Faith in Fiction 7: Religious Wave of the Future?
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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

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Faith in Fiction 7: Religious Wave of the Future? — 7 Comments

  1. My favorite version of the attempt at creating a world religion is the GSD, the Global Standard Deity, as introduced in Jasper Fforde’s the Eyre Affair. It definitely suggests a non-violent method of getting everyone under one roof for worship: just appeal to everyone! How effective that would be is a little less than certain. And whether there’s any religion left afterwards, also up for debate.

    My other favorite ‘one world religion’ is the Roman version, wherein whenever they would conquer a new territory they would encourage the people there to join the state cult by picking a few gods from the pantheon that most corresponded to the ones they already had, and then using both names together.

    On the broad view of things, subtle cultural takeover is probably better than violent destruction through fear. Though both may be effective.

  2. Some apparently monolithic culture in the religious arena are, perhaps, just regional.

    Then, the history of Massachusetts is instructive for what happens if you even try to build a monolithic culture by importing only your co-religionists.

  3. Back in the first season of Babylon 5, an episode centered around each of the diverse alien cultures presented a religious ceremony that best demonstrated their planetary culture. In the last scene the commander introduced something like 100 religious leaders, each from a different culture and religion. Strength through diversity. One of my favorite episodes.

  4. For non-Babylon 5 fans, that was the commander introducing all those religious leaders just from Earth, as I recall, to the heads of alien faiths/ambassadors!

    I found that trying to create for a planet a religion that evolved out of a singular catastrophe had offshoots before I expected them. I had purists who thought that a purer form of living would heal them all, and now, as I examine the possibility of another book in that world, I see that remnants of older religions, thousands of years old, might still linger on Nuala.

    I’m waiting for a Church of Privacy — I think it might happen in our lifetime. The only way to drop off the grid is join….

  5. I particularly admire the religious system in Bujold’s CHALION books. She had a great grasp of the sorts of thing her gods would affect (religious architecture, cosmology) and the things that were just like our world (grubby politics).

  6. In Saudi Arabia, all citizens are rqurieed to be Muslims, and the public practice of other religions is forbidden. Private practice of other religions is sometimes allowed and sometimes persecuted; there is no law protecting even this.Iran is officially a Twelver Shiite state. Some other religions (Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism) are permitted, but are not allowed to proselytize; and they are sometimes persecuted even if they don’t. The Bahai faith is not allowed at all. Sunni Muslims are subject to some restrictions also.In China, all religious organizations have to be authorized by the government. This has given rise to conflict when the government appoints religious leaders different from what the religion itself chooses. There are state-appointed Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Taoist, and Muslim leaders. These are not always approved by the religious organizations outside of China. Those who practice religion outside these state-approved organizations are subject to severe persecution.In Turkey, since the secularization by Ataturk in the early 20th century, the government permits all religions but keeps them all under close surveillance. Special religious clothing (the veil, the fez) is not permitted to be worn in public. Turkey is predominantly Muslim, and there is some prejudice against other religions.In North Korea, virtually no religious practice is allowed except a limited amount by foreigners. Worship is considered a political offense.Cuba was for years officially atheist, and religious practice was seriously discouraged, with some persecution. But now religious people are even allowed to join the Communist Party. The government is secular rather than atheist, and religious practice is pretty much free.These are a few varied examples of governments which have restricted religious practice. In our time, the States that restrict religious freedom are mostly Muslim or Atheist.I can’t think of any other belief system that does this in modern times.Religion is the source of meaning and values for many people, and restricting it restricts the growth of the human soul. In countries where a religion is imposed, it loses some of its growth potential. In countries where religion is not restricted or mandated by the government, it flourishes and leads to better values and ways of life.

    • I’m not sure this comment strictly belongs here, although it does propose some different ways that religion is treated in “real life” which can be reflected in our fiction.

      I’m replying to it because I want to make a point of how easy it is to spread disinformation—which has ramifications for both life and the arts that imitate it.

      Specifically, I refer to the opening sentence: “In Saudi Arabia, all citizens are rqurieed (sic) to be Muslims, and the public practice of other religions is forbidden.”

      I checked a variety of sources including academic and tourist industry ones to confirm what I thought was actually the case: Islam is the majority, official religion of Saudi Arabia. Most Saudis are Sunni Muslims, about 10-15 % are Shi’ah. There are statistically verifiable populations of Christians (just over 3%), Hindus (a bit over half a percent) and Baha’is (about .1%). The practice of their religion is NOT forbidden. For one thing, forbidding the practice of Christianity would run counter to the text of the Qur’an so blatantly that I’m not sure even a Saudi royal family could pull it off without Islamic scholars camping on the palace steps in protest.

      But though there are no laws that forbid the practice of other religions, neither are there laws that specifically protect that practice.

      It is true that the Baha’i Faith (of which I am a member) is illegal in Iran—or at least that its functioning as a community of faith is illegal. Sometimes this results in a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” atmosphere; sometimes it results in outright persecution with arrests, imprisonment, executions, a strict curtailment of civil rights, and sometimes outbreaks of wanton destruction of property. We are, alas, going through one of those periods right now.

      As for other States that restrict religious freedom, I encourage anyone interested to look into it and note that a recent survey of government policies over the last decade have also shown a growth in restriction of religious freedom in the US as well.

      All grist for the fictional mill … and my next blog. 🙂