Religion and Science Fiction: Asking the Right Questions

I’ve loved science fiction stories for as long as I can remember. Started watching Star Trek at about six or seven, started reading authors like Asimov and Bradbury when I was 10. I did a sixth grade independent study project on the solar system, with which I included a play I wrote called Earthlings on Mars, a Wrinkle in Time-inspired adventure where an Earth family moves to Mars because the father’s job transfers him to the Mars office. Yes, there was a Mars office. Shut up.

From the time I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I’ve been fascinated by science-related topics. Space Camp was one of my favorite movies, and there was a time I wanted to be an astronaut before I realized you had to like and be good at math. Trips to the Hall of Science in New York City was a favorite pastime. I was also a devout Catholic who loved being in the children’s choir, eventually becoming a leader of song and lector in her church, teaching Sunday school, and attending mass every Sunday. Of her own volition. Without her parents. Science and religion always went hand-in-hand in my house, and things like God Creating the World and Evolution weren’t contradictory. They flowed into and out of each other, and that made sense to me. It still does.

It wasn’t until I got to college and beyond that the science vs. religion discussion slapped me in the face. The older I got, and the more involved I became in various arts communities, the more I realized that all of my new, wonderful, intellectual friends thought belief in God about as passé as spandex leggings and slouch socks under a cinched sweater. People who were into science and all things nerdy weren’t into God, and I didn’t understand that. I never believed that one had to cancel out the other. I had always thought that science and religion complemented each other really well.

That still being the case, I tend to be drawn to science fiction that acknowledges that spirituality and belief in a higher power not only has a right to exist, as most sci-fi is about tolerance to some extent, but that it might even * gasp * compete with, or be worthy of standing alongside, science. I appreciate science fiction where characters that have spiritual beliefs aren’t looked down upon as if they don’t know any better, as if they need only see the light of scientific truth to be truly enlightened (which in itself seems dogmatic).

When I was a little girl, I had the Really Old Dude With a Long White Beard view of God. Santa Claus, but skinnier and able to do cooler things like make it rain. I’ve come a long way since then, and my views about God have grown and changed as I have. While I’m no longer a practicing Catholic (I don’t practice anymore, because I got really good at it?), I still believe in what I and many people call “God”, and when I explain my belief in God to people, I find myself using examples out of science fiction.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine tends to be my go-to example for describing how I see God as an adult. As you might already know, DS9 is the story of a group of characters on a Federation-operated space station. The space station stands between the planet Bajor and a wormhole that leads from the Alpha Quadrant to the Delta Quadrant. The wormhole isn’t empty. In it there are beings that have had a relationship with the Bajorans for centuries, and as they are capable of seeing time in a non-linear manner and exhibit a certain level of power they are, to the Bajorans, gods called The Prophets. To Federation officers like Commander Ben Sisko and Jadzia Dax, they are “wormhole aliens”, extraordinary and powerful, yes, but merely another in a list of powerful species throughout the Universe. How to interact with The Prophets/wormhole aliens is a major concern in the series both with regard to Major Kira Nerys’s character development as a reformed Bajoran terrorist, and with Sisko’s, as he becomes The Emissary, the person through which The Prophets/wormhole aliens chose to communicate, and the person who is destined to save Bajor by finding their Celestial Temple. There is debate about whether or not they should be referred to as deities. There is debate as to whether or not Sisko should play a role in the religious lives of the Bajorans. These beings not only gave life, but gave a specific life, in causing Sisko’s birth; then, they passed along the prophecy that he would be instrumental in saving Bajor. They were capable of seeing all of time at once, and so were able to guide the lives of the Bajorans by speaking through chosen people. All of this, in the world of this show, was fact. The question was never “Do these beings really exist?” The questions were “What do we call them?” and “How do we treat them?”

In Battlestar Galactica, religion also played an integral part to the story. Humans were polytheistic, and Cylons were monotheistic, and these two views of God were constantly at odds. That is, for those who acknowledged God(s) at all. Some, like Admiral Adama, thought it was all a bunch of fraking nonsense, and didn’t hesitate to say so. Yet, in the world of this show, it clearly wasn’t entirely nonsense. Both President Laura Roslin and Kara “Starbuck” Thrace are the subjects of prophecies that come true. As it turns out this re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica is not a tale about our future but is, like Star Wars, a story about long ago in a galaxy far, far away. It ended up being a creation story, explaining how Homo Sapiens came to exist on Earth. Does that make God a Cylon? Are the humans that evolved on Kobol our gods?

And speaking of Star Wars….The Force, anyone? It was a source of spirituality for three films, and then it was scientifically explained away by some last-minute crap about midichlorians, which is one of the many reasons why The Phantom Menace sucked.

Anyway, I was one of the last people to see Avatar a couple of days ago, which I enjoyed very much. Aside from the amazing effects, and the familiar story told relatively well (despite some clichéd dialogue from James Cameron), what I found interesting was how religion was handled. It tells the story of a human mining expedition to a planet called Pandora, whose indigenous race, the Na’vi, believe that everything on their planet is connected, and so they treat everything with respect, as if they are a part of everything, and everything is a part of them. Sound New Age and hokey? Thing is, on this planet, it’s true. The Na’vi are literally able to connect to their planet through a network in the tree roots. They are able to connect to other living creatures on Pandora via special tendrils in their hair, mentally and physically bonding with them. They can literally connect with their world, and it not only allows them to go about their day-to-day living, but it feeds them spiritually and shapes their entire worldview. They have given the force that connects everything on the planet a name, Eywa. And, having given it a name, they can express their gratitude for their lives and everything in it to something specific.

What all of these stories do well with regard to religion (with the exception of The Phantom Menace, which did nothing well) is capture what I think the discussion should really be about. Most people who debate science vs. religion tend to ask the same boring question. Does God exist? Yawn. However, the question in all of these stories is never “Do these beings really exist?” The question is “What do we call them?” It’s never “Does this force actually exist?” It’s, “What do we call it?” Or “How do we treat it?” Or “How do we interact with it?” One of the many things that fascinates me about these stories is that the thing, whatever it is—a being, a force—always exists. Some choose to acknowledge it via gratitude, giving it a place of honor, organizing their lives around it and allowing it to feed them spiritually. Others simply use it as a thing, a tool, taking from it what they will when they will then calling it a day. But neither reaction negates the existence of the thing.

Good science fiction doesn’t concern itself with “Does God exist?”, but rather “What is God?” How do we define God?  Is God one being that created us? Is God a race of sentient alien beings that see all of time and space at once and is helping us evolve in ways we are too small to understand? Is God never-ending energy that is of itself? And why is it so important to human beings to define God at all?  To express gratitude to whatever God is? Why do people have the need to say “thank you” to something they can’t see and will probably never understand? To me, these are the important questions. They’re also the most interesting.


Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. She is the NY Geek Culture Examiner at Examiner.com, and she’s also a contributor to PinkRaygun.com, a webzine examining geekery from a feminine perspective. Her work has also been seen on PopMatters.com, on the sadly-defunct literary site CentralBooking.com, edited by Kevin Smokler, and in the Elmont Life community newspaper. She is currently writing a web series for Pareidolia Films called The Pack, which is set to debut Summer 2010! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, Follow The Pack or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.

90 Comments

Subscribe to this thread