Faith in Fiction 1: Writing Belief Systems

I deal with religion, magic, faith, or some sort of spiritual belief system in most of my books and quite a few of my short stories. If not the main thread, these form at least a subtle part of the world in which my characters operate.

These are not simple things to write about and there are a number of pitfalls inherent in dealing with matters of faith in a fictional context, whether you’re writing about existing religions (your own or someone else’s) or making one up for a future or otherworldly culture.

Some writers simply avoid writing about religion, faith, or spirituality altogether, but how realistic is a culture that has no belief systems? A glance at our own multi-culture—in which neo-atheists observe Darwin’s birthday, discuss seriously whether to build “churches” and how rituals can be created around science to make it more attractive to non-atheists—should serve as notice to the writer: belief systems are a fact of life, deal with it.

No, I mean it, fellow writers: we gotta deal with it and do it in a realistic way.

So, for the next several blogs, I’d like to look at some of the ways in which I’ve seen writers fail to deal with belief and offer some suggestions on how one might avoid them. I’m going to use the world “religion” here, because it’s shorter and less unwieldy than “belief system”. You can mentally substitute “faith”, “spirituality”, or “belief system” depending on what context this holds in your writing project.

Today . . .

Religion as Scenery

This approach relegates religion to the role of stage dressing. In some cases, the writer has made a deliberate decision to ignore religion and spirituality or is reluctant to write about it due to lack of personal experience, a dislike for the subject, or the opposite—a fear of being too heavy-handed, and that his own strong beliefs might alienate the reader.

Every society has spiritual underpinnings of some sort. If you doubt it, look carefully at history, archaeology, and the place they meet: cultural anthropology. Even in cultures where religion and spirituality were discouraged or forbidden, they thrived underground. In fact, I’d hazard to say that one of the most effective ways to strengthen a faith community is to attempt to control or expunge it. Yet, I see speculative fiction books of all genres—but especially science fiction—that try to do exactly that: posit societies with no sense of the spiritual, the mystical, or the arcane.

This is an especially glaring omission in fantasy tales in which characters are dealing with magic. In the real world, magic has its origins in religion. Historically, faith and magic are inextricably interwoven. In the history of both the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Churches, for example, spells used by the laity and theurgists (Church-sanctioned magicians) were quite literally prayers. In THE BATHHOUSE AT MIDNIGHT: Magic in Russia, W.F. Ryan notes that in the Russian Orthodox experience,

“The very fine line between canonically acceptable prayers and magical invocations is, as in the Catholic West, frequently blurred at the popular level…” (The Bathhouse at Midnight, p. 164)

In some cases, writes Ryan, the only real difference between a prayer and spell was the identity of the speaker and their circumstances.

“For example the Bol’shoi trebnik (a book of special services and prayers) … contains many prayers which, if uttered by a ‘wise woman,’ would be classed as zagovory…” (The Bathhouse at Midnight, p. 164)

That is to say, spells. These same verses, uttered by a clergyman, are simply prayers.

For the writer, and indeed for the reader, the real problem with eliminating or marginalizing religion and spirituality in speculative fiction is that it weakens the fabric of the fictional world and makes it less than three-dimensional. The form religion or faith takes in a world will grow out of the very soil. It will reflect the collective experience of the people to which the characters belong.

To apply a patina of religion as if it were a coat of paint is to invite the reader to uncover inconsistencies in your world.

How do you guard against this happening? 

When I set about building a society, I look at the point in time in which my characters are living and ask how they and their society got there. I may even construct a brief history of the place going back several hundred years or more. I also ask where they are going. Then I look at the forces that have shaped them, paying special attention to how those forces—including religion and spirituality—manifest themselves in and affect the lives of the individuals and their community.

My goal is to create a living society: one with a body, a mind, a heart, and a soul. Every individual—and by extension every group of people—want to believe themselves transcendent in some way. They will live on in their children, their art, their commerce, their culture, and perhaps in some other, more ethereal form. These beliefs will color the way the characters think, speak, act, and interact with each other. It will inform their attitudes and will be reflected in the culture they build.

