Humans have long demonstrated a strong need to believe in something greater than themselves. This is the feeling from which nationalism springs. This is the reason why we adopt personal ideologies and fight for the principles that we hold most dear. Having a cause gives our lives a sense of meaning. For many people, religious belief does this as well.
Some believe that this need was built into us by the intelligence that created us, while others believe that it is the result of evolutionary processes. At this point in time, we cannot answer this question, at least in a way that will satisfy everyone, so I would prefer instead to look at the specific ways that science fiction has addressed religious belief.
Sometimes science fiction encourages us to be cautious about the ideas that we buy into. We see a mysterious woman use technology to her advantage in the Star Trek TNG episode “Devil’s Due.” Armed with knowledge of a prophecy and some technological trickery, she convinces the people of the planet in question that she is the devil and has come to rule over them. The people are about to hand everything over, but Picard exposes her for the fraud she is. A con artist turning belief against people is not new, and has happened numerous times in the real world. Faith can give people strength, but it can also leave them vulnerable to the unscrupulous.
Other times, science fiction simply acknowledges the continued existence of religious belief. Babylon 5 is an example of a show that does this. While the Vorlons appear to each race differently, and have almost certainly been interpreted as angels upon their previous visits to Earth and other worlds, these things are not presented in a way that denounces religion. The episode “The Parliament of Dreams” ends with a representation of Earth and its religious beliefs. Instead of generalizing, the episode presents us with a long line of people, each one representing a different faith. The takeaway message seems to be, no matter how far we come technologically, humans as a whole will still need what religious faith gives them, and that’s okay as long as we treat one another with dignity and respect.
How do you envision religion in the future? Surely tenets of various faiths will change. Some will die out altogether. New ones will be born. How will technological advancements and meeting alien species change the ways in which we view and practice faith? How might our spiritual beliefs as a people be viewed by outsiders? Do you think we will come to rely more and more on the answers that science gives us over time? Will we move away from religion, or will it evolve alongside us? Which religious traditions have you seen depicted in science fiction? What do these faiths, both fictional and actual, say about us?