Saturday, April 3, 2010

To Whom The Dorians Pray

Since Kate has gone down the rabbit hole in pursuit of evil overlords, I shall go after religion. What? Oh, come on – Passover, Easter, Spring Equinox... it’s the stuff that binds our lives.

So, let’s talk about religion on this beautiful Saturday.

First, how most science fiction and fantasy books get it wrong. I think this can be approached through the lens of a panel I was at in some World Fantasy convention. He was a nice man, perhaps twenty five – what do they teach him in schools these days? – and he said “of course, my world has these priests who make these people build towers to the gods, to distract them from pursuing science.”

I don’t remember what I said in reply. I know the words “marxist twaddle” were involved. Because, Ladies, Gentleman, Friends, Beetles and Pterodactyls, that’s exactly what it is. Yeah, yeah, the vile priesthoods of the past all connived to fool the people so that they could make off with the sweetmeats of the of the sacrifices. Right.

The truth is from what we can tell, in all the religions of the past, as in those of the present, we had exactly the same panoply of belief, disbelief, manipulation and devotion as in today’s religions – or today’s political movements which are often the functional equivalent. This is why the past has given us both manipulators hiding beneath the cover of religion – Richelieu! – and saints and even martyrs.

Yes, I know the school books say that this was done to calm the masses, or to keep them quiet, or to... Other very utilitarian things. Sorry kids, Marx was a dumbass and not just in economics (where he thought distribution was exploitation.) And people looking at things a posteriory do not get a true picture.

There seems to be in humans something that needs religion. If you’re not a believer, you’ll say it is the inbuilt need for an all knowing leader, developed by pre-human and barely-human creatures in their earliest associations. If you are a believer you’ll say it’s the way we were designed. I say it doesn’t matter which, but when you are writing, you need to take in account your character’s need for belief and transcendence, or his annoyed and forceful rejection of them. You can’t show a society in which no one believes in anything beyond the everyday. It doesn’t work. When that niche is vacant, ideology moves in and heaven help us. If there’s something the twentieth century proves it is that “Imagine no religion” does NOT lead to “Nothing to kill or die for.”

My characters tend not to be believers, but others around them often are. And I try to make the balance of belief and disbelief workable in my societies.

I find it particularly offensive when fantasies have a world without religion. I always get bogged down in how my supernatural effects work with the religion of the time. But without it, fantasy seems hollow.

My favorite treatment of religion is fantastic literature is The Tombs of Atuan. It’s so believable and so creepy.

In Science Fiction it’s Revolt in 2100, when MOST of the insiders are cynical manipulators, but where there are still true believers.

What is your favorite treatment? What do you think are some of the pitfalls of showing religion in your fantastic world? Why would you choose not to do it? And if you could design a religion from scratch, what would you do?


Jonathan D. Beer said...

My own take on religion is fairly entrenched (for better or worse), and as a result of that I suspect that I will stay away from religion in my own writing in the future - fortunately it hasn't come up yet.

I would like to point out that G.R.R.M's A Song of Ice and Fire take on religion is very good. The clash of various cultures, religions included, is nicely done - Melissandre's extremism is countered by the comforting nature of the Seven. Although I am a bit biased - pagan pantheon's and such just seem to gel more with me.

I suspect this is a very divisive issue, as anything to do with deeply-held beliefs are. Its interesting that you say that you find it offensive when fantasy worlds lack the religious aspect about them. I guess I don't, but I would take it as a sign of incomplete worldbuilding. Like it or not, you are entirely correct that religion is an integral part of society, and even more so in dark-ages or "generic fantasy" society.

Interesting post Sarah; I am very curious to see what people think.

Anonymous said...

Now I hate to keep giving the impression of being a Bujold fan . . . however true.;)

Her Five Gods series is a fascinating look at how people are just the same, even when the Gods take a hand, whenever someone will loan them one.

Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars series had a churchful of people who both believed and were corrupt, believed and were honest, believed that what they wanted must be what God wanted . . . but also had saints and miracles completely unassociated with the church.

My own writing has it all over the shop. It's one of the things I've played with. _This_ story will have a war between gods and . . . _This_ Universe has the most powerful magicians at the mercy of the collective subconscious and they will be the gods whether they want to be or not. . . Apart from deliberately playing with it, religion is absent to understated in my stuff.

Anonymous said...

