Faith in Fiction 5: Real Religions in Fiction

I did a Q & A a while back for an online writer’s conference on writing faith for fiction. The participants asked a panel of writers questions about how we handled the subject.

Over the next several blogs, I thought I’d share some of the questions and answers. Questions had to do with both researching and writing about existing faiths in fictional settings. Some were quite specific, dealing with such concepts as heresy and literary license.

This time, two questions:

  1. How can I project an established religion into a future or fantasy world?
  2. How do you draw the line between literary license, facts, changes, and heresy? That is, how do you write about another faith without belittling or betraying your own?

Question #1:  How can I project an established religion into a future or fantasy world?

Chiefly, I look at the state of the world I’m projecting into. What do I posit has happened to the religion and the world between now and then?

Let’s say I’m setting a story on Mars in 2212. What I project from current realities might influence what religious beliefs are represented among the pioneers.

Will Zen Buddhists line up to go to Mars because they feel a venture fraught with such danger and tension will need the balance of Buddhist principles or will they stay home in droves because just going on such an adventure seems to require attachment to a goal? What will the Catholic Church think of a Mars mission? Will the Pope encourage believers to go or exhort them to stay home? And what will Islam (or any other religion) look like in 2212? Will there have been a worldwide revival that gives birth to a more actively evangelizing form of Catholicism, or Buddhism, or Judaism?  Will there be sects that believe that leaving the planet means leaving God?

If you add the potential of alien converts to the mix, what happens when evangelists of different stripes arrive on the planet at the same time? Will there be competition — maybe even war? A new spirit of ecumenism? A blending of religious ideas? You might posit that these different religious groups are at war (at least ideologically) until a calamity forces them to unite and cooperate.

Then there’s the BIG QUESTION: Do aliens have souls?

Question #2: How do you draw the line between literary license, facts, changes, and heresy? That is, how do you write about another faith without belittling or betraying your own?

I think if you’re writing in the here and now, you simply must be as accurate as you possibly can be. This means putting your own prejudices and biases on the shelf and trying to get to the reality of a faith before you lift your pen. In part what this means is getting any doctrinal facts you use in a story from the horse’s mouth. In other words, to write about Islam, read the Qur’an and works by writers who are Muslim to find out what that faith teaches and how an individual believer relates to their faith. If you’re going to portray a devoutly Muslim character, you must have some understanding of why that character is a devout Muslim. Especially if they converted from another faith.

If you want to provide counter-arguments, by all means, research the work of detractors so you know what they’re saying, too. But if you can’t honestly understand why someone might become Muslim, I doubt you can write a convincing Muslim character.

By way of example: I critiqued a short story in which the writer had portrayed a young Muslim convert from Catholicism. He made it clear that part of the reason this young man converted was perceived abuses within his family’s church. Yet, at the end of the story he has the young man cavalierly sit down to have a glass of wine with someone. He didn’t do his research well enough to realize that an observant Muslim would not drink alcohol and he’d established that this character was very observant.

This sense of “fair play” I think, must extend to writing about one’s own faith, as well. Be factual, be truthful, be even-handed as a narrator. By that, I mean that I think it’s okay for a character to have polarized views on faith. Even to the point of preaching doctrine or embracing a heresy. This is history. This happens. But I think that for me, the Narrator, to project polarized views as a fact of a faith is to do a disservice to the story and to the faith I’m portraying in it.

Next time: Faith bashing and realism

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Faith in Fiction 5: Real Religions in Fiction — 3 Comments

  1. “Do aliens have souls?” First you have to figure out who in the story believes in the soul, including the aliens. There’s plenty potential for conflict, or conflict resolution, with this single question.

    Another question I like to ask is how would real world religions deal with transhumanism? Some religions wouldn’t have a problem with biological enhancement, such as adding cybernetics, or altering a person’s genes. After all, we’re already doing that with pacemakers and potential cancer treatments. It’s up to the writer to study a given religion’s current stance on the issue and project it. What about uploading a human mind into a computer? I don’t imagine that would sit easy with any religion, and the debates on those people’s souls would probably carry on for decades.

    • Excellent questions, all. And these are the things we need to think about when we write so that we create full-fledged worlds for our readers (and characters to inhabit) not just cartoons populated by archetypes or stereotypes.

      My first contact stories always deal with the issue of humanness. I asked if aliens had souls, but I’m usually really asking are aliens really aliens. In the Shaman series of stories (which is coming out next week as a BVC eBook) it’s considered a “racial slur” to refer to a member of another sentient species as “alien”. Rather they are other races of beings (ORBs) or other races of people (ORPs).

      • Yes exactly, the question has everything to do with personhood. Historically, denying another person had a soul was a way to deny personhood.

        Of course, when writing about aliens, it’s a tough balance making them as non-human as we can while trying to maintain a sympathetic viewpoint.