Science Fiction and Religion

Saturday 10th September, 3.30-5.30pm

See the visions of religion contributed by our audience members at this event.

Panelist Steven French interviewed by BBC Arabic (dubbed!).

John Stanley Bell Lecture Theatre (JSB): Richmond Building

Free, but you need to book.

Should science fiction be kept secular? Can science fiction stories help us to understand tensions between science and religion? Join us for a panel discussion with a science fiction author, a philosopher of science, fanfiction author and medieval historian. We invite you to contribute questions, comments, and your own ideas about religion in the future – or in a galaxy far, far away.

The Holy Machine book cover

The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett, published by Corvus

Confirmed panellists:

Steven French – Philosopher of Science at Leeds

How Science Fiction Needs to Take Religion Seriously (If Its Going to Support a Healthy Secular Humanist Lifestyle!) There is a long-held distinction that attributes religious themes to fantasy and leaves the secular to science fiction. This underpins claims that the role of science fiction is to present and support the ‘scientific understanding’ of the world and that by doing so, it will squeeze out religion. However, both the distinction and such claims are simplistic, as so often are the presentations of both science and religion within the literature. Science fiction is capable of giving us a compelling vision of a secular humanist future but only if it takes both science and religion seriously.

Chris Beckett – author of The Holy Machine and winner of the Edge Hill Short Fiction Award (2009)

Religion tries to answer questions about our relationship with the world, and this relationship is also SF’s special area.  In all forms of fiction, imaginary characters are invented as a means of exploring relationships between human beings, but in science fiction the world itself is invented, and is really an additional character to which the other characters relate. The protagonist of The Holy Machine crosses the border into s society dominated by fundamentalist religion from a society which insists on an equally fundamentalist kind of atheism.  My forthcoming novel Dark Eden takes place on a planet where an entire human community is descended from a man and a woman stranded there generations previously, retelling the story of their origins over and over, and gradually turning it into a kind of religion as they try and make sense of their exile.

Una McCormack – author of Star Trek and Doctor Who novels

Both Star Trek and Doctor Who traditionally characterized religion as antithetical to their secular humanist agenda. Computers posing as gods, aliens masquerading as demons – the Enterprise or the Doctor would appear from the sky to expose such frauds and prove the natural basis of these apparently supernatural phenomena. But in later versions, both shows moved towards more nuanced reflections upon religious belief. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine took seriously the professed faith of numerous characters in their ‘Prophets’, while, in the hands of show-runner (and atheist) Russell T Davies, Doctor Who adopted religious imagery more freely than ever before, positioning the Doctor as Messiah in order to question our belief in scientific gurus as much as religious prophets. In accepting the possibility that there may be more in this universe than we have dreamt of, both programmes began to ask broader questions about the nature of faith and the experience of the numinous, while maintaining a confident (if critical) trust in their own secular humanism.

Shana Worthen – Historian of Medieval Technology, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

When a given religion is an intrinsic part of an author’s worldview, it often informs the way that author wrote works we might today recognize as science fiction. Both are ways of accounting for why the world works as it does. Early science fictional narratives, from Lucian of Samosata’s second-century moon journey to Mary Shelley’s early nineteenth-century Frankenstein, explore worlds informed simultaneously by the science and religion of their respective days. These works uses their authors’ contemporary understanding of the way the world works in order to experiment with vaguely plausible ways in which humans might experience what had previously been the provenance primarily of religious explanation, whether through physics, biology, or other fields of natural philosophy.

Science Fiction and Religion Panel

Science Fiction and Religion - the panel



  1. From: Rev Dr Gareth Leyshon, Priest in charge of St Dyfrig’s RC Parish, Treforest

    To: the Last of the Time Lords, commonly known as “The Doctor”.

    Dear Doctor,

    I just wanted to drop you a line to thank you for being such an inspiration – you are a fantastic resource for preaching!

    Rumour has it that, when not needed elsewhere in the galaxy or recharging on the Cardiff Rift, the TARDIS is often parked in the Upper Boat suburb of Pontypridd. If that’s so, that technically makes me your parish priest.

    Well, OK, I am making an assumption there. I know you have a great affinity with London and the surrounding realm, so perhaps you consider yourself Church of England. But the word “Catholic” means universal, and since you travel beyond planet Earth, I reckon that gives me jurisdiction.

    I was very moved when, on Christmas day, you gave up your life (well, one of them at any rate) to save Wilf. My boss would have been proud of you. He did something very similar himself.

    And then there was that time you siphoned off your Time Lord identity into a pocket watch – brilliant! I loved the way you told Martha to guard it because it contained everything that made you who you were. You see, in my work I also work pick up a small round object and tell the story of someone who said, “This is me.” It really helped the children in my school to understand what the Lord of all space and time did, when he had that last supper with his friends.

    I’ll sign off now, because I can see the rest of the universe needs you attention. I’m glad to see you and River doing well together – if you need help with the wedding, I am at your service.

    Yours sincerely,
    Rev Gareth Leyshon

    PS Before I became a priest, I was an astrophysicist. If you ever get the chance to visit galaxies 3C22 or 3C41, could you let me know if they really are obscured quasars, as I predicted in my PhD thesis? ? Many thanks.

    Dr Gareth

  2. Writing as the holder of a 1st class Bachelor of Theology and a PhD in Astrophysics:

    Possible outlines for a theological work of science fiction:

    (A) In a near future when Quantum Mechanics is better understood, it may be the case that the mathematics of the universe means the universe bootstraps itself into existence without needing any further explanation. A Jesuit theorist working on the mathematics begins to have grave doubts about the need for a creator… (the fiction is in speculating exactly how the quantum mechanics pans out)

    (B) A future Earth has discovered a means of faster-than-light communication with alien races – not physical contact, only information. Plotlines consider the relationship of Earth’s religious leaders with the various alien races:

    • Those claiming revelations from a divine being in ways which are incompatible with Earth religions

    • Those claiming revelations from a divine being in ways which have substantial overlap with Earth religions

    • Those to whom the concept of religion makes no sense.

    Another plotline concerns the response of Earth’s proselytising religions (particularly evangelical Christianity and Islam) – do they seek to make converts of the alien races?

    Then an alien expresses interest in becoming affiliated to a non-proselytising religion (perhaps Judaism). How do the relevant religious leaders react?

  3. […] fiction and religion”. You can read more about the panel and my excellent co-contributors here. (Make sure you read the comments from the Doctor’s parish priest!) It was a very enjoyable […]

  4. The text of my talk is available here:

  5. […] reading up for my short presentation on Lucian and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the “Science Fiction and Religion” panel* at Bradford the other weekend, I had no idea that Shelley had notably revised the […]

  6. […] of Spam Suckupery Awesome Catholic Science Fiction NerderyJune 7, 2012 By Mark Shea Leave a CommentA letter to Doctor Who from his parish priest.Fantastic.May I take this moment to say, by the way, that Doctor Who is, perhaps, the single most […]

  7. Ted Seeber said

    All of my favorite science fiction stories take either Catholicism or Buddhism as serious social movements that will continue into the future. Anthony Boucher’s short story _The Quest for Saint Aquin_ changed my whole view of sin as a child towards God and the Church (as well as giving me a great paraphrase quote for people who are too scrupulous about conflating cursing and swearing, my version is “Shit ain’t my God and I’m very sorry for you if Shit is your god”). And of course, Walter Miller’s classic _A Canticle for Lebowitz_ proved to me the power of tradition over mere materialism, as well as introducing me to the enduring archtype myth of the Wandering Jew (or is he the Wandering Roman? Two versions of the origin story, and the character in Lebowitz could be either).

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