The Agonist Journal

Fans of the science fiction series The Expanse, which completed its third season last Spring, had a bit of a scare for two weeks after the season concluded. They saw the show cancelled on May 11th and then overnight they started an extensive social media and e-mail campaign aimed at convincing the streaming giant Amazon that the series was worth investing in. Just two weeks later, on May 26th, Amazon announced the production of a fourth season exclusively for their streaming service starting in December of 2019. For those unfamiliar with its history, the series began broadcast on the SyFy television channel in 2015. It quickly developed an ardent though not enormous fan base (average viewers for each season fell under the 1 million mark) gaining substantial critical acclaim. It earned nominations for the Saturn Award in the category “Best Science Fiction Television Series” in each of its three seasons and won the Hugo award for “Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form” in 2017. It has been deemed “The Best Sci-Fi TV Show You’re Not Watching” by Rolling Stone and praised for its absolutely unparalleled realism by NPR.

“Whether the people creating the show realize it or not, the centrality of the Christian religion flows through the narrative.”

How realistic is it? Acceleration is given in units of gravity, and there are no “inertial dampeners” to fail. And no warp/hyper/jump-drives, so no faster-than-light travel, at least not until the end—and I mean the very end—of the third season. Supplies of air and water are limited on every single spacecraft or structure, meaning losing much of either from the ship or space station will be fatal to those on board sooner rather than later. The show is realistic enough to make this a plot point in more than half of the episodes made so far, and that makes it unique in the history of science fiction on television.

So much for its history and place in the minds of critics. What is the series itself about, dramatically? To begin with, the series is set approximately 200 years in the future. Mankind has colonized Mars and the asteroid belt (its inhabitants are called “Belters,” in a nod to the asteroid miners in the works of science fiction grand master Larry Niven). There is considerable tension between Earth and Mars, because inhabitants of the former view the latter as parasitic ingrates who would have no civilization without Earth, while the Martians view the Earthers as ruthless exploiters who take Martian resources and ignore Martian needs, echoing the tensions between colonial powers and their colonies seen in the 18th through 20th centuries. The Belters? They have organized themselves into something called the OPA: The Outer Planets Alliance. They have grievances with both Earth and Mars, seeing both planetary governments as ruthless exploiters of their labor and resources, and have fought a guerilla war against both for decades. As the series begins, there is an uneasy détente among these three powers but the tension is barely contained.

With respect to characters, The Expanse mainly features four blue-collar types, two of whom have military backgrounds—James Holden , Amos Burton, Naomi Nagata, and Alex Kamal —along with a film-noire reminiscent Belter detective from the asteroid Ceres named Josephus Miller and a highly-placed U.N. diplomat named Chrisjen Avasarala. All six of the main protagonists get involved in the unraveling of a conspiracy to bring about a war between Earth and Mars, a war that would imperil the lives and livelihoods of the Belters as well. The plot is intriguing and unpredictable, consistent with both the applicable science and the fictional cosmos built around it, and the series’ production values are stunningly good. To my mind, though, one element of the series stands out as unique and not just remarkable; namely, its depiction of religion, an aspect which has also drawn some attention for being exceptionally believable. In other words, it is unlike other science fiction television shows by depicting the survival of real religions in its imagined future.

Which religions survive and why I will get into in a moment, but first, to understand just how atypical The Expanse’s depiction of religion is for small-screen, mass-market science fiction, we first have to define the “typical” depiction of religion in this genre and medium. In the last 60 years since the rise of television and science fiction television, the treatment of religion has fallen into four broad categories, all of them more or less grounded in a materialist philosophy:

1. The Karl Marx view: This is the most devoutly materialistic idea of religion. Religion is a destructive force that hinders human advancement toward a better understanding of the cosmos and better standard of living; that is, a science fiction expression of the most doctrinaire materialist treatment of religion. (This is also seen repeatedly in the various iterations of Star Trek and Dr. Who, and its most explicit film expression is the movie version of Carl Sagan’s Contact.)

