Theocracies and humanism in science fiction

Theocracies –states or societies ruled by religion – make for interesting settings and alternative worlds in science fiction and fantasy. Like many other tropes or allegories in the genre, they allow us to hold up a mirror to our own society, and in particular to question the consequences of dogmatism and religious power.

This article isn’t anything like an exhaustive list, but just some of my favourite and most interesting examples.

Stargate

The principal baddies in the 1994 Roland Emmerich blockbuster Stargate, and for most of the film’s main spin off TV series Stargate SG-1, are the Goa’uld. This snake-like parasitic alien race use their enslaved subject races – including humans – as hosts and have created a religious structure with themselves playing the role of gods demanding worship and allegiance. They fly around the galaxy in pyramid space ships and dressing up as various casually racist stereotypes.

The series began to engage with questions of theocracy and freedom of belief in greater depths in its final two series. Following the final defeat of the Goa’uld, the show had a major refresh of characters and focus in source mythology. The new main villains introduced were the Ori. These powerful aliens had also set themselves up as gods – though with an actually fleshed out religion (Origin) rather than simply a control structure. They are related to another ancient quasi-supernatural species (things get a little complicated after 214 episodes not counting movies and spin offs) but are contrasted by their concern with worldly power rather than spiritual enlightenment. The Ori have a clerical class, (the Priors) and many voluntary well intentioned followers, who eventually launch an evangelistic crusade of the Milky Way.

The direct to video movie Stargate: The Ark of Truth which completes this story arc also raises interesting questions of freedom of belief. The titular Ark of Truth uses the same sci-fi magic the Ori use to indoctrinate followers of Origin to reveal the truth that the Ori are not god – destroying their religion and ending their attempted conquest of the galaxy.

Star Trek

The world’s largest multimedia science fiction franchise has had a lot to say about religion and theocracies over the years. Though the treatment of such ideas in the eras of ‘original’, ‘next generation’ and ‘modern’ Trek are noticeably different. Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry was a committed humanist, and his humanist vision has had huge direct and indirect influences on the franchise.

In The Original Series the crew of the USS Enterprise typically encountered a ‘planet of the week’. A recurring theme was encountering a dystopian society controlled by a self-appointed god or antagonistic god-like being. The enlightened Federation crew expose a scientific explanation behind or outsmart the ‘monster of the week’ before moving on. A typical example sees the crew of the Enterprise held captive by the Greek god Apollo. Similar themes are explored in the Star Trek: The Next Generation. The episode Who Watches the Watchers, includes a storyline where Captain Picard is mistaken for a deity, though no theocracy is proclaimed in his name. The godlike alien race known individually and collectively as Q could arguably be seen as a theocracy though uniquely one where all members of the society have gods status.

The Star Trek: Voyager episode Distant Origin takes on the creationism and anti-scientific dogmatism prominent in the clash between the emerging new atheist movement and the Christian religious right. Though in 1997 this had limited penetration in the public consciousness, the episode’s writer Brannon Braga saw it as being a metaphor for the relationship between Galileo Galilei and the Catholic Church. The episode features the Voth, an advanced alien species who outlaw heretical theories of their evolution from dinosaurs (it’s complicated) as an explicit “crime against doctrine”.

Perhaps the most interesting exploration of theocracies and freedom of belief comes in the series Deep Space Nine. The series’ principal antagonists are the Dominion, intended as a dark mirror of the Federation. Both are huge multi-system multi-species political entities. But whereas the Federation is democratic and egalitarian, the Dominion is authoritarian and hierarchical. Whereas the Federation is humanistic, the Dominion is explicitly theocratic. While there is no formal religious system, the Founders proclaim themselves as gods and the creators or elevators of specific chosen species. All aspects of Dominion society are geared towards veneration of the Founders, and hierarchal control mechanisms are heavily ritualised.

The Federation notably do not demand that the Founders emancipate their subject races in their terms of surrender. Perhaps knowing this would effectively demand the Founders give up their position of godhood, the Federation feels this would violate their Prime Directive of cultural non-interference. Coming at the close of the series, the moral implications of this approach – compared to the theological dethroning of the Ori in Stargate – are not explored.

