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Explorations of Religion in Science Fiction…but what about Fantasy?

In the real world, organized religion is messy. It has inspired wars and peace treaties, marriages and shunnings, art and book burnings. It is incredibly varied, both between areas where different organized religions predominate and within each area as well. There is no aspect of human history – anywhere on the planet – where organized religion has not influenced and been influenced. It is only natural that our species’ fascination with the divine and its concomitant expression in the organized structures of society would figure prominently in our fiction. And when we look at speculative fiction, some of the greatest works explicitly deal with it (A Case of Conscience, The Sparrow, A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc.) and yet I find that they are almost always science fictional, as opposed to fantasy. Which leads me to wonder why?

In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford and David Langford point out that science fiction’s roots lie in sixteenth and seventeenth century organized religion. And while fewer SF titles today deal explicitly with religion, it remains a theme that we return to time and time again. Here’s a brief overview of the ways in which science fiction explores religion:

Faith versus Reason One of religion’s functions is to provide an explanation for the reality we live in, and when scientific discovery expands the boundaries of that reality, organized religions have to either incorporate it into their faith or reject it. Naturally, science fiction – which pushes the boundaries of science – can mine this vein for rich conflict.

Syncretic Science Fiction By couching the descriptions and events of a story in scientific terms, some authors are able to construct a metaphor which achieves a syncretic unity between religion/faith and science.

Time Traveler vs Facts of Faith By taking certain articles of faith at face value, science fiction authors can explore the events and implications of the underlying tenets of (a usually Christian) faith.

Religion as Sociological Construct The role that religion – and in particular, organized religion – plays within society is another dimension that science fiction often explores.

The Identity of God An exploration of the borders between humanity and God, as well as an exploration of the more metaphysical/spiritual aspects of faith.

But is a similar table even possible for fantasy? I wracked my brain to come up with one, and simply couldn’t do it. Instead, when I trolled through my library looking for interesting secondary-world fantasies that explore religion, I almost always found:

  • A thinly-disguised version of the late medieval or early Renaissance Catholic Church.
  • A Corrupt Church riven by internal power struggles more tied to politics than faith.
  • A Church which usually bans the practice of magic, and hunts and kills magic practitioners.
  • A Church which dominates militarily and sociologically its sphere of influence…with relatively little diversity in its practitioners or its practice.
  • A Church which is opposed by some (usually implicitly pagan or animistic) external (read: savage) religion.

In the cases of some books, Christian religious scripture is literally appropriated to serve the purposes of the story. And while I don’t have a problem with this per se, the sheer frequency with which I see it makes me scratch my head. Shouldn’t secondary world fantasy be able to support and explore the more complex dimensions of religion? Must it always boil down to the (I think false) dichotomy of dogma versus magic?

To some extent, science fiction has an easier time of it because it can assume some reader familiarity with most major religions. As a result, there is less risk of bogging the story down with the world-building that a realistically complicated imagined religion demands. Is this weight of world-building the only reason why religion is so superficially addressed through fantasy? Or have I just missed the really interesting fantasy books that explore religion the way science fiction does?

The only examples that I can think of that do a good job with it are Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion, David Eddings’ Belgariad series (though this is somewhat debatable), Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. Surely there are others? Am I just missing them?

35 Comments Post a comment
  1. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold, and its sequels.

    March 21, 2012
  2. I think that religion in itself is such a tricky and sensitive topic, it’s difficult to insert it into novels of any type. I too have often wondered why religion is left out of fantasy, and I’m not talking about just organized religion, but any mention of religion whatsoever. It’s a bit of a conundrum I think. Thank you for writing this post, it was an interesting read.

    March 21, 2012
  3. mezzak #

    Martha Wells’ “Wheel of the Infinite” has a heroine who is a former senior priestess in a world with a Tibetan Buddhist style religion

    March 21, 2012
  4. mezzak #

    I would second as worth consideration, Curse of Chalion and the following books because there is a highly realised and thought through religion with five gods (or four depending on who you think is a heretic) with a strong steam of mysticism

    March 21, 2012
  5. sftheory1 #

    Interesting post. I’m not sure why fantasy doesn’t explore religion in the same way science fiction.

