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WORLD-BUILDING & RELIGION: Future Religion & Pluralism 

Today’s question from the Catholic Writers Conference Q&A deals with projecting historical religions into the future given the pluralistic nature of global society. For any readers who are new to the series, I was actually the only participant who wasn’t from a Christian denomination (I’m a Baha’i).

Here’s the question:

Q: How do you deal with future religion in a pluralistic world? Is it reasonable to project one religion as supreme, or do we need to be careful that we have all the religions in our book “grow” or change if we’re making one do so? 

I think this depends on the place the religion holds in your story. If you’re trying to realistically portray the genesis of any faith, I think you have to try to deal fairly. 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 personal beliefs of individuals are simply accepted as long as they don’t try to impose them on others? 

Are the splinter groups responding to a real problem in the mainstream religion, or are they separatists whose agenda is self-serving? In other words, are they reformers or extremists? 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 just kickin’ it. 

My research indicates that whenever a revival occurs in one segment of religious society, it’s usually paralleled by a similar movement elsewhere. A widespread example of this would be the 19th Century Adventist movements during which Christians all over the world thought Christ was going to return in 1843 or 1844. This same spirit of expectation and renewal — sparked by time or event-related prophecy — 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.

More recently, we saw that the Jihadist movement within Islam was paralleled with an upsurge in interest among Christian churches. Alas, much of this interest seems to be either casual or extremist, but it’s there. 

The implications of that for a work of fiction are manifold. What might fundamentalist movements or evangelical movements look like on other worlds? What happens if an evangelical group of humans comes face to face with an evangelical group from or on another world? In attempting to answer questions like that, you can lay the framework for a very interesting story. 


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