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Religious Themes in the Shows We Love

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Alien religions: Are they convincing? [Jul. 25th, 2006|07:08 pm]
Religious Themes in the Shows We Love


What are folks' thoughts on space-opera/outer space travel shows? Specifically, do you believe that religions concocted for SF media are too one-dimensional and flat, or that they have a convincing richness?

Let's consider it with an example. In the Farscape ep "Suns and Lovers", a local cult believes that the surrounding empty space, dubbed the Sacred Stillness, is a sort of holy ground that should not be entered. (SPOILER WARNING) When that holy place is disturbed by commerce and industrialization, the cult uses a homing device to lure electromagnetic storms to the space station, attempting to destroy the place and thus purge the intruders. There's definitely a strong sense of ownership, territory, purpose, and method behind their actions as baddie-of-the-week.

Spock's religious beliefs are another good example: his people (which we could understand as more of a national identity than a species) attempt to purge themselves of all emotion, seeking logic and reason as much as possible. They undergo cleansing rituals to advance towards a cold enlightenment. At the beginning of Star Trek: the Motion Picture, we see Spock trying to complete the last bit of one such ritual. He is about to receive the honor of having completed kolinahr, or total discipline over emotions, but he reacts emotionally to the news of V'Ger, the machine-entity, and its destructive wake. This invalidates him from receiving the distinction of kolinahr.

What are some examples of relatively shoddy alien religions? Of religious organizations that are poorly thrown together, lack verisimilitude, or pursue a single trait with unrealistic specialization (militarism, racial superiority, pacifism, etc.)

Aside from the somewhat tacky religions/cults that focus far too much on some prophecy (such as a messianic religion with *no other qualities*) and are thereby extremely short-lived in a series, I think that more religions than not are actually pretty well developed, or at least explained well enough to have some meaning and color.

[User Picture]From: harmonyfb
2006-07-25 11:13 pm (UTC)
I really liked the way religions were portrayed on Farscape - some of them seemed deeply held, and some seemed shallow, but all of them seemed plausible and real.

Deep Space Nine had an especially finely-drawn religion (that of Bajor), but in the older Star Trek episodes, religions were likely to be represented as very one-dimensional (unless, like that of Vulcan, they were rooted in logic).

I think what ticks me off the most about the poorly-drawn ones is the snickering assumption that the worshippers are ignorant and guillible, blindly believing in something false (what I loved about Farscape was its assumption that they were all true-ish, and that each group of people had experienced the divine directly.)
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[User Picture]From: texanfan
2006-07-26 12:25 am (UTC)
I always found DS9's depiction of religion very satisfying. Belief in the prophets was the predominant religion because it had held people together through the occupation. Some were devout, some only pained lip service. The organization had a power structure. There were rituals and doctrines. I really loved it.
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[User Picture]From: redeem147
2006-07-25 11:55 pm (UTC)
I think on most SF, it's not just religion, but cultures in general. Earth is so varied in religion, race, heck even clothing design, and you just don't see that on other planets. (Star Trek, I'm looking at you)

Firefly has variations, but they're all human.
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[User Picture]From: totallypinkrock
2006-07-26 05:55 am (UTC)
Oh, other planets. When will they learn? Boy, wouldn't it be something to do a treatment of alien races that's the anti-Star Wars? i.e. We meet *another* species, and there's a million little variations among them. Ooh! or better yet, each species has a handful of dominant factions (given the super-nationalism that springs from developing intragalactic space travel) that dictate the major cultural cues for the lot of them.

That'd be the Westernization approach, I think. If *shudder* Independence Day is any indication, all humans will default to sappy America-love one day a year once we've hit First Contact.
Er, that is, if *gag* Independence Day is any indication, the spread of Westernization will probably continue unheeded once Westernized nation states band together to get the planet's space program up to par. They'll be the dominant cultures floating around out there with the Vulcans, after all.