2. The Auguste Comte view: Religion is a man-made explanation for otherwise inexplicable or mysterious phenomena of natural origin, an explanation which mankind will eventually grow out of (also seen in both the various iterations of Star Trek and in Dr. Who). A close cousin to this idea of religion is what I call “The Eric von Daniken School of Religion,” to wit:

3. The Erich von Däniken view: Religion is the result of contact with one or more advanced alien civilizations, toward whose advanced state of mental and physical development the human race is slowly but inexorably evolving (also seen in Star Trek, but most explicitly in Stargate: SG1 and its successors as well as in Babylon Five). It may hint at the ultimate nature of reality, but that last aspect is questionable.

And finally:

4. The Émile Durkheim/Joseph Campbell view: Religion has some positive social value, for it helps humans in their quest to understand the mystery of life’s meaning, and at the very least reveals truths about humanity, if not about the ultimate nature of reality. (This is also seen in a few episodes of the various versions of Star Trek, but it’s a much more prominent element in Babylon Five and Battlestar Galactica).

Of these options it is number 4, the least common treatment of religion in televised science fiction, that comes closest to the view of religion in The Expanse. The basic motivation that gets the action rolling in the series is a thoroughly Christian application of the virtues of mercy and selflessness, contrasted with a cold-hearted adherence to rule-driven utilitarian ethic. Specifically, James Holden, the acting Executive Officer of the ice-hauling freighter Canterbury, decides, against the orders of his captain, to respond to a distress call from a disabled ship on the mere chance that the Canterbury might be able to save some unknown number of lives. They fail, and their failure puts them on the run from the major powers in a quest to find out who exactly was responsible for the murders of an heiress, the crew of a freighter, the crew of a Martian warship, and eventually the murder of the entire populace of the asteroid Eros in a hideous medical experiment run by a doctor appropriately named “Dresden.”

In all of this, there is a morality informed by the notion of being your brother’s keeper, by mercy and compassion to your neighbor. There is a quest for a decidedly non-utilitarian form of justice that drives the action forward more than each new discovery, each new step in the unraveling of the conspiracy. The protagonists—Holden, Nagata, Kamal, Burton, and Miller—keep making these moral decisions in line with a Judeo-Christian view of humanity, against the openly nihilistic and utilitarian ethos that pervades the contexts in which they find themselves. The utilitarian ethos, seeing people as mere material to be used, is what informs the actions and deficient consciences of the series’ main villains, such as the amoral Earther businessman Jules-Pierre Mao (Dr. Dresden’s employer) or the Belter terrorist and revolutionary Anderson Dawes.

The Expanse does not merely envision a human civilization in which the preferred, even admired morality, the moral vision shown to be heroic, is fundamentally Christian; it envisions a multi-planet civilization in which multiple forms of Christianity are (apparently) the dominant or only extant forms of religion. Early in the first season of the series, Miller encounters missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), leading to the only non-ironic exchange involving the question “Have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” this author has seen in a science fiction context. Yes, the Mormons make it to the age of space colonization in this vision of the future. In fact, the LDS church bankrolls the construction and mission of humanity’s first generation-ship aimed at colonizing a habitable planet which has been discovered around Tau Ceti: The LDSS Nauvoo .The LDS colony ship, adorned with a golden statue of the Archangel Gabriel on its “bow” and its bridge, is decorated with all the trappings of a Mormon Temple.

In the course of the second season, we see that the Nauvoo does not get the chance to fulfil its intended purpose of bringing LDS colonists to a habitable extra-solar planet; at the moment when the decision is made to put the Nauvoo to a different and potentially noble use, the characters making the decision discuss the question of Divine Providence, one going so far as to say the ship’s new purpose is “God’s will.” It fails in this purpose through no fault of those controlling it, and is eventually salvaged and converted into the OPAS Behemoth, the first warship built and manned by Belters. This final use of what had been intended as the vehicle for spreading the LDS population and their faith across the stars suggests a possible commentary on the co-opting of religion for military purposes by successful asteroid belt-revolutionaries, in what looks like a science-fiction allegory of liberation theology.