    March 21, 2012
  6. Science fiction is the medium for asking What Ifs about our own world whereas fantasy is the realm of the impossible. In the realm of the impossible, religion is just one more fantastic element with little added meaning or relevance to the reader. In the “real world” there is an irresolvable tension between faith and reason that every reader either experiences or witnesses in his own life, but in fantasy worlds that tension simply doesn’t exist.

    This means that for religion to be meaningful–a source of tension–in fantasy, it must be at odds with the character. This is why I mentioned The Curse of Chalion; being a fantasy novel, the reality of its gods is assumed, but mankind’s relationship with the gods is brought into question–certainly the protagonist has his Jonah-like moments. The book treats religion with a science-fiction sensibility, and I think it’s no coincidence that Bujold is one of today’s best science fiction writers.

    March 21, 2012
    • Hmm…I like your point about fantasy exploring man’s relationship with gods. Brings to mind NK Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, which also explores some of that nicely (and which someone else mentioned in the comments, too). This is something I’ll have to think about, and I’ll definitely have to check out the Bujold series. Thanks!

      March 22, 2012
  7. GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire has a couple of faiths, the “old gods” and new. I’m stalled halfway through the third book so I don’t know if it’s developed more in the rest of the series. Maybe there are fewer believers now, fewer of us with issues with the church to address in a fictional setting. If literature reflects the time it’s written, the fact that there are so many more openly practicing pagans now would explain why the instances of that flavor of religion cropping up have grown in number.

    March 21, 2012
  8. My theory is that in a lot of fantasy, gods and godlike powers are observable phenomena. Why would there be a church schism when you can just ask your Deity what he thinks of this new idea? When your priest is regularly bringing people back from the dead, what kind of crazy would you have to be to disbelieve in his powers? “The identity of God” isn’t much of a mystery when he regularly turns up at your ceremonies.

    For what it’s worth, I put His Dark Materials in fantasy, not sci-fi, and that’s an explicit exploration of religion.

    March 21, 2012
  9. thanate7 #

    Seconding the Bujold & the Martha Wells (and the latter has a couple other interesting religion designs in some of her other works.) Off the top of my head, I’d also add Diana Wynne Jones’ Dalemark Quartet (particularly The Spellcoats) and NK Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series.

    There are definitely a lot of pseudo-christian variants that turn up in fantasy for various reasons, but there’s also a subset of fantasy that deals with what it’s like to be a god, or to have to deal with gods that walk among men. There are also various derivative pseudo-greek, pseudo-druidic or pseudo-norse pantheons, with the occasional somebody else thrown in for fun.

    March 21, 2012
  10. C.S. Lewis?

    Also, while I agree about the Earthsea trilogy, I think Always Coming Home presents more of a sustained meditation on religion.

    Great post. Thanks.

    March 22, 2012
    • I haven’t yet read Always Coming Home, but it’s now on my list.

      However, you raise an interesting point with CS Lewis. I’ve never really seen Lewis as actively exploring religious themes through his fiction. This isn’t to say that the Narnia books aren’t chock full of religious allegory – it’s just that they do almost the exact opposite of what most of the religious-themed science fiction does: rather than explore religion through fiction, they explore fiction through religion.

      When I read his fiction (and individual’s mileage may vary), I don’t deepen my understanding of religious concepts: I just get a fun story structured around religious symbolism. His non-fiction, however, is another story entirely (I really enjoyed his The Problem of Pain).

      March 23, 2012
      • Like fozmeadows below, I also thought of Palimpsest, American Gods and Who Fears Death. And I must add Moonwise and Cloud & Ashes by Greer Gilman.