I've always felt that anything goes with religion when creating a world for fiction as long as the author also creates a history (can be short) for that religion. It's a matter of indoctrination. If a person is raised within any belief by those about him of what is right and good, he will probably believe it, too, especially if there's no one exposing him to conflicting beliefs.

I haven't addressed religion in my writing, except for the short story I wrote which is ultimately a metaphor on what I believes happen to us upon death. It's a fleeting shot at religion, but religion isn't something I've chosen to address quite yet.

Linda Davis

John Lambshead said...

I'm Church of England so I don't believe in bringing religion into religion.

Anonymous said...

Well, my all-time favorite treatment of religion was an Andre Norton novel, written in, IIRC, the late 60s: Star Gate. Please note, this has absolutely no relationship to the movie or TV series called StarGate (one word).

In her novel, the eponymous star gate allowed people from one 'reality' to cross over into 'alternate time lines' to undo a wrong.

But she uses religion in all its aspects -- uplifting for believers; a way of browbeating underlings who've eneterd the clergy for the power they can weild; and everything in between. And this in a subplot, not at all the main story. I found it riveting.

Good luck trying to find it. I've tried buying used copies on Amazon, and they *never* show up. The seller mysteriously has just sold the last copy -- no matter which seller I try.


Kate said...

I tend not to explicitly write religion, although it's usually there in a variety of forms. Or course, fantasy has some other issues: that human need for some kind of spiritual/transcendent core is going to be responsible for some... interesting distortions when your deity is not only prone to making semi-regular visits, but has a tendency to poke divine fingers into the mess and shuffle things around.

From a cultural perspective, the tendency seems to be to start with animism and ancestor veneration, which tends to coalesce into something more like "chieftains write large" as tribal deities. That goes towards deities with set roles and duties - more like kings and noble courts. Monotheistic religion appears to come in one of two flavors: the "Big King" who orders all the other kings around (which could be said of Christianity, Judaism and Islam for most of their history) and the more personal, less rule-based Christian deity who "lives within" and provides guidance - which appears to be a product of the Renaissance and later Enlightenment thought.

SF & F can use all of these, although the impact is somewhat lost when the deity appears "on screen" as it were, or always grants the prayers in a kind of divine wish-fulfilment.

SF tends to just leave deity matters out altogether and assume everyone is atheist - that they "outgrew" their religions.

What I write usually keeps the religion in the background, partly because I consider religion an extremely personal thing (cultural - Oz when I grew up was a place where if you mentioned religion you were assumed to be either trying to convert people or were setting yourself up as a sanctimonious, holier-than-thou wowser), and partly because any mention of faith and religion as good things gets extremely hostile responses from the militant atheist camp.

One particularly apt summation came from a celtic-themed fantasy (alas, I don't remember the title): at one point a goddess tells a character "I can only show myself in ways you can understand". As our understanding of what deity and religion means changes, so does our view of said deity.

It's something of a shame that aspect of humanity has been effectively banished from literature.

Dave Freer said...

Hmm. Well, I think it is fairly substantiated that religions* are generally subverted by the ruling class to justify their own behaviour, especially expanding religions on conversion sprees. Of course some religions start as socio-political justification. They just go on the way they start. That said - they would not exist if humans did not desire them.** Which begs the question: why do humans yearn for them?

*I use the term 'religion'in the broadest sense, which means a formalised belief system in somthing which cannot be substantiated, usually under the leadership of a high priest or clique of leaders who are ordained to point the way. Ergo, Atheism is a religion, Marxism is a religion, as are the more common egs.

** Atheists for eg. ar a classic eg of this need. If it didn't matter to them that they believed there was no god, they wouldn't need to proclaim their gospel to all. If they really were totally disinterested, they'd be like the C of E, and like them vanishing ;-)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


You are a brave woman to bring up religion.

One of my SF stories was based on the premise that the need for religion was a virus and only 10% of humanity were immune to it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Yes, it is divisive. I don't find it offensive, just annoying. I expect some reference to worship or at least to some creator, as no human society is without it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


My writing is all over the place too, and only one of them -- not written, or rather written long ago but not submited in years and in DESPERATE need of rewrite -- deals directly with gods.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I haven't addressed it, either, and don't think anyone needs to so much as I believe that at least a glancing mention should be made and that if it IS written about, one shouldn't assume those gaining power from it are simply cynical and going through the motions.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


My husband was Episcopal, the American variety of the same, so I'm well acquainted with it.

