Our world culture is so steeped in religious principle that there’s no way to winnow it out. I often hear people advance the idea that they can be moral without religion. This is demonstrably true—one doesn’t need to be a member of an organized church or movement to have a moral fabric, but the things most of us hold to be moral had their genesis in religious teaching.
That in itself is an invitation to ask what if. What if those precepts had never been given? What if no Avatar had ever uttered a word about how we were supposed to treat other members of our society—or beyond? What if there were a world in which no one had stepped forward to advance the idea that women were people and should have the rights thereof? What if no one had ever said, “Thou shalt not kill” and put the force of divine authority behind it?
What would a culture look like if you removed even one of the truths we hold to be “self-evident” (often situationally)?
Conversely, what if you posit a culture in which the members actually lived by those prescriptive principles?
Okay, maybe that would be unutterably boring. But I suppose that would depend on what age of culture you drew upon for your principles. Or what you put that culture in conflict with. (Maybe the one from above with no prescriptive principles.)
For example, let’s say you posit a nomadic, pre-industrial, pre-agrarian culture. People living off the land, going with the flow of meat animals, just now noticing that those four-legged beasties are coming closer and closer to the camp fires and are cadging food scraps from the humans. In fact, what if they are just noticing the camp fires of other groups of humans?
What sort of religious teachings might an Avatar bring to such a group of people? Or, yet again, what sort of tribal religion(s) might they develop in the absence of such an Avatar? Would they demonize the four-legged beasties roving the fringes of their camp fires, deify them, or make them pets and hunting buddies—or a combination of the above?
Fast forward to a world in which widespread cultures from different points of the compass are beginning to meet each other. History offers a few more illustrations in that arena. One has only to look at the impact of Islamic thought on the Arab tribes and on the Christian West. Mathematics, sciences such as anatomy and astronomy, botany, engineering, medicine, libraries, universities — all these things exploded in the West through contact with Islam.
The converse, of course, is also tasty fare: human culture impacts religion. Back to that “age of the religion” question — I used the word “man-handled” to describe that in an earlier post. I didn’t use it lightly.
Take the concept of a religious hierarchy. Even if an Avatar or Prophet doesn’t suggest one, we’ll invent it. So, if you put your religion into a society with very congealed values around such things as castes, hierarchies, and politics, there will be a movement toward manipulating the religion to flex around those things. Just look at the way religion in America has flexed around the religious teachings on the value of individual human beings the group in power thinks of as “other”: Indians, Blacks, women, gays, immigrants…
Krishna doesn’t prescribe castes in the Bhagavad Gita, but there they are in Indian society, a throwback to what was there before. Christ never promoted a priesthood, but most Christian denominations have some sort of pastoral positions. Likewise current fundamentalist Islamic views on women draw heavily on tribal views that existed before Muhammad came. He devoted entire chapters of the Qur’an to undoing them, but some centuries down the line, the previously existing culture has reasserted itself in some areas.
So, the question for the writer is: What phase of your religion — real or imagined — to you want to portray? How old is the culture around it? How established are its hierarchies, its social structures, its sense of what’s important? Did the religion come to the culture from outside it—as Buddhism came to Mongols, for example—or did it arise within it, as Judaism arose within the nascent Hebrew culture?
The $64,000 question is: What serves your characters and your plot best — the fresh, vivid, but dangerous time when the established religion/culture will be out for the blood of the new faith’s adherents, the placid age of consolidation and cultural flowering, or the age of decay when society has mucked about with it, “teaching as doctrine the commandments of men”, as Christ puts it?
And of course, how will you approach this religion—as detractor, advocate, or objective chronicler? Remember, too, your view of the religion is not the same as your characters’ views of it. In fact, I suspect you’ll come out of the experience with a better story if you can write from the viewpoints of your fictional faith’s most devoted followers and its most dogged detractors.
Next time: Some pitfalls of writing fantasy religions