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Faith in film: Why science-fiction movies abound with religious themes

In "Man of Steel," the most recent Superman film, when Superman's parents send their son away from their dying planet to save his life, his mom worries he will not be accepted on Earth because he is an alien to the planet.

"He will be an outcast. They'll kill him," his mother says.

"How? He'll be a god to them," says his father, Jor-El, who believes Superman will be an ideal Earth's inhabitants will strive to reach.

Some might see Christian symbolism in this scene, but it's not the only religious reference in the film. “Man of Steel,” which some call a "soft" science-fiction film (along with other superhero movies), is replete with religious allusions. And superhero films do not have a monopoly on religious metaphors. In fact, religious and spiritual themes are woven into the plots of many popular science fiction films, TV shows and novels.

"We have so many TV shows and movies where you see the same type of archetypal characters, plots and problems that you would see in religion (and) in religious texts," says Barna Donovan, who teaches classes about the relationship between science fiction and religion at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, N.J.

Science and religion converge

The strong ties between science fiction and religion may seem odd; after all, some religious fundamentalists and a number of atheists constantly pit science and religion against each other.

But Dr. James McGrath, who teaches in the Religion and Philosophy Department at Butler University in Indianapolis, Ind., says a convergence between the two is natural.

"Humans have wondered about our place in the universe even before we had modern science to help provide some answers about the physical form and nature of that universe. We've envisaged our cosmos as full of powerful beings who come from the sky, and select human beings as having rare opportunities to travel up there," says McGrath, adding that science-fiction authors today can explore questions that religions throughout history have attempted to answer.

Arthur Doweyko, a scientist and award-winning author of sci-fi short stories, agrees that science fiction allows authors to explore humanity’s pressing questions about existence.

"In creating a world, a civilization, at any time and place, the author necessarily needs to consider the manner in which the people of that time and place have dealt with the question of existence," says Doweyko. "Without that view expressed either directly or cleverly insinuated through the story, the characters will lack the moral and ethical motivation for their actions."

Religious metaphors in sci-fi

Religious concepts are commonly portrayed figuratively in science fiction, explained Doweyko. He said religious ideologies in the long-running series "Star Trek" coincided with an earthly belief system.

Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, a science fiction and fantasy writer who has co-authored three Star Wars novels for LucasBooks, says religious commentary is prevalent in the Star Wars film franchise (which includes some of the highest-grossing movies of all time).

"The main theological subtext ... is about the nature of good and evil and the nature of the Force," says Bohnhoff. "The Force, in that context, becomes a proxy for God (or both Satan and God in some circles, she explains), and informs the debate about good and evil in the (galaxy far, far away)."

Donovan believes many apocalyptic TV shows and movies contain Judeo-Christian religious symbols. For example, he indicates "World War Z" (which he classifies as science fiction as opposed to horror because there is a scientific explanation for zombies, rather than a supernatural explanation) reminds him of biblical plague stories.

Superhero films are also rife with religious symbolism, particularly savior figures, according to Donovan. He explains that in the 2002 version of "Spider-Man," Peter Parker selflessly saves the city while some revile him and the city’s major newspaper calls for his arrest, which is similar to the way Christ was treated in biblical accounts. Furthermore, the Green Goblin tempts Spider-Man and tries to persuade Peter to join in his evil cause, much like Satan tries to persuade Christ to leave the path of righteousness in the New Testament.

Other science fiction films and TV shows have overtly religious themes. McGrath says media that features "ancient aliens" often directly addresses religion. In the 2012 film "Prometheus," for example, a group of explorers travel to space to meet their alien creators. One of these explorers believes in a higher power and does not see a conflict between science and her religion.

"Ancient alien" scenarios help science fiction writers convert human religions and myths into science fiction, McGrath says.

"And so (alien stories allow) the same questions — Who created us? Why are we here? — to be asked in as close a manner as possible to the way the questions have historically been asked and yet within the sci-fi genre," McGrath says.

Why sci-fi authors include religion

Science fiction authors include religious themes in their writings for a plethora of reasons. One of these reasons is authors use science fiction to present ideas in a way readers wouldn’t accept in a real-world setting, Bohnhoff says.

"Like music, fiction can worm its way past prejudice, bias and dogmatism and cut straight to a reader’s intellect, heart and soul," Bohnhoff says, adding that she uses science fiction to help readers examine a subject (such as race or religion) in a different way.

Bohnhoff explains that religious or spiritual themes allow her to study humans and cultures in greater depth in her novels. "Without faith that spiritual constants exist, I think, it is tempting to view mankind as a lost cause, or a product of his genes, or just another animal," she says.

Bohnhoff also strives to include religion in ways that seem authentic as she builds fictional worlds. She said she does not try to portray religion in a "glib or shallow way — as if religion were a garment or a pair of shoes that one wore and could peel off at the door," but in a manner that helps the reader understand the characters and society.

"Religion — or more importantly, the divine principles of religion — not only give me grist for the fictional mill, but also help me build a richer culture that seems more real to the reader," Bohnhoff says.

Doweyko, whose novel "Algorithm" (which examines the purpose of humanity) will be published later this year, included themes that could be considered religious to establish metaphors and add a sense of seriousness to his novel.

"There are a number of revelations in the tale which include a probable interpretation of what DNA controls in all life, including our own — instinct versus rational thought. If such control is imbedded in DNA, then the question becomes 'who or what put it there?' To the point of the tale, we could also ask 'when was it put there?'" Doweyko says.

He adds that the answers to the questions in "Algorithm" are "unique and plausible" and add a "level of gravity" missing from many other novels.

Doweyko explains he included a creation myth in the story about an earth mother who has an evil son and a good son that serves as a metaphor to another argument in the story.

Why we enjoy religious allusions in sci-fi

Reading or viewing science fiction stories with religious allusions allows humans to escape to a place where our deepest questions have an answer, according to Doweyko.

"I think we all realize that as a race we will be eternally disallowed the knowledge of the how and why of the universe," Doweyko says. "And it is this emptiness we long to fulfill even if it's just a science-fiction tale, because for a fleeting moment we are embraced in the arms of enlightenment, and that feeling is beautiful."