        What I find most interesting about this discussion is the suggestion that fantasy and sci-fi do both deal with religion, but in entirely different ways. You’re right that the Narnia books are more allegorical than exploratory, but even allegory can express quite powerful ideas that go beyond repeating a story (e.g. Eustace as dragon). And when you get into the creation of a whole alternate mythology, as with Le Guin or Greer Gilman, the results can be stunning–but again, they examine religion through human experience (or, as someone said above, human relationships with the divine) rather than through analysis.

        Thanks again!

        March 23, 2012
  11. fozmeadows #

    Interesting post! I’m more familiar with fantasy than SF, but it seems to me that the problem you’re describing – or rather, the particular ways in which religion and fantasy interact – are hallmarks of a particular kind of old school/traditional fantasy. Which isn’t to say that no modern fantasies take the same approach; just that my experience of a fantasy reader has the genre as being much broader than that.

    Some suggestions to that effect:

    – There’s a nice dichotomy of reason vs faith in Mary Victoria’s Chronicles of the Tree; the same series also tackles questions of predestination vs free will, as the main character actively disputes the truth of the prophecy to which his actions are central.

    – Katharine Kerr’s Deverry cycle has identity of god elements, as her characters ceaselessly die and are reborn, bound to each other in successive lives by their past actions – both positive and negative – in a karmic relationship with the Lords of Wyrd, who are the ultimate, distant deities. However, this also works for religion as a construct, as we see that human ideas of god are only ever made manifest through faith, with particular deities activated by parts of the human subconscious – a fact known to one or two magic-workers in the series, but not to the everyday populace.

    – Terry Pratchett’s Discworld makes similar use of gods whose powers wax and wain in accordance with the level of faith expressed by their believers. In the novel Small Gods, he explores what happens the once-powerful Om (an effectively Christian deity) tries to make himself corporeal as he did in the old days, only to find that, despite his religion being more powerful than ever, the number of actual believers is so small that instead, he gets stuck in the body of a tortoise, where only a single, faithful soul can hear him. Meanwhile, the head Omnian priest – the villain of the piece – is listening to his own desires and interpreting them as the voice of Om; in fact, we realise, he actually believes in nothing.

    – Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series puts forward multiple cultures, all built around organised religion that plays a massive part in the story. Her main nation, Wendar, uses a kind of medieval Christianity, but one that has gender-equality: the people pray to a Lord and Lady, with the result that women hold high positions in both church and government and have more autonomy elsewhere. This is balanced against discussions of the abuse of power, feminism, faith, culture and magic, with science, astronomy and heresy thrown in to boot.

    I’d also throw in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and American Gods; Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless and Palimpsest; Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel novels; Tamora Pierce’s Wild Magic and Trickster series; everything by Nnedi Okorafor, but particularly Who Fears Death; Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy; Trudi Canavan’s Age of the Five; plus all the names other commenters have referenced above. Point being, there is a HUGE wealth of different takes on religion and deity in fantasy – but if you’d asked me yesterday if the same were true of SF, I’d have said no, and almost entirely because my reading of SF is more limited. I read it, but not nearly so broadly as I do fantasy; thus, my impressions of what it does and doesn’t do are less well informed. Not saying this is the same with you – but I am saying thanks for the SF recommendations. Will check them out!

    March 23, 2012
  12. Thanks for the in-depth response, and hope you enjoy the SF titles!

    You raise a whole slew of good examples, some of which (Mary Victoria’s work in particular) I’m not familiar with. Others, like Kerr’s Deverry cycle or Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy, I haven’t read in awhile and thus my recollection of their details is a bit hazy.

    You’re spot on when you mention Pratchett’s Discworld (Small Gods was the first Discworld novel I ever read, and remains one of my favorites), but for some of the titles you mention I’m not certain the extent to which they explore religion / metaphysics so much as they use gods and religion as a framework around which they build their stories. There’s a difference between a story that features gods as characters/plot elements and a story that actively explores religion.

