James McGrath on Religion in Science Fiction

Dr. James McGrath is Assistant Professor of Religion at Butler University. Dr. McGrath not only teaches on Biblical Studies, but also on the interesting topic of science fiction in religion. This is a fascinating area of research interest for me, specifically as it connects with film and television studies, popular culture studies, and expressions of contemporary Western spirituality.

Dr. McGrath recently agreed to respond to a few questions and share his thoughts on this topic.

TheoFantastique: Dr. McGrath, thank you for participating in this interview. Your academic work in religion and science fiction is a fascinating one, and one that I have been interested in for some time. Let's begin with some of your background. How did you come to develop an interest in and academic focus on religion and science fiction?

James McGrath: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk about this subject that I find extremely interesting, as you probably already guessed. It was interest that drove it, but it then escalated beyond anything I initially anticipated. My main area of academic work is Biblical studies. There seem to be quite a number of people who work on Biblical studies who also have a side-interest in science fiction. Marti Steussy, for instance, is an Old Testament/Hebrew Bible scholar who has actually published sci-fi novels. Perhaps it is because scholars in these fields tend to be aware of the specific historical worldview of the Biblical texts, and if we are also people who reflect on matters of faith, then we realize more than most the ways in which changing worldviews correlate with developments in religious worldviews.

Not long before starting to teach at Butler University, I had begun to return to an exploration of science fiction that had waned for a while. Perhaps it was because I had very long train commutes that year, and was finally able to catch up on reading for pleasure (e.g., I read several books in Frank Herbert’s Dune series then). But there were also a number of movies of some significance, such as The Matrix. At any rate, my department at Butler is fairly small, and so there are opportunities to explore side interests and teach on them. I thus introduced a core curriculum course on religion and science fiction, and it was a huge success. I decided that this might be something worth writing on as well, so I proposed a conference paper on Christianity, Buddhism and Baudrillard in The Matrix. Before I knew it, I was finding myself in touch with people who were also working in these areas. I never anticipated that this would become such a long-term area of research and publication – but I’m glad it has. This is due at least in part to not only the continuing appearance of every more science fiction with religious themes, but also the publication of an increasing number of scholarly books on the subject as well.

TheoFantastique: This may seem like a basic question, but I notice on your website that there are a variety of differing answers to it. How would you define "science fiction" in your studies?

James McGrath: I have pretty much taken a pragmatic approach and been willing to include anything that bears the label “science fiction.” One can define it more broadly or more narrowly, and one can certainly get philosophical about the question. One could easily dispute the placement of The X-Files in that category, for instance, since it is not really futuristic and very little intersects with science. Indeed, Richard Dawkins once commented that its message was anti-scientific, since Scully was consistently wrong in her scientific skepticism. And if one can include The X Files then one can probably also include Left Behind. But if I had to offer a definition, it would probably be that science fiction is a sub-genre of speculative fiction, a more inclusive category. Sci-fi will by definition involve some particular reference to or presupposition of some specific development in science and/or technology. But I wouldn’t say it necessarily has to adopt a purely scientific outlook. I’d classify LOST as science fiction, even though it is equally mystery, and even though it is unclear precisely how many of the mysteries will be given answers that are in some sense scientific by the time the series ends. There is enough scientific speculation connected to the show for the category to fit.

TheoFantastique: There has been a long connection between science fiction and religion. Can you sketch some of that in the past, and how this continues in the present?

James McGrath: Many would identify Frankenstein as the first work of science fiction, and it certainly addresses religious issues – in particular the whole notion of technology allowing us to “play God.” One can trace it even earlier, though. Many themes from 1 Enoch, an ancient Jewish apocalyptic work, resurface in recent science fiction. Apocalyptic literature was all about journeys to another, celestial world where the traveler encounters strange non-human creatures. Perhaps it is really the earliest science fiction. Even though there was generally no technology involved in the travel, nothing we would call “scientific explanations,” apocalyptic works often share the critique of (or at least cautionary remarks about) technology implicit in much of the more pessimistic sci-fi. In 1 Enoch, angels were responsible for revealing the technologies of making weapons and jewelry. In Men In Black and more recently Star Trek: Enterprise, the aliens gave us Velcro. As far back as we can trace literature – which was itself, at least in part, a technological development, so this isn’t too surprising – we find expressions of concern about the effect of technology on religious life, on traditional values, and on society in general. If we define science in such a way as to include technology even in the “pre-scientific age,” then we can trace these themes from very ancient sources into modern science fiction.

