Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: You’re Doing It Wrong

The conflict between science and religion is one of the more popular themes in science fiction today. Most of the time, religion gets the short end of the stick, so naturally religious writers write their own fiction. Most of the fiction is fairly terrible, because they try to meet their critics on their own terms. Today I’m going to look at a few examples from both sides, and explore why religious authors are more likely to be “doing it wrong.” Be warned, spoilers for His Dark Materials, Avatar (the blue alien movie, not the most excellent animated TV show), Firefly, and Doctor Who follow.

One of the most iconic tropes of science fiction is “Religion is Wrong.” At its heart, “Religion is Wrong” is often used by writers to either promote reason and scientific exploration, or to promote atheism, or a little bit of both. Sometimes the trope is used to fight the big nasty evil religion, promoting a very humanistic view of Truth. The best example I can think of for this trope is Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The trilogy is just chock full of a big evil Church corrupting and abusing children, heroic scientists, and children who set out to fight “The Authority.” The story reaches a climax in the third book, where the kids kill God. Or, er, the being pretending to be God. Religion is evil, science and reason are good, and the heroic journey ends in the destruction of the impotent being masquerading as the deity who never really existed in the first place.

Doctor Who also likes to play fast and loose with the “Religion is Bad” trope. The Doctor, the quintessential rational humanist, often fights false religions, gods, and other things of a faith-based nature. Most recently, in the episode “The Rings of Akhaten”, we meet Merry Gejelh, the young “Queen of Years” who is to sacrifice herself to the Sun God, “Grandfather.” The creation myth of Merry’s religion is the driving force behind her decision. The Doctor explains to her an alternate creation myth, something along the lines of the Big Bang theory, and Merry decides to not sacrifice herself. In this episode we see the parasitic pseudo-deity, the destructive consequences of religion, and the great rational hero with a scientific explanation to save the day (an explanation that still makes everyone feel special, too!).

In response to the relative popularity of “Religion is Wrong,” many religious authors have embraced a “Religion is Right” trope. Instead of using science and reason to prove how religion is wrong, authors use science to show how religion is right. Religious thinkers began to seriously deal with the implications of modern scientific methods on religious belief during the Enlightenment. Some people tried to show how religion could be backed up with scientific truth, such as the ongoing search for the historical Jesus. Others, such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, argued that religion was better understood to be based on feelings or intuitions, and a relationship with God, not dogmas or a search for definitive truth. Both schools of thought show up in our culture.

The Tree of Voices heals you with science. Beautiful, sexy science.

In the movie Avatar (James Cameron’s money-making epic), the Na’vi worship a Nature/Mother Goddess. Initially, our human protagonists scoff, but later discover a scientific explanation for how the “hive”-like communication works. The humans also try (and succeed) to establish a relationship with the Mother. While the relationship with the “Mother” is what brings meaning to the lives of the Na’vi, the real “truth” of the deity’s existence isn’t based on faith or a relationship, but scientific fact. 

Arguably the most famous example of this trope is the Left Behind series. Although presented as fiction, the series presents a specific subset of Evangelical Christianity’s interpretation of the Book of Revelation and the Rapture. It presents the symbolic vision of the end of the world as actual events that take place on Earth. Basically, if you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, you will be “left behind” to endure the apocalypse on Earth. The series presents religious beliefs about angels, demons, and Satan as scientific-style facts.

We also see this, parodied, in Futurama. In the episode “Godfellas,” Bender becomes both God and planet for a tiny group of organisms. Bender fails rather spectacularly, and afterward bumps into (the “real”) God. The beauty of this episode is that it successfully makes fun of the trope (religion is right, their god exists… he just isn’t a very good one), without ending on a sour note for any believers in the audience. The strange and benevolent voice tells Bender, “If you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” This leaves the door open for the existence of a deity, in an agnostic sort of way.

But the problem with the “Religion is Right” trope is that it tries to meet the scientific anti-religion people on their own terms, using the unbeliever’s own tools to try and prove their beliefs are right, when most religious beliefs were never truly set up for scrutiny under any kind of modern scientific method to begin with. Thus, this trope, unfortunately, results either in any sort of religious faith in a work being turned into superfluous fodder for “the meaning of life” (as with Avatar), or in the work not being taken seriously by anyone who doesn’t already agree with the author (as with Left Behind). If religious writers want religion to be taken seriously, they need to work on their own terms.

He also believes in a “Special kind of Hell.” You know, the one for child molesters and people who talk at the theater.

Instead of trying to prove religion is true, they should create characters with religious beliefs. Let religion be an important part of who a character is, and what motivates their actions. Firefly‘s Shepherd Book is a good example of this kind of character. In this television series, Book is presented as just one of many “token” or “two-dimensional” kinds of characters that are given subversive depth. Each of these characters are very good at whatever their “stereotype” is: Zoe is the loyal first mate, Jayne is their gun-toting security man, and Book is the holy chaplain. All of these characters are firmly established to be authentic representatives of whatever they’re “good at”—Book is some kind of Christian monk from an unnamed “High Church” (think complicated worship and fancy costumes) denomination. He reads the Bible to find peace when facing death (as seen in the episode “Out of Gas”), and explains the Bible to River Tam in a faith-filled manner (“You don’t fix the Bible!”). But these characters are more than just what they’re good at; Book is more than his religion. Zoe is fiercely loyal, except she disobeys an order in order to marry her husband. Jayne is a hyper-masculine gunslinger, but has a soft heart and wears the hat his Momma knits for him. While Book’s past is never fully developed in the series, it’s hinted that Book had a very violent past. In “Safe”, Book is recognized as a high priority member of the ruling Alliance. In “Objects in Space”, criminal Jubal Early remarks, “That ain’t a Shepherd.” In “War Stories”, in response to a question from Zoe about the Bible’s stance on killing, Book remarks, “[The Bible] is, however, fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps.” While series creator Joss Whedon doesn’t agree with every religious idea that Book stands for, he explicitly intended Book to “give a voice to the other side.” Book is an authentically religious character that is more than just a vehicle for religious ideas.

Religious writers should take Whedon’s Shepherd Book as an example. Characters should be accurate representatives of their religions. This could be an area where Book falls short, because he does not belong to any real religious sect. Writers should include Muslim characters who are truly Muslim, Jewish characters who are truly Jewish, Hindu characters who are truly Hindu, and Christian characters who are truly Christian. By including religious characters without making the promotion or dismantling of religion a primary theme of the story, writers show that religion is a normal, acceptable part of writing diverse characters. Ultimately, the dichotomy between religion and science does not have to exist. Many scientists are religious, and many religious people have made contributions to science. We no longer live in the age of the big powerful Catholic Church persecuting the humble Galileo; we live in the age where bioethicists from all backgrounds debate the moral implications of all varieties of stem cell research. While there is certainly room for the critique of religion, the most effective way for religious writers to respond to such a critique is not by trying to show how scientifically true their faith may be, but rather by showing religious believers as complex individuals with something important to contribute to the conversation.

6 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: You’re Doing It Wrong

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  4. Whedon is an Atheist. Left Behind was not trying to meet scientific critics “on their own terms” it wasn’t really trying to appeal to non believers at all, that it was such a big best seller was a chock to everyone.

    Left Behind annoys me mostly because I disagree with the Biblical interpretations of ti’s Authors, on more then just Eschatology.

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