Religion is a huge part of science fiction - and it makes the genre better and more fascinating, as Battlestar Galactica proved. But there are seven mistakes SF should avoid in portraying the spiritual realm.
BSG wouldn't have been nearly as epic if it hadn't included spiritual themes from the beginning. The inclusion of religious elements added a way bigger scope and grandeur to the story of humanity's last remnants struggling to survive - and it was realistic, since you'd expect people to be asking the big theological questions in that situation.
In general, religion and spiritual topics are a huge part of science fiction - if you're really determined to avoid them altogether, you're probably stuck with a few golden age novels, and a handful of Lost In Space reruns. But just like other science fiction elements, like first contact, time travel and space battles, science fictional religion can be done well - or it can be cheesy and weird.
Here are seven mistakes science fiction sometimes makes in handling religion (and I freely admit I was influenced to think about this by all the comments on Annalee's final BSG recap and some of our other posts):
1. The cargo cult. Yes, I know, the gods really must be crazy. But I'm really sick of stories about primitive peoples who discover high technology and start worshipping it. Or the descendants of high-tech people, who have become primitive and started worshipping their ancestors' technology. Like the Ewoks worshipping C-3PO, or the desert people worshipping the spacesuit in Doctor Who's "Planet Of Fire." There's usually an undertone of "See? This proves religion is teh stupid." Also horrible: robots worshipping the people who made them, or aliens worshipping humans. Or aliens worshipping Ferengi.
2. The cheap Jesus. There's nothing wrong with having a messianic figure in your science fiction - I'm not trying to take all the fun out of everything here - but don't just pull the Jesus imagery out of thin air and expect it to mean something. Yes, I'm looking at you, crucified Neo. And I'm looking at you, Jesus H. Baltar. (And even though I love the ending of Doctor Who's "Last Of The Time Lords," I'm also looking at you, floaty cruciform Doctor.) The indispensible TVTropes website has a great list of "random religious symbolism tossed in for no reason" moments.
3. The dumb space gods. Whenever we actually meet a god or gods in science fiction, it's almost always a letdown. (There are exceptions - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine managed to have our heroes meet the timeless Prophets inside the wormhole, without ever losing their mystique.) Usually, though, when we meet a god or a godlike alien, it's a cheesy old guy with a funny beard. Or it's Jodie Foster's condescending dad.
4. The all-purpose patch for lazy writing. And here's where I really took issue with BSG's finale: the Starbuck thing. Battlestar's writers pretty much admitted that they killed Starbuck for shock value, and then they decided at the last moment to bring her back in the third season finale, because they thought it would be cool. They didn't even think about how to explain her resurrection, until they started writing season four. And in the
end... they punted. And it felt like religion was the paper they used to cover it up. (Before Starbuck jumps the ship to the new Earth, we see a voice-over of her asking, once again, what she is. And the answer appears to be: an angel of light.) BSG is by no means alone in this - there are already strong indications that Lost is going to use the "spirituality" card to get out of some of the logical tangles the story has gotten into.
5. Simplistic religion vs. science battles. As anybody who's spent any time in the real world knows, religion and science mostly coexist reasonably well, unless you're Amish or Richard Dawkins. But in some especially cheesy science fiction, every day is Galileo-vs.-the-church day. Sometimes this takes the form of the one guy who dares to realize the world is hollow or god is really a crazy computer. The absolute clunkiest instance of this is in Doctor Who's "Meglos," where the incredibly one-dimensional subterranean culture on Tigella is divided into two groups, the incredibly bad-haired Savants, who believe in Science, and the incredibly ugly head-geared Deions, who believe in Religion. Whenever the planet's "lush aggressive vegetation" gets to them, they get together and argue about whether Science or Religion has all the answers.
6. Simplistic science-bashing in the name of religion. There's only one thing more annoying that a straw-man-tastic debate between Science and Religion, and that's an anti-science message that uses religion as its mouthpiece. And here's the other place BSG's finale really bothered me. When we see the colonists giving up modern technology and medicine, on the heels of an apparently divine intervention that brought them to a new Eden, it's not hard to see that as a weird anti-science bias. Yes, in the New York scene at the end, AngelBaltar and AngelSix say that it's only our vanity and greed with technology that are wrong, but by this point we've been bludgeoned with a weird back-to-nature theme for 45 minutes.
7. New-agey-ness. Really, I can put up with space gods, or people worshipping technology, or science/religion battles... but I just can't handle Enya. Or crystals. Or Native American Visionquests. Or Deepak Chopra. Or any kind of Bastardized Indian/African "spirituality" which has been cleansed of actual cultural context or real religious significance. Yes, I'm looking at you, Usutu from Heroes. If I need to cleanse my aura, I'll eat some bran.