Faith in Fiction 10: Religions of a Certain Age

Continuing the discussion of religion in fiction, something I try to be aware of is the age of the religion I’m portraying—whether it’s real or invented.

When you portray a religion in a story, a key factor in how it will function within the world and the plot is its age. Historically speaking, each religion goes through a life-cycle that begins with its revelation or emergence.

To be utterly simplistic, it looks something like this:

  1. Birth of the revelation and lifetime of the Prophet. I find this a very interesting time to write about. The new Voice speaks, some souls respond positively, others snarl and snap, there’s a lot of turmoil. How much? Well, how many converts are there — only a few? Thousands? If you’re portraying this period of time, the answer to that question will determine the level and type of conflict you’ll be dealing with. Christ was crucified in the hope that the few true believers He’d gathered would be discouraged (they weren’t); Muhammad and His followers found themselves under siege by the pagan tribes and the Jewish community at Medina; the Báb’í Faith grew so swiftly that the Muslim orthodoxy slaughtered 20,000 adherents. The reaction should match the threat.
  2. The Heroic Age. The Prophet or Avatar is no longer among us, but His teachings are carried everywhere by fearless men and women who seem to have no concern for personal safety.  There may be more martyrs; pogroms, unrest. The faith spreads, meets new obstacles and opportunities. A writer could have a field day with this as the faith touches different societies and changes them — and is changed by them.
  3. Rise from obscurity. At some point a faith becomes, if not the accepted religion, at least an accepted religion. How that happens can affect your story, of course. Does it happen by momentum (Okay, half our population is Zoroastrian, I guess we’d better recognize them.) or by fiat (I’m king, you’re all Christians. That’s that. And by the way it’s Merry Christmas, not Joyous Solstice.) Or maybe your society holds a referendum. (I move we all become Buddhists. Do I hear a second?)
  4. A Golden Age. The religion is strong, vital, and affects every facet of society. Arts, sciences and social institutions flourish. New discoveries are made. There is a surge of invention.  New institutions emerge — universities, libraries, systems to take care of the poor, etc..
  5. Decline. Individuals and political groups seek to use faith to harness power. Institutions become corrupt or unravel. The purpose of the Faith seems to get lost as the doctrine becomes increasingly dogmatic and particular. Schism increases, as do reform movements. People lose faith, or become alienated and cynical. The leadership may largely be concerned with consolidating or maintaining its power. A great many writers have focused on this period of religious history because it is so rich with contrasts and fraught situations.
  6. Renewal. This is an interesting period too. Renewal of sorts seems to happen to an older religion when a newer one arises out of it. This has happened historically with Hinduism/Buddhism, Judaism/Christianity, and Islam/Bahá’í Faith. It’s essentially coming full circle. A “new” religion has been born, drawing on the teachings of the previous one, and claiming to fulfill it. But as a writer you may wish to focus on the effect this has on the older version of the Faith — perhaps your protagonist is a Pharisee or your world’s alternative. Whether your characters are old-guard, innocent bystanders, or part of the new movement, this is a dangerous time. I chose to write about this in my first fantasy trilogy, which takes place in a land that only exists in my head. But my attention to the details of the religious stagnation and renewal were the stuff of history books.

That’s really simplistic, as I said, but it can give you an idea of the incredibly rich mine of material you have when you work to build a convincing religion into your world.

Next time: Are there common elements in all religions?



Faith in Fiction 10: Religions of a Certain Age — 3 Comments

  1. Of course, this keys on the religion having an origin.
    There are religions which don’t. As a rule, they are deeply syncretistic, interwoven into life, and don’t have names until they are contrasted with religions that do have origins: Buddhism was the spur that caused both Shinto and Hinduism to acquire names. As for the paganism of the Roman Empire, technically it still hasn’t got a name, because “pagan” denotes all religions not Christian or Jewish or Muslim (or heresies thereof).

  2. As I said, some religion is revealed and some emergent. But I think even the emergent ones are informed, as you note, by a revealed faith in some ways. And, in fact, I think very ancient emergent religious traditions may stem from a distinct origin to which the prevalent culture accretes a diverse array of other “stuff.”

    Look at the religion practiced by the Romans, for example, the lares (tribal or household gods) were not part of the “official” pantheon, but were brought into the religious tradition with the different tribal groups Rome conquered. The same sort of syncretism has affected Catholicism, as well—how many of the saints were the tribal or regional gods and goddesses of local populations the Church encountered?

    That’s something I realize I didn’t really address as a part of the lifecycle because in some cases it takes place during several of those phases. It’s a sort of cultural barter during which the new religion and the prevailing culture work out how older traditions and ideas will be accommodated—or not. It can be energizing or disastrous—peace-creating or contentious. And there, again, there are stories to be told.

  3. And what about the death of a religion? We do lose them; serious worshippers of Zeus are not often met with these days (although I am sure there is a web page somewhere). Or consider the Shakers, a sect which, since all members had to be celibate, was dependent on conversions. I was going to write a story once — I still may do it — about the very last oracle at Delphi. It would be too simplistic to simply have the shrine sacked by barbarians and all the devotees put to the sword, and it’s been done. I was going to make it SFnal…