I will tell you though that a throw away line in a non-fiction book -- talking of episcopalians breaking down people's doors and holding them at machine-gun point while forcing them to play no contract bridge and eat sandwiches with the crusts cut off -- has long haunted me. Some day I might write a story with the premise.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Sounds fascinating. And your inability to find it MUST be supernatural. (G)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Dear Kate,

It's mostly I think a fear to offend. In that way, we've all become CE or Episcopals (Grin)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Good points. In my observation -- And I forgot to sacrifice a literary goat before the altar of Pratchett so I'll correct that now -- and in Small Gods, religions go through the initial fervor phase, the "everyone else I know worships yellow butterflies" phase where, with exceptions, there are very few saints and mostly go-alongers. And then after endless revivals of initial fervor comes the decay where few believe it and some strange religion is preferred.

However an elite might exploit it at all points, doesn't mean they themselves don't beleive in it. (People ARE weird.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I've discussed sex and race in public before. Religion was the only icon left to topple. :)

Francis Turner said...

Writers that do religion well tend to be writers who are religious. David Weber and Elizabeth Moon are two good examples. Both have "good" religion, "bad" religion and perhaps best of all, the sort of in the middle religion of people who have a religion based moral code and mostly adhere to it but sometimes don't

While I hesitate to criticize Lois MB and Matapam I disagree somewhat with the 5 gods religion because in the 5 gods universe the gods are visibly present and active - albeit somewhat indirectly (this is also true for the Moon and Weber fantasies but not their SF). Apart from anything else in these worlds it is impossible to be a rational atheist or agnostic because the gods get in your face and demonstrate their presence.

I think the more interesting case is where religion is like it is here on this earth. i.e. could be true but we don't know and evidence is limited.

Oh and BTW people interested in SF and aliens and religion should probably read this:

John Lambshead said...

Dear Sarah


You do understand the Church of England.

We have all these other sinister cultish rites like putting the milk in the cup first, playing tennis on lawns on Sunday and rearranging church service schedules during the World Cup if England are playing.


Anonymous said...

Kate said:

"...start with animism and ancestor veneration, which tends to coalesce into something more like "chieftains write large" as tribal deities. That goes towards deities with set roles and duties - more like kings and noble courts. Monotheistic religion appears to come in one of two flavors: the "Big King" who orders all the other kings around (which could be said of Christianity, Judaism and Islam for most of their history) and the more personal, less rule-based Christian deity who "lives within" and provides guidance - which appears to be a product of the Renaissance and later Enlightenment thought."

To which I'm going to add The Great Marketing Takeover. Religion has gone *cute*

We have Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Kiss me, I'm Irish, and cute little witches and ghosts.

Until the marketers let go, religion is here to stay.

But when you write about a religion in the future, is it Santa Claus, the Beltane fires or Christ has risen? Or for that matter Allah Akbar. What will you show being celebrated?

Kate said...


I don't know. My space opera that's currently semi-on-hold while I completely rewrite ConVent into something that won't get me sued from here to kingdom come has mention of an orphanage run by two dotty old ladies who appear to belong to some flavor of Christianity - all the orphans they raise have names like Salvation: hence the character Salvation Jones (call her Sally at your peril)

I've toyed with a number of ideas relating to religion in the future, but nothing's really come of any of them yet. It will depend on what the piece demands.

Anonymous said...

Actually (strange how it occurred to me today, eh?) I see that what my worlds are lacking are religious holidays. I mean, I've got thirteen gods several of whom have a tendency to show up when you pray to them, and no holy days?

I shall have to reverse engineer a few. Err, thirteen, I suppose.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


That is correct. A religion in which the gods are KNOWN to exist is completely different.

Will look at aliens and religion later

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


well, there is the old joke about Islam and Star Trek, but I won't repeat it here, because there's only so far you can go with religion.

The closest to religion I've gone is the nuns of St. Lucia of the Spaceways "Her star spangled mantel, her crown of stars."

At some point I'll have to write that novel. At this point I'm not sure the fact that NO ONE will touch it and it's garanteed to offend EVERYONE should make any difference.

Anonymous said...

Well, you don't want to offend too many readers. Editors and publishers, on the other hand . . .