Religion in Fiction

Or: Why a Russian Space Pope can Speak Ex Cathedra from the Moon in Hard Sci-Fi.

An alien learning about our culture exclusively from a library science fiction section could be forgiven for being almost entirely ignorant of religion. Golden age, new wave, and cyberpunk generally (when they mention it at all) either treat religion as a backwards ancient superstition or only mention it when needed for a plot complication, without informing the everyday decisions and world view of most characters. Yes, I’m looking at you, Richard K. Morgan.

Excuse me, literary sci-fi fans, while I diverge into comic books.

Witness also Daredevil. The Netflix series is a shallower take than the comics, almost like they learned about Matt’s Catholicism via reading Daredevil comics instead of background reading on the subject. e.g. “I’m not seeking forgiveness for what I’ve done, Father. I’m asking forgiveness for what I’m about to do.” Uber Catholic Matt Murdock would of course know better than to ask this. I suspect it was for the benefit of the audience, who might not, and for that a little leeway should be given.

Frank Miller’s take in the “Born Again” storyline was both the most heavily loaded with Christian symbolism, and among the darkest of what was already a dark era of comics. (There are panels with Daredevil mimicking the stations of the cross). It was almost over the top, and would have been had they not let up a little after a limited storyline. But for all that we get into Matt’s religion, how many other characters are even casually religious? Most characters are either “the religious one,” or have no affiliation: Daredevil and Nightcrawler are peculiar for their Catholicism, which is frequently played to the hilt to cause moral dilemma. Magneto’s entire motivation is his Judaism and his fear that his people (mutants this time) will be rounded up and exterminated. The Thing is the closest to a character with a “normal” religious life that a reader might identify with, he’s an observant Jew (more or less), but it isn’t played for constant crisis moments.

Comic moment over, serious readers with serious ideas can pick up again here.

Religious motivation and crisis are a delicate line to walk. It’s certainly safer to omit faith altogether, rather than getting an unfamiliar one wrong or hammering the same one or two tenents over and over again until the reader is sick of the predictability. But doing so omits a huge part of a character’s background. Even a lack of faith should have some examination behind it on the part of the author. Was the character raised in an environment such as a Soviet territory where religion was banned, and never exposed to a faith? Is he an apostate, raised in a faith only to abandon it? Which one, and why? Did he abandon his religion due to some crisis? A disagreement with the tenets of his church or a particular religious authority? Was his disagreement well founded, or did he misunderstand?

Religion, or lack thereof, plays a huge part in how most people see the world, even if they don’t always realize it. Nations founded on Thomist, Islamic, or Confucian ideals will all have differing structures and elevate different kinds of people and ideas. Your characters may be fighting for or against those ideals, but either way they are unlikely to be simple background noise.

But what if your imagined sci-fi culture has transcended religion? Tens of billions of people, all of them strict atheists? Well first of all your world is already a fair distance from ours, absent any other changes, so you may want to put in a hefty dose of explainer. And second, at least you’ve taken it into account, instead of just ignoring it.

In my own work you’ll see a smattering of faiths, most familiar but maybe a new one or two. No, it won’t be heavy handed (I don’t need my editor hitting me with a manuscript to avoid endless “well, as a strict Quaker, I…”). You may not always see an explicit indicator at all, but I’ll know what the characters believe, and it will affect their actions.

Ok, I lied about it not being heavy handed, it just won’t always be. There’s going to be a few explicitly religious plot points. The aforementioned Russian Moon Pope? Check. A Shia soldier sick of hiding his beliefs among Sunni? Oh yeah, we’ve got that. Neo-pagan cajun viking wannabes? For that one, you’ll have to buy the books.

Oh, and the dogs? When you uplift your hound, he lifts up his heart to the Lord. But which religions will welcome them, and which will declare them abomination?

World religions and their adherents will have to grapple with the future. Strange alliances may form, and new developments will present points of both conflict and agreement. Some will rise, while others fade away. The only certainty is that not everyone is going to survive the fall of Earth.

1 thought on “Religion in Fiction

  1. Excellent points here. I too find the dearth of serious looks at religion in sci-fi baffling, and the trope of “Every single being on this planet ‘evolved’ past it because PROGRESS!” so tired as to almost not merit mention.

    Naturally, when religion is included, it’s to attack it as backwards and barbaric, usually Christianity, or a thinly veiled substitute for Christianity.

    Lots of good storytelling material being ignored!

    Liked by 1 person

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