Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Elements of Religion, with cautions, for worldbuilders

Religion is often included in the worlds we build. This is not because everyone wants to bring religious "issues" into the story (although some do), but because religion permeates our own lives in so many different ways that it makes a lot of sense for another world - particularly a world of humans - to include it.

In fact, issues of religion very often touch a chord with readers. I was astonished by reader responses to my very first story, which included religion as a central aspect of the story. For this very reason, including religion in a story comes with inherent risks. One is that you might be construed as trying to influence another person's beliefs. People sometimes do this intentionally (in which case they may be prepared if someone is offended) but it can be more of a shock if they do it accidentally. Another possible risk is that your portrayal of religion - even a religion which on the face of it is clearly unrelated to those of our own world - will be construed as an insult to a real world religion. [I think this one is related to the idea that readers sometimes construe an author's beliefs or psychology from the content of his/her writing, which is problematic in and of itself...but that's an issue for another time.]

One thing I would recommend is that you take some time to consider how religion is included in your world, and why, and how. I have seen stories where all religious people are zealots, and they don't appeal to me, because they don't speak to me as real. Sure there are zealots in the world, but within any belief system, there is a lot of room for variation.

The reason I titled this post "elements" of religion is because I think worldbuilding religions can be approached from a number of different angles. All of these elements are intertwined, but each can vary. As I write this, I am certain that I am not capturing everything here (I'm no scholar of theology), but coming at it from my usual position of trying to help my own portrayal of social phenomena through basic level analysis. (So please forgive any awkwardness as I try to think this through out loud.)

One element of religion I'll call belief. It's a difficult term, because it means different things to different people, but for my purposes here a belief has to do with how we think the universe works. God exists, or gods exist, or no gods exist... God takes the form of fire, or can change forms at will, or flows through everything; or gods live in every object, or exist above us, etc. This part is about what your characters know is true about the spiritual nature of the world. There will certainly be evidence for belief in language and use of metaphor, and in certain aspects of behavior (but not necessarily churchgoing!).

Another element of religion I'll call tenets (with thanks to my friend Josephine!). Tenets are the "shoulds." They're statements about how people should enact their religion. To be a good Christian you should ___/ to be a good Muslim you should ___/ to be a good member of X you should Y. People, even very religious people, don't always follow all the tenets of their own religion. They will interact psychologically with these tenets, and may follow them, but may resist them, etc. Tenets are usually guarded by, and/or disseminated by, an institution or a specific group of people.

Another element I'll call "practices." These are not the things people should do, but the things they actually do. This would include things like going to the temple for New Year's day and lighting a fire there and bringing it home, or putting out a bowl of water somewhere, or lighting a candle on a certain day. I'm separating them out from the "shoulds" because sometimes people do these things without really connecting them (mentally) to why the religion says they should do them... and because sometimes people hold the tenets but don't actually make it all the way to practices (which can cause them guilt).

Another element I'll call "faith." This is the very personal level of religion, where we find the concept of a relationship to the divine. It is the psychological and emotional aspect of religion. It's possible to believe that gods exist without cultivating faith as such; similarly, it is possible to engage in practices without it.

The last element I'm going to mention here is language. Language use reflects all of the above aspects of religion, and it's worth thinking about how people speak when they are members of a particular religion. Which words are taboo? How do we speak about the divine? Must we refrain from speaking about it? What euphemisms do we use? Another thing that is interesting about the language use associated with a particular religion is that it can be learned, and used, without any knowledge of the elements listed above. Thus, even when a religion is essentially non-functional, the people who used to practice it may still speak as though they do. It is possible to imagine a secular society which still refers to aspects of the divine in quite specific ways.

I think as we go about worldbuilding, particularly if religion will play an important role in the story or in the life of a character, it's worth thinking through these different angles of religion and how they interrelate - and also, how they come together in the mind of the character. For some, all of them are so closely intertwined that they can't be extricated. For others, one element or another may be stronger.

I encourage anyone interested in being inspired by aspects of different real world religions to visit the Religion section of The Writer's International Culture Share. It currently includes seven articles - but if you might be interested to share something of your own, please do let me know.