    Gaiman’s excellent American Gods makes for a good example of what I mean. Sure, the book features gods as characters, and builds its underlying conflict around the death, rebirth and identity of godhood. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it explores either religion or metaphysics, despite divine plot elements. While I suspect this might brook some controversy, American Gods could still have worked substituting the gods for faeries. Yes, it would have lost quite a bit of its poignancy and been much clumsier. But its central themes of cyclical rebirth are not limited to a religious question: gods just make the most elegant metaphor. The same lack of thematic centrality applies to a couple other books that you mention, in particular Okorafor’s Who Fears Death and Valente’s Palimpsest (both of which I loved).

    Gaiman’s The Sandman, by contrast, goes quite a bit further in exploring the evolution of deity alongside humanity. There, swapping out the gods would likely lead the story to collapse. And while you didn’t mention it, bringing up Valente makes me want to re-read The Habitations of the Blessed, as I suspect in a certain light it could be read as both a metaphysical meditation and a spin on organized religion. But I need to re-read it to be sure I’m not just imagining/misremembering themes that simply aren’t there.

    March 23, 2012
    • fozmeadows #

      It’s a fair point, but I’m not sure of the utility of the distinction you’re making – your original assertion seemed to be that SF deals with religion and religious themes in ways that fantasy doesn’t, not that SF bases its narratives explicitly around religion in ways that fantasy doesn’t. So while I might concede the second point on the basis of the evidence at hand, that’s not the same as saying that fantasy novels have an inherently different vision of religion than SF; just that SF is more likely to make that vision the central focus of a story, rather than a secondary theme or side-point.

      Or, an alternative way of looking at it: perhaps we could generalise and say that fantasy is more concerned with the social consequences of religion, where SF prefers the metaphysical. I disagree that American Gods would be the same with fairies: the specific point it makes about faith and deity is that human beliefs change and morph to fit the world around us; but that even when we abandon the old gods of wood and field for those of car and information, their echoes still linger around us, shaping and defining our actions. Similarly, Who Fears Death is defined by religion: the consequences of religious intolerance and dogma are rape, sexism, genocide, FGM, racism and abuse, all sanctioned by a religious culture whose worst tenets have permeated society. In Deverry, Nevyn manipulates mortal ideas of religion to his own ends – orchestrating the prophecy of Maryn to end the Civil War, for instance – while still ultimately being slave to his own past actions and the fate laid out for him by the Lords of Wyrd. The whole fulcrum of the Soldier Son books is that of competing religions and cultures, and what happens when a young man raised in a colonial faith is forced to take on the religious identity of the colonised.

      These are not, as you say, explicitly central themes – or rather, they aren’t the only important themes. But they are there, and they are deeply relevant to how those stories work. Particularly for me, it’s also significant that these explorations of faith and religion frequently intersect with questions of culture, sexism, racism, gender and identity, which together encompass everything I love about the genre. Perhaps this is why, as above, I’ve traditionally thought of SF as being removed from questions of religion: because in my (limited) experience, it doesn’t deal with the implications of religion in society so much as explore how a different set of religious ideals might work on paper. Or, to put it another way: I am female, and as Earthly religions tend to have a lot to say about how women should behave – usually in ways that are, to me, restrictive and sexist – I will be inherently less interested in any narrative study of religion which does not acknowledge this tendency than in one which does.

      Hopefully that makes sense? ๐Ÿ™‚

      March 25, 2012
      • Definitely makes sense! And you make an excellent argument. I like the idea of fantasy being more concerned with the social application/consequences of religious practice than with the metaphysical underpinnings of theology. I definitely think that when fantasy explores religion, it is far more likely to do so through its social application than its metaphysics, and for a great example of in practice, I strongly recommend NK Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy (I reviewed the second book here).

        Although, this does make me wonder: why is fantasy more likely to focus on the application of religious practice and SF on the metaphysics? Are these inherent characteristics of the genres?

