Science fiction (sometimes called speculative fiction) has a long history with religion, as some scholars trace it back to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, which explored the theme of man as a God-like creator. Numerous scholars, science fiction fans and authors have said science fiction, with its invented worlds and elastic reality, is an especially rich place to explore the “big questions” of religion: What is the nature of the soul? Why is there evil? Do humans need religious faith? Are we alone among God’s creation?
But the marriage of science fiction and religion is undergoing a revival of sorts. The films Arrival and Gravity were Academy Award nominees, and the new novels The Book of Joan and Borne have faith- or spirituality-driven characters. Television, especially, is mixing science fiction with religion or spirituality with increasing frequency and to general critical acclaim – The Leftovers, Westworld, American Gods and The Man in the High Castle all have religion and science fiction threads. And where science fiction literature was once dominated by male authors (Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, Neal Stephenson, Orson Scott Card), women are increasingly entering the genre and often doing so with religious themes or subplots (Lidia Yuknavitch, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood).
This edition of ReligionLink explores why science fiction and religion so often go hand in hand. Can science fiction help people explore questions of faith? Are the religiously unaffiliated engaging with spirituality/religion questions through science fiction in popular culture? What can science fiction contribute to personal faith or spirituality?
Examples of religion and science fiction
Adherents.com has a list of science fiction books that deal with specific religions or faith traditions; Wikipedia maintains a list of religious themes in science fiction, including examples of each. Here are a few of the more interesting science fiction and religion novels, both new and classic:
- The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (2017)
- The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber (2014))
- The Crescent Moon Kingdom series by Saladin Ahmed (2012-)
- The Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi (2007-)
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2004)
- Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer (2000)
- The Sparrow Series by Mary Doria Russell (beginning 1997)
- Bellwether by Connie Willis (1996)
- His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman (beginning 1995)
- Earthseed Series by Octavia Butler (1993-1998)
- The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick (1965)
- A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. (1960)
- Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis (1938)
Television has a long history of science fiction (Twilight Zone was an early entry). Here are some of the more recent shows/series that have taken religion seriously and used it to ask questions about good and evil, how we got here and why:
- Star Trek (original series) – Creator Gene Roddenberry was a humanist and frequently explored religious themes, including free will, sin, martyrdom and the afterlife.
- Dr. Who – The long-running time-traveling British series has explored religion on other planets multiple times.
- Battlestar Galactica – Story included a race of robots with a religion and plot elements based on Book of Mormon.
- The Leftovers – This HBO series takes place after a Rapture-like event and characters confront questions of the nature of God, an afterlife, redemption and (literal) resurrections.
- The Man in the High Castle – One storyline concerns Jews who must hide their religion.
Some of the most popular science-fiction-based films and film franchises since the 1970s have looked at the big questions of religion. Here are a few:
- Star Wars franchise – The Force, which contains elements of several real-world religions, has become a metaphor in popular culture for the life energy of the universe.
- Blade Runner – Based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it questions the nature of the soul as specifically human.
- Contact – This 1997 film was based on a novel by Carl Sagan, a humanist and cosmologist, and explored what it would mean if mankind were not alone in the universe.
- The Matrix – The franchise focuses on a Christ-like figure named Neo.
- Gravity – Characters rely on spirituality/religion in an emergency in space.
- Cloud Atlas – This 2012 film was based on David Mitchell’s 2004 novel and explored good, evil and reincarnation.
- Arrival – This 2016 film, while not explicitly religious, prompted scholars, journalists and others to discuss how contact with aliens would effect theology.
- Read “Fiction Writers Help Scientists Push Known Boundaries” by Paul Voosen, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, printed in The International New York Times, Oct. 19, 2014. The takeaway: Science fiction stretches the imagination in ways other genres do not.
- Read “Does God have a place in science fiction” by Damien Walter in The Guardian, June 7, 2013. The takeaway: Science fiction writers use their work to explore the nature of God and other theological questions because they can.
- Read “Big Theological Questions that Science Fiction Should Answer” by Charlie Jane Anders writing for Gizmodo, Oct. 12, 2012. The takeaway: Anders asked five theologians why science fiction is fertile ground for the exploration of major theological ideas and questions.
- Read “Science fiction probes at religion” by Roz Kaveney writing for The Guardian, July 11, 2011. The takeaway: Kaveney argues that sci-fi writers “up their game” when they write about religion, especially nonbelievers like Arthur C. Clarke.
- Read “Religious Science Fiction,” a blog post by the science fiction author Jo Walton posted on the website of the sci-fi/fantasy publisher Tor on Jan. 21, 2011. The takeaway: Walton identifies four ways of “doing” religion in science fiction.
- Read “Religion and Science Fiction: Asking the Right Questions,” an essay by Teresa Jusino published on the website of the sci-fi/fantasy publisher Tor on Jan. 6, 2010. The takeaway: Jusino, a onetime Catholic, describes how her ideas of God and religion have been influenced by science fiction.
- Wikipedia maintains a lengthy listlike entry on religious ideas in science fiction that can be a good source for examples, both past and present. It is interesting to note that some of the entries date as far back as the early 1800s, just as the Industrial Revolution was kicking off.
Roy Anker, a longtime professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of Beautiful Light: Religious Meaning in Film. He has also written about religion and the films of M. Night Shyamalan and the use of artificial intelligence in the films of Steven Spielberg.