The titular Deep Space Nine orbits the planet of Bajor a virtually mono-religious society. If not an open theocracy, the Bajoran religion is the principal political and cultural actor on a planet ravaged by an occupation that left few other functional institutions. This embrace of positive religious themes was seen as part of Star Trek’s move away from Gene Roddenberry’s humanist vision for the franchise. Notably, the series lead Commander, then Captain, Sisko, is the first human character in Star Trek shown as having religious beliefs as a Bajoran religious leader (the Space Jesus trope deserves its own essay). While the clearly secular Star Fleet make cultural allowances for many alien religions, Sisko often finds conflicts between his role as religious emissary and officer.

You have to wonder though what the social status of unbelieving Bajorans or those of minority religions would be? The Bajorans have their own version of Satan – the Pah-wraiths are the ancient evil rivals to the Prophets for control of the wormhole/Celestial Temple. The Pah-wraiths received a cult in reaction to perceived failings of the Prophets. How would those sympathetic to this minority religion be treated by wider society?

Later Trek took on a more New Agey ‘everything is true’ approach to religion. Many species in Star Trek are presented as monocultures with various aspects of that culture being embedded in quasi-religious traditions – such as those around Vulcan logic or Klingon honour. This reflects Gene Roddenberry’s humanist and spiritualist ideas about the future of human society.

The Klingons are particularly interesting. Their empire’s founding father Kahless and other legendary figures are deified. But the Klingons explicitly do not have gods as “Ancient Klingon warriors slew them a millennia ago. They were more trouble than they were worth.” This is assumed to be a mythologised telling of the Klingons’ overthrow of an occupying alien species in their distant past, who perhaps set themselves up as gods.

The Orville

Seth MacFarlane’s comedy homage to Star Trek the Next Generation, returns to that generation of Trek’s general approach to religious societies and theocracies, but with more modern storytelling sensibilities. The most explicit examples are the episodes If the Stars Should Appear and Mad Idolatry.

The first of these features the crew discovering a 2,000-year-old derelict colony ship. Inside is an artificial biosphere and a civilization of three million who worship ‘Dorahl’ – a deified mythical figure evolved from their captain. Captains or original colonist crew being deified is also a pretty common trope. The society living on the ship have created a theocratic government imposing the death penalty on any “Reformers” who believe an outside world exists. The Orville’s crew eventually expose the falsity of these beliefs by opening the ships windows exposing the stars. Everything is wrapped up by the end of the episode with the assumption that this demonstration of facts and logic will peacefully sweep the theocracy aside with no long term social problems or ethical dilemmas for the heroes to worry about.

The episode Mad Idolatry is pretty much a straight lift and mash up of two episodes of Star Trek, but has some more interesting reflections. The crew visit a planet with a Bronze Age society and accidently encounter a local. They later learn that the planet magic sci-fi phases in and out of our universe every 11 days, with 700 years passing for the inhabitants. The planet is now in a Middle Ages level of development and an authoritarian theocratic state worshiping a deified version of the Orville crew member encountered 700 years earlier. Horrified by the level of religious persecution done in her name, the crew member Kelly Grayson visits the planet’s religious leader and exposes the truth. But the next 700 year shift shows that this truth has been kept hidden by the church. Now at a 21st-century level of development, the planet appears to have shifted from a singular theocracies to a society of extreme religious strife. The next 700 year shift sees the planet evolve to a comparable technological level. Representatives of the planet and the Orville crew discuss their apparently shared deterministic view that all societies must go through a ‘religious phase’ before gaining a more secular and scientific worldview.

Honorverse and Safehold

Prolific military science fiction writer David Webber is a United Methodist lay preacher, and the role of religion for good and ill is a major recurring theme in his work. His Honorverse series – basically Horatio Hornblower in space – features two prominent theocracies in the Protectorate of Grayson and Masada. Both theocracies were founded by colonists of the Church of Humanity Unchained. Religious organisations being major sponsors of interstellar colonisation is also a common theme in sci-fi – reflecting the influence of American westward expansion on the genre.

