Science fiction and religion

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Science and religion often conflict, so science fiction and religion either has been avoided as a topic, or has produced some highly creative science fiction. Themes include conflict between traditional religious ideas and situations created by technology, the role of religion as a multigenerational means of conserving or banning ideas, and the adaptation of religion to speculative situations.

This genre is not precisely defined, but one critic requires the stories to be specifically about religion. "There are some excellent stories that include religious ideas tangentially but aren't really about religion ("The Measure of All Things"), or are very much about religion but aren't SF properly speaking ("Hell is the Absence of God")..."[1] This approach has its limitations; the Dune series, for example, is not about religion per se, but religion is intrinsic to the complex culture that runs through multiple books. Sixth Column uses a fake religion as a cover for an revolutionary underground.

I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

Only I will remain.

Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear, Dune series, Frank Herbert

Perhaps the shortest example is the short-short story "Answer" by Fredric Brown. The greatest computer scientist of his civilization, finished the Ultimate Computer, and gave his leader the honor of the first question.

Dwar Ev stepped back and drew a deep breath. "The honor of asking the first question is yours, Dwar Reyn."

"Thank you," said Dwar Reyn. "It shall be a question that no single cybernetics machine has been able to answer."

He turned to face the machine. "Is there a God?"

The mighty voice answered without hesitation, without the clicking of single relay.

"Yes, now there is a God."

Sudden fear flashed on the face of Dwar Ev. He leaped to grab the switch.

A bolt of lightning from the cloudless sky struck him down and fused the switch shut.[2]

Finding religion through science fiction

People have many ways of finding a personally satisfying spirituality, and science fiction can be one of them. Teresa Jusino mentions Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as her "go-to example for describing how I see God as an adult".

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.[3]

What is it to be human?

Frank Herbert and his son have created the Dune universe, in which religions and quasi-religious groups form a society that sweeps across thousands of years.[4] As background, a revolt, the Butlerian Jihad, against intelligent machines ("Thou shalt not make a machine in the image of a man"),[5] led to the civilization turning within and developing, as alternatives, abilities we would consider paranormal. One branch involves the creation of a female order, the Bene Gesserit, that develops its own abilities, but also establishes a long-term effort to breed for an adept with a special insight.

Destiny of Man

One humorous but thoughtful example is Arthur C. Clarke's short story, "The Nine Billion Names of God",[6] in which a group of monks believe they are carrying out the deity's specific purpose for man, using a laborious technique. What happens when their task is accelerated with computer assistance?

Perhaps not having as strictly religious a theme, but still dealing with the ultimate destiny of man, is Clarke's much more somber novel, Childhood's End.[7] Clarke also explores the evolution of man in the movie and book adaptation of "2000: A Space Odyssey", the inspiration for which was his short story, "The Sentinel".[8]

It can be a blurry line between writings in theology, and speculative fiction about the purpose and destiny of man. The Jesuit paleontologist and theologian, Pierre Teilhard du Chardin, wrote, in The Phenomenon of Man,[9] that the divine plan was absolutely consistent with evolution. Taking the Biblical theme that God created man in his own image, he postulated that God's plan was for man to evolve from the lowest life form (the "alpha point") to a point at which man was godlike (the "omega point"). During his lifetime, the Roman Catholic Church suppressed his work, although considering it sincere and not heretical, because it constrained the freedom of choice of God.

Cultural motivation

Religion is not necessarily the core theme of science fiction, but may provide important cultural background. In the Honor Harrington universe created by David Weber, the Church of Humanity Unchained defines much of the culture of her second home planet, Grayson. Its sacred music, based on country and western, is described as profound. The religion calls its deity the Tester, and believes that man will often be called upon to test his beliefs -- but the faithful will have the resources to meet their Test. It is exceptionally open to true converts who abandon a sinful past, changing from which simply is a form of the Test. In the naval alliance at the heart of the series, there are interesting contrasts between the pluralistic Manticoran Alliance and the Graysons who would never go into battle without their chaplains.