It’s fine to posit that in a galaxy far, far away, everyone treats each other with love and respect, or with distrust and treachery. But if you posit it, you must be able to explain it.

Next time: Screaming from the Pulpit or How to make your reader cringe.

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Faith in Fiction 1: Writing Belief Systems — 13 Comments

  1. A subject rich with possibility.

    In my own reading, I find historical novels, especially written in the past fifty years, at fault as much as fantasies. Specifically medieval-set works that utterly ignore how pervasive Christianity was, except for a few villainous priests who haven’t much to do but menace passing heroines.

    A second problem that I heartily dislike is the depicting of characters who actually held to the paradigm of the time as villains, while the heroes are forward-thinking, equal-opportunity, green determinists. This includes the female-nurturing, Gaea-loving, peaceful pagans versus the evil patriarchal Xtians.

    Any kind of reductionism creates stick-puppets of characters, and bottles ideas into sound bites, and for the most part, authors get called on it . . . except when it comes to religion.

    Dealing fairly with the question doesn’t require faith statements from writers–in fact, I find novels more interesting when I cannot guess the author’s particular slants on these questions–but an awareness of the complexity of history, and how we got here, does.

    • Oh, amen to that.

      I dare say authors not only don’t get called on it, they get rewarded for indulging in it. One of the most infuriating straw man scenarios I saw was in an award-winning SF novel by a friend who shall remain nameless. The good atheists (natural atheists, not philosophical ones) were pitted against a poor, back-slid Catholic who barely understood her own doctrines and who, when asked tough, but appropriate questions by the atheists, didn’t know the answers and resorted to shrill emotional responses. The biases of the writer were clear, but what bothered me the most was that there seemed to be an assumption that if this representative of believers couldn’t answer these questions, no one could and therefore religion lost the engagement.

      It made me do a lot of thinking about my own approach to writing about faith and philosophy and caused me to adopt the practice of doing copious research about a point of view before I tried to write about it and to let dialogues between characters with opposing viewpoints go where they would rather than trying to force them toward a particular outcome.

      I certainly learn more that way!

  2. Or look at video games or Indiana Jones movies, in which the Temples of Doom are not really religious buildings at all, but simply stage sets for battles, and a fount for interestingly-costumed soldiers for Indy or game player to combat. That’s really as low as the common denominator can go; the only reason it’s a religion and a temple is because if they named it McDonald’s the combat troops would be wearing McD logos and their weapons would be less cool.

  3. Writing a novel set in Medieval Italy, I had to remind myself constantly about the presence of The Church (which was just The Church, not Catholic) at that time. As someone who was raised with only a vague sense of religion–mostly religion as sociology or theatre, not as belief–this was a tough act. I did a lot of reading up on Church practice, but really, the thing that may have helped most was a note I pinned up that said “Remember Faith.” I still don’t know if I got it right, but I know I tried.

  4. I’ve written about religion once in a short story when I had my character trapped on a planet where he was forced to steal the cloth from a deceased Muslim man before heading out into a massive sand storm. He didn’t want to touch him due to know it wasn’t the right thing, but he also didn’t want to die outside without the cloth over his face. I had to be careful how to handle it; getting my character to ask Alla for forgiveness for stealing from one of her followers; and feeling guilty at the same time.

    I hoped I didn’t offend anyone… and you know, since I put it up on my Fry Nelson blog, I haven’t had a negative reaction. Nobody has put up a comment telling it was wrong at all. So I must have written it down in the right way.

    But handling religion in any way is always unusual. However, if you do it right, you’ll be okay.

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  6. I remember during my freshman anthropology course the professor stated, “Some cultures refuse to believe in science. They see the world differently. Their beliefs shape their reality.”

    Half the class protested with, “But how can they still believe in those things when science shows them they’re wrong?”

    She literally face-palmed, and had to explain how they’re not wrong in the context of their own culture and it’s not an anthropologist’s place to judge, or show them “the error of their ways.”

    SFF writers have to think like an anthropologists. You need to be able to step outside your own belief system and try to look at the world through a different one, whether you’re making one up or researching ones already existing. I wish this didn’t have to be stated, because it’s akin to saying don’t make your characters YOU, but so many people don’t seem to get this. I’m glad to see you tackling this topic.