TheoFantastique: How do you explain the connection between science fiction and religion?

James McGrath: Science fiction gives us the chance to speculate about big questions. Will humanity travel beyond earth? Will we survive as a species or will we destroy ourselves? If we could travel in time, what would we see if we went back to Jerusalem early in the 3rd decade C.E.? What would we see if we went back to the beginning of the universe, or forward to its end? In many respects, science fiction explores the limits of current science and speculates about what might be beyond them. And it is precisely in the areas where not only our knowledge but our tools for finding answers run out that people have traditionally turned to religion for answers.

The other main reason is that religious beliefs are a major source of our values, and technology raises ethical questions. On the current Battlestar Galactica series, for instance, we are given the opportunity to ask what it means to be human. A lot of people find the idea that human beings are like machines to be dehumanizing and opposed to the value and worth traditionally attributed to human persons. But if we succeed in creating artificial intelligences, this will not necessarily demean us. Very likely, it will force us to expand the definition of who or what is valuable beyond merely human rights. The same thing will occur if we ever have contact with intelligent extraterrestrials. Science fiction provides wonderful opportunities for getting into those gray areas that most people avoid, unless they are philosophers.

TheoFantastique: With the cultural changes in the West in the shift to late modernity or postmodernity do you think there has been an increase in religious or spiritual topics being discussed or incorporated within science fiction?

James McGrath: Absolutely. The best example (to preempt your next question) is to trace the Star Trek series in its various incarnations. The original series took a wholly modern outlook. There was no one with any publicly-visible religious beliefs on the Enterprise. They may have had them, but this was a secular enterprise, if you’ll allow the pun. On their journeys they encountered two kinds of civilizations: ones that were enlightened and secular like themselves, and ones that were primitive and in which religion was mere superstition that was used to manipulate people and/or keep them from progressing. If we fast forward to Deep Space Nine, we find that postmodernism has radically altered the outlook of the show. On this space station, everyone (except for most of the humans, interestingly enough) has a religious tradition, and everyone participates in each other’s traditions and rituals, with plenty of room for putting together one’s own eclectic smorgasbord of beliefs. Sci-fi certainly speculates about the future, but it also reflects the present, and because it is the future as seen from the present, it provides plenty of opportunities to reflect on our present values and our aims.

TheoFantastique: Let's talk about another specific example. Your website includes links to Star Wars. Can you give us some examples as to how this franchise explores religion or spirituality?

James McGrath: Since I’ve already mentioned Star Trek in relation to the shift from modern to postmodern, let me use Star Wars as an example of how Eastern traditions have become influential. Particularly starting in the 1960s, Americans became aware of and began exploring Eastern religious traditions – in particular Hinduism and Buddhism – as never before. Star Wars was the first major motion picture to not only incorporate such concepts, but to bring them to center stage. The idea of “the force” certainly has parallels in Eastern traditions – perhaps Taoism in particular. For a while, many religion scholars thought that George Lucas had got it wrong – he had the Jedi speak of the need to “bring balance to the force,” but that seemed to involve wiping out the bad guys. In Taoism, on the other hand, the notion of a balance between Yin and Yang is not about a struggle between good and evil, but about opposing forces that are both necessary to existence. In this tradition, what is evil is losing the balance.

Having seen the full 6 episodes Lucas has offered us, I now think that the idea of balance is the right idea. The Jedi had certainly misunderstood – they had thought that by opposing all attachment, shutting out emotion (particularly negative ones, but even love was forbidden), they could eliminate the danger of the dark side of the force. But they were wrong – the answer was not suppressing emotions but keeping them under control. In other words, balance. I have often thought that Anakin/Darth Vader could have said at the end of Episode III, “But I thought you said you wanted balance.” At that point, there are two Sith and two Jedi left. You could call that balance! In Episode VI, it is balance that Luke discovers and that enables him to redeem his father. Anakin had not learned balance: Dooku cut off his hand, he cut off both of Dooku’s and then his head. Luke sees that he has cut off his father’s hand, just as his father had cut off his, and pulls back from going any further. He says he is a Jedi, like his father was, but he has actually recovered something the Jedi had claimed to stand for but had lost sight of: balance.

