Despite having developed in entirely different environments, with entirely different histories, fictional cultures very often believe things that are similar to one or more human religions. Sometimes the similarity is nearly perfect. TVTropes calls that the Lowest Cosmic Denominator. For the particular case of Christianity being duplicated, it becomes “Crystal Dragon Jesus“. But does this make sense?
Note that there is a hard distinction between ethics and religion. Ethics is prescriptive statements about behavior. Religion is descriptive statements about the universe that assert some supernatural element. “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life” is an ethical statement. “If you murder, your self will spend its next incarnation in one of the Naraka realms” is a religious one.
Some things about religions in the fantasy literature make an abundant amount of sense. If there are zombies running around that a priest can turn back by waving a particular symbol, or if the armies of the Valar are fighting Morgoth across a continent, or if there is a reincarnating elemental-power kung-fu master saving the world every generation, it is quite obvious that something important is going on.
But this does raise a question of terminology: I have defined religion as characterized by belief in something supernatural. But if Aslan is running around the landscape fighting Tash, isn’t that automatically now part of the normal world? Belief in something we would call supernatural is irrelevant if it is an everyday occurrence. And religion no longer applies.
Terry Pratchett plays with this in Discworld. In that setting, gods exist, many of them. But they only have as much power as they have true believers. The Great God Om is significantly inconvenienced when he comes down to the Disc and finds that he only has one faithful follower left, leaving him incarnated as a maimed tortoise. Because most of the Discworld gods are gratuitously cruel, much of the population of the Disc is quietly Nay Theistic to avoid giving them more power than they have (“Of course they exist. But don’t go around believe’n in ’em. It only encourages ’em”). It’s rather like being in a city dominated by rival mafia dons: either you get one to protect you, or you keep your head down to avoid the attention. Vocal atheists tend to get hit by lightning by the gods that do have power, and so the surviving population of them are mainly fireproof golems. This being Pratchett, the social commentary is of course quite deliberate.
Human Religions in SciFi
When an author has incorporated religion(s) into a science fiction setting, particularly those set in the future, human societies tend to have those religions either be current ones or be similar in many ways. This makes sense if there has indeed been historical continuity, but it is important to remember that all real religions change dramatically over decades and centuries. Special mention here goes to Dune, where Frank Herbert took some liberties with Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam to create the Zensunni adepts. Furthermore, Dune has the Bene Gesserit, who exploit religion for their own political ends – deliberately seeding legends on planets for the protection of their agents.
Herbert also did something very important with Dune: he did the research. Herbert was raised Catholic and became an atheistic Zen Buddhist later in life, but he took care to incorporate Muslim and Jewish as well as Christian and Buddhist elements into his world-building. That level of preparation is rare. It is far too easy to fall into Write What You Know while not doing the research and also into Author Appeal, and produce a fictional culture that is dominated by only a single religion that the author is familiar with or professes themselves or a complete lack of religion if the author is an agnostic or atheist. I do not have the statistics to back up the statement, but it seems to me that there is an excess of Christian themes in at least the English-language scifi and fantasy literature as compared to the actual worldwide distribution of religions (although this is perhaps offset by religion or the lack thereof not being that important in many scifi and fantasy works).
There is a related problem, where a fictional culture that is supposed to be one specific religion is portrayed as something else entirely. In Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and a lot of other works, Wicca is misrepresented. Going back a few decades and somewhat more abstracted, James Blish was significantly confused about 1950s Catholic doctrine when he wrote “A Case of Conscience“. There are far too many badly-intentioned examples. Some misrepresentation is people not doing the research. Some is people wanting to make a religion look as bad (or good) as possible.
For scifi aliens, there shouldn’t be anything exactly identical in an alien religion as compared to any human religion – there are two entirely different histories. Again, this is religion and not ethics. There are two themes that work as an excuse for there being too many identical elements: ancient astronauts or time travel. In Babylon 5, everyone thinks that the Vorlons look like angels. That was deliberately engineered by the Vorlons, who liked to go around the galaxy hacking the genetics of non-technological races so that they would like flying bilaterally-symmetric glowing figures. Babylon 5 also had a messianic religion centered around Valen, a Minbari prophet who said that he would return in the future. That was explained by Valen being a time traveler, Jeffrey Sinclair, who was born a thousand years later.
