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This last weekend I was the Guest of Honor at LosCon, Southern California's regional science fiction convention. Between being fed In-N-Out Double-Doubles on the hour and sharing the stage with Star Trek star-turned-Uber-Geek Wil Wheaton (we explained what happened when I commissioned a black velvet painting of him as Wesley Crusher), I had an almost unspeakable amount of fun. I also participated in a thought-provoking panel discussion on religion and science fiction, in which we asked the question, "How well-represented is religion in science fiction -- and how is religion represented in the future?"
It's an interesting topic because in our common culture, science and religion often take antagonistic roles towards each other -- just pair off a creationist and someone versed in evolutionary biology, let them go five rounds, and you'll get the typical view. But as with everything, the reality is not so clean cut. Polls regularly show that the majority of scientists practice a religion of some sort, while no less than the Roman Catholic Church accepts the idea of biological evolution. Since science and religion co-exist in the real world, how do they exist in the worlds of science fiction movies? The answer (or my answer, anyway) is that it's a mixed bag. Though benevolent spirituality occurs fairly frequently in the future, organized religions are oftentimes used as stock antagonists.
In the spirituality camp, we have the obvious example of Star Wars, in which George Lucas' nodding acquaintance with Eastern religions was distilled into the idea of "The Force," a mystical energy field binding everything in the galaxy and, coincidentally, allowing those with training (notably the quasi-priestly warriors known as Jedi Knights) the ability to levitate heavy objects and deflect laser beams. Another fine example of this is the original 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which Klaatu, the alien come to warn us to clean up our act, is very much an allegorical Christ figure: He goes by the name of "Carpenter" while on Earth, then comes back to life after taking a bullet. Interestingly, Day director Robert Wise maintained he wasn't aware of such allegorical activity in his film until it was pointed out to him much later; it makes you wonder if he had the same shooting script as everyone else.
In both Star Wars and Day, spirituality gets a largely positive spin (note to Star Wars fans: I'm actively ignoring the abominations that are Midichlorians and Anakin Skywalker's virgin birth, which are more about bad screenwriting than anything else), but when organized religion gets on camera, things get chillier. The Handmaid's Tale, for example, turns the U.S. into a dystopic fundamentalist dictatorship. Definitely no love there. Another take: Escape From L.A., in which Snake Plisskin reluctantly takes orders from a U.S. president who's moved the capital to Lynchburg, Virginia (home to Jerry Falwell's conservative Christian Liberty University, if you don't get the joke). Again, not too positive. And as a final example, I give you The Chronicles of Riddick, which features an entire culture of death-loving zealots converting civilizations at the point of a sword, at least until Vin Diesel shows up. The "Underworld" cult of Riddick isn't real, of course, but a religion doesn't have to be in order to make itself and its followers convenient science fiction bad guys.
Are there movies in which science and religion (as opposed to spirituality) co-exist, if not always peacefully then at least without overt hostility? I can think of one off the top my head: Contact, based on Carl Sagan's only science fiction novel. In the movie, Jodie Foster's atheist astronomer and Matthew McConaghey's God-centered maverick preacher trade deep thoughts about the nature of the universe (as well as deep, moony gazes into each others' eyes). Neither converts the other -- I hope that's not a spoiler for you -- but what they do find is that while their views of the universe and God's place in it are not the same, they can still respect each other as seekers of truth. That's a nice spin on things, if you ask me, which is why Contact is still one of my favorite science fiction movies. Of course this gets me eye-rolls from people who are either committed atheists or fundamentalists, but you know what? I can live with being called a squishy centrist on this one.
My question for you: How do you see religion portrayed in science fiction movies? Is it dismissive? Would you prefer religion not intrude in your science fictional cinema? Are you somewhere in the vast middle? Tell me your thoughts on the subject. I want to know.
Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man's War and Zoe's Tale. He's also the editor of METAtropolis, an audiobook anthology on Audible.com. His column appears every Thursday.