Season three sees the prominent introduction of two other forms of Christianity in the series, namely Methodism, in the character of Reverend Doctor Anna Volovodov, and the implied introduction of what appears to be Roman Catholicism in the person of Father Hector Cortez.[1] Of the two, Volovodov is the only character given significant screen time and her character arc to date shows her taking her responsibilities as a pastor, the reality of God, and the reality of the Christian faith seriously—to a point. The Reverend Doctor, you see, is a lesbian in a same-sex marriage who has a daughter. All of these elements are deliberately foregrounded in the time allotted to the character. Father Cortez, who is alluded to as being something akin to a highly successful and politically active 20th-century televangelist, is married and has a son.

Now, these elements of the two characters, both religious leaders, could very well have been left in the digital clipboard before the final versions of the episodes in which they appear were aired, but it seems to me they were included for a reason. The two figures seem to reveal either where the screenwriters and producers of The Expanse think these forms of Christianity are likely to go in light of prevailing cultural trends at the dawn of the twenty-first century, or where they think these forms of Christianity should go, regardless of whatever cultural trends may prevail. Christianity, in these two forms at least, is likely to or will be allowed to survive if it embraces the contemporary trend toward loosening of orthodox, traditional Christian sexual mores. That is, Methodism will (or should be allowed to) survive only if it allows clergy who are in same-sex “marriages” and Catholicism will (should be allowed to) survive only if it allows priests to marry.

There is another aspect of religion in The Expanse that is only hinted at by the presence of these two characters in the show’s third season: Namely, there is no significant, noticeable presence of non-Christian religions. The third season features the arrival of an extraterrestrial entity, an intelligent artefact from a dead civilization, in the solar system. The three human “nations” then send spacecraft out to investigate the artefact. Earth’s lead ship, the UNN (United Nations Navy) Thomas Prince, hosts a group of religious leaders and philosophers whose insights, it is hoped, will help mankind understand the meaning of the alien artefact and perhaps communicate with its makers. Cortez and Volovodov appear among these, but no one of them is clearly identified as belonging to any recognizable non-Christian religion and none of them except Cortez and Volovodov get any screen time worth noting.

One has to wonder what this says about the screenwriters’ and producers’ thoughts on the future of non-Christian religions. What exactly is supposed to have happened to the adherents of these other religions in the course of the two hundred years between the present day and the future envisioned by The Expanse? A collapse of the civilizations that they maintained? A massive war resulting in the wholesale extermination of Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu populations? So far, the question remains unanswered. While one of the main characters followed in the series, Chrisjen Avasarala, is clearly Indian and from a Hindu culture, there is no clear indication of the continued existence and influence of Hinduism as a meaningful cultural force. Likewise, with Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. If there are Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists in the future imagined by The Expanse’s writers, they are not present in the series.

From what the screenwriters and directors of The Expanse have shown viewers of their fictional cosmos so far, it appears that the future of Belters, Martians, and Earthers is a future in which only Christianity has proven capable of mounting an enduring challenge to an otherwise utilitarian and nihilistic metaphysical system. The three strains of humanity may live in a civilization that is afflicted by a constant stream of bleak and materialistic metaphysics, but they all recognize the good and admirable character of a Christian ethic characterized by mercy, compassion, and self-sacrifice: and they either honor this ethic or attempt to destroy it. So far, the series has shown a far more realistic depiction of man’s inherently religious nature and of the moral truths about man than is common to the genre. This factor, more than the careful attention to physics and the inherent dangers of space travel, is what makes the series deeply realistic: its treatment of human character and of the inescapable, transcendent foundations of any vital human civilization. Whether the people creating the show realize it or not, the centrality of the Christian religion flows through the narrative.


[1] The character of Hector Cortez on the television version of The Expanse appears to combine elements of the character of the same name from the books and a character from the books called “Father Michel.” In any case, the visual presentation of the character in his frock and collar is definitely meant to indicate the office of a Roman Catholic priest and the character is dealt with as such here.