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Just Once I’d Like To See a Sci-Fi Where Church People Save the World from Crazed Atheists

Seth - June 24, 2008

Has anyone else noticed that whenever religion is involved in a science fiction book or movie, the “religious people” are almost always completely bats? And not in the charmingly slightly unhinged way of your local psychic, I mean Jim Jones, cyanide cool-aid, Spanish Inquisition kind of nuts. Same with computer games. A recent offering is a new horror sci-fi game called “Dead Space.” Warning: it’s not exactly PG and probably not worth checking-out unless you like gore-fests. Besides, I’ll summarize here anyway, so hold your horses.

Basically, you’ve got a big ship that visits lifeless planets and “cracks” them – completely destroying the planet and rendering it down into useable minerals for humanity’s vast galactic population. While prepping a planet for “cracking” they unearth this large and mysterious object ala 2001 Space Odyssey, which a large faction of religious people on board the ship insist is one of the relics that will allow them to reach God according to their religion.

Then the story goes really Event Horizon on everyone, as the miners on board start freaking out and killing people, and eventually turning into zombies… yadda, yadda, yadda…

Insert obligatory conspiracy cover-up from a Vatican-style entity that controls the galactic government, ritual cult suicides of people dazedly claiming they’ll see God, and a hard-nosed atheist beat cop hero with lines like “News flash: we already conquered heaven. And guess what? God wasn’t home.” And you have a winner.

Crazy religious people… mutter, mutter… You just know they’d secretly like to kill us all and turn us into zombies… Where’s my copy of “Jesus Camp?”

Why is this formula so easy to do? Why does it always have to be some cynical, but likeable atheist who saves the world from the scary religious people? Calling Agent Mulder…

So fill me in. Is there any good sci-fi out there that actually messes with the formula a bit and actually gives a bit of love for religious people?

Besides Dune. I’ve already read that.


  1. Um, Star Wars seems like an obvious example.

    Comment by Kullervo — June 24, 2008 @ 1:04 pm

  2. In one of Elizabeth Moons Serrano books, maybe Rules of Engagement?, members of a fundamentalist sect save the lives of colonists by teaching them how to cook from scratch, build things, etc. The colonists were all used to electronic gadgets and couldn’t function without (how do you bake bread without a bread machine?)

    There was also an episode of ST Voyager, “Sacred Ground” that kind of turns things on end when talking about belief vs. science.

    Of course the original Battlestar Gallactica was all about belief and religion.

    And RA Heinlein’s FIFTH COLUMN is about using organized religion to save the nation.

    Comment by Naismith — June 24, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

  3. I second Naismith’s recommendation of the Voyager episode “Sacred Ground”. That’s one of my favorites.

    Overall, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is friendly to religion. The Bajorans are a deeply religious people, and with the exception of a few bad apples are portrayed favorably. Captain Sisko even follows their religion, despite being human and in Starfleet.

    Babylon 5 deals with religious themes in a respectful and thoughtful manner. Like real life, there are good and bad religious characters, and good and bad non-religious characters.

    Comment by Keri Brooks — June 24, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

  4. Pitch Black has a positively-portrayed Muslim pilgrim.

    Comment by Kullervo — June 24, 2008 @ 2:20 pm

  5. South Park? Remember the Dawkins episode?

    The new BSG is about religion and belief and I’m not sure it sees everyone religious as nutso.

    Indiana Jones?

    Comment by Clark — June 24, 2008 @ 3:00 pm

  6. Well, I’m looking for a bit more than just a religious hero. I’m looking more along the lines of… well… read the title, I guess. Star Wars doesn’t quite cut it. That’s just bad religion vs. good religion. Neither does Deep Space Nine, because that’s just about different beliefs living in harmony.

    I’m looking for a smackdown here that lets churchgoers administer the whoop’in for a change. Dune qualifies.

    Don’t know much about BSG, so feel free to enlighten me.

