Saturday, April 3, 2010
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?