The two theocracies and their split following a civil war are used to illustrate the idea that religious extremism  is the problem, rather than religiously based states being inherently problematic. The conflicts between the Graysons and their extreme Masada cousins, and tensions with their more secular allies, provides a lot of room for social commentary.

Representations of ‘good’ theocratic states are understandably rare in science fiction. But the protagonist faction – the Manticoran Alliance – features another implied theocratic monarchy in the form of the Caliphate of Zanzibar. This Islamic state is not explored much in the books. However, one small fun detail is that their flag ranks are indicated by doubled crescent moon collar insignia, rather than planets used by other space navies in the series.

Theocracy and freedom of belief are more central themes in Webber’s Safehold series. Set largely in the 31st century, the planet of Safehold is humanity’ last refuge fleeing an interstellar war. The pre-industrial technology level imposed to avoid detection by the genocidal alien Gbaba is enforced by a global religious system set up by the ‘archangels’ of the original colonising mission, and upheld by the Church of God Awaiting.

The series follows a religious war between the nations loyal to the Church, and the independent Empire of Charis with its own more humanistic and reform minded Church of Charis. Along the way centuries of technological evolution unfolds in a matter of years. By establishing freedom of thought, Charis hopes to gradually undermine the single theocratic authority of the Church of God Awaiting and eventually undermine the technological restrictions.

Webber frequently uses extreme pluralism and diverse religious perspectives to make the case for non-confessional and at least loosely secular states. However, given how important these themes are in his work and Webber’s skill at writing such ideologically and religiously diverse characters, it’s surprising how bad he is at writing humanist or nonreligious perspectives.

Unlike the Safehold series, outside of a few particular planetary societies the Honorverse series makes no attempt to explain why religious belief would continue to be such a widespread default among interstellar human civilisation – let alone what any nonreligious characters would think of this.

Theocracies show up in a lot of military science fiction. Often this serves a storytelling shortcut providing an ideological reason for militarism and conquest where within the science fiction setting resource motivated warfare is irrational. Off the top of my head, the Halo franchise’s Covenant and Christopher G. Nuttall’s Angel in the Whirlwind Series are good examples.

We Are Legion (We Are Bob)

This series by Dennis E. Taylor – brilliantly narrated by: Ray Porter – features FAITH, an acronym obsessed US Christian Nationalist theocracy. FAITH are cartoonishly evil and over the top in a fun way. They rose to power in a backlash against the social liberalisation of the United Sates’ ‘first’ openly atheistic president, they are constantly riven by factionalism between different extremes, and demand public piety while tolerating a greater degree of private dissent.

The whole series is so unique and interesting that I want to avoid spoilers. Basically, software company founder and unabashed geek Bob Johansson has his body frozen, only to be woken up a century later to serve as the computer for a space colonisation probe. FAITH’s pre/post-apocalyptic and post-Earth forms are very much secondary protagonists, and I may not have included it on this list. But Bob’s humanism and its effects on his and his clones’ (it gets complicated) decision making and philosophy is a major theme.

Dennis E. Taylor explains the reasons that he “had to create a theocracy” for the story to work in an interview about the series.

His Dark Materials

Much of the anti-theocratic and pro-humanist messaging of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials flew over my head as a child, along with its commentary on the clash between religion and science, and the need to manage amoral science with human morality.

The Holy Church’s Magisterium rules over the world where the story begins, and its sister theocracies rule over many parallel worlds in the name of The Authority. In a commentary on the claims of theocracies to speak for gods while advancing their own interests, and twist on Nietzsche’s “God is dead”, it is revealed that The Authority is actually a captured elderly and frail tool of the Magisterium and is easily killed.

One of the most interesting ideas in the series is that of the Republic of Heaven, a kind of antonym to the Kingdom of Heaven, where the despotic authority of god is overthrown and replaced with democracy, and freedom of thought. The Republic is established in a parallel universe in preparation for a final battle. However, this is shown to be an act of hubris by Lord Asriel, and the protagonists eventually realise that establishing societies truly free from controlling theocracies such as the Magisterium requires more difficult work.

