Religion seems to be endemic to the human condition. Every culture around the world and throughout recorded history (and probably much further back than that) seems to have some belief in a higher power, even though, to date, there has been zero directly observable and possible to confirm evidence for such. So it is no surprise that science fiction has occasionally delved into this area of the human condition. What is surprising is just how few sf works have really looked deeply at it, and even more surprising that of those that have done so, almost all are excellent works.
There are many, many sf works that paint very detailed pictures of future societies, but in most of these religion, if mentioned at all, is relegated to the side-bar, not front and center. Perhaps this has been due to a reluctance by some of the authors to tackle such a deeply controversial subject, while others may have felt that it was not germane to the story they were telling, and still others may have felt that religion would eventually end up in the dust-bin of history as a failed concept, or antithetical to the basic rules of science that science fiction has as its base. But as science fiction uses precisely this ability to depict future, different societies as mirrors for our current society and its problems, books that ignore the great influence that religion has on the great majority of people are, to some extent, missing the boat.
Happily, those books that do tackle religion head-on almost invariably seem to have something very cogent to say about it. There are those books that look closely at the disturbance to established religious dogma that meeting up with other intelligent species would cause, both from a personal and societal viewpoint. In this category would be things like James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Children of God, Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, Grass by Sherri S. Tepper, and Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke.
Then there are those that look at religion as a force that helps shape a society and its rules for living, morality and ethics. Here we have the great A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., Dune by Frank Herbert (Maub’dib and the Fremen Jihad have much to say about just how powerful a force religion can be), Soldier, Ask Not by Gordon Dickson, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (a very unusual look at a non-Christian belief system), and Anathem by Neal Stephenson.
But perhaps the most important category are those books that are sharp satires on established religions. Here we have Davy by Edgar Pangborn (the Holy Murcan Church is the lynch-pin of this imagined future world, and comes in for some heavy satirical commentary), Towing Jehovah by James Morrow, Job: A Comedy of Justice by Robert Heinlein (so sharp an attack on Christianity, using the exact words of the Bible, that this book was denounced by several religious groups), To Reign in Hell by Stephen Brust, and of course the elephant in the room, the book that not only tore gaping holes in some practices by certain established religions but invented a new religion so believable it led to the establishment of a new church based on it, Heinlein’s Stranger in Strange Land. Whether this book really did grow out of a bet between Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard over who could create the best ‘invented’ religion (I don’t include Hubbard’s writings on and the establishment of Dianetics and Scientology as science fiction, but more as a deliberate attempt to con the connable, and which has unfortunately, to my mind, been all too successful), or was merely the outgrowth of things Heinlein wanted to say for many years and only slowly found his way to crafting this work, it still reigns supreme as one of the best books science fiction has ever produced.
Regardless of your own religious beliefs, reading the books I’ve listed here should be a journey of exploration. While many of these books are scathing in their attacks on certain aspects of religion, at the same time I think they can reinforce a person’s confidence in his own belief systems, by forcing the reader to examine exactly why he believes as he does, and thereby giving him a better foundation for that belief. And it should be a great journey as every book I’ve listed has either been nominated for or received the Hugo Award, a marker of just how well these books are written.