        March 25, 2012
      • thanate7 #

        (this is actually to Chris’s next comment, but for some reason I’m not getting a “reply” link on that one– sorry about the mis-threading, though the distinction above is actually much of what I was trying far less helpfully to get at in my brief comment earlier.)

        My first thought would be to tie it into the “SF is about why” generalization; at a genre-wide level, fantasy accepts the existence of magic, and so the existence and mechanics of gods is less of an issue than how to deal with them. Science fiction’s tendency towards trying to explain the universe leaves it more open to metaphysics and questioning the existence of god(s).

        March 25, 2012
  13. seantheblogonaut #

    I was wondering if Fantasy’s grinding off the “serial number” of “insert religion of choice here” isn’t a holdover from a time when it might not have been safe to discuss the shortcomings of certain religion or doctrines openly.

    March 25, 2012
    • Surely you must be joking. Writers were safely and profitably mocking real and specific religious institutions long before science-fiction and fantasy emerged as genres. In the case of fantasy, the reason for “insert fantasy religion here” is that Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and so forth are theologically and institutionally rooted in history; you can’t have Christianity without Jerusalem and Jesus, Islam without Mecca and Mohammed, etc. Since most fantasy stories aren’t about the local religion, writers tend to substitute a Crystal Dragon Jesus (see TV Trope page). The same thing happens in far-future science fiction tales when the writer doesn’t want to use too much ink describing how human religions have evolved or what replaced the ones we’re familiar with.

      March 25, 2012
      • seantheblogonaut #

        Sorry George for offending you with my apparent ignorance :). Could you perhaps suggest some examples of writers were “safely and profitably mocking real and specific religious institutions long before science-fiction and fantasy emerged as genres” – seriously interested.

        I was vaguely, I admit, wondering about the troubadour/trobairitz. tradition and fairy/folk tale origins of fantasy.

        In terms of world building Fantasy depiction of religion could also be a heuristic, a touchstone of familiarity, that helps create a “believable” secondary world as well as ink saving.

        March 26, 2012
    • “Could you perhaps suggest some examples of writers were โ€œsafely and profitably mocking real and specific religious institutions long before science-fiction and fantasy emerged as genresโ€

      The two classics that jump to mind for me are Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (among other things, he openly mocks the Anglican/Catholic conflict by analogy with Lilliputia’s civil/religious war between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians over the way to crack one’s poached egg in the morning), and Voltaire’s “Candide,” which is absolutely vicious toward the Catholic Church.

      March 26, 2012
  14. fozmeadows #


    I’ve read the Inheritance Trilogy too – absolutely love it! ๐Ÿ™‚

    I don’t think either genre should be or necessarily is defined by the ways they most commonly deal with religion. Though a useful generalisation to make in abstract, using it as a definitive rubric ultimately seems to feed in to the (false) dichotomy of SF = ideas, fantasy = characters, which is an oversimplification on both ends.

    However, I wonder if fantasy deals more with the application of religion simply because of the presence of magic. In the real world, religion has traditionally reacted to the idea of magic (or what we might think of as magic) in one of several different ways: demonised it as evil (witchcraft), incorporated it as part of ritual (voodoo), attributed it to divine intervention (miracles) and/or included it as part of history (myth), such that it’s extremely difficult for both readers and writers to disentangle magic from faith. By default, then, any fantasy story that makes use of magic – which is to say, most fantasy stories – is just about guaranteed to deal with either religion itself or magical, religious-type dogma. For instance: at one end of the scale, Karen Miller’s Empress of Mijak ties faith and magic together almost as a single thing; at the other, Robin Hobb’s Farseer series, though completely distancing the Wit and the Skill from the worship of El and Eda, still maintains an angry dogmatism about which is the ‘correct’, godly magic (the Skill) and which is an abominable curse (the Wit).