Ooh! An interesting thought comes up: there'll probably be off-world [species name] and on-world [species name], and the two categories could be very different for a given race. The same could/should work with the religions of a species: in the case of humans, you could have vaguely monotheistic humanism (pun!) as the philosophy of most off-world humans (unless India kicks it up a notch by the 24th century, as it seems they just might...), while various faiths with less funding (indigenous religions, Earth-only faiths, etc.) will be the domain of on-worlder folks, and probably a dying breed, too, if we end up as space-active as, say, the Federation.

You could also do it the other way: since long-term off-worlders are generally merchants, soldiers, diplomats, and so on, a kind of survival instinct kicks in that strips down human philosophy/culture/religion to a few Earthly essentials. The on-worlders don't have to entertain for other species quite so often, and are free to remain distinctive, specific, and brightly-hued. In such a setting, you wouldn't experience much of [species]'s culture until you made it to the planet. Beyond that, there would definitely be a demand for simple answers.

Ooh! Ideas!
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[User Picture]From: cissasghost
2006-07-26 01:56 am (UTC)
I was initially impressed with the Greco-Roman paganism of the human colonists on BSG, until it turned into Christianity with multiple personality disorder. They could still potentially redeem it, I suppose, but I think it's lost much of that genuinely pagan flavor that it had initially.

The Cylons' fairly non-descript monotheism is far more interesting, IMO, for all that it's not yet completely explained - we've yet to see any ritual or ceremony of theirs, but there's a feeling to their belief system and how it functions in their lives that seems very real to me. There's mingled fervor and doubt. They'll walk off the proverbial cliff believing faith won't let them fall . . but they'll flinch while they're doing it.
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[User Picture]From: timeofchange
2006-07-26 10:00 pm (UTC)
Very insightful stuff. Religion plays a key role in the world-building of BSG, but I agree with you that the Cylon religion is the most convincing. Somehow the religious rituals of the humans ring false to me.

but there's a feeling to their belief system and how it functions in their lives that seems very real to me. There's mingled fervor and doubt.

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[User Picture]From: cissasghost
2006-07-26 11:54 pm (UTC)
I can't remember the episode title - Flesh and Bone, maybe? The one in the first season where Starbuck's interrogating the Cylon prisoner that Roslin eventually has spaced. Her religion, or rather her lack-of-religion that was still very religious and rooted in her upbringing, rang very very true to me. She was not all "All hail Artemis!" . . rather the opposite . . but her reactions were those of a person with a religious past, and they felt very true to the set of beliefs we'd been presented. They made sense for a polytheist raised in a tradition that associates deities with places and objects and certain attributes and whose cultural/religious tradition places great stock in the force of common will ("so say we all"). I loved it muchly.

Unfortunately, it's been mostly downhill from there, with the fleshing out of the human religious tradition of that 'verse. Though . . I do sort of wonder if that isn't intentional. Making the Cylons more real-people-like than the humans are.

I also thought it was very, VERY interesting that Six-in-Baltar's-Head made the comment that God has abandoned Kobol. Remains to be seen who/what she is, really, whether she is really a facet of him or if she has an independant existance, which does make a vast difference to the interpretation of that little bit of information .. but it's a curious tie between the two faiths. It doesn't mesh well at all with everything else she said about the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-controlling nature of her God.

And then you get into the whole conflict .. I remember way, way back in the first part of season 1, my Dad commenting that the Cylon invasion made no sense - why would they do that? And I said, well, presuming the Cylons are people - sentient beings with free will - then, well, they're monotheists. The humans are polytheists. Since when have people needed any better reason to blow each other up? And it seems . . though perhaps the Cylons wouldn't articulate what they're doing as a crusade or a jihad . . that's essentially what it is.
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[User Picture]From: aycheb
2006-07-26 02:40 pm (UTC)
I’ve only seen the first season of BSG but there seemed to be an interesting gender divide on belief, with Six and Roslin (both committed believers) and Starbuck with her idols contrasted with Balthar the ultimate materialist rationalist and Adama not taking the prophecies seriously. I suppose an exception would be the male Cylon model Starbuck interrogated but it’s not clear whether he’s a genuine mystic or just insane.

