Science fiction and spirituality: Battlestar Galactica

In my latest participation in FantaScientificast (Italian sci-fi podcast) I got to give my contribution to the Team UP dedicated to the media franchise of Battlestar Galactica, analyzing the religious and spiritual elements of this saga. In this post I will return to this subject, summarizing some aspects of this latest combination of spirituality and science fiction.

It must be said that no doubt Battlestar Galactica is one of the best examples of the special relationship that binds immaterial and science. The whole Battlestar Galactica saga is actually impregnated with the spiritual element, so that religion is one of its pillars.
Without going into explanations (I invite you to read the details on Wikipedia) I'm going to summarize the main points of the religions in the saga.
On the one hand we have the Twelve Colonies, who worship the Lords of Kobol. Theirs is a polytheistic religion, inspired mainly by Greek-Roman mythology, combined with several common aspects of Christianity, Judaism, but also the religion of ancient Egypt (including the goddess Isis, the only non-Greek-Roman one). According to their Sacred Scrolls, once humans lived in Kobol in a kind of paradisiacal symbiosis with the gods. At one point a jealous god would decide to set himself above others, sparking a war, which led to the end of civilization of Kobol and the exodus of the twelve tribes (which in the end turn out to be thirteen).
On the other side are the Cylons, who are monotheists. They do not deny what happened on Kobol, but they say that the Lords of Kobol are false gods and that there is only one God, creator of mankind, which, however, turned out to be a failed creation. For this reason, their task is to destroy and replace it.
The monotheism of the Cylons, as it turns out in the prequel Caprica, comes from the Monad Church, a monotheistic sect existing in the Colonies. This was linked to a terrorist group, the Soldiers of the One, which included Zoe Greystone, daughter of Daniel Greystone, inventor of the Cylons, and in turn inventor of digital consciousness, from which that of the Cylons comes.
This is the scenario in which the story of Battlestar Galactica moves; here you can group five religious and/or spiritual macro-themes.

The first one is the use of religious themes to support the suspension of disbelief. In fact, the many references to human religious themes, which are universally known and recognizable, from the present or the past, provide the viewer with real, everyday references, which facilitate their identification in the story. All Battlestar Galactica is actually based on the principle of inserting elements of everyday life alongside others more typically fantastic ones, and this practice is without doubt one of the reasons why this series has been able to strike so deeply the collective imagination. It is normal that this is then applied to religious themes, which are a main subject.

And here we reconnect to the second macro-theme: religion as the engine of the actions in the story. This applies to both factions in the game. As mentioned, the Cylons consider mankind a mistake of God, then their actions, designed to replace it, can be interpreted as a sort of crusade. The religion is undoubtedly the basis of these actions of theirs. But humans are not exempt as well, as they come to follow the dictates of religion, the Sacred Scrolls, to find Earth. Certainly within them there is much more heterogeneity of views in this sense, compared with what occurs within Cylons, at least at the beginning (subsequently various factions will also be created in the latter). Most humans are not religious and their agreeing to follow the instructions given in the scriptures is mostly a choice of convenience, dictated by the desire to find a new home. They want to believe that there is something true behind the scriptures, because they want to find Earth. However, believers or not, humans end up getting involved by the religious element.

The third macro-theme is a subject that is very dear to science fiction, especially the more contemporary one: the metaphor of the immortality of the soul, which in the case of Battlestar Galactica is obtained by downloading the memories of Cylons in new bodies, after their death. Such a mechanism provides Cylons with a real immortality of their consciousness, or better a copy of it, which continues to live even after the death of the body. The comparison of the download to a kind of immortality is very explicit in Caprica, where the Soldiers of the One are persuaded to sacrifice themselves, by making them believe that their soul would continue to live in paradise, when in fact it's a virtual clone of them, which will be transferred to the virtual reality. The virtual clone, however, is not the original person, but a copy of their consciousness. The original one dies with the body.

A fourth macro-theme relates to the use of Jewish-Christian (but not only) religious archetypes in the religion of the Twelve Colonies. We have the Garden of Eden, represented by Kobol, where humans and gods live in harmony. We have the theme of Exodus or, more precisely, the one of the Noah's Ark. The war that occurs at Kobol, destroying civilization, is like a Great Flood eliminating evil and from which only those who embark on these spaceships (arks) are saved to found a new civilization.
This is part of the popular sci-fi theme of indefinitely putting backward the origin of humanity (humanity that derives from another alien humanity). In this case, if the matter stops to Kobol, a divine origin of mankind is assumed, in the likeness of the gods; this concept is present in Christianity, but also in the Egyptian religion, where early pharaohs were gods and the origin of mankind is confused in the mythology.

Finally the last macro-theme concerns a whole series of purely spiritual elements inside the saga, which are totally devoid of any attempt of a scientific explanation, and sometimes even of a logical one. These include the prophetic visions shared between the President Roslin, Sharon Agathon and Caprica Six. Although the visions of Roslin are initially explained by the use of a drug, there is no scientific justification for the fact that she shares them with two Cylons and above all that these then come true.
The other purely spiritual element is represented by the angels. We have the angels of Number Six and Baltar, which are visible only to the real Baltar and Caprica Six, but they do not come from their imagination, nor are any virtual clone of theirs. In fact, they physically interact within the scenes and provide them with information, which they could not have in any other way. They are therefore true paranormal entities. It all becomes even more extreme with the angel of Kara Thrace, who returns in human form after her death and that will have a decisive role, with its inexplicable knowledge, in bringing the fleet to the new Earth, where, incidentally, there are already primitive human beings. At the end of her task, the angel disappears.
With the angels Battlestar Galactica crosses without appeal the frontier of fantasy, as their presence and their role must be accepted by faith. The latter aspect was disapproved by the fans, not so much for its being spiritual, but for the absence of an attempt to give the slightest logical explanation, as if the authors were not able to find one. On the other hand it must be admitted that their presence adds an aura of mystery and poetry that characterizes the series finale, a finale which in any case would be difficult to accept, because no one would ever want to reach 'the end' of Battlestar Galactica.

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