The successful television series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine[10] has a significant religious context. Deep Space Nine, a space station controlled by the secular United Federation of Planets, which is near the planet Bajor, and a "wormhole" connecting different parts of the galaxy. As opposed to other wormholes, this is not empty: it contains intelligent 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... they are “wormhole aliens”, extraordinary and powerful, yes, but merely another in a list of powerful species throughout the Universe... There is debate about whether or not they should be referred to as deities. There is debate as to whether or not [the Federation leader should play a role in the religious lives of the Bajorans.[3]

Sacred treasures

In Dune, the shedding of tears of grief is a near-miraculous event, called "giving water to the dead", so strong is the cultural conditioning to conserve water. When the protagonist cries after having killed a challenger in a ritual duel, he continues to be perceived as more and more of a spiritual being.

Both Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land center on planets where water is incredibly scarce and incredibly treasured. When the protagonist of Stranger in a Strange Land is not mocking commercialism in religion, he explores a universal pantheism, with the mutual greeting of his Church of All Worlds being "Thou art God." Actual congregations of the Church of All Worlds exist, under an eclectic neopagan umbrella. "Inspired by this awakening of consciousness and the book, Stranger in a Strange Land, this group grew, evolved, became “water-kin” and created a religious organization that was recognized as a church by the federal government of the United States on March 4th 1968"

A fundamental rite of CAW is a communion of souls called Water-sharing. In this rite one shares water with at least one other and recognizes within another the Divine Being with the phrase “ Thou art God” or “Thou art Goddess” and “May you never thirst”. This similar to the Hindu greeting of “Namaste” which means the “Divine in me greets the Divine in you.” Since water is essential to all known life on this planet and so is seen as very precious, CAW envisions Water-sharing as a way of honoring this preciousness in a symbolic act that also recognizes one believes Divine Being is a living experience in all Humanity. The phrase “never thirst” serves as a reminder of one’s conscious connection with living as an experience of Divine being.[11]

Preservation of knowledge

The role of religious groups in conserving knowledge, and how humanity deals with a second chance, is the theme of Walter Miller, Jr.'s novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz.[12] In the Dark Ages of our own time, Catholic monks preserved classical knowledge. After a future nuclear apocalypse, the founder of the Order of St. Leibowitz saved books and other knowledge before his martyrdom. His successors did not always understand the significance of the relics they preserved, but they knew their duty, especially with artifacts of the Founder, be it an schematic drawing of an electronic circuit, or a Writing of "Dozen bagels, pound kraut."

In Frank Herbert's Dune universe, the Missionaria Protectiva of the Bene Gesserit order travels the galaxy, imparting suggestions to primitive people, which will become welcoming legends when the Bene Gesserit come to the society.

Crises of faith

Several intense works have presented the collision of fundamental ideas of good with utterly new situations, such as James Blish's A Case of Conscience,[13] or with radically different ways of looking at holy events, as in Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Star."[14] Blish examined aspects of Manichaeism in a society without original sin, told by a Jesuit scientist. Clarke's story looked at the challenge to faith that could be caused by insights into a fundamental miracle.

What is it to be divine, and why ask?

A recurring theme is to tell whether a being is a deity, or merely a more advanced life form. Teresa Jusino summarizes,

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.[3]

Of Gods and men

Roger Zelazny dealt extensively with religious themes. One of his best-known short stories is "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" and the novel Creatures of Light and Darkness revolves largely around the doings of a quasi-Egyptian pantheon.

His novel Lord of Light deals with a future where colonists on a new planet have, through a mixture of yoga and technology, effectively become the Hindu pantheon. They reincarnate using mind transfer machines and healthy young bodies grown unconscious in tanks. With many lifetimes of training plus various gadgets, they have amazing powers. However, there is not enough high technology to go around, so most of their descendants live approximately the life of medieval India. Divine politics involve "accelerationists" who want to spread technology versus "deicrats", and the deicrats are winning. The protagonist is an accelerationist who revives Buddhism as a weapon in this struggle.

