Dealing with religion in works of science fiction can be a tricky subject – after all, who can predict the complex and unpredictable patterns of culture in a matter so integral to the human psyche? Or what kind of funny robes they’ll wear? Generally it’s easier to presume nothing really changes. As a result, science fiction that deals with a future Earth is usually monotheist (see: people still praying to ‘Grudd’ in the megacities of Judge Dredd), or atheist (see: almost everything). Polytheism tends to be reserved for fantasy works, or the occasional backwards planet which will feature for all of one episode until everyone dies by eating poisoned fruit or shooting themselves with phasers or something. Stupid hippies!
Battlestar Galactica is one of the more prominent polytheist works of sci-fi, and along with its surprisingly enjoyable spin-off Caprica, we’re presented us with a bleak, high-tech version of our own world – one absolutely filled with gods.
But here’s the thing about TV writers – they’re not theologians. Get them to come up with a strange, different religion, and they’re just as likely to take Christianity and slap a different name on it – after all, Christianity is the religion they (and the audience) are familiar with. There’s a whole trope on this very thing. It’s lazy writing, but it’s common.
Sometimes the BSG universe falls into this trap, sometimes not. With all the objectivity and even-handedness I can muster (absolutely none), I’ll take us through the successes and failures from the holy rituals of the Twelve Colonies…
SUCCESS: DELICIOUS MORAL AMBIGUITY
This is one of the major themes of both shows – the monotheists (evil destructive cyborgs in BSG; demented teenage terrorists in Caprica) all have an unwavering belief in their own god-choking righteousness – a sense of total purpose the polytheists and atheists don’t have (but in fairness they are pretty good at being murdered by fanatics).
The atheists and polytheists are encumbered by doubt, and in neither show do we ever see a fundamentalist from either group. Belief in absolute ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – whilst claiming to know what is ‘good’ – is presented as problematic and potentially dangerous. However, the monotheist desire for absolute truth and purity is at least understandable in their borderline-dystopic world, and that’s what makes the issue all the more satisfying.
This is best when: BSG’s murder-happy monotheist Cylons give humans one of their many lectures on how fucked their society is; the polytheist detective in Caprica talks about the dangers of worshipping a ‘moral dictator’. Love it.
FAILURE: THE GODS SPEAK WITH ONE VOICE
This might seem strange coming straight after the last point, and that’s because it is. The fact that all the gods apparently agree with one another is one of the more glaring repackagings of Christianity in the mutli-godded BSG/Caprica world. Even though BSG goes to great lengths to demonstrate the fuzzed message and morality of the polytheist religion, they still only have one holy text and one church. At no point is there shown to be any difference of opinion: temples and traditions with different messages (differences which would make sense considering the numerous gods) are absent. Compare that to the thousands of temples in ancient Rome, or modern-day India.
Hint: there are a lot of these:
Now, due to the total lack of any separation between church and state, the humans seem to have regular prayer meetings with their government representatives, which aside from being sinister, take the form of the usual sort of prayers you’ll see in a church – the word ‘god’ is simply pluralised. As a result they go something like, “Dear Lords of Kobol, please stop the Cylons from murdering us all like they did all the other defenceless people, we love you and really want to stop dying.” It makes perfect sense because, you know, gods of destruction and gods of beauty all want the same thing (a human holocaust, apparently).
This is worst when: the polytheists occasionally end their massive prayerfests by saying Amen. Seriously, you might as well throw a ‘praise Jesus’ or two in there…
SUCCESS: PERSONAL PANTHEONS
It must be noted, however, that the more badass characters don’t need temples or weird prayer meetings. BSG’s bipolar pilot Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace and Caprica’s mafia henchman Sam Adama each choose their own (violent) gods to worship: Starbuck carries little icons of Artemis and Athena around with her, whilst Sam has his own shrine to Mars – demonstrating that the gods do indeed have different attributes and that different people will choose different ones to follow.
As in most real-world polytheist societies, atheism is common and the gods aren’t taken too literally by the majority of the population. Then there’s the Oracle, an incense-snuffing, plot-furthering madwoman who tells the future and is entirely unconnected with any church or organisation. She’s in her very own universe of awesome.
This is best when: my favourite queer crimelord blesses his statue of Mars with his husband and nephew at the dinner table. Daaaaah.
FAILURE: CHRISTIAN MORALS (OR, ABORTION ABORTION ABORTION)
Here’s a fun fact: in pre-Christian Greece and Rome, it was perfectly acceptable to leave unwanted babies in the street to perish – life was gained through experience, and babies – well, they don’t exactly have a lot of that. It might sound abhorrent to us, but the point is that every culture has its own beliefs on what constitutes life, and those beliefs are shaped by culture. Culture, of course, being heavily influenced by religion.
Which brings me to BSG. In one episode we see a political crisis occur, when a girl runs away from her devout (polytheist) parents, pregnant and wanting an abortion. This causes a shitstorm with the more religious humans, who want her returned to her family so she can be forced to have the baby. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting plot line and makes for compelling viewing.
But why are they anti-abortion? Because Christian and Islamic fundamentalists are anti-abortion in our own time? So all religion must be anti-choice?
Well at least she’s being housed in a warm and comfortable environment.
This is worst when: a representative from the religious faction says abortion is forbidden in the scripture. Once again, I keep expecting them to start waving a crucifix around and speaking in tongues.
SUCCESS: DIFFERENT RULES ON SEX AND LOVE
Now this is in direct contrast to the previous entry: the rules of sex and love are far more advanced than our own, and in Caprica polyamorous group marriages are legally recognised and socially acceptable. Surprisingly, all the fun free lovin’ we see is being had by the monotheists. Despite all the God-bothering, BSG’s Gaius Baltar and Caprica’s Clarice Willow are far from settling down in traditional, monogamous relationships. Baltar has his weird harem of female followers, whereas Willow has her very own group marriage comprised of sexy religious terrorists.
It’s strange that we only see devout monotheists getting in on this – in my experience Pagans are far more into the old free loving than devout Christians or Muslims, but there you go. It is a different world after all. Hey, if this is the way ‘The One’ wants us to live, who am I to object?
This is best when: they all seem to live in a world without sexual orientation – Felix Gaeta, Amanda Graystone, numerous Cylons, Clarice Willow and all her wives/husbands have flings with both genders, with no-one ever using the words ‘gay’, ‘straight’, or ‘bisexual’. As a US TV show it doesn’t happen as often as one might like, but it’s there and it’s an interesting, thoughtful addition.
Overall the religious issues and debates are one of the best parts of both shows. However, this is all totally messed up in the final episode of BSG, when it’s revealed that (SPOILER!) Kara Thrace is an angel and there are other angels and that only the one true god exists even though he’s the one worshipped by the genocidal robotic villains.
Fuck you moral ambiguity carefully constructed over a span of four years! And praise cyborg Jesus!