Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Religion in Worldbuilding: A Google+ Hangout Report

This was an engaging, in-depth discussion. I was joined by Barbara Webb, Brian Dolton, Glenda Pfeiffer, Harry Markov, Jaleh Dragich, Jules Sharp, and Bryan Thomas Schmidt. As Harry drops in from Bulgaria and Jules from Australia, one of us remarked that "the sun never sets on Juliette's hangouts." I confess I loved this. Now, on to the discussion!

I began by mentioning that the first time I became aware of the possibility of using religion in fictional worlds was when I read Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. With the enormous influence that religion has on culture, behavior and discourse, it's actually surprising that more secondary worlds don't feature it. Harry registers the opinion that if you're writing in a secondary world, religion should be present, at least in the background. He mentioned that magic and religion were actually seen as two sides of the same phenomenon, even in the real world, and that in fantasy it makes sense to draw a link between magical power and the priesthood. He's not actively using religion in his current writing, but does have an urban fantasy where people have magic powers that are linked to deities. In another of his worlds, religion is outlawed because of the history of persecution associated with it.

Barbara is fascinated by religion and its use in fantasy, but feels that not enough of a line is drawn in fantastical settings between faith and religion. In a world where gods are real, is there any faith? What is "faith" in such a context? Also, she mentions that churches are often taken for granted as a part of religion, when they need not necessarily be so.

Brian says that in his world, people believe in the religion and its powers as real, but readers are left to decide for themselves whether the religion is "real" or not - and the evidence is ambiguous between one conclusion and the other. He mentioned that he finds it annoying when he sees worlds where everyone follows the same religion - particularly if they all follow it the same way.

Monoculture in religion (as in any context) may be a sign of lazy worldbuilding.

But not necessarily always. I described my own development of the Varin world and its religions: the general religion of Varin is based on the stars, whereas the undercaste has its own religion based on the glowing trees and will-o'-the-wisps that are found there. The first religion is entirely faith-based, and the second is based on fact, but nobody realizes it. There was a point, however, in my development of the world, where I realized everyone except the undercaste held the same religious beliefs, and instead of diversifying them, I decided to use this as a basis for backstory. As a result, my sense of the origins of the Varini entirely changed. At this point they are former religious fugitives from lands on the other side of their planet - but their religion was shared, as was their persecution, and that was how a multinational group of people wound up populating Varin and having a single shared religion.

Jaleh told us that she feels strange using Christianity-based religion. She has a story set in something like the real world, but with a "tweaked" real-world religion. "The Church" in this context is like the Catholic church, but only loosely. It's in the background, though people use its power and authority to influence broader events in a sort of inquisition. There is a delicate balance between chaos and order which involves divine entities in combination with natural forces, and people who work to keep this balance. The bad guy, meanwhile, uses the Church's name to create chaos. She also sees it as having a Celtic influence as in Lugh and Balor.

Harry remarked that often people will have a church as the representative of organized religion and its power, but that this is very Christianity-based and not all religions in the world are like this - so similarly, not all religions in secondary worlds should be like this.

If you're designing a religion, it's good to consider whether there is a "Church," and whether there are source texts like the Bible or Koran, the Buddhist sutras, etc. Consider also where the authority lies, and who is licensed to speak for God, or channel a deity of one form or another. Is the divine force invisible, unified and everywhere? Is it linked to physical or celestial phenomena, or objects of special significance (for example, relics or natural features like trees or stones)? Are its deities patrons of particular activities in daily life? In the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, deities are relatives of the protagonist! It's also important to ask who and what organize behavior. Does the religion set out a set of ethical and moral rules? What kind of politeness behavior does it require? What kinds of taboos does it establish? Keep in mind that religion has an enormous effect on the way that people think and speak - this is a great tool for creating flavor in your world.

Barbara remarked that she doesn't often see enough variety in taboo. She feels that too often, people simply follow the Abrahamic taboos without questioning or varying them, and that there isn't enough questioning of why taboos exist. A lot of Judaic taboos were originally about cleanliness and stopping disease.

Glenda pointed out that some taboos are explicitly targeted at competing religions, such as the way the First Commandment states "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me."

Commandments are an excellent example of how behavior can be regulated by a religion, but it isn't always necessary to have them put in such a fixed format. A lot of religions function on the basis of traditional daily practices that aren't written down.

Harry said that he felt the commandments were a way for people to exercise control over society in ancient times, thus creating and contributing to a healthy and functioning society. Tying an ethical and moral code and to something beyond the self with implied punishment for transgression probably made a lot of sense in societies that didn't yet have laws and a legal system.

In fact, there can be an inherent conflict between the ethical and moral codes of behavior based on a particular religion, and those of a secular legal system - we can see that in the conflict between the Roman laws and the Christian tenets which is recounted in the Bible (not to mention that we can see it happening around us right now).

 Are there rewards or punishments? Barbara asked. As you work to create your religions, consider what those might be. Are there Heaven and Hell? Is there shunning and ostracism (Jaleh)? How about karma (Harry)?