First contact

Many stories involve the impact of First Contact with an advanced culture, whose routine technology is seen as miraculous. Cargo cults are but a few of the potential cultural impacts. In yet another novel by Heinlein, Methuselah's Children, however, the protagonist, Lazarus Long expects, some day, to confront the advanced species, the Jockaira; comments in a later novel, Time Enough for Love, suggest that he did.

First Contact stories may be more often told from the viewpoint of the less advanced species, but the reverse may be true, especially when the advanced species does not want to do harm. In an episode of Star Trek: The New Generation, "Who Watches the Watchers",[15] Starfleet anthropological observers accidentally reveal themselves to a developing civilization. Members of that civilization decide Starfleet personnel are gods. Eventually, even though it is an even worse violation of their noninterference directive, the captain brings the wise planetary leader to the starship, shows the limitation of his powers, but explains that the two peoples are alike -- the Federation simply has had longer to learn. Captain Picard convinces the leader that her people must learn on their own, not have great knowledge given to them.


Themes include both the past existence of Creators, as well as the creation of Creators. Among the classics of short-short stories is Fredric Brown's "The Answer". In one page, a scientist seeks the means to answer the question, "Is there a God?"

A machine itself proposes a Graphic Omniscient Device (GOD Machine) in David Gerrold's novel, When H.A.R.L.I.E. was One.[16] HARLIE, physically, was a fixed computer reminiscent of a mainframe; Isaac Asimov deals with the theology formed by intelligent robots in "Reason".

Battlestar Galactica, a television series, pitted polytheistic humans against monotheistic Cylons. "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."[3]

Robert Silverberg, in "The Pope of the Chimps", examines how chimpanzees would form theology.[17] Before this is dismissed as anthropomorphic, consider the cargo cult, and the wide range of way that primitive man explains the inexplicable. Remember Clarke's Third Law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" -- and magic may be another name for "miracle". Contrived miracles for the public are a prominent part of several works dealing with ake and exploitative religions, such as Heinlein's "If This Goes On—"; science, as taught in the military academies, is called "Applied Miracles".[18]

Science fiction addressing current religion

A number of writers, both advocates and opponents, are using science fiction contexts to comment on current religion.

Buddhist science fiction

Robert Thurman is an author who finds that science fiction provides a likely metaphor to describe the ""multi-dimensional universe of infinite possibility" inherent in the Tibetan Buddhist worldview." He considers quantum physics, and especially observer effects, a point of agreement between Buddhism and science.[19]

Christian science fiction

Both Christian fundamentalists and their opponents are making conscious use of science fiction.

There is a young man, different from other young men. Ancient prophecies foretell his coming, and he performs miraculous feats. Eventually, confronted by his enemies, he must sacrifice his own life—an act that saves mankind from calamity—but in a mystery as great as that of his origin, he is reborn, to preside in glory over a world redeemed. Tell this story to one of the world’s 2 billion Christians, and he’ll recognize it instantly. Tell it to a science-fiction and fantasy fan, and he’ll ask why you’re making minor alterations to the plot of The Matrix or Superman Returns. For reasons that have as much to do with global politics as with our cultural moment, some of this generation’s most successful sci-fi and fantasy movie franchises follow an essentially Christian plotline.

In The Matrix, ""Hallelujah!” cries a minor character early in The Matrix, the 1999 cyberpunk flick, directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski, that took the nation by storm and, together with its two sequels, raked in about $600 million domestically. “You’re my savior, man, my own personal Jesus Christ.”"[20]

Katherine Kerr wrote Reason [21] as a direct extrapolation of current apocalyptic Christian writers such as Tim LaHaye.[1] LaHaye's Left Behind series directly proselytizes, in the context of novels about the end of the world, for the Christian theology of dispensational premillenialism. [22]

