy works commingled with Renaissance painters being ecstatic over new pigments that they’re the sort who consider anyone not like themselves to be subhuman anyway. Still the ones not rabidly racist will have to adjust their doctrine or haemorrhage believers to the point of [veritable] extinction.

Why, though, should we believe that the peoples we find among the stars won’t have religions, superstitions, and more?

Sure, it is possible the psychology of an alien race is such that it doesn’t do faith, or dogma, or any of that. It does not mean they’re more advanced, as the standard trope of SFF would have you believe, merely that they are not human. Which is cool. They’re not better but neither are we. The only reason you’re unlikely to see such in my writing except as a passing character is that, like atheism, I find it tremendously difficult to wrap my head around.

Oh, but Jaye, you’ve said you aren’t religious! [Insert references here], see?! You’re an atheist! (Says all the religious folk, especially the atheists … which is a different tangent I’m not following. And I’m not even medicated for my ADHD anymore).

No, I’m not religious. Therefore I am neither atheist not theist, though neither am I agnostic in the strictest sense. In some definitions of the latter I am, in fact, agnostic, but in my own understanding of the word I prefer not to claim it. I do believe that the universe was created. I feel that it’s reasonable to assume aspects of our reality, possibly our very biologies, are the work of beings more advanced than ourselves and more ancient. These we may as well call gods. I mean … it’s a nice catchy word is ‘gods’, sorta rolls off the tongue. Deorum, los dioses, gli dei, na déithe, die götter, nā akua, devataon, para dewa, kamigami … see? round the globe it’s just such a catchy little way to express it. And so bloody versatile it is! It doesn’t have to mean omni-anything, or even immortal! If you remember there’s faiths, religions, gods, beliefs outside of the western world and it’s Christian-centric way of thinking.

It’s fun to write religious characters. It’s enlightening to envision the faiths of races that evolved around an alien sun. To try to understand what is important, divine, to a sensual race of empaths; to an obligate carnivore; to people who have been among the stars and meeting alien beings for longer than humanity has had fire.

Science fiction ignores all of this in favour of the cult of scientific dogma and a sense of logical superiority. Mostly because of an utter and ingrained disdain for the “soft” sciences … thank you John Fucking Dickface Campbell.

Fantasy is much more open to it, if sometimes misunderstanding how polytheism works. But at least Gary Gygax can be thanked for that; sadly a desperate bid to be taken more seriously by the SciFi crowd has lead to a breed of fantasy that is more faithfully drab.

Still, Star Trek vs Star Wars: SW was a more rich and vibrant tapestry even if the only religion given any serious visibility was The Force, in particular the Jedi understanding of it. We never truly learn of the adherents of the light, and then we finally get some glimpse of the Sith but unclear if they’re adherents to the dark or merely unbalanced Jedi or if even there is a strict difference. But we have the questions because we have that glimpse and all a storyteller can ever really do is give a glimpse. Star Trek is so often so much flatter and more … what’s the word … Stepfordy … which means you don’t get much room to ponder these questions. Everyone is like some soulless cog in some cosmic machine. Newer things colour this in, at least for the aliens, so that’s helpful.

Still, imagine it. Take yourself into the great deadly void of space. Race at hyperphotonic speeds between the stars, between the galaxies. You’re like the ancient Polynesian in a canoe on the ocean headed towards an island no one has set foot on before or even seen. You’ve skill, knowledge, supplies, wits, and courage … but do you sincerely believe you go out there alone? That you don’t carry with you gods whose caprice could drown or starve you? Whose benevolence will deposit you on the shore of the next paradise? Of one who is eagerly riding, just in the corner of your eyes, along for the grand adventure as excited and thrilled at the prospect of discovery as you are? I said LIKE, I’m not painting a photorealistic picture of Polynesian sailors. But it’s scary and uncertain. There will be things difficult to explain. Even once your science can explain it … just because you know how the gods made it work doesn’t mean they didn’t make it work, just that you’re possibly one step closer to godhood yourself and you may wish to ponder what sort of gods you’d wish to be.

Perhaps, even, we already are clumsy and fledgling gods creating strange alien universes in CERN unwittingly bringing to life whole existences and realities. What if one day we do so on purpose and with control? Cool, huh? Maybe that’s the religion of the peoples who ride the worlds circling the middle sun of Orion’s belt.

It’s why my characters always have beliefs, faiths. Even Sally, who is angry with God and is shunning Him, has faith and religion. She believes in the God whom she rejects. Otherwise what’s she angry at? Sure, she doesn’t buy that He’s the only one. She doesn’t. And as such felt a pull to wonder at the others and how they might fit into her life, but she wasn’t ready for that and then Lauren showed her a way to see things differently. That it was people and their temples and churches who were wrong and not her God … she’s still angry, still resentful; it’s in her nature and unlike Lauren she demands answers why God allows such things in His name. But she can accept Him.

Yes, Now & Forever is contemporary, not SFF. But it doesn’t make it any less an illustration that people interpret the universe in a shield of faith. Even atheists with their dogmatic adherence to science. Some are more flexible, they adapt their teachings and beliefs in accordance with new science just as any religion that wishes to understand the universe would. Others balk at changes in knowledge and understanding, are aghast that their deities like Hawking or Einstein could have been fallible, could be wrong. Some understand the underpinnings of their faith in sciences as a quest for knowledge and understanding and that these can change in light of new data; just as there are Christians who understand that Jesus said we should love our neighbours and that God is a kind and benevolent father.

But it’s no more realistic to say that only one religion follows humanity to the stars than to say that everyone in space is American. It just doesn’t fit facts. The language of Terrans in the stars could be Hindi or Mandarin; it could be a language as yet unspoken as it hasn’t been born of the combined cultures and tongues of joint travels and mixed settlements.

I have probably wandered down a tangential rabbit hole. Those who were betting I would may now collect their winnings.

I’m sure I had a point around here someplace. Looked shiny, had space churches in? Anyway it’s stupid and boring to say there isn’t religion in space. That’s all … and now I have a better understanding of the end of Weird Al’s Albuquerque 🤔. Except I rather like sauerkraut, at least good sauerk—I’m doing it again.

Still imagine those stars populated with gods and pantheons and spirits and færies and ghosts, goblins, spooks, spectres, saints, sinners, paladins, priests, crusades, zealots, adherents, layman, friars, monks, et al. Unashamedly recognise that our most chimplike ancestors seemed to have done funerals. We’ve believed in something higher for millions of years, we’re not liable to stop and it seems unlikely that the psychology of a race we can have meaningful conversation with is liable to be so tremendously different in the end. So go ye forth and spread the Word(s) and erect those monuments. You’ll create, in the end – I’ve faith – a brighter and more palatable future for us all.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.