    Comment by Seth R. — June 24, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  7. I mean, if you think about it, it’s kind of obvious why you’re not going to see much of what you’re asking for. It’s tricky to write “churchgoers as the good guys” without coming across as heavy-handedly favoring the belief system that the churchgoers espouse. And thus, your sci-fi piece becomes propaganda for a specific religion.

    Atheist hero defeats an evil religion is only a propaganda piece if it represents atheism versus all religion, like in His Dark Materials. Otherwise it’s not his atheism per se that makes him the protagonist, but merely his opposition to the evil belief system.

    Comment by Kullervo — June 24, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

  8. What about the new Battlestar Galactica? I haven’t watched all of the episodes but most people seem to believe in a religion, even the heroes, and are following religious texts and prophecies to help save them. Of course, things might turn around in the episodes I haven’t seen, but it seems not to bash the religious people at all.

    Comment by D.B. — June 24, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

  9. Battlefield Earth? The Scientologists reportedly kick ass in that one.

    Comment by Clark — June 24, 2008 @ 4:00 pm

  10. How about “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell. It is a great read about faith on a new planet. Religion, the Jesuits in fact, play a central role. Same with her follow up “The Children of God.”

    Also the book “Sacred Visions” edited by Andrew Greeley amd Michael Cassutt contains short Sci Fi stories from a faithful Catholic perspective. There are some real gems in there.

    My favorite, however, is “A Canticle for Liebowitz” by Walter Miller.

    Comment by G.J. — June 24, 2008 @ 7:08 pm

  11. It may be because the people who like Sci-Fi are often the same people who like science. When you have religious fundamentalists trying to get Creationism taught in schools as science (under the guise of Intelligent Design), it becomes very easy to see religious fundamentalists as dangerous nuts and atheists as the heroes.

    Comment by C. L. Hanson — June 25, 2008 @ 1:21 am

  12. Lawl at His Dark Materials reference…

    Constantine is about a guy who was Aethist and then gets some religion after laying the smack down on the baddies with his religious pals…sort of.

    But I think theres something to do with the whole sci-fi=nerd=loner thing here that they try and connect the atheist(loner spiritually?) with the loner reader. And yes, it’s realllly easy to write about big fanatical sects of religions since…well…a lot of them are and have been for many years.

    P.S. Im just impressed that Seth is this up to snuff on his games. Are you in the industry or just a gamer? Cause thats a pretty in-depth preview there.

    Comment by Bryce — June 25, 2008 @ 3:25 am

  13. I’m looking for a smackdown here that lets churchgoers administer the whoop’in for a change. Dune qualifies.

    I’m just not into jihad. A religion that requires that much bloodshed isn’t “true” in my book, isn’t worth living. The ending was my least-favorite part of Dune.

    Comment by Naismith — June 25, 2008 @ 4:13 am

  14. I’m hopelessly outdated technology-wise Bryce. I’ve got a Playstation 2 that works most of the time and a computer that can run Starcraft and Age of Empires, but anything made after the year 2000 is probably too much for it. But I still regularly follow stuff like Gametrailers.com out of kind of a wistful window-shopping kind of spirit.

    Dead Space looks like it will be a pretty hot item when it releases this fall. The environments and character modeling look really solid, as does the gameplay (though it’s hard to say at this early stage). But it’s a horror shooter along the lines of Resident Evil and such. So I’ll probably pass. The cartoonish little splats on Starcraft are about as gory as I care to go.

    Actually the background story they’ve been releasing so far isn’t all that bad. But the religious people definitely are whack jobs in it.

    Comment by Seth R. — June 25, 2008 @ 7:02 am

  15. Naismith,

    Dune just shows that religion ain’t for sissies. Booyah!

    Comment by Seth R. — June 25, 2008 @ 7:05 am

  16. Naismith-
    What about the Old Testament? There was a lot of slaughtering going on there…

    Comment by cheryl — June 25, 2008 @ 7:15 am

  17. Orson Scott Card’s The Ships of Earth series is an allegory of The Book of Mormon. I’ve only read one of them, it was ok.

