Faith in Fiction 3: Writing Belief Systems

The Straw Religion

A Straw Man is an imaginary construct that embodies everything the writer doesn’t like about something, someone, or some group. By nature, it requires gross a generalization that attaches the particular to a whole. In the context of religion and spirituality, it finds expression in a writer creating a character or group of characters to represent a set of ideas he finds objectionable in some way. The illusion is that if the writer can knock down this Straw Man, he has defeated the ideas.

In some ways this is a subset of Screaming from the Pulpit. The difference lies in the personification of the point-of-view. One Hugo-winning science fiction novelist did this, for example, by staging a fictional philosophical battle between theist and atheist viewpoints with the apparent agenda of proving the atheist viewpoint to be rational and superior to the theist viewpoint.

The Straw Religion, in this case, was a set of specifically Roman Catholic dogmas that the reader was asked to accept as representative of all belief in God. The Straw Man (actually a Straw Woman) was set up. Hard and very appropriate questions were put to her, but alas, she was unable to answer them intelligently — possibly because the writer couldn’t imagine any intelligent answers for them. He therefore resorted to having the Straw Woman fall back on shrill, dogmatic, and emotional rhetoric. I found myself feeling like a kid in the back of the classroom waving my hand and crying, “Pick me! Pick me! I can answer that!”

The reader in this case was asked to accept that “Religion” had lost the battle with “Reason,” when nothing like a real dialogue between the two had actually taken place. The reading experience, for me, was most unsatisfying, though the novel was well-received.

How can a writer avoid building a house of straw?

Again, it’s critical that a writer understand “opposing” point(s) of view before tackling a philosophical dialogue. If you write anything that approaches an ideological debate, be as well-informed as possible about divergent viewpoints and try to represent them fairly.

When I write dialogue that explores a key point of conflict between characters, I try to let the conversation go where it will. Instead of writing what I need a character to say to make a point, I try to write what someone with this belief system would actually say or ask at this point in the conversation. As you might imagine, this can lead to some interesting places I had no intention of going. It can be fascinating, exciting, and maddening, and there have been times when I’ve had to retrench and remold an idea because an “opposing player” raised a point I hadn’t thought of until it came out of the character’s mouth.

Next time: Writing with neutrality, ambiguity, humor and affection

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Faith in Fiction 3: Writing Belief Systems — 2 Comments

  1. You know it’s a straw religion when its priests 1) wear red or black 2) have nothing to do between human sacrifices, except 3) exist to chase heroes and heroines, and 4) always seem to have terrible teeth.

  2. Also, they’re presented as solely negative. No human institution is -solely- negative; each has to have some upside to attract and retain followers and resources. Those gigantic temples, all those acolytes with light sabers, the keen red or black vestments — they cost money. Why did your fictional society invest the resources in them, rather than in something else with more obvious benefits?
    An analogous real-life discussion might be the debate in Britain about the monarchy. What is the Brit-in-the-street getting, for all the money spent on palaces, horse carriages, crown jewels, and so on? They argue about this a lot; the enterprising writer could steal and modify those arguments.