This is the question that came up at an online Catholic writer’s convention several years ago: Can you write positively or neutrally about other religious beliefs without betraying your own?
This is a real fear among some writers with strong religious convictions (or secular ones)—that their own beliefs may be called into question if they are not negative about the other belief systems they portray in their fiction. A writer might fear that if they avoid real elements in a belief system that would impact their characters negatively, they will sap their story of realism, or that if they do acknowledge those elements, they’ll be accused of bashing that belief system—even if it’s their own. Conversely, some fear that if they give another belief system a positive treatment, the reader might walk away with a good opinion of something the writer—because of her own strong beliefs—thinks of as a false or questionable belief.
Speculative fiction is, to a great extent, about problem-solving. To paraphrase Ray Bradbury, SF is our way of projecting the solutions to future problems so as to better grapple with the ones we face today. Much science fiction warns readers of the pitfalls inherent in certain assumptions, be they technological or ideological. One of the falsest of assumptions that human beings make—and one that underscores the attitudes of a great many fictional antagonists—is the the idea that the ends justify the means. What is good for them—power, wealth, control—must be good for the faith, the world, the Universe (bwahaha).
Even for a writer with no intention of bashing anything, the subject of religion is a sore point for many people. Some writers simply avoid dealing with it altogether. I find that untenable, so I have to be willing to take my licks. A content editor at my publishing house characterized my fourth novel, The Spirit Gate, as “Christian bashing” because one of the antagonists was an arrogant, power-hungry bishop with a Machiavellian philosophy. The editor felt I’d added insult to injury by showing noble Muslim and pagan characters. She somehow missed the fact that the main antagonist of the story was a pagan wizard, and that I made the point that in pursuing his self-aggrandizing course, the bishop was acting in conflict with his professed faith. (The managing editor later read the book herself, disagreed with the first reader, and apologized for the bruhaha.)
Are there flaws in the doctrines of any of the thousands of sects of Christianity? As Christ urged His followers to unity, and the past 2000 years have seen so much schism, I think we must bow to the inescapable logic that there must be flaws in church doctrine. If your fiction contains depictions of religious beliefs, it’s hard to avoid touching on some doctrinal issues. The danger comes in extrapolating negative feelings about sectarian doctrine into a blanket condemnation of an entire belief system and all of its adherents even for the sake of a ripping yarn.
One of my favorite pieces that I’ve written (A Cruel and Unusual Punishment—published in Interzone magazine and the anthology Infinite Space, Infinite God), deals with the staunch convictions of an IRA terrorist that his blowing up of a school bus full of Protestant children is a justifiable act of war. I structured the story to follow the Stations of the Cross (the stops Christ made on the Via Dolorosa as He made His way to His crucifixion) and began each “station” with a quote about the nature of heaven and/or hell. I was ever aware that I was dealing with an individual character who felt he was on doctrinally safe ground in believing it better for those Protestant children to die for the cause of a free Ireland than to grow up to become adult apostates. I might have veered into a scathing condemnation of Catholicism, or Christianity as a whole. Instead, I chose to have the prison priest tell him, “Liam, your Cause is not the Cause of the Church.”
A writer who is troubled by a trend she sees in her belief system or any other, may wish to project that trend onto a future fictional canvas to explore with the reader what that trend might look like if carried to its logical extreme. And when you project an institutionalized religion into the future, you certainly could posit that its flaws will magnify, or morph, or diminish or….? So, yes, Christianity (or some part thereof) may have a second Dark Ages if it serves the story. Islam may be declared a subversive political movement in some countries of the world. Zoroastrianism might see a world-wide revival. Buddhist extremists might arise preaching complete withdrawal from the common world. An obscure Jewish sect might spawn a future wave of terrorists.
The question for the writer is: What do any of those developments look like as background to your story?
Here, as in many areas of writing, “show, don’t tell” is a good policy. If you wish to make a point about an element of religious doctrine, for example, it’s more effective to illustrate how that doctrine affects the individual than simply to say, “This is a bad (or good) doctrine” or to even have your characters argue the point.
In every case, I think it’s best to let your reader decide how they feel about the situation.
Next time: Religious waves of the future