More Q&A from the Catholic Writers Conference I participated in as a non-Catholic guest speaker.
Since I’d raised the issue of the age of a religion several times in talking about its portrayal in a story, I wasn’t surprised to get this question.
Q: What about the “age” of the religion is significant? (i.e. whether it’s new and small or ancient and widespread?)
When you portray a religion (existing or invented) in a story, a key factor in how it will function within the world and the plot is its age. Historically speaking, each religion goes through a life-cycle that begins with its revelation.
To be utterly simplistic, it looks something like this:
1) The birth of the revelation and lifetime of the Prophet.
I find this a very interesting time to write about. The new Voice speaks, some souls respond positively, others snarl and snap, there’s a lot of turmoil.
How much? Well, how many converts are there — only a few? Thousands? If you’re portraying this period of time, the answer to that question will determine the level and type of conflict you’ll be dealing with. Christ was crucified in the hope that the few true believers He’d gathered would be discouraged (they weren’t); Islam spread so quickly that Muhammad and His followers found themselves under siege by the pagan tribes and the Jewish community at Medina, Baha’u’llah lived in exile for 40 years and 20,000 of the believers were slaughtered.
2) The Heroic Age
The Prophet is no longer among us, but His teachings are carried everywhere by fearless men and women who seem to have no concern for personal safety. There may be more martyrs; pogroms, unrest. The faith spreads, meets new obstacles and opportunities. A writer could have a field day with this as the faith touches different societies and changes them — and is changed by them.
At some point, the religion rises from obscurity and becomes, if not the accepted religion, at least an accepted religion. How that happens can affect your story, of course. Does it happen by momentum (Okay, half our population is Zoroastrian, I guess we’d better recognize them.) or by fiat (I’m king, you’re all Christians. That’s that. And by the way it’s Merry Christmas, not Joyous Solstice.) Or maybe your society holds a referendum. (I move we all become Buddhists. Do I hear a second?) In this age, worship becomes more open, doctrines that regulate the life of the community are adopted. Rituals and doctrine are codified—usually by a clergy of some wort—and Houses of Worship are built.
4) The Golden Age
The religion is strong, vital, and affects every facet of society. The temporal government is an ally rather than an adversary. Arts, sciences and social institutions flourish. New discoveries are made. There is a surge of invention. New institutions emerge — universities, libraries, systems to care for the poor, etc.. The House of Worship becomes the hub of community life and may be the overseer of these new institutions.
Individuals and political groups seek to use faith to harness power. Institutions become corrupt or unravel. The purpose of the Faith seems to get lost as the doctrine becomes increasingly dogmatic and particular. The faith may take on many of the characteristics it once sought relief from—distrusting outsiders, expressing exclusivity. Schism increases, as do reform movements. People lose faith, or become alienated and cynical. The leadership may largely be concerned with consolidating their power, which usually weakens rather than strengthens the fabric of the faith.
6) Renewal and Rebirth
This is an interesting period too. Renewal of sorts seems to happen to an older religion when a newer one arises out of it. This has happened with Hinduism/Buddhism, Judaism/ Christianity, and Islam/Bahá’í Faith. It’s essentially coming full circle. A “new” religion has been born, drawing on the teachings of the previous one, and claiming to fulfill it. As a writer you may wish to focus on the effect this has on the older version of the Faith — perhaps your protagonist is a Pharisee or your world’s alternative. Whether your characters are old-guard, innocent bystanders, or part of the new movement, this is a dangerous time. I chose to set my Mer Cycle Trilogy (THE MERI, TAMINY and THE CYRSTAL ROSE) in this tumultuous period because it offered such a wide array of human experience—suffering and loss, joy and victory, heroism and abject corruption. It also allowed me to explore the forces pushing and pulling at the society from a variety of very intimate viewpoints.
That’s really simplistic, as I said, but it can give you an idea of the incredibly rich mine of material you have when you work to build a convincing religion into your world. I recommend frequent trips to your library to treat yourself (er, I mean, reconcile yourself) to hours of delightful (er, I mean gruelling) research.