June 8, 2006
Lords of Kobol, Hear My Prayer: Religion and Faith on Battlestar Galactica
— Seth Perry
The Sci-Fi Channel's blockbuster show Battlestar Galactica has received heaps of praise from virtually all quarters. The show centers on the conflict in a faraway galaxy between humans and Cylons, a race of artificial, and often humanoid, beings first created by the humans. The Cylons betrayed their creators and, having destroyed human civilizations on their home worlds, pursue the remnant across the galaxy.
Reviewers have applauded the "realism" of the show; as Stephen King has written of it, it's "science fiction that doesn't know it's science fiction." One significant point of interest has been the show's inclusion of religion. The Cylons are monotheists, the humans polytheists, and their respective beliefs inform their actions and reactions. The show glories in grey areas, and the religion of each side displays moments of both warmth and fanaticism. This is a particularly salient element, given that the human-Cylon conflict has taken on a certain post-9/11 cast.
Praise for religion in the show has been for the most part superficial, though. The fact that characters use vocabulary and themes familiar from (our) world religions does not mean they or the show have a "theology," as some reviews have asserted. Moreover, repeated references to providence, scriptural prophecy, and the soul (the show's most prominent religious tropes) do not necessarily make characters "religious."
The theological element has oscillated between a "realistic" depiction of the way religion functions and an overt supernaturalism — the difference between some characters believing in supernatural powers and the verified presence of supernatural powers within the universe of the show. In the real world we may debate the epistemological difference between these two, but in a fictional universe we are largely beholden to what the writers show us: If they decide that the show is about the activity of forces which suspend the natural order of the universe they've created, then by most measures it is.
In short, "religion" on Galactica has sometimes appeared to lack "faith." What faith there is can be more readily observed among the show's human characters — they have been seen praising, petitioning, and supplicating gods whom they cannot see. The exact nature of their faith was complicated, however, in a plot arc in which numerous scriptural prophecies came true, threatening the show's much-prized realism. I became unsure whether I was being shown the humans interpreting events through their scriptures or the objective realization of those scriptures; events coincided so closely with prophecy that when humans expressed doubt, I had to wonder why.
The problem has been even more pronounced on the Cylon side. For example, Cylon reincarnation, a prospect first raised by the wide-eyed assertion of a Cylon about to die, turned out to be a technical and quite literal process involving the downloading of individual Cylon consciousness — and not, as I first speculated, a promise given to a devout martyr. The most religious character on the show, the Cylon model Six, has had a habit of making accurate predictions. Six's utter, apparently empirically-supported certainty made me question whether she had faith in a God, or rather knew something or someone with god-like powers.
It wasn't until the recent closing episodes of the second season that the show began to really round out the religious feature of its universe. The prophecy-heavy plotline on the human side seems to have played itself out for now, and the inevitability of those prophecies appears more explicitly in question. Similarly, events that Six had predicted did not turn out as she had foreseen. The most artful development, in my view, took the form of something that accompanies religion everywhere, but which had been missing from Cylon society: skepticism. First seen masquerading as a priest of the human religion, a model of Cylon appears who does not believe: "Supernatural divinities are the primitive's answer for why the sun goes down at night." Better yet, he makes it clear that his own skepticism is as unverifiable as the faith of the other Cylons: "At least that's what we've been telling the others for years. Can't really prove it one way or the other, of course."
Now we're talking. Galactica has been deservedly lauded for providing a novel setting for the playing out of real-life political, social, and moral issues, which is what the best science fiction always does. With the clear infusion of questions of faith into its theological trappings, the show can explore the way religion works in the real world — as a series of stops and starts, buoyed by faith and beset with doubt, among an assortment of individuals who believe different things to different degrees.
The writers will hopefully make real use of this element to examine how faith is gained and lost, how believers and nonbelievers exist together and pursue the same goals, and, in the context of the conflict between Cylon and human, how individuals among the conquering and the conquered relate to a God or gods they know only by faith.
Seth Perry is a Ph.D. student in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.