I’m also not very comfortable with the way BSG seems to be going for an Erich von Danekin origin for Kobolism. If a religion is demonstrably true it becomes a matter of fact not faith and therefore, at least from an atheist’s point of view, quite unlike any real world models and less able to comment on them in any interesting way.
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[User Picture]From: cissasghost
2006-07-27 12:02 am (UTC)
Hrmm .. see what you're saying re: fact vs. faith . . but I would argue that that's a very modern and even very Western way of looking at religion that isn't universal. I'm going to guess that to the caveman who decided the lightning was a god, religion was demonstrable fact. Look, there it struck, and it burned things - it was real. Of course his attributing spiritual significance to it wasn't provable - but then, I don't really see that the gods of BSG have built-in moral standing either. That they are, at least so far as we can tell, doesn't necessarily mean that they are what people believe them to be. Anything inexplicable can be termed a miracle - there are people who spontaneously recover from cancer. To a believer, that's proof of God (or gods, or the power of positive thinking, or whatever). The way I see it, we've had strong evidence on the show that there were beings who did the things described attributed to the Lords of Kobol, who left behind writings and various other artifacts that are still of use to their worshippers. Are they or were they gods? Define god.
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[User Picture]From: aycheb
2006-07-27 01:15 pm (UTC)
Well my discomfort with the storyline is personal and sadly that means modern Western kind of personal. Although I suspect that type of person is more likely to be part of the intended audience for BSG than your average caveman :-)

Part of my subliminal discomfort may be similar to that engendered in some believers by the lack of a force for good in the Jossverse. Another part probably comes from having to suspend disbelief in a political hierarchy that would take the literal tenets of their religion so very literally. This may be a European prejudice given the possible influence of fundamentalist Christianity on the Bush regime but then I find that disturbing too.
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[User Picture]From: cissasghost
2006-07-29 12:17 am (UTC)
See, I don't take Roslyn's religiosity as so much reflective of the culture as reflective of Laura Roslin and the degree to which she's out of her depth in every possible aspect of her life - can you picture finding out you have terminal cancer, having the entire world as you know it end, and then ascending to the presidency by default as the only living member of the previous administration - in one day? That she's only spent a few cancer-induced hours gibbering in a corner, and not the last year, is IMO a testiment to her strength of character - but I also think it's a mistake to view her as entirely sane.

Also, re: the culture as whole - catastrophes can make people turn reactionary; just look at the US after 9/11. If it's followed by relative stability on the homefront, it dies down after a while. If it's followed by further turmoil, IMO you could easily get what we're seeing on BSG.

Also, assuming the prophecy re: the leader who will save humanity, is in fact valid . . personally, I don't think it's Roslyn. I think it's Baltar. If you take a slightly different interpretation of matters it fits him as well if not better, and Roslyn's no longer dying. We've not been told that Baltar is dying, but it wouldn't come as a shock given his lifestyle, let's put it that way.

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[User Picture]From: shakatany
2006-07-27 09:53 pm (UTC)
At some point the Vulcans did have a belief in gods for in "Errand of Mercy" Spock said "Even the gods did not spring into being overnight". Surak could be likened to a Buddha/Jesus/Mohammed figure who brought enlightenment and another way of life to his people.

A good place to look for various alien religions is "Babylon 5" where the numerous alien races each had different belief systems. We also witnessed the beginning of a new faith as the Narns began to follow the teachings of G'Kar. Personally I like what Dureena Nafeel said in "Ruling from the Tomb" ep 1.6 of "B5: Crusade": "You know, on my world, it was considered a great evil to even presume to speak on behalf of the Universe!" (wish Dubya and his cronies believed that)

Basically how well a religion is developed depends on how featured an alien race is. Do we encounter the race in just one episode like the Ventaxians in ST:TNG "Devil's Due" or do we get to see a variety beings from a planet in different episodes so we have numerous chances to get to know the aliens and their beliefs better - for instance,as mentioned previously, Bajor.


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