Dec 082013

I saw this painting linked at an article on

Concept Art Writing Prompt: The Missionary Seeks an Alien Convert

A higher rez version is available on the artists blog.


The painting was commissioned to illustrate an Orson Scott Card short story, but it shows something I find interesting in both its banality… and it’s more common absence: someone trying to convert an alien. Anyone who has ever been to wherever more than three humans gather in a two-mile radius has seen someone proselytizing. It’s just something humans do, and probably have done for the last 10,000 or more years. And I honestly can’t come up with any explanation as to why that practice would stop.

Whether you think religion is terrible, or religion in general is awesome, or one religion is awesome and all the others are terrible, I think most people will recognize that religion probably ain’t going away. Religion in the Western world is in a state of general decline… slow in the US, pretty fast in Europe, but nowhere is it going completely away. Past efforts by the likes of various Communist regimes to eliminate religion have proven dismal failures, and generally just tried to replace the extant supernatural religion with an all-new Communist religion, every bit as bloodthirsty and twice as stupid because they made testable claims that *repeatedly* failed. Humans are just plain wired for a belief in the supernatural *and* for a longing for some sort of ritual. And thus… religion.

It’s of course impossible to say if there is some Star Trek/Wars like collection of interstellar species out there that we’ll someday be a part of. I expect that several hundred years down the line will see humanity transformed, via genetics, cybernetics and Odin knows what-all, into something completely unrecognizable. But if we do in fact join the Federation, and have wacky hijinks with aliens that are at least nominally kinda-sorta like us in terms of motives, goals, sheer size and framerate, there will be humans out there who will not only have their own religions, but will make efforts to bring aliens in.

In modern TV & movies, this seems to be a virtually taboo topic (though certainly not in SF literature). Look at Star Trek: the original series in the 1960’s rarely even touched on the topic, but when it did, it hinted that at least some of the human crew were of some form of Judeo-Christian faith (the episode with Apollo, for example had, as memory serves, the aline superbeing Apollo suggesting that the humans needed a whole bunch of gods; Kirk responded with something like “The one we have is just fine,” or words to that effect). But by the time of Next Gen, it was written into the writers “Bible” (Ha! Irony!) that humanity had finally become all-atheist.

Ah… no. That’s bullcrap.

Oddly, while the Trek-humans were all uniformly non-religious, every *other* species out there was slopping over with religion. Usually, of course, it was one religion per species. But even so, this sort of cultural characterization led to the Bajorans and Klingons being just a lot more fleshed-out, not to mention interesting, than the humans.

This weirdness was not universal, however. The late lamented but nearly forgotten Babylon 5 not only had religious aliens, it had religious humans. Some had all-new sci-fi religions, but most were bog-standard entirely recognizable religions. The station had a passel of Fransiscan monks headed by Brother Theo, and while they only appeared a few times, when they did you knew some good stories were afoot. Christianity was, IMO, treated well, and came off well, with some interesting examinations of how some aspects of dogma would play into a sci-fi future (I’m looking at *you,* Brother Wormtoungue!). The sadly one-off attempt at a B-5 revival was literally swamped with Catholicism, and made some good points about how the Church would both fade after contact with alien cultures, and how it might survive and even thrive. And let’s not forget Vorlon ambassador Kosh rockin’ out to the beat of Puer Natus est, a scene that still gets to me.

But B-5  was kind of a voice in the wilderness on this topic. Battlestar Galactica, both versions, were heavily steeped in religion, but in clearly fictional religions (for reason that of course made sense in context). Star Wars did, until “Episode 1,” have something vaguely resembling a Jedi religion, but that got handwaved away.

If we get Out There, and have regular run-ins with Them, we are going to find our religions threatened, challenged and changed. But unless we get exterminated or reprogrammed, or meet up with a powerfully successful alien religion that simply swamps all Earthly religions, humans are going to keep their religion. Though not without some changes, of course; End Timers are going to be in a bit of a bind if humans spread throughout the stars and are no longer bound to one readily torched planet.

