Writing Religion

noaa_globe-oceansWell, Neal’s busy this weekend, so I’m afraid that you’re all going to have to contend with a couple of extra posts from me.  On Tuesday Paul wrote an excellent post about how he’s using Religion in his own world, G’desh, that inspired a fair amount of conversation. One of the questions raised in this conversation was whether we should be using religion in speculative fiction at all. There were two major concerns raised 1) the risk of creating offense to those whose religious beliefs might be similar to a religion that seems to be negatively represented, and 2) the fact that so much fantasy religion seems to be too close to Christianity. So, I want to give any newer writers sharing these concerns a few guidelines on how to write religion effectively in speculative fiction. However, first I do have to say that I find the second concern somewhat surprising. The vast majority of fantasy that I’ve read, from Steven Erikson and George R.R. Martin to Ursula Leguin, Glenn Cook, David Eddings, and to a degree even J.R.R. Tolkien draw much more heavily on polytheistic religions (Greek, Norse, Celtic, Egyptian mythology) than on Christianity. While there are clear Christian ideas present in Tolkien’s writing, and C.S. Lewis is quite obviously attempting to write a Christian allegory, I can’t say that I’ve seen an overwhelming Christian influence in the high or dark fantasy Genres. So, if someone could provide some examples of this influence, I would be most appreciative. Now, a few guidelines when writing religion in speculative fiction:

-1) Religion exists: I know that some people try to take religion out of the world entirely, but this doesn’t generally work well. The reason for this is that it is human nature to believe in something. While the question of whether God exists can, and has been, argued ad infinitum, the simple fact that the Great Spaghetti Monster has worshippers should prove that, even if God doesn’t exist, we as a race want him to. At a fundamental level humans need something to base their lives on, and religion is simply the most accessible foundation available. Whether any particular religion is true is relatively unimportant for this point. It is simply easier for most people to believe that God or some set of gods exist that brought everything about than to live in a state of constant skepticism or attempt to formulate a rational metaphysical belief that is not founded on something… else. This is even true in the speech of modern Atheist scholars. Even though these scholars do not believe in any deity, and some even believe that they can prove that no such deity is reasonably possible, they talk about the universe as though it were a deific, intelligent, willful entity. So, in my humble opinion, an attempt to simply excise religion entirely isn’t realistic. It would be kind of like trying to write a world without math or without people.

658px-Belief_Venn_diagram.svg2) Write what you believe: I firmly believe that every story is and should be a teaching tool. So, be aware of what your fiction is teaching. I’m not saying that you sacrifice story for the sake of lesson, but your world should reflect your beliefs about the real world. When I read your story, it should teach me something about the world as a whole. So, when you are creating religions for your world, do it in a way that you can actually agree with. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a theologian and get every detail exactly right, but if you believe in a naturalistic world filled with elemental spirits and creatures, why would you write a world in which a monotheistic God sent a savior to redeem the sins of man? In opposition, if you believe in a God who sent a savior to redeem the sins of men, why would you write a world with no concept of monotheism or redemption? Consider the work of Steven Erikson here: Erikson’s Malazan world is very humanistic. The gods were once men, and to some degree still are. Similarly, men can become gods, and men can kill gods. While Erikson’s religions are many and complex, as is religion in the real world, he makes it clear that man must save himself. In Erikson’s world a man is responsible for his own life, he cannot simply rely on some god to come and make everything better. One of the reasons that my own world of Avnul emphasizes the concept that the gods are above men, beyond them in every way and not reliant on them is that I disagree with the common humanistic arguments in modern fantasy and want to provide a counter to them.

Religions_4x53) Write something that reflects reality: How many religions can you name? Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Wicca, Shintoism, Ba’hai, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, Paganism, Norse Religion (yes, people actually still worship Odin and Thor), The Great Spaghetti Monster (yes, he has a few actual worshippers now), Tenrikyo… Honestly, I’ve barely scratched the surface! In the history of the world there have been hundreds of religions (at least), and if you break down all of the different cults, sects, etc, there have been thousands. They range from sensible to insane, from historically realistic to having no basis in evidence at all, from ancient to only a few years old, from believable to utterly and completely unbelievable. If you’ve written a world where there are only two or three religions then you’re missing the mark. You may decide to write a world where there is one true religion and hundreds of false religions. You may decide to write a world where all religions are false, or write a world where all religions are true (see above), but write something that actually reflects the way the world is.

map_4414) Write something that is fundamentally yours: Perhaps, like myself, you are a Christian. If you are going to write an allegory 1) make it obvious and 2) make it accurate. I believe I’ve mentioned before that I have serious problems with the concept of redemption presented in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. The Christian religion is, in part, about the redemption of wicked men. However, in Lewis’ fiction all the wicked men die horribly and go to Tosh. If you are not trying to write an allegory, then make the religions in your world your own. Tolkien is an excellent example of this, as is Erikson. Both men write worlds that have clear elements of their own beliefs. If you read Tolkien (especially the Silmarillion) concepts of monotheism, angelic beings, creation, the fall, and redemption of the wicked are all very clear. However, Christianity does not exist in Tolkien’s world, nor does any direct cognate for Christianity. Similarly, as I mentioned above, Erikson’s world is distinctly humanist, but there are still real gods with real power.

When we write the ultimate goal, as Aristotle said, should be to both educate and entertain. Pay attention to what you’re teaching people and write a world that reflects the real world and allows you to say something real about that world, but that is also thoroughly your own creation. It’s a careful balance, but when struck well it’s what makes stories great.