Ted Baehr is founder and chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, a ministry that publishes Movieguide: The Family Guide to Movies and Entertainment, which advises Christians about popular culture offerings, including science fiction films.
Michael Collings is a writer and former professor of English at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and author of a biography of Orson Scott Card, an award-winning science fiction author who has used portions of the Book of Mormon in his works. Collings traces a link between belief in Mormonism and an affinity for science fiction. He blogs at Collings Notes. Contact via his blog or website.
Russell W. Dalton is professor of religious education at Texas Christian University’s Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, where he teaches a course on faith and film. Dalton is the author of Marvelous Myths: Marvel Superheroes and Everyday Faith and Faith Journey Through Fantasy Lands: A Christian Dialogue with Harry Potter, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. He also has an essay, “Aslan Is on the Move: Images of Providence in Narnia,” in the book Revisiting Narnia.
Robert Geraci is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York, where he teaches a course on science fiction, fantasy and religion. He is the author of Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life and Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality.
Reg Grant is a professor of pastoral ministries and director of the Media Arts and Worship Program at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has an interest in media as a writer, producer and actor and frequently comments on spirituality. He can speak about the connection between comic book heroes and religion, the Star Wars film series’ Buddhist-style philosophy in the context of traditional Christian doctrine, and more.
He says the strong religious underpinnings in the Star Wars franchise have been a part of why it has resonated so well with audiences over the years. He can also discuss the movies’ Buddhist-style philosophy in the context of traditional Christian doctrine.
Steven Hrotic is a part-time faculty member in religion at the University of Vermont in Burlington. He is the author of Religion and Science Fiction: The Evolution of an Idea and the Extinction of a Genre.
Fuji Lozada is a professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., where he specializes in Chinese society. He teaches a course titled “Science, Religion and Society.”
He has said that science fiction allows pushing at the boundaries about what it means to be human. He can talk about the theological questions in the work of Philip K. Dick, China Miéville, Neal Stephenson, Mary Doria Russell and more.
James F. McGrath, a professor of religion at Butler University in Indianapolis, has taught a course called “Religion in Science Fiction.” Read the syllabus and introduction with extensive bibliography and links. He is editor of the book Religion and Science Fiction and co-ditor of a book about religion and the long-running BBC television series Dr. Who. His blog, Religion Prof, sometimes touches on religion and science fiction.
Christopher McMahon is associate professor of theology at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. Much of his research focuses on the Gospels, Christian doctrine and Catholic theology. He wrote “Imaginative Faith: Apocalyptic Theory, Science Fiction and Theology” in the Journal of Theology Dialogue.
McMahon has said science fiction can help people think about and understand concepts such as the end of the world and eternity.
James Thrall is an associate professor of religion and culture at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. He teaches a course on science fiction and religion, which includes popular culture, film and literature. He can speak about the novel and the television adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle as well as the works of Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Kurt Vonnegut and more.
Jo Walton is a science fiction writer of more than a dozen novels and has won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, the highest accolades in sci-fi. She is working on a novel called Lent that has religious elements in it. She can discuss religion in science fiction and what it tries to achieve.
Manuel Lopez Zafra is an assistant professor of religion at the New College of Florida in Sarasota. He is an expert on Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, and Hinduism. He also has a popular blog that explores his other interest – religion in popular culture, especially in television and films.
Some of the shows and films he discusses weekly involve science fiction themes.
Ben Zeller is an associate professor of religion at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Ill. Much of Zeller’s research has been focused on the intersection of religion and science. He is an expert on so-called UFO religions – religions that incorporate beliefs outsiders would consider science fiction – such as Heaven’s Gate, and other New Religious Movements.
Lorenzo DiTomasso is a professor of religion and culture at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He is an expert on apocalypticism, from the ancient to the contemporary, and also studies religion and science fiction.
- Scientology was founded by L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer. For a good overview of the faith and its roots in and links to science fiction, read “The Apostate” by Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker, Feb. 14, 2011. Wright turned the article into the award-winning nonfiction book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, which goes into more depth on Scientology and science fiction. An award-winning HBO documentary of the same title was based on his book.
An article on publishers’ perspectives on religion in science fiction by Kimberly Winston (Publishers Weekly, April 16, 2001). Don’t miss the sidebar about the connection of science fiction to Mormonism.
The interfaith website adherents.com maintains a page that documents religious references in science fiction writing. It also keeps track of the religious affiliation of science fiction writers. According to this list, there are more Mormon science fiction writers than there are science fiction writers of any other single religion.
This article by James L. Ford, assistant religion professor at Wake Forest University, appeared in the October 2000 issue of The Journal of Religion & Film.
A 2003 Vatican report on “the complex phenomenon of ‘New Age,'” which is influencing many aspects of contemporary culture.
A Christian perspective on narrative myths by Roberto Rivera, a former fellow at the Wilberforce Forum at Prison Fellowship.
An article by Kimberly Roots, from the January 2005 issue of Science & Theology News, posted by Beliefnet.
Science, Religion and the Human Experience was a program from the University of California, Santa Barbara. It ran from 2001-2003 and it studied human history through the lens of the intersection of science and religion. James D. Proctor was director.
The Center for the Study of Science and Religion at Columbia University’s Earth Institute examines the idea of the natural from both scientific and religious perspectives. Robert Pollack is founder and director.