And so if there is a Federation or Galactic Republic out there that we can join, there will be missionaries like the one in the painting trying to convert some aliens. And why the hell not? Sure, it might be a nuisance to them… but on the other hand, so long as the missionaries aren’t dicks about it, it might say something good about us as a species that there are humans out there who recognize that the aliens are, fundamentally, of the same worth as humans. I’ll take a Mormon or Catholic missionary telling an alien that it, too, has a soul worth saving over an interstellar Klansman or Nazi who sees alien species as sub-human.


 Posted by at 12:33 am
  • blackcat

    Babylon 5 did a reasonable job of handling religion and religious issues. In one episode, the Narn were mentioned to have more than one religion and even non-believers. In another an alien couple were opposed to life saving surgery for their kid due to religious reasons. This series was rather unique in many ways and it’s too bad it had to live in the shadow of the endless star trek franchise.

    I agree with you that otherwise, most TV sci-fi would rather not deal with it.

  • Brianna

    Why do we assume we’ll convert the aliens? Maybe the aliens will try to convert us?

    • Anonymous

      They’ll get a *lot* of converts in California. I shudder to imagine, though, what’ll happen when the alien missionaries land and start preaching in Certain Regions of Earth…

      This was something that was at least touched on in B-5, though oddly not to any depth. One wonders if “pushy universalist” religions might be uniquely human. It might be interesting to have a story with a vast and largely peaceful galactic civilization of tens of thousands of species… none of whom even have the *notion* of religion. Then humanity, low species on the totem pole, shows up and starts preaching…

      • Jim Baerg

        “Pushy Universalist” religions seem to have uniquely started in the middle east a bit over 2000 years ago. It’s a bit hard to be sure how much over, since the universalist part leads adherents of such a religion to rewrite history to exagerate the religion’s age.

        I recently read “In the Shadow of the Sword” about the origins of Islam, which includes lots of information about developments in Christianity Judaism, Zoroastrianism & a few more obscure sects over the centuries before Mohammed. That book told me a lot about the extent to which the religions rewrote their history.

  • Bill H.

    ST DS9 had a strong religious character usually shown as scheming and manipulative. I recall several episodes where the fact-based history and religious mythos were in conflict.

    • Anonymous

      I always thought Winn was an interesting character.

  • publiusr

    “I’ll take a Mormon or Catholic missionary telling an alien that it, too, has a soul worth saving over an interstellar Klansman or Nazi who sees alien species as sub-human.”

    –or as demons.

    The Mormans and Catholics would likely want a real dialog.. Most folks down here have this mythology that aliens are really demons and that everything having to do with science or the New Age (adversaries actually) all stem from Satan.
    So I expect the first alien who steps off a craft in the Deep South will likely be shot dead.
    There’s your answer to Fermi.

    • Anonymous

      > –or as demons.

      From this:

      Comes this nugget of intellectual sadness:

      “It is a documented fact that UFO activity is most rampant in countries
      with little or no Christian influence. Brazil, Russia, China, Mexico,
      Jamaica, the Philippines, and other spots on the Christian frontier seem
      to be UFO favorites.”

      Errrr… Brazil? Mexico? Philippines? Little or no Christian influence?

      Oh… wait. Not the *right* Christian influence.

      Of all of ’em, I’d bet on the Hindus, Mormons, Catholics, Buddhists and various smaller pagan religions to do best with the discovery of a Galactic Republic. Jews will probably be just fine with it, but I don’t see them making an effort and converting the Zeta Reticulans. The stereotypical Bible Bangers and the Muslims…. I foresee trouble there.

      The Mormons I’d bet would be excited. The Catholics would simply adapt.

      • Brianna

        The more mainline Protestants would probably be fine. I just can’t see the discovery of alien life whipping the Episcopalians into a frenzy.

  • Bill H

    Shoot, it doesn’t even take REAL aliens to convert the Californians into ritual suicide!'s_Gate_(religious_group)

    The discussion makes me remember Childhood’s End. Great book!