    I would say, in historical fiction/fantasy missing religion comes across as a glaring oversight from someone who didn’t do the research, but in science fiction it tends to be deliberate. I don’t agree with a homogenous (often whitewashed) future where science triumphs in everyday life, even though I’m not particularly religious myself, because human culture is messier than that. Our own society shows you can have people running around with computers in their pockets, often not understanding a thing about them, and still believing in various gods. Religion is not going to be tidily swept under the carpet in the future, except perhaps in a police state, and then you’ll have religious icons tidily hidden behind pictures of dear leader.

    • Sarah, I think you hit the nail on its flat little head. I’m fascinated by anthropology—including alien anthro—which is why I love first contact stories and why I invented my xeno-anthropoligst character Rhys Llewellyn.

      This is where I put in a plug for my upcoming BVC release SHAMAN, which is a collection of Rhys Llewellyn stories that deal with a lot of issues, but primarily what does it mean to be human? I often find myself weaving a strong cautionary thread into my work about cultural hubris, binary thinking (i.e. you can believe in God or accept science, but not both, to which I say, “Huh?”), and taking any belief system out of context with its environment.

      I love the genres of SF and fantasy because they allow me to ask those questions (What makes a being human? How did X religion get this way? What is really being worshipped? What happens if you take X religion and introduce it to a culture that does not share the assumptions of the culture in which it was revealed?

      That last one is a favorite. I mean, just look at the course of Christianity once it left a culture in which most people understood the concept of a Messiah and shared a prior faith . When I invent a religion for a story, I try to think about that—is the religion here native to the culture, or a transplant? If so, what changes occurred in the culture and in the religion?

      That is fun to work out and requires research which, to me, is like chocolate. Yum—thick historical tomes!

      • The question, what does it mean to be human? is one I find the most interesting in SF. Alien anthropology/xenobiology stories are my favorite. What would happen if humans accidentally interfered in a primitive alien culture? I’m currently revising my first novel, which looks into such issues. I will definitely check out SHAMAN when it’s released, because it’s right up my alley.

  7. There are also peculiar implications for religion if the gods are “real and present” — for example, what’s the role of “faith” in a world where gods “go by atheist’s houses and break their windows”? (Pratchett had one answer, but there can be others.) Or in a world where if your town angers the field-goddess, you will go hungry this year?

    Historically, humans always do religion in some sense or another. Interestingly, we’ve recently had a few strong rulers try to stamp it out, but instead they wound up with a more primitive,”cultish” form. Both personality cults effectively worshipping the leader, and “behavioral” cults, where public policies were treated as religious mandates.

  8. My Grandma was the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest. Despite getting a good education, working at an Academy, and surviving the Soviet Union, she remained firm in her faith. And she also taught me, “Child, if you’re about to sin, turn your icon’s face to the wall; this way God won’t see it.” At least she always did it while consulting her coffee dregs or cards or tea leaves. So here we have it — religion, science, superstition, and magic happily sharing a keen brain.

    A lot of our culture stems from various faith systems. Every tourist gasps at a good Gothic cathedral, helicopter pilots ride to battle with music associated with the Norse Valkyrie in a hit movie, astronomers study planets named after old Roman gods. After all, even Scientific Atheists still keep their fingers crossed now and then! I cannot imagine a functioning culture without even the vestiges of religion.

    And once you omit the insignificant matter of time scale the Bible tells a simplified and poetic story of the Big Bang. A grand cosmic event came first and we humans came last, so what are we quarrelling about, huh?

    • Well, Bill Nye had some of his audience walk out on him in Waco a few days back, because he dared to suggest that the moon’s light is reflected from the sun, and not an independent light of its own.

      So — when we’re patient with people’s view of religion, we will also have to deal with people who become angry or even violent when you tell them that you believe that something was poetry, not literal.

      I’m not so patient when they try to erase science from textbooks. Or change medical realities. But studying literalism has given me some interesting ideas for future SF and fantasy novels.