It's something to think about.


  1. Very interesting. A topic after my own heart, actually.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Bryan. I'm glad you enjoyed it, particularly given your interest in this topic.

  3. I loved it, Juliette. I'm currently writing a far future story whose protagonist is a Buddhist monk dealing with the anxiety of a humanity who senses its end as a species coming - and I'm trying very hard to write a story without stereotypes, based on my past experience living in a Buddhist temple in my youth.

  4. Thanks so much, Fabio! Your story sounds fascinating, as does your experience at the temple. I would love to hear more about that, but I suppose I'll have to wait for your story!

  5. That sounds like a very helpful way to break it all down! I've often thought about how religion manifests itself in our lives, particularly when I say "oh my god" despite being an atheist.

    Maybe because of that, I left the religion a bit nebulous in my fantasy novel Remedy. The most specific instances are when characters tell each other fables as part of their oral culture. A reviewer pointed out that because of the magical setting, the reader can choose how to interpret those fables. When a character tells the story of a god or a demon, it might be a factual account of beings who really exist in that world. Or it might be allegory and moral guidance. Or some combination of the two. I meant the plot-driving "demon" sickness to be a contagious bacterial disease, but it would also work to take the characters at their word and interpret the demon as a literal evil spirit that requires the goddess's teachings to overcome. I thought I was just glossing over the religious elements, but I guess I was also making it possible for the reader to infer as much religious presence as they would like to see.

  6. Heidi, interesting approach - I can imagine that it would be successful. Certainly we can rely on readers to infer quite a lot, so I think you've hit on something very useful. Thanks for telling us about it (and it sounds like an interesting story!).

  7. Like Heidi, I've written a novel where a demon sickness is taking over, although I come from the opposite end of the religious spectrum and my disease has both spiritual and biological aspects within the story. I find the presence of religion, especially in science fiction and fantasy, to be fascinating, and many of my stories have religious content. The trick is to keep the narrative from getting preachy, to make clear that this is what the character(s) believe/practice or how their world works, without infusing the book with too much moralism unless your explicit goal is to convert people, or you're writing for a religious audience.

  8. Thanks for your comment, Kristin! I like your reasoning, and the disease concept sounds cool. Good luck with the project!

  9. A very interesting article. I hadn't thought much about the practices side. I think the distinction between tenets and language is not as great as all that, tenets being framed in a language, and being used to define some of the terms of that language. My fantasy series is in many respects a work of theology written in the form of a fantasy novel. The difference between faith and religion is quite basic.
    I have long been annoyed by fantasy novels where the only apparent purpose of religious orders is to have an Inquisition that tortures the heroic magic-users. Several books that have a much more balanced approach to religions in fantasy societies are the Deryni books by Katherine Kurtz, and the Yurt books by C. Dale Brittain.

  10. I've mostly left out religion in my stories so far, because my Faith doesn't really fit the settings and societies, and I feel odd putting in one based on a different religion, even Christianity when appropriate, since I'd be writing as an outsider. I do have one story that has a strong Church theme, but I'm co-writing it with my husband and that aspect came from him as an insider. These are some good points for keeping in mind while working on the story, especially in writing the parts with the priest.

    I do enjoy when religion is handled well in stories. It's part of why I love the Valdemar books so much. Lackey has many religions, and Valdemaran law states that there is no one way. Freedom of religion there. Other countries and regions vary, but she doesn't make them evil. Individual practitioners and leaders on the other hand...

    I shouldn't be afraid to include religion when it's hard for me to realistically imagine a world without anyone believing in something greater than themselves. Even if it's just Fate. That's still a sort of belief system. Some people will take offense regardless of what I write, and I'm not bound to put mine into a story, even if I do feel vaguely guilty about that. Though whenever I get around to my colonization story seed idea, it will be there.

  11. authorguy, I agree that tenets and language are closely interrelated, but they can vary independently, which is why I kept them separate. Religious language can be used with no knowledge of the tenets, only with experience of the language use of others.

    Jaleh, I too enjoy religion in stories when it's handled well, and I remember enjoying the Valdemar books (though I haven't read them in years). I appreciate you writing in to share your thoughts.