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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?

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