Other times there is a partial excuse for Crystal Dragon Jesus. If the religion of an alien culture is defined by the needs of the plot the writer wants to do, they will slant the world-building appropriately. Taking one more from Babylon 5: the Centauri were themed like the Roman Empire, so they have an extensive pantheon of various misbehaving gods and an imperial cult where emperors are elevated to godhood. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the writers wanted to make the Captain into an actual messiah, so Bajor has a religion based around dual gods – good and evil – who are both actually Starfish Aliens that like to live inside wormholes. Captain Sisko becomes the emissary of the good ones (“The Prophets”), and disappears into heaven/closed time-like curves inside the wormhole at the end. Cargo Cults are popular in science fiction too, as a way for otherwise technologically-limited groups to have access to something without being able to replicate it.
But, these excuses for similarities aside, why should aliens have anything like human religions at all?
The origins of many individual human religions are argued. But a tendency to invoke supernatural explanations to phenomena is obviously common among humans, and has been for a very long time. Anthropological models of the development of religion describe religions as an emergent property or byproduct of known cognitive biases of human brains. We tend to assume correlation and causation even where neither exists, tend to falsely assume intelligent intent, and are easily manipulated by even entirely false fears. We fool ourselves into being more sure of our statements than we actually are, over-estimate how much others agree with us or how much we disagree with them, and like beliefs that we know others hold better. We also reflexively divide others into people in our group and outsiders, and favor the in-group over the out-group.
And so unless their members are very careful to avoid it, human societies quite rapidly develop numerous elaborate and very specific fictional scenarios to try and explain things that may not even exist. And things can get very dangerously confused when those different scenarios conflict with each other. To use TVTropes vocabulary again, religions are very devoted fandoms.
Would intelligent aliens necessarily have any of the same biases that we have? And if they didn’t have one or another, would religions as humans make them still appear or not? If not, what else might emerge instead?
Is some level of in-group favoritism inevitable for an intelligent species? Or can intelligence develop without it, automatically valuing all members of the species equally? What society evolves from that, and would something recognizably similar to human religions appear? Can we say that any religious institutions that do appear would be far less hierarchical, and perhaps far less important in society, if people did not often evaluate the needs of those who share particular beliefs in some supernatural concepts above those of those who do not?
Of course, given such a large difference in cognition, many things other than religion would be different. I played with this with the ursians, where over-valuing the in-group leads to a genetic diversity crisis quickly and so they have less such favoritism than humans do. This shows up in their sexual ethics, which are different from human norms because that was what optimized survival. But I have not considered what religions they might or might not have.
Pareidolia makes most of us prone to see human faces and figures and other patterns we consider significant everywhere. Clouds, sand dunes and hills, the shells of crabs, a colon and a single parentheses (parenthesis?). Some level of pareidolia is an evolutionary advantage: it is good for any animal to be sensitive to patterns corresponding to its prey, its predators, and others of its species. But consider an alien species with much less permitting pareidolia than we have. They would not have emoticons, and very different art. They would also not have people asserting that random patterns of char on toast was a miraculous appearance of a religious figure, or that the reflection of light off of a polished steel dome was a sign from God. Would such people still come up with anything we would call a religion? If so, what might it be like?
And one more:
Agent detection is the tendency to assume an intelligent intent where one does not necessarily exist. We do it very easily – just consider how we anthropomorphize even relatively simple devices, such as dice or a deck of cards. Taking a more complex system: when did you last complain that your computer is out to get you? This can be explained as having a survival advantage: anything that could potentially indicate actions by a predator or an adversary should be approached with caution, and false positives cost far less than false negatives.
I don’t think an intelligent species could evolve without some level of agent detection. Part of any successful intelligence has to be being able to identify other intelligences; wither to cooperate, confront, or avoid them. But like pareidolia, we could consider a species where the criteria for what makes them think “there is intent there” are more or less stringent or just different. How does that change a society, as well as any tendency for religions to appear or not?
Many of these questions may seem a bit abstract, but I think they’re useful to think about. Truly realistic alien cultures will differ from human norms in ways that are not simply derived from their environments, and recognizing and confronting the biases inherent in how we think shows some possibilities to explore. I’ve focused on religion or the lack thereof here, but this extends to everything that such aliens might think or do.
I think there is a dearth of good science fiction that explores these themes. We have space opera, where the aliens are often indistinguishable from humans in how they think. Other works have aliens whose thought patterns are said to be incomprehensible, but that usually seems to me as as excuse to skimp on the world-building. There is a large body of literature (including some of my own attempts) that explores how cultures and behaviors can be directly changed by the environment a species lives in, but that usually assumes ‘like humanity unless noted’. Given that Most Writers Are Human, it is hard to work through the implications of alien cognition consistently. Does anyone know of such a work?