Islamic science fiction

A website on Islam and Science Fiction mentions "With respect to characterization of Muslims there isn’t any single way to describe how Muslims are portrayed in Science Fiction. There are many cases where Muslims are cast in somewhat negative light in SF stories which are set in the near future. On the other hand stories set in the distant future have rather positive portrayal of Muslims. "[23] Steven Barnes writes an alternate history series in which North America was colonized by Muslims from Africa. He explained "I wanted to explore the nature of slavery, and to create a world in which Africa developed a technological civilization prior to Europe. To do that, I needed a unifying religion, and Islam fit the bill." The society he created does have similarities, for economic reasons, with the early U.S. South. [24]

A 2006 symposium observed that there is a lack of interest in future-oriented and science fiction in the Arab world.[25] Earlier studies suggested that the genre was stimulating in principle, but "ut would be better to set stories and TV series in surroundings already familiar to Arab children, to derive them from Arab culture and to adapt them to the religious principles of Islam. The motto was: "A child's imagination should be liberated - but within recognised limits." " This view, from 1987, may be evolving. Nevertheless, some believe "the future is in the hand of God only and it is almost sacrilegious to want to fantasize about his plans" -- rather like the objections of the Catholic Church to the work of Teilhard du Chardin.

There are historical precedents for futuristic Islamic utopias, from the middle ages, but not having much impacts, Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi wrote "Opinions of the residents of a splendid city" 500 years before the "Utopia" of Thomas More. Al-Qazwini's futuristic tale, circa 1250 CE, wrote "Awaj bin Anfaq", about a visitor to Earth.

Religion without a god

Many of Ursula K. Le Guin's works (e g City of Illusions and Always Coming Home) take for granted and/or explore the idea of a religion (or form of spirituality) without a god, in which the characters' spiritual sense is satisfied and strengthened by a set of practices and (humanist?) beliefs.

Fake and exploitative religions

In science fiction, religions have been formed, sometimes deliberately and sometimes as a byproduct of other activity, for an assortment of reasons. Robert A. Heinlein created a fake religion to cover an underground rebellion in Sixth Column against Asian occupiers of the United States. The 1949 novel, derived from a 1941 magazine publication. uses racial stereotypes that might be found objectionable today. Its title contrasts the Fifth Column of traitors in the Spanish Civil War with a "sixth column" of patriots taking back their country.[26]

Several informal reviewers have suggested that Sixth Column, also titled The Day After Tomorrow, may have been influenced by Heinlein's editor, John W. Campbell, and another novel by Heinlein was closer to his own style. The latter work revolved around the attempt to overthrow a cynical and corrupt priesthood of Fundamentalist Christians in the relatively obscure "If This Goes On—", a part of his Future History series.[18]. It is set in a future United States. He wrote that he had considered, as part of the Future History, stories about how the religious dictatorship came to be, in a list of "stories never written", "The Sound of his Wings" and "The Stone Pillow" simply being too depressing to write.

In his bestselling novel Stranger in a Strange Land, with its memorable first-chapter title of "His Maculate Conception", Heinlein's protagonist, a human "Once upon a time there was a Martian named Smith", the legitimate child of three humans) raised in an utterly different culture of Martians, brings fresh eyes to Earth customs, and a critical eye to its religious institutions—especially the more commercialized ones. Heinlein was more than willing to savage "commercial" religion, but also treated spirituality seriously.

A recurring story among science-fiction writers is that L. Ron Hubbard created Scientology on a bet as an off-shoot of his earlier Dianetics.

Jack Vance, a major name in the field for five decades particularly known for his imaginative portraits of distant worlds and strange cultures, interspersed many of his novels with sardonic depictions of bizarre, quirky rites indulged in by religious believers and, in particular, their priesthoods. Some rites are subtly drawn, others more broadly, but the goal of all of them is clearly to hold religion up to scorn and ridicule. Perhaps the most sustained example of this is his novel The Blue World, in which cynical human priests on a planet entirely covered by water have tricked its population into worshipping and paying tribute to a semi-intelligent, squid-like predator called a kragen.

