Faith in Fiction 12: Portraying religious diversity
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A commenter on my last post brought up the diversity of belief between and betwixt the earth’s faiths. Indeed, diversity of belief exists even among members of the same religious community, even over something as basic as who God is.

The Meri series was built around the idea that the Osraed (the priest-wizards of my world) didn’t really agree on the “shape of God”. They thought they did until a new revelation claiming to be from that God, rattled them. Then they circled the wagons and discovered that they held sometimes radically different, sometimes subtly different beliefs.

What to do? What to do?

Where this impacts your decisions about the religious landscape in your story depends on a variety of factors. For example, even assuming your fictional culture started out with one faith, what was the genesis of that faith? Did it fragment, or remain cohesive? Is it a synthesis of two or more other faiths? Is it a “child” faith of an older parent?

In The Meri (which will be released as an eBook by Book View Cafe on December 18, 2012) all the people of Carraid-land subscribe to the same faith. But their neighbors to the south do not. Why? Because the religion of Carraid-land was revealed by a homegrown prophet.

A boy named Ochan-a-Coille — the first Osraed — relayed his revelation to a clan leader, Malcuim, who rose to be king because he listened to the prophet. He became known as Malcuim the Uniter. The Osraed, then, became the chief advisors of the Caraidan kings. This is a religious continuum that affects only the people that live on this peninsula. The folks across the southern mountain range have different beliefs because God’s revelation to them came through a different mechanism.

Obviously, the isolation of these separate cultures was an intentional plot element. When they come together in the third book of the series, there are naturally tensions between them.

In The Spirit Gate, however, I drew Christianity, Islam and several different varieties of “paganism” into one tale and explored what happened when each group was intent on controlling the throne of a small, but important country.

The Spirit Gate was an alternate history and I wanted to get my players right — so I pitted the Frankish Church, the Teutonic Order, the Islamic Turks, and the not-quite-Buddhist Mongols against each other in a tug of war over a pagan kingdom. All of the religions portrayed were established and well-set doctrinally.

Whether you’re inventing a religious landscape, or employing one even marginally from real life, immersing yourself in the history of a faith can yield all sorts of wonderful gems in the form of situations, characters, settings, conflict, and drama.

Your approach to religious diversity will depend on what you want that diversity to reveal about your characters and culture. It can drive conflict or confluence or both.

Next time: The interaction of religion and culture

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About Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Writer of speculative fiction as the result of a horrible childhood incident involving Klaatu and a robot named Gort. Author of The Mer Cycle trilogy.
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