Insights from Fiction

I was at Convolution this past weekend. One of the things I did there was to attend a panel discussion of religion in science fiction and fantasy. The panelists touched on how religion has been presented in fiction so far, but most of the discussion was on how best to write it into one’s fiction. I’m bringing it up here, because I’ve often found fiction to be a useful laboratory in which to play with ways of thinking about the rest of life.

My general take-away was that religion is best represented in fiction through the way people enact it in their lives. The opinion of the panelists (and most of the attendees) was that what one professes to believe is the lesser part of religion. The greater is what one does by it, the way it informs the way one lives.

Which brings us to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It was one of the examples of how religion was treated not-so-well in science fiction. It was better than some, but not what it could have been. I don’t need to explain the whole story for those who have not seen the show, it’s enough to know that the show was about a Federation space station near the planet Bajor. The show presents the Bajoran religion as being centered around entities the Bajorans call Prophets, who give visions of the past an future. For the present, let’s just accept the idea of an entire planet with just one religion, same as we’d accept warp drive, as a tool for simplifying storytelling.

Naturally, this being Star Trek, the Prophets are revealed to be well-meaning aliens living in a nearby wormhole. Because they live outside normal space-time, they see time–past, present, and future–as easily as you or I might look north or south. They occasionally communicate with the Bajorans, who experience such contacts as transcendent visions. Mystery solved: The Bajorans worship wormhole aliens, mistaking them for gods.

There were many episodes that touched on Bajoran religion, mostly about how Bajoran characters reject the Federation’s scientific explanation in favor of faith, or about how Bajoran religious officials meddle in politics. They showed different sects, but mainly as motivational rhetoric for political factions.

They missed an opportunity.

What they showed us was religion as seen by people who don’t see religion as real. What would have been a better take on religion on Bajor would not be so simple as “worship of the Prophets.” It would not have been the receiving of visions. It would have been the ongoing debate about what those visions meant, and how to incorporate that meaning into their lives. It would have been about the intersection of a given groups survival needs and this debate around meaning. It would have been about how two schools of thought saw the same experience of contact with the Prophets as meaning very different things.

Again, fiction is a good place to play with ways to think about life.

I can receive a hundred visions of Dionysos, but if it’s not affecting how I live my life, isn’t He wasting His time? Similarly, if we engage in a hundred debates about the details of our individual encounters with the gods, but don’t actually derive any meaning that informs our other life experiences, aren’t we wasting ours?

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About Lon Sarver

Lon Sarver is a polytheist priest of Dionysos, living in the San Francisco Bay Area and contemplating (with a healthy amount of dread) making a second attempt at a career in Marriage and Family Therapy. View all posts by Lon Sarver

5 responses to “Insights from Fiction

  • EmberVoices

    I think this illustrates a point I bring up periodically, that I didn’t get to bring up during the panel for various reasons. Science isn’t concerned much with meaning, with the WHY of things. That’s fine. The Scientific Method is a finely honed tool for determining HOW things work.

    But religion isn’t much concerned with HOW things work. Religion is concerned with WHY people choose what they choose, WHY things are the way they are, in the sense of meaning, purpose.

    Given that difference, the fact that the Prophets have a mechanism for their ability to predict the future is immaterial. They DO have a real mechanism for predicting the future…. so the basis for the Bajoran traditions around those predictions isn’t inappropriate.

    Similarly, the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy isn’t defined by what makes Religion what it is, but rather, by what makes Science what it is. (This is the bit I didn’t get to bring up.) If your story is defined by the rules of the Scientific Method, it’s Science Fiction. If not, it’s fantasy set in the future, or a high tech world. Now, we don’t actually draw the line quite that way, because too many people have no clue how the Scientific Method actually functions. But I do believe that’s the distinction they were searching for clumsily while they were going over whether the treatment of Religion vs. Magic was the key.

    –Ember–

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    • Lon Sarver

      Personally, I like the how vs. why distinction. I don’t tend to use it in my writing or my formal thoughts on spirituality, though. Since so much of historical folk religion does attempt to explain the how in terms of spirit, it sometimes seems disingenuous, even though it isn’t meant to be. Also, it gets kind of sticky when you’re talking about magic.

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  • EmberVoices

    Granted, but I actually believe that Magic is a third axis, and that Mythology and Religion are not synonyms, although I DO believe it’s fair to call all storytelling scripture Mythology.

    I can and should unpack all this more, but maybe not right this moment. -E-

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