TheoFantastique: Your website also includes links that explore religion in The Matrix and Contact. Can you touch on the differing ways in which religion is explored in these films?

James McGrath: I have a conference paper that is available that talks about some of the religious themes in the Matrix films. Although it was given before the final installment of the trilogy, I still think it is a useful discussion of some of the religious and philosophical traditions in the film. As for Contact, I really like the film, because on the one hand, it strongly emphasizes critical thinking, in the way one would expect from Carl Sagan, who gave the world the “Baloney-Detection Kit.” But it also shows parallels and places where the two can coexist. Sometimes there are things we have experienced, but for which we do not have proof. Seeking proof, seeking evidence, is a good thing, but that shouldn’t mean that we sit around doing nothing, and devote ourselves to nothing we cannot provide evidence for. The film also highlights the important fact that the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life raises issues for terrestrial religions. Authors such as David Wilkinson, Paul Davies, and Steven Dick have addressed some of these issues. Would Christians, for instance, believe that the aliens had had their own incarnation of God, their own revelation? Or would they try to evangelize them? Some of these scenarios have been explored in science fiction, mostly in short stories. Ray Bradbury’s “The Fire Balloons” is just one of many examples. Many religious believers set these issues aside and assume that there cannot be aliens, because of their Christian beliefs. But not all theologians find Christian belief and a more widely populated universe incompatible. If one wants to think seriously about theology in a context in which the possibilities explored in science fiction are widely known and taken seriously, then one has to tackle these issues in a much more thoughtful and serious way. Films like Contact provide a useful starting point for just these sorts of discussions.

TheoFantastique: Australian scholar Adam Possamai has written about hyper-real religions that draw upon science fiction and other forms of speculative fiction as sources of mythology for the religion. He discusses Matrixism and Jediism. Have you seen this phenomenon in your own research?

James McGrath: I haven’t looked into it much, except to note that there are parallels between fandom and religion, creating communities around a set of common passions. The Matrix and Star Wars seek to express ideas from religious traditions in a form accessible to a contemporary audience, so it is not surprising that they have adherents. But in most instances, I think that this sort of self-identification is more a way of rejecting traditional religious beliefs than genuinely developing alternative ones in any real sense. If there were any students out there who seriously had Jedi powers, they would use them in connection with classes: “You don’t need to see my assignments” (waves hand).

TheoFantastique: In my research I have been intrigued by the connection between Mormonism and science fiction. As notes, a large percentage of sci fi authors are LDS, and one of the most prominent is Orson Scott Card. And the late Marion K. Smith who taught at Brigham Young University spoke of a "link between Mormonism and speculative fiction" that in his view "is well-rooted in Mormon cosmology and theology." Can you comment on this?

James McGrath: Glen Larson, creator of the original Battlestar Galactica, is another example. Mormonism explicitly includes the belief that there are other planets – indeed, my understanding is that their doctrine of the afterlife incorporates this. So it is not surprising that there have been a lot of Mormons connected with science fiction.

TheoFantastique: What do you think the near future holds in terms of the relationship between science fiction and religion?

James McGrath: The new seasons of Battlestar Galactica and LOST! I’ve got a book that I edited which I hope will come out soon that will touch on this. Initially, many seemed perplexed that religion and science fiction should ever intersect at all – one is speculating about the future, one is stereotypically thought of as being dogmatic about the past. But we’ve seen that interaction is not only possible but natural, and can be invigorating for both. I look forward to more – both more serious sci-fi that incorporates religious topics in some way, and more academic studies that take a deeper philosophical and theological look at recent science fiction. It not only provides for great thought experiments. It makes talking about very difficult issues fun.

TheoFantastique: Dr. McGrath, thank you again for your thoughts. This is an interesting area of research filled with lots of possibilities.

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