In modern science fiction, religion plays a vital, secular role

Contributed by
Jun 23, 2018

It's easy to think that science fiction and religion are anathemas to each other. Science fiction is, after all, about imagining a scientifically advanced future where we have moved to the point of near magic, explaining through science things that modern understanding can only dream up. Religion, meanwhile, is about not explaining those things at all, instead choosing to rely on faith and parable and scripture to explain the mysteries of the universe and to comfort the minds of those who follow its teachings. Obviously, those two don't really go together.

Perhaps science and faith don't necessarily mesh—but if you've been keeping an eye on certain recent science fiction television series, you'll notice a pattern. Sci-fi might still have trouble bridging the spiritual and the secular, but it certainly recognizes the importance of scripture to understanding our past — and protecting our future.

One of the most famous — and easily cited — examples is Battlestar Galactica, the massively popular series that aired on SYFY between 2004 and 2009. The main conflict of the show may have been between the humans and their Cylon creations, but part of the show's core conversation was about faith versus science. From the very beginning, as the humans struggled to survive in a hostile journey through space, their leaders made promises that set them up for a series-long struggle. They promised the surviving humans they would find and settle on Earth, a place that up until that point was mythic. From the moment they made that promise, they had to find a way to turn faith into reality.

The key to that lies in the interpretation of what the majority of BSG's characters consider archaic scripture. Over the course of the show, as they make their way slowly and precariously across the galaxy, searching for a new home, the only road map they have to make their way toward Earth and their salvation are the Scrolls of Pythia. To most of those in the position to make decisions about the fate of the human race, trusting in stories deemed outdated and fanciful is considered, at best, ill-advised—but as they come to learn over the run of the show, it is those people who are willing to understand and respect that scripture who can interpret fact from fiction and guide humanity across the stars.


This idea that what some consider religious faith can be interpreted as historical guide book has persisted into the narratives of shows still airing today. Take, for example, The 100, a CW series about those who are left after a nuclear war makes the Earth uninhabitable — at least for some. During the first season, after 97 years living in space, 100 teenagers are sent to the ground. The first set of episodes chronicles their attempts to survive in a place with no law and order, where they don't know the terrain and must provide for themselves. It also shows their first encounters with the Grounders, those humans who managed to survive the nuclear fallout and live on the ground for the last century.

In the second season, though, the Grounders take center stage, as the 100, the rest of the survivors from the sky, and the audience get to know their society a little better. We are introduced to their ways and to the strong sense of tradition and spirituality that guides their way of life. During that time we hear their commander, Lexa, talk about the spirit of the commanders who came before her and the idea that that spirit chose her to lead. We hear her explain how her spirit would choose the next commander upon her death. Other Grounders, those cast out by their own society, talk about the City of Light, a place where they will be accepted. Both of these ideas are presented, in many ways, to seem like nothing more than primitive structures of faith—a fictional promised land no one ever reaches and a belief in a life after death. In the third season, however, understanding these beliefs becomes the key to the survival of humanity.


As the show progresses through its third season, it becomes more and more obvious that what the Grounders see as religion and oral tradition are actually interpretations of history and science passed down like a game of telephone by people who were unable to understand what they truly meant. For one, we learn that the City of Light isn't so much a physical place as it is a computer program—and you don't so much travel there as you swallow a microchip that implants itself in the base of your skull. That chip uploads your consciousness to the computer and gives you the ability to visit this magical place while also taking away all physical and emotional pain. Meanwhile, when the show's main character Clarke and resident asshole Murphy take an extended visit to the Grounder capital, they discover that what they had previously dismissed as flights of fancy are actually based in real science and have real bearing on the world at large.

Through a series of events, Murphy discovers that much of the mythology by which the Grounders live was precipitated by what his people know as the "13th station." The events that transpired on board that space station 100 years prior became the start of both the Grounder and Sky People's history, albeit with different interpretations. For the Sky People, it was a dark day where they shot down one of their own in an effort to save the rest. For the early Grounders, it was a day when a woman fell out of the sky and brought them salvation. Murphy may know his side of history, but it is only through learning and understanding the Grounder tradition that he comes to understand the whole story. And it's a story that eventually helps to save their lives.


At the same time Murphy is learning about the first Commander, Clarke discovers what's really behind all Lexa's talk about the spirit of the Commanders who came before her. Unfortunately, the truth can only really come with Lexa's death, as her passing forces the religious leader, the Flame Keeper, to show the cards he didn't even know he had. Hidden in the base of Lexa's skull, known to the Grounders as The Flame — the spirit of the Commanders — is another, more sophisticated AI, identical to the one taking over the minds of everyone on the ground. By learning and understanding the beliefs of the Grounders, Clarke and her friends are able to put the pieces together well enough to understand the AI and save everyone trapped by it. If they had simply dismissed those beliefs, didn't take the time to investigate them further, ALIE probably would have taken over the planet.

Religion acts as a similar pathway to understanding on the SYFY series Killjoys, though it's far less apocalyptic. One of the major groups appearing throughout the series is a holy order of monks known as Scarbacks. In the first season, they're mostly color. You do get to know one Scarback in particular, Alvis, and through him get a vague understanding of some of their beliefs. For instance, they are called Scarbacks because their faith is heavily reliant on masochism. They cut themselves in atonement for the sins of others. We also learn that at the core of their beliefs is that of the interconnectedness of all things as signified by a giant tree of life.


But it's what we learn in the second season that really shows how important the Scarback traditions are to understanding the history of the Quad. Setting up Season 2 is a little convoluted if you aren't already watching, so suffice it to say that events transpire that set our main Killjoys — Dutch, Johnny, and D'avin — on a mission to learn why the moon Arkyn is uninhabitable. Since they know there were Scarbacks there at one time in history, they go to Alvis, who tells them a parable from Scarback scripture that states, quite simply, that 200 years ago "12 went to fight the devil on Arkyn and one came back." Combining what Dutch and the others know about Arkyn with what Alvis is able to piece together from his studies begins to paint a much more detailed picture of the events that came before. Eventually, they come to understand that 12 Scarbacks really did go to Arkyn in an effort to stop an invasion by parasitic aliens known as Hullen.

Along the way, Alvis begins to understand the origins of the Scarback beliefs, finding real-world correlation between those traditions and practical uses in the world. For example, Hullen don't bleed, a fact that tells Alvis that his people began cutting themselves as a means to prove they were not infected. Just like the stories warning them of the Hullen invasion, the actions of those original Scarbacks became distorted over time, passed down like mythology and religious teaching, conflated with their beliefs to become superstition. But the protection of those beliefs and the work Alvis does to understand them fully, leads him — and our heroes — to vital information necessary to understanding where the Hullen came from and how to defeat them.

Science fiction and religious narrative don't have to be at odds. In fact, the two can go hand in hand to prove how important it can be to keep the faith. Religious belief can seem like a primitive view of the world, but in many ways, it can have some root in truth, and can, through study and reflection, help us to understand our past and our potential future.

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