    Comment by TrevorM — June 25, 2008 @ 7:44 am

  18. Try the Warhammer 40k novels.
    They’re full of faith based triumphs over non-believers, apostates and savages.

    Comment by rick — June 25, 2008 @ 8:27 am

  19. “looking for a smackdown here that lets churchgoers administer the whoop’in for a change. Dune qualifies.”

    Have you read the second book and beyond? Have you even understood the underlying themes of the first? I suppose at a superficial level “Dune” qualifies, but the hero uses religion to minipulate the masses. Religion is just a tool to keep civilization from stagnation. The more the series continues the more this becomes evident. The true power in these books isn’t religion or technology, but spice.

    Comment by Jettboy — June 25, 2008 @ 9:00 am

  20. Watching the newer version of Battlestar Galactica right now and was surprised at all of the Mormon references in it. Then I discovered the original producer was a Mormon.

    Good guys and bad guys (Human and Cylon) are both religious in that series and perhaps the only true bad guy is an atheistic scientist.

    Comment by Tim — June 25, 2008 @ 9:55 am

  21. Actually the atheistic scientist is pretty complex. I won’t tell you what he becomes at the end but there are more than passing resemblancings to a certain guy with the initials J. S. in some ways.

    Comment by Clark — June 25, 2008 @ 10:07 pm

  22. there are more than passing resemblancings to a certain guy with the initials J. S. in some ways

    Maybe I’ll hold with my perception that he’s the only truly bad guy. ;)

    Comment by Tim — June 26, 2008 @ 9:11 am

  23. well. This gets complicated when you bring in “magic” and mix it with religion in these sci-fi novels. In many novels, magic (and those who are able to use it, like the Bene Gesserit in Dune) are part of some form of religion/organization. And usually (not always), the group that can use magic for good comes out on top.

    I think Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series counts. While everyone doesn’t have the same religious beliefs, there are religious beliefs of a sort there. If you think of supporting the Aes Sedai as a religion.

    Also, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series.

    Of course, there is also a fight (in both novels) against “the establishment that has been corrupted” (I’m grossly over-simplifying here).

    I agree with BSG, of course. Although the relationship with religion is very complicated.

    I’ll keep thinking about this, but I think there are more than what one might think of easily.

    Comment by aerin — June 26, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

  24. In the “Wheel of Time” series, all of Robert Jordan’s good guys support The Creator against the Dark Lord. In this case, The Creator is kind of deist-like god who started everything, created a tapistry from which things flow, and backed off. But occasional phrases like ‘pray” will show a connection between the heroes and The Creator. With the death of Jordan, LDS fantasy author Brandon Sanderson is using Jordan’s notes to finish the last book, which will culminate in Tarmon Gai’don (Armageddon).

    Comment by larryco_ — June 26, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

  25. Of course, there is also a fight (in both novels) against “the establishment that has been corrupted”

    Yeah, but that’s sort of in the Gospels, too.

    Comment by Kullervo — June 26, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

  26. Pulp Fiction.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 26, 2008 @ 9:38 pm

  27. The true power in these books isn’t religion or technology, but spice.

    Yep. The good guys are religious, but we learn that the source of their religious belief is based largely off the drug induced mind expansion of genetically special “prophet”, the manipulating folk tales of the Bene Gesseret, and even human nature’s miraculous ability to adapt to seemingly unhabitable environments. I saw religion portrayed as a tool used to satisfy a sense of monarchistic duty. Kind of a morally beneficial lie.
    Dune is actually very “Survival of the Fittest”.

    Comment by kwk — June 27, 2008 @ 11:32 am

  28. It’s been a decade and a half since I read Stephen King’s “The Stand” but if my memory is correct, the deeply Christian “Mother Abigail” is the spiritual leader of the good guys in a post-apocalyptic North America.

    Comment by carrie — June 27, 2008 @ 9:03 pm

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