Faith in Fiction 13: At the intersection of religion and culture
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Religion is at the heart of what we call culture.

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)?

Heck, let’s get more radical: What happens if you take every prescriptive utterance from historic scripture and delete it from a culture? What do you get?

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.

So real history provides more fodder for the writer — what did this real or invented religion I’m writing about bring to the party? How did it affect my existing society?

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


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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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10 Responses to Faith in Fiction 13: At the intersection of religion and culture

  1. Cara M says:

    Interesting, though your mention of the influence of pre-religious systems on a religion suggests that we cannot actually ascribe the origin of ‘moral precepts’ to religion at all. Religion codifies and provides continuity for a certain set of precepts, though – as you mentioned – the ones that are taken up are not always the ones intended to be central by the prophet. And, of course, the prophet did not get all of them from religion, but I believe precepts are rarely developed from whole-cloth.

    I’m also not sure if it’s ever possible to have a society that always acts according to moral precepts. We use the precepts to reason about real situations, but sometimes the seemingly appropriate act conflicts with the appropriate outcome. Plato’s paradox, for instance, where a friend gives you his gun and asks you to give it back that evening, and you promise to, but when the friend comes back he’s enraged and frantic about his wife cheating on him, and you think he might shoot someone, you have two conflicting issues. You shouldn’t break your promises, but you also shouldn’t allow your friend to become a murderer. You both should and shouldn’t give him back the gun.

    I suppose in a culture where you were only ever responsible for your own behavior, because you were confident other people would be responsible for theirs, you might say that you should give him back the gun, no questions asked. But if one irresponsible person shows up in that community – chaos. :)

    • Mary says:

      Except of course, they are only pre- specified religions. We have no evidence for any systems that predated religion in general.

      • Cara M says:

        I think the question is how do we define a religion. If we’re defining it as something that contains a moral precept then we’ve got a chicken and egg problem. Law codes are also systematized proposals of ideal behavior and the moment we have a law we seem to have a society. But sets of precepts can survive independently of religion and feed into new religions and new law codes. I wouldn’t be surprised if a early society had a sense of spirituality and a set of social precepts that were independent. But the ascendancy of religious leaders aligns the hierarchy so that the people telling you what to do are also the people who have contact with the gods.

      • Sacred texts say that God has always sent Avatars to educate mankind. I got to thinking about that and wondered what pre-religion Avatars might have been like.

        I mean, think of it—you’ve got a hot stew of single-celled critters. Then an Avatar arises and becomes a two-celled critter. Pretty soon, everybody’s working on that two-celled paradigm.

        And it goes on and on with the Avatar figure a step or two (or more) ahead of the curve, until — here we are in our tortured existence as not-quite-animals.

        What I’ve found fascinating in my studies is that even in really old works such as the manuscripts that have come out of ancient Egypt, the Avatar figure and the set of unifying principles he brings are still discernible among all the supernatural and mythological imagery. It’s incredibly enjoyable to play with those ideas fictionally, of course, and hard not to get sucked into eternal cycles of research just for the fun of it!

    • Why should we not ascribe the origin of moral precepts to religion? There are two forces at work here—as you note—the utterances or written words of the Prophet, which outline the moral precepts (the same ones, generally speaking) and the human interpretation of same in light of human systems, desires, and fears. In a number of cases, too—Christianity being a case in point—the new faith is built on the foundation of an older version. One way to look at this is that the new faith keeps the same spiritual principles and alters or adjusts some of the cultural trappings that have grown up around them. Hence, in altering the concept of divorce, Christ comments that Moses gave his law to the Jews “because your hearts were hard, but from the beginning it was not so.”

      In a work of fiction, you can try on all sorts of “what ifs” about that relationship. A Messianic figure might be seen as a physician arriving to set the old religion to rights by peeling away some of that cultural manipulation, or he might be seen as a rebel against the old order, or a madman or a politically astute character out to drive a wedge between the priesthood and the people.

      Personally, I view figures like Christ, Buddha, Muhammad, etc, it the former light, but the point of my post really is that whatever you do with religion in the context of your story, understand how the nuances of each viewpoint can provide rich background, plot elements and even drive your characters.