H. Beam Piper wrote a series of stories,[27] beginning with "Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen", about an effective theocracy where the false priests are the only people who know how to make gunpowder, and suggest that lay attempts to make it will result in damnation. An alternate-reality traveler from our universe arrives, and makes black powder in his sickroom, after being rescued by the Beautiful Princess after Winning the Battle, and changes the balance of power. His impact is even greater when he does not stop with the priestly secret, the basic gunpowder formula, and introduces improved gun design, and, above all, tactics and strategy.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Gabriel Mckee (19 December 2007), "The 10 Best Science Fiction Stories About Religion", SF Gospel
  2. Fredric Brown (1954), Answer, in Albert H. Teich, Technology and the Future, 7th edition
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Teresa Jusino (6 January 2010), Religion and Science Fiction: Asking the Right Questions, Tor
  4. Official Dune Website
  5. Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson, Dune: the Butlerian Jihad
  6. Arthur C. Clarke (1967), "The Nine Billion Names of God", The Nine Billion Names of God: the Best Short Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, Harcourt, Brace & World
  7. Arthur C. Clarke (Reprint edition (May 12, 1987)), Childhood's End, Del Rey, ISBN : 978-0345347954
  8. Arthur C. Clarke (1967), "The Sentinel", The Nine Billion Names of God: the Best Short Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, Harcourt, Brace & World
  9. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin with an introduction by Sir Julian Huxley (1948), The Phenomenon Of Man, Arthur's Book Shelf
  10. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999). TV Guide. CBS Interactive. Retrieved on 3 November 2013.
  11. Iaccus, What is the Church of All Worlds?, Church of All Worlds, Inc
  12. Walter Miller, Jr. (1960), A Canticle for Leibowitz, J. B. Lippincott
  13. James Blish (1972), A Case of Conscience, Ballantine SF Classic
  14. Arthur C. Clarke (1967), "The Star", The Nine Billion Names of God: the Best Short Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, Harcourt, Brace & World
  15. 'Who Watches the Watchers' (1989). TV Guide. CBS Interactive. Retrieved on 3 November 2013.
  16. David Gerrold (1972), When H.A.R.L.I.E. was One (First ed.), Nelson Doubleday
  17. Robert Silverberg (Book Club Edition (1982)), The Pope of the Chimps, in Alan Ryan, PERPETUAL LIGHT: Written in Water; The Emigrant; God's Eyes; Pope of the Chimps; Meat Box; Ifrit; Contamination; Instant with Loud Voices; Firestorm; Be Fruitful and Multiply; Angel of the Sixth Circle; Judgment Day; Theology of Water; Hamburger Heaven, Warner Books
  18. 18.0 18.1 Robert A. Heinlein (1976), "If This Goes On —", The Past Through Tomorrow, Berkley
  19. Tony Evans (19 May 2009), Robert Thurman probes inner space, Idaho Mountain Express
  20. Benjamin A. Plotinsky (Winter 2009), "How Science Fiction Found Religion: Once overtly political, the genre increasingly employs Christian allegory.", City Journal
  21. Katharine Kerr (Reprint 2006), "Asylum.", FreezeFrames, Tor
  22. Timothy Weber (1 January 1999), Dispensational Premillennialism: The Dispensationalist Era, How a once-mocked idea began its domination of the evangelical world., Christianity Today Library
  23. Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, ed., Islam and Science Fiction: A Website on Islam, Muslims and Science Fiction
  24. M. Aurangzeb Ahmad (17 November 2010), Islam Sci Fi Interview of Steven Barnes, Islam and Science Fiction: A Website on Islam, Muslims and Science Fiction
  25. Achmed A. W. Khammas (10 October 2006), The Almost Complete Lack of the Element of "Futureness": Science Fiction in Arabic Literature
  26. Robert A. Heinlein (1949), Sixth Column (Mass Market Paperback - Aug 27, 200 0 ed.), Baen
  27. Bibliography of Piper's Paratime Chronicles