With religious and cultural turmoil at the center of four of my fantasy novels (the Meri Trilogy and The Spirit Gate), I was pleased to have reviewers comment on how real and essential the religion in the books felt as opposed to just being a patina, a prop, or a piece of background scenery. I was also pleased to have questions about how to create a realistic religion from participants in the Catholic Writers Conference at which I was a non-Catholic guest, (I’m a Baha’i).
Here’s the question:
Q: How do you make a convincing, viable religion that impacts your story?
I always start with a real religion. That is, I determine what sort of religion(s) my society will have and I look to world history for scenarios that fit the stage my action takes place on. When I wrote THE MERI (Book 1 of the Mer Cycle), I wanted to explore that unique time period immediately after a divine revelation during which the existing religious institutions recoil and the new revelation is questioned, tested, and resisted.
I looked to history to provide examples of the types of reactions any new revelation elicits from the existing ecclesiastical institutions, from scholars and savants who have been watching for just such a renewal, and from the rank and file believers.
Most people are somewhat familiar with the turmoil that accompanied the advent of Christ, but this also accompanied the appearance of Buddha, of Zoroaster, of Muhammad, etc. When the Báb [meaning Gate], a key figure in the Bahá’í Faith, declared in 1844 that He had come to usher in a new age and would be followed very quickly by a second Prophet, all hell broke loose in Persia (Iran/Iraq). He was executed for heresy and 20,000 of His followers were massacred. Persecution of Baha’is in Iran is ongoing to this day, but the harshly reactive social unrest of this tumultuous early period within my own faith allowed me to offer the reader a multitude of views of the same set of events.
Major questions I ask and answer when inventing a religion for a piece of fiction are:
- How did it arise? Is it a revealed religion whose revelator is known and documented? Is it an animistic religion with origins so ancient no one remembers them?
- If it has scriptures, what is considered scriptural? Is there a collection of books by various authors compiled over time (such as the Bible), a body of teachings from a prophet or avatar that were collected after His passing by His followers (as in Buddhism and Christianity), a series of treatises inscribed as He spoke them (Islam) or penned by the revelator Himself (as in the Bahá’í Faith)?
- What phase or age is the religion in? Is it new, middle-aged, ancient? How much has it been “man-handled”—that is, annotated or edited by its adherents? What other religions or cultural mores have influenced it?
- What are its core doctrines and how do they affect the lives of its adherents? Are they unchanged or have they been reinterpreted throughout the ages as has happened with the food laws in some sects of Judaism?
- Are there rites, holy days, Sabbaths, etc., enjoined by the revelator? Adopted after-the-fact? Adapted from the previous religion or from cultural tradition?
- What is the most powerful or significant element of this faith insofar as its followers are concerned? Is this the same for its ecclesiastics or are they more attached to a different aspect of the faith?
Once I have this thumbnail background on the faith, I try to bear it in mind as I’m writing. I try to put myself in the character’s shoes as they deal with the events I’m tossing at them and allow their faith to inform their public and private actions and reactions. When would it be natural for them to murmur a prayer or ritual phrase (“Saints be praised” or “Inshallah”), or execute a gesture—as a Catholic or Orthodox Christian might execute the sign of the cross? Given the symbology of my fictional faith, what might that gesture represent and what might that look like?
Mainstream writer Anna Quindlen wrote that “Reality is in the dishes,” meaning that it is those small, human details that allow the reader to willingly suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in your fictional world. This detail part and parcel of building a believable religion that is more than a piece of the scenery.