      Re the gun scenario: I don’t see a dilemma there at all if we’re using the moral concepts taught, say, in the Gospels. Religious precepts are always hierarchical. The Prophets put emphasis on certain commandments to indicate that they were the first order of business. Christ, for example, stresses that love for other human beings is “the law and the prophets” and notes that all other commandments depend upon the commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself. It is, He says, second only to the commandment to love God. Based on that, there’s no dilemma; you don’t give back the gun. IF, that is, you view that commandment as being in the nature of a divine covenant rather than a social contract (as in “you should always keep your promises”)

      And that, I think, illustrates what I mean about cultural contamination of religious precepts. The Prophet stresses love of one’s fellow beings above all else, but the culture may suggest that other precepts are of equal importance. And this allows the sort of violence and destruction that peppers the pages of history … and can make for riveting fiction.

  2. And what about the hard-wired behavior? You’ve seen all the discussion about whether our evolution is driven by our ability to cooperate. In this scenario religion is simply the codification of cultural practices that enhances our fitness to survive.
    Have you read GREY MANE OF MORNING by Joy Chant?

    • I think that some of the structure that’s grown up around religion is certainly that, but saying it’s “simply” the codification of current cultural practices doesn’t account for the role of the Avatar or Prophet.

      One of the most startling things about figures like Krishna or Christ or Baha’u’llah is that they are not products of their culture in some very significant ways and they promote concepts that in some cases are considered bat-shit crazy by their contemporaries. They often fly in the face of tradition and common wisdom and challenge the status quo.

      By way of example, Baha’u’llah’s teaching in the mid-nineteenth century in Iran that women and men were equal, that female children should be given priority in education, and that humanity would fail to progress as long as women were kept from being active in every arena of human life. He spent forty years of His life in exile and imprisonment for that sort of crazy talk.

      My personal study of history has led me to the conclusion that the role of the Avatar is to consolidate past spiritual and cultural achievement, restate spiritual principles common to all faiths, and promote progressive goals that are a bit ahead of the curve so we’re always having to stretch to reach them. Many of us think of the Golden Rule as being a given in our society, but I recall Chris Hitchens writing in “God is Not Great” that the Golden Rule is impracticable and against human nature.

      Needless to say, I disagree with him, but I imagine that Baha’u’llah’s version of it would have the dear man rolling in his grave: “Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.” and “If thine eyes be turned towards mercy, forsake the things that profit thee, and cleave unto that which will profit mankind.”

  3. You also omitted both the Greek philosophers in your what-if (what-if is exactly what they did, bypassing religious dogmas) and the Byzantine culture in your “explosion of knowledge” passage.

    As for the Hindu castes, they partly came about from the Aryans literally and metaphorically coming down on the Dravidians. Aryans generally had classes, but not the hardened-boundary ones seen in post-Aryan India.

    Lastly, our primate cousins have plenty of attributes we deem moral without benefit of religion.

    • This wasn’t really a debate about the pros and cons of religion, but an exploration of the wide array of elements religion can bring to a fictional culture—based on looking at historical models. My intent was also to give readers different ways of looking at those models.

      But, with regard to our primate cousins, we may deem their behavior “moral”, but we anthropomorphize at our peril. There was a horrific example of this a couple of years ago when a woman’s companion chimp nearly killed one of her friends. The chimp did nothing “wrong” in a moral sense; it may have thought it was protecting its partner from attack when the other woman moved to embrace her.

      None of our cousins is capable of even understanding the concepts of right and wrong or good and evil or moral and immoral. They are not capable of grasping “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Let’s face it, even after thousands of years of repetition, human beings are barely capable of grasping it.

      Of course, the flip side of that is that too many human beings are capable of the worst sort of animal behavior. And therein lies a significant difference. If an animal—even a primate cousin—savages another animal’s young, we don’t arrest them, read them their rights and try them. We don’t consider the act wrong, or immoral, or sinful, but just disturbing and perhaps tragic. I think this is because we understand at a deep level that human beings are different from other animals in some significant way. And this significant difference is, according to the various Avatars, what their teachings are intended to cultivate.