    Whereas SF, by dint of avoiding magic, doesn’t have to deal with supernatural themes unless it wants to; and therefore is free to consider religion as an abstract concept. Which isn’t to say religion and its day-to-day practices are always absent from SF; just that, because our own Earth history is so riddled with religion, we’re more likely to accept the idea of a godless false-future than a godless false-past. And because of that, ignoring the application of religion in fantasy novels is more likely to feel like an omission than if we did the same in SF: we associate secularism with the present, and are so more likely to view the future as being even more secular than now, so that even if religion still abounded, we could well understand it not being part of a main character’s life – even if they spent a lot of time thinking about god.

    Sorry, I seem to keep writing mini-essays as answers – it’s just an interesting topic! ๐Ÿ™‚

    March 25, 2012
    • No need to apologize! I love extensive answers, especially ones that are cogent and well-thought out! (heck, each of my blog posts tends to go on at length, so it’d be silly of me not to appreciate a thoughtful response!).

      I definitely agree that we shouldn’t define the genres by how they deal with religion. But at the same time, if – in practice – they tend to deal with religion in different ways, that tendency strikes me as an interesting subject to explore. You (and @thanate in an earlier comment, too) raise some interesting ideas about fantasy exploring the application of religion because it accepts the reality of magic. That intersection between magic and faith has always struck me as one of the more problematic areas in a lot of fantasy: if ancient unexplainable natural occurences (e.g. lightening, volcanoes, etc.) gave rise to religion/myth, then in a world with magic wouldn’t that magic somehow tie into early humanity’s need to explain the world around them? The idea also makes me want to re-read some of the more “realistic” secondary-world fantasy (i.e. the fantasy that doesn’t have magic) to see how they approach the questions of religion/dogma, because there might be an interesting comparison there.

      March 27, 2012
  15. Don’t apologize, fozmeadows. You are awesome.

    I have also been leery of going too far in the direction of “SF=ideas, F=characters.” But having said that, I still see what people are noting here–metaphysics on the one hand, religious practice on the other. I’d just add that along with practice, the human-divine relationship seems to loom large in fantasy, as mentioned above (this can be connected to the way religion works in human communities, but not necessarily).

    I haven’t read the books Chris mentions (except Dune) so I can’t be too sure about this, but his categories suggest some questions that sci-fi may be asking about religion. What is the religious response to new scientific data? Can religion explain science? Can science explain religion? If so, does one of them necessarily subsume the other? Are they naturally opposed, or can they sometimes work together? What if we would take a religious concept (original sin, transubstantiation, etc.) to its logical conclusion? Is religion just a social institution, or does it have power external to human beings? Who or what is God?

    On the other hand, the fantasy novels I mentioned above ask different sorts of questions (with some overlap). Do the gods (or God) care? Do they love us? If so, do they have the power to help us? Are there laws that constrain their power? If they don’t love us, why not? Is it them, or is it us? What are the terms of our relationship? Do they owe us anything? Do we owe them? If we owe them, are we prepared to pay the price, or is it too high? Is religion just a social institution, or does it have power external to human beings? Who or what is God?

    March 25, 2012
    • @Sofia: I love your breakdown of the questions that SF/Fantasy ask of religion. I think it makes for a great and succinct characterization of where the genres diverge. Thanks!

      March 27, 2012
      • Thank YOU for the original post. I sprang off from where you started. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Much, much more thinking to be done here, of course. I could do more of it if I would actually get out there and read some sci-fi!

        March 27, 2012
  16. JV #

    His Dark Materials anyone?

    Does that not count for some reason? If you said ‘fantasy’ and ‘religion’ I would immediately think of Philip Pullman. No?

    April 7, 2012
  17. It’s up there in the comments!

    April 7, 2012
    • JV #

      Oh. Thanks. I didn’t see that. I thought it’d be weird if no-one had mentioned it.

      April 7, 2012
  18. Zachary Richard #

    “Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” deals with religion very directly. I was surprised it wasn’t mentioned here before.

    August 29, 2015
    • Zachary Richard #

      Also a great reads: “Incarnations of Immortality,” and “God is Dead.”

      August 29, 2015

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