Near future dystopian theocracies

I’ve already written quite a bit about this subgenre. Cassandra characters and the looming threat of theocracy looks at the common thread of ‘Cassandra Character’ or ‘Ignored Expert’ in the Handmaid’s Tale, Christian Nation, and Vox. These are all very explicitly warnings about the danger posed by White Christian Nationalism. Incidentally, Andrew Seidel has put together a very useful list of non-fiction books exploring the same theme.

I could have added V for Vendetta to that loose Christian Nationalist trilogy, though I am more familiar with the film. The fictional political party Norsefire is explicitly Christofascistic, and an explicit warning about the ability of fascists to co-opt authoritarian power structures. In the film version Valerie Page, a lesbian actor imprisoned for her sexuality, or Evey Hamond’s politically active parents, could both be seen as examples of specific Cassandra character.

As Jacques Berlinerblau, author of Secularism: The Basics, recommended The Plot Against America – an alternative in a similar style depicting the experiences of Anti-Semitism of the Roth family during a Charles Lindbergh presidency. Another commentor recommended I mention If This Goes On by Robert A. Heinlein – a short story set in a future theocratic America ruled by the latest in a series of fundamentalist Christian “Prophets”, and It Can’t Happen Here, though I don’t know enough to call these representations of fascism and national populism theocratic. The latter is often erroneously credited with originating the phrase that ‘When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross’.

Another commentator recommended the Sliders episode California Reich as what they imagine a White Christian Nationalist government to be. The premise of Sliders is visiting alternative Earths each of which have diverged from our own at some point in history. I’ve been unable to track down another episode of Sliders that featured a more explicit theocratic society, making an analogy to Newt Gingrich’s embrace of the ‘Moral Majority’ movement. On a similar note, another commentator recommended The Fifteen Percent Solution – an alternative history depicting the rise and fall of a theocratic state of New American Republics temporarily fulfilling Patrick Buchanan’s ambition of a “sovereign America and that is the sovereign of God himself”.

Others

Thanks everyone who responded to my requests for examples. Zachary Bos of Bonfire Bookshop suggested the theocracy page on TV Tropes, which had some great examples. But I wanted to stick to examples where I had some existing familiarity or something to say.

So I haven’t included recommendations like War Hammer 40k, Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, Final Fantasy, the Holy See from Berserk, Hyperion’s sequel Endymion, Dune Messiah, or many others. Various people also had a lot to say about whether the Jedi/Sith count as theocracies and other examples from the Star Wars extended universe.

I got a lot of suggestions, but decided not to include examples of fictional societies analogous to theocracies. 1984 came up a few times, as did stories involving various God-Emperor or leadership cults. While I wouldn’t include 1984 on this list, I would include Ben Elton’s homage Blind Faith. The story’s anti-intellectualism, rejection of science and individualism is explicitly institutionalised via a state religion, “The Temple”, and the underground resistance network is explicitly humanist.

Small societies organised around religious sects or cults are such a common trope in post-apocalyptic fiction that I couldn’t pick out any particularly interesting examples. I also don’t think these are as useful as allegories or warnings about current society.

The only exception I’d make to that is one of my favourite examples – the Holy Russian Empire from World War Z. One of the book’s themes is the impact of national and cultural identity on responding to crises. We’re not being overrun by zombies in 2022, but the warning of how Russia could turn to concepts of traditionalism and Christian Nationalism to reclaim lost prestige is prescient.

Emma Park (editor of the Freethinker) suggested that depending on whether you classify the Bible as fiction, the Old Testament stories of Moses and the Exodus through to the Israelite kings could be considered an example, and even etymological root of the word ‘theocracy’. But I’d already stretched the definition of ‘sci-fi’ a little far, and already had to miss out on so many examples.

I could have explored whether the monotheistic Cylons of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica franchise could be considered a theocracy. You could even argue that the polytheistic humans’ colonial society could have some theocratic elements.

So, over to you: what are your favourite representations of theocracy in fiction? Can you think of examples from beyond sci-fi and fantasy? What warnings do the theocracies of fictional worlds have for us in the real world?

Thanks for reading

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Photo information: Defocused Image of Lights, Miguel Á. Padriñán

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