I’ve read a number of SF stories that posit a global religion of one kind or another. In some cases, it’s a far-future invented faith, in others the writer posits that the Catholic Church or Islam or Buddhism or some other known faith emerges as the One True Faith. I should note that in none of those cases did the writer explain how that triumph occurred, which is a shame, because that would have been truly interesting.
A writer certainly could project one religion as supreme for reasons having to do with storytelling. But I think to be realistic — so that the human details surrounding the religion ring true — the writer probably ought to consider how universal that supremacy really is. Are there sectarian splinter groups or underground movements that seek to buck the status quo, or is that religion so tolerant that the disparate beliefs of individuals are simply accepted? Are the splinter groups responding to a real problem in the mainstream religion, or are they extremists whose agenda is self-serving? I think a fictional projection of a supreme faith needs to take these sorts of issues into account if it’s to be realistic.
On the other hand, if your intent is to project a pluralistic society into the future, then it would be a sort of Straw Man exercise to show one religion growing and changing and others dying out. My research indicates that whenever a revival occurs in one segment of religious society, it’s usually paralleled by a similar revival in others. An extreme example of this would be the 19th Century Adventist movements during which Christians all over the world thought Christ was going to return around 1844. Surprisingly, this same spirit of expectation and renewal was also going on in other religious communities, including Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism. That era gave birth to a number of new sects within the major revealed faiths as well as at least one new independent religion — the Bahá’í Faith.
Today, we see that the Jihadist movement within Islam is paralleled with an upsurge in interest among Christian churches as well as interest in spirituality in general. Much of this interest seems to be only casual, but it’s there.
The implications of that for a work of fiction are manifold. What do fundamentalist movements or evangelical movements look like on alien worlds or on the colonies seeded by human populations?
And what of the role of organized atheism? There have recently been proposals that science ought to replace religion as a source of awe, wonder, and morality. Some leading atheist scientists have suggested creating science rituals and even building atheist churches where those inclined can gather to … well, not worship, perhaps. What might that trend look like fifty years from now, or one hundred? And what place might that, erm, organized irreligion hold in the interfaith community?
The most important question, of course, is: How does this affect my characters and their story arc?
Whether it is onstage in the lives of your characters or plays a supporting role, attention to this sort of detail can give your world-building a much deeper texture. People’s beliefs do not form in a vacuum. They result from nurture, osmosis, and conscious and unconscious learning. Conversely, what people believe about life, the universe, and everything makes up the warp and woof of their society. The more universally held a belief system is, the more cohesive that society will be.
So there’s the 64,000 question: what sort of society will best frame your story and your characters—a cohesive one in which certain principles are more or less universally held, or a splintered one typified by contending groups? Or yet, again, a pluralistic society in which tolerance is the overarching virtue?
My personal belief is that whatever role religion, faith, or belief systems play, works of fiction that make use of these realities can give us characters that are more consistent because it provides the writer and the reader with a touchstone—a set of principles that can help tremendously with character development.
Next time: Creating fictional religions