RELIGION AND SF/FANTASY
by Helen E. Davis
The article first appeared in The Reluctant Famulus issue 31, in 1993. TRF is edited by Tom Sadler.
Does religion belong in SF or Fantasy stories?
Neither SF nor fantasy has been kind to organized religion. Of the stories which use religion, some treat it as a repressive institution while others portray it as an inconsequential piece of background. A few show it in a positive light as a source of inspiration for a charater. But the vast majority of stories, particularly in SF, ignore it altogether. The cities of the future may be grand or they may be decandent, but they lack churches and deities.
This isn't an oversight. Religion is linked with the past, with the traditional and ancient way of doing things. SF is the literature of the future, and the future belongs to rational beings, not those enslaved by superstition, tradition, and antiquated moralities. As Captain Picard (Star Trek: The Next Generation) is reported to have said, "We have moved beyond religion."
But it just ain't so.
Religion is everywhere, in everyone and everything. Organized religion has been a part of every culture of this world, and will be a part of every culture in the future. It might be flaunted, hidden, or disguised, but it is there. It affects all people, whether they obey it or rebel against it. And everyone -- with the exception of those who are truely lost to the Human race -- has a personal religion.
For religion does not mean just subservience to a great deity, and sometimes does not even include that. Religion is about keeping a moral code: the sense of what is important and what is menial, as well as what is right and what is wrong. It's also about life changes, those ceremonies wh mark our passage from one state of life to the next. Birth, coming-of-age, marriage, death: these aren't just ceremonies and pieces of paper. These are changes in the way we are viewed by and interact with society. Religion is about the thing we center our lives around, be it an external deity, a materialistic object, or our own selves. Rather than a set of rules, religion is the basic blueprint for how we view the world and live our lives.
Organized religion comes from personal religion in the same way that societies come from individuals. In order for a society to exist as more than a collection of individuals living in one place, the people within it must interact and hold common views of the world. Morals and world views shape and define the society; then the society, through organized religion, maintains those morals and world views. Organized religion holds a society together -- and if it is discarded, then the society must fall apart and wait for a new organized religion to rebuild it.
In fact, in the real world as well as the fictional worlds of SF/Fantasy, organized religion is often present in disguise. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example, the characters claim to be without religion even as they worship the Prime Directive and live their lives by the rules of Starfleet. In the Dream World Series (Niven and Pournelle) the integrity of the game is paramount. And as the Chanur (C.J. Cherryth) ply their trade across the stars, they center their lives around their ship and the honor which holds the family together.
But when organized religion is not disguised but used as it should be, as an integral part of the culture which defines the characters, the results are striking. Characters rise up from the two-dimensional medium of fiction and take on a life of their own. And when characters are allowed to have different religions, or even different views of the same religion, they develope into clear, distinct, fascinating individuals. The best examples I have seen of this are Effinger's When Gravity Fails and Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series.
Therefore, I argue that religion not only has a place in SF/Fantasy stories, but is a needed element. Without it there is no culture in which to set the story, and neither the characters nor their society have any true depth.
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