In a recent post on AMC's SciFi Scanner blog, John Scalzi discusses religion in science fiction film.
...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.
He goes on to list some examples of fluffy spirituality (Star Wars, The Day the Earth Stood Still) and (supposedly*) anti-religious screeds (The Handmaid's Tale, The Chronicles of Riddick) before concluding with some thoughts on the synthesis presented by Contact, which he describes as one of his favorite SF films:
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.
It's not the deepest discussion, but I think he's more or less on-target: SF has a pretty broad range of attitudes toward religion. He opens with a caricature of conflict, but immediately debunks it. So what's my problem, then? The whole thing appears under a title that's all about conflict: "The Battle Between Science and Religion - And SciFi Is the Battleground." The title takes the idea of a creationist-biologist boxing match literally, and applies it to the genre as a whole—which isn't what Scalzi is saying at all. It's the same problem that the Atlantic Monthly had a few months ago: they ran a few articles that collectively argued that interfaith conflict can't sustain itself under the header "WHICH RELIGION WILL WIN?" (I wrote about it here.) The media, from the Atlantic to AMC, seems to really, really want conflict, so there's a tendency to apply distorting titles that support a narrative of conflict. This means reducing multifaceted situations—like the interaction of science and religion, for instance—into "debates" between the furthest extremes (like the caricature in Scalzi's opening). Here's a tip: if you want to hear something interesting about religion and science, the last thing you should do is book Richard Dawkins and Ray Comfort. The extremes get goofy real fast—and they get boring even faster. The middle ground is where the good stuff is. As Scalzi says regarding his love of Contact, "I can live with being called a squishy centrist on this one."
So, no, I don't think John Scalzi is wrong about religion and SF. However, I do think that his view of what is and is not religious is a bit too narrow. As I've complained elsewhere, far too many SF-and-religion discussions just look at the surface—Star Trek episodes with Greek gods in them, evil churches, and that loudest of clichés, the preacher-villain. They ignore the deeper religious themes that run through so much SF: ideas of good and evil, the core messianism of the epic hero, the concept of creation (both cosmic and local), and above all the providential desire to guide the world toward a better future that I see as SF's ultimate (and ultimately spiritual) aim. Those things are all religious (and each gets a chapter in my book The Gospel According to Science Fiction.**) More importantly, those religious ideas shine through even when the surface message of a book is anti-religious, or the author is an atheist. (Ask me about Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy sometime.) SF doesn't need to have gods or churches in it to be about religion. I mean, dang, Scalzi, the name of your column is "Notes From the Monolith"—don't you know that 2001 is one of the most profoundly spiritual films ever made? Religion can't just coexist with science in SF—it can, and should, thrive there.
Check out John Scalzi's original post, and a lively discussion with many contributions by regular SF Gospel reader-and-commenter D. B. Ellis, here.
*But that's another post entirely.
**This fulfils my self-serving plug quota for this post.