There’s a lot of overlap between nerd communities and skeptic communities. one of the reasons for this in my opinion is because a great deal of fantasy and sci fi takes a clear all or nothing approach to religion. The following will be a pair of gross overgeneralizations but bear with me. Fantasy tends to present the gods in the same way that it does magic: there is clear evidence they exist, but it’s also clear that they are fantastical. They intervene in human life and have astounding powers. There’s little in the religions of fantasy novels to parallel our current conception of god or the way that religion operates in our lives.
Sci fi tends to be at the other end of the spectrum. It might deal with religion in a very metaphorical fashion, not touch on religion at all, or simply be highly critical of religion. It’s less likely to explicitly endorse a religion. Obviously both of these are legitimate authorial choices and there is amazing media out there that exists in both of these categories. And for most nonreligious audiences, this might seem like all the more thought we need to give it. However there may be more to the discussion about religion in media that is important and worth mentioning.
That’s why I want to talk about Battlestar Galactica. Full disclosure: I am only partway through the first season, so perhaps this all changes, but thus far its treatment of religion is far meatier than many other shows, especially sci fi/fantasy shows. I’ve talked to some people who find themselves turned off by many characters repeating that “god has a plan” or engaging in other ways with the gods of Kobol. What is more interesting to me is that the show neither endorses nor denies any of this. There are moments in which it appears that the show is endorsing a god (for example when Gaius “repents” at the urging of his cylon lover and at just that moment the fleet is saved by the president’s decision to abandon all vehicles without FTL abilities), but many of these have just as plausible alternative explanations (the cylons are actually manipulating everything, or Gaius is in fact totally hallucinating this woman and has no clue what’s actually happening).
A friend of mine wrote a post about religion in BSG a few years ago, and he contrasts BSG with Avatar (a movie in which there is clear evidence that the spiritual exists). He says “Avatar loses a level of character depth with this blatant truth of very specific supernatural things” and suggests that one of the most interesting things about BSG is that we can see how characters interact with religion. Some of them believe, others don’t, and as viewers this gives us more information about who they are as people than we would get in a show in which the question of religion is settled.
I certainly agree that real people in the real world have to come to conclusions about religion for themselves without clear evidence one way or the other, and having characters that reflect this and grapple with the same religious questions that real people do is a benefit to the show. However not only do we get more character development because of this approach to religion but we also learn more about ourselves based on our reactions to those characters. We get a more true version of the world, one that helps us imagine our neighbors and family members and enemies in a deeper way.
One of the benefits of media is that it allows us to temporarily inhabit the minds and perspectives of people unlike ourselves. It expands our conception of the world. Often, reading or viewing from the perspective of someone drastically different or even opposed to you can give you more empathy for them, or even allow you a glimpse into better ways to convince them that you’re right.
Because this is one of the purposes of media, BSG is an important piece of media for both atheists and the religious to view. It has interesting, complex characters engaging with religion at every point along the spectrum from fervently religious to “can’t be bothered”. I run into a lot of atheists who don’t understand why someone would be religious or don’t understand the mindset of someone who is religious. Engaging with a show that complexly imagines religion is a great way to begin to understand this. You can see how the religious ceremonies bind together the fleet and the community, how the gods give people hope, how some characters look to home through the gods of their childhood. There are intelligent characters who struggle with whether or not to believe, just as there are in our real world.
Conversely, for those who are religious, BSG gives a number of portrayals of people who either ignore religion altogether or who are openly atheist. There are good atheists and bad believers. It might be easy to brush off the show because it includes religion and characters who are vehemently religious, but unfortunately for us nonbelievers, that’s what real people are actually like. What it also does is give characters space to interact with religious beliefs without illustrating to the viewer who is clearly correct and who clearly isn’t. It allows religious viewers to see nonbelievers. At the end of the day, I’d rather have media that takes a good look at religion and the experiences that individuals can have with regards to religion than a show that takes a hard stance one way or the other.