Science fiction and spirituality: the border which separates science, religion and magic


In reading science fiction books or watching movies and TV series of this genre I've often noticed as one of its favourite themes is to give an answer to some of the big questions that man arises, such as: "Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? "
It is done clearly by drawing liberally from fiction and tying it to the scientific elements, in such a way as not to allow the reader (or viewer) to understand the fine line that separates them. But there is another field from which science fiction often draws its ideas. I'm talking about spirituality, and religion in particular.
Besides, the above-mentioned questions are the same ones that serve as a foundation for the concept of religion, though in this case the answers are sought in something far from tangible. The need to give an answer to these questions is in fact at the basis of all the religions of the world. There is therefore no surprise that in many science fiction stories some of the most famous religious archetypes appear, though reworked in a different context.
Some time ago I addressed this issue in broad terms as part of "Life On Mars?" (sorry, this is in Italian) on FantaScientificast.it (it's an Italian podcast about sci-fi) and I'll talk about it in my next foray into the show, which will take place in mid-February.
In the meantime, I would like to explore this topic here in my blog to show you some of the ways in which spirituality and religion appear in different forms in the field of science fiction, sometimes without us realizing it.
The subject is complex and is not easy to deal with it in a schematic way. Therefore I will try and move with a certain freedom from a subject to another, offering you some examples from science fiction.
In this post I will address in particular the magic-science-religion trio. These three disciplines nowadays are clearly distinct and distinguishable in the context of contemporary Western civilization, they were not the same if you go back in time. They are often three different interpretations of certain phenomena on the basis of the observer's eyes. In ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptian one, science, religion and magic were in fact the same thing. Without the scientific knowledge of today, the ancient Egyptians tended to merge the three areas as different expressions of the will of the gods, which were not considered as inaccessible entities to worship, but they actually were part of people’s lives. And certain events, which in their eyes seemed magical or miraculous, became de facto evidence of the presence of God. The same events with the present knowledge would, however, be more simply explained in a scientific manner, stripping them of all their mystical aspect.
This fine line that separates science, religion and magic is often the subject of many science fiction stories. Perhaps the most striking example is Star Wars, where the Force is presented at the beginning, in the old trilogy, as a kind of religion which manifested itself with seemingly supernatural powers and was often accused to be “superstition”. In the new trilogy, this aspect has failed when they gave a scientific explanation of the phenomenon (the midichlorians), bringing more and more the science/religion/magic equation toward the scientific side, at the expense of the miraculous or magical one.
The example I did before about the ancient Egypt finds perhaps its greatest expression in another sci-fi saga, Stargate. It fully exploits the notion that ignorance of men leads them to give spiritual explanations to scientific events. In this case there were aliens posing as gods who were worshiped as such, allowing them to subdue the human population of thousand years ago. The same aliens brought into contact with modern humans are unmasked from their magical aura and appear for what they are: beings from distant planets with technology vastly superior to ours, but which is nothing more than the result of science, and as such it can be understood, controlled and fought.
It is no coincidence that the two examples that I did fall within the sub-genre of space opera. The latter in fact, besides telling stories of space travel and extremely advanced technologies, which often take cues from real scientific knowledge, normally deals with topics with a political, sociological and religious or even more generally spiritual nature, in an attempt to transfer the themes of today's realties in other fictional universes. And this is a process that has always drawn the attention and the imagination of the public.
There is a saga in which this mechanism is fully exploited so as to become its main theme, even undermining the simple dualism between good and evil and turning it into something subjective. I'm talking about Battlestar Galactica (the reimagined series proposed since 2004). However this will be the topic of my next appearance on FantaScientificast and I'll take that opportunity to tell you about it in greater detail in a future post, which will discuss the use of religion and spirituality in science fiction as a tool that increases the credibility of a story.

This article is originally available in Italian on Anakina.Net.