Next we turned to the question of religion's influence on language. Taboo is a salient example, but metaphor is also heavily influenced. I read a fantastic article recently in National Geographic talking about the way the King James Bible influences the way we speak today (read it here). This is the basis for what I call "secular religion," the way that religious imagery is retained in language for emotional and metaphorical use even if the beliefs themselves are not held by the people using the expressions.

Brian noted that most religions have names for their god or gods, but that Christianity does not (or at least not one that can be used), something which he called a "huge linguistic coup" because it allowed them to claim other deities as instances of their own. Harry noted that it can be difficult to use the singular word god without appearing to refer to the Christian God, and that people go out of their way to specify "gods" or "the divine" when trying to describe this without confusion.

Of course, we then got the question of swearing by gods. This was so much fun that we decided to do Swearing generally at (today's) hangout. There are a thousand examples. "Goodness gracious me!" "Oh God" "For the love of God" People invoke gods often, and often without even thinking about it. Jaleh says she knows a bunch of old English curses because her husband is involved in the reenactment of an ancient battle. Jules commented on books that feature religion and swearing, in that it can be difficult to attain the visceral effect of swearing when all of your words are essentially translated. One way to counteract this is to give your swear words a lot of surrounding grammatical support that resembles how such words are used in our own world. "Holy ____" is pretty darn generic, though, so don't stop there. "____'s bones" or "____'s boots" can work, and so can "___'s balls" or "as ____ is my witness." It's important to have a diversity of these constructions, and to think about how they might relate to class.

I did a bit of explaining about how people swear in Varin. Since they have nine different deities, each of which is patron of a different thing, they swear by the deity most relevant to what they are thinking of at the time. Romantic love it will be Sirin and Eyn, mercy it will be Heile, anger it will be Varin or Plis, justice it will be Mai. Because people swear without thinking, often which god they choose to swear by will divulge something about what they are feeling that they may not be consciously willing to divulge, as when one of my characters involuntarily swears by the Twins (who are patrons of homosexual love as well as other things like balance and loyalty) in an awkward circumstance.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt stopped in at the very end to talk about his book The Worker Prince, which is a retelling of the story of Moses and deals with questions of ideological bigotry. He said it's important to deal with faith, even if it's not necessarily actual real-world religion.

Thanks to everyone who participated. I'm now going to have to shift straight over into discussing Swearing at the hangout. I hope to see you there!


  1. So weird, I asked this exact same question a few days ago on GooglePlus in regards to the book I'm working on! I think religion is very important in terms of "where" the magic is coming from...For the world I created, I finally figured out that most of my characters that have the inner power believe in a higher power but in the sense that they believe in an energetic force that combines all of us together - no good or bad like heaven and hell. It's what you DO with the power you have that makes it either way. I do have another group that believes in more concrete terms but overall they believe anyone who has these particular abilities are of evil and are basically deadset against destroying everyone with this ability. I don't go into a lot of dynamics with religion in the book, but I think in fantasy it is an important element.

  2. In one of my books, there is two main religions. There's probably others but I haven't thought of those yet as the story really only focuses on the two.

    Anyways, I think that there's not enough religion mentioned in books. Even in urban novels set in the real world. In fantasy and science fiction I can kinda understand but I think religion is really important to include. You don't have to say alot, but it can really help define the story and its characters when you consider what religion they belong to.

    Great article! I wish I could have been there!

  3. Almost, the Church in my "real world" story isn't Celtic influenced; the Celtic is another sort of faith brought in, not really to contrast with the Church but to help echo the past into the present. Plus Lugh and Balor are just fun characters. Especially since ordinary people don't realize who Balor really is. ;D

    And it's more of feeling strange using Christianity based religions in non-real world type settings. But one of these days, I'll get around to a seed idea I'm saving where I can work my own faith into the story without it being weird, to me anyway. (colonizing another planet)

    I've still been thinking about this discussion since last week, and yesterday I realized that I need to create some sort of religion into my active project. The MC was changed by magic into a troglodyte type form 15 years ago (the reason being tied into the book plot), but she's ostracized as though it's her fault somehow. I didn't want there to be actual other races in that world, and the fact that there seemed no solid reason for her to be treated as badly as she is on a societal scale has been bugging me for awhile. But if there's a religious reason, it fits very well with what I've already written about how her family had responded to her "curse" and the way the townsfolk treated her in the beginning of the story. I have no idea yet what the religion will be like except I'm thinking a multiple gods approach: faith based rather than factual. That will go well with the societal model of this world I've loosely based on various empires I've researched.

  4. Nicole, thanks for commenting! There are a lot of models for this (not the least of which is "the Force" from Star Wars); it's how you work out the details of practices that makes them really distinct from one another. I like the sense you give that there are outsiders to the religion who see things in a different way. We didn't get much into the idea of a religion's external reputation, but that's an interesting thing to consider in worldbuilding, for sure.

    Sareh, multiple religions are good and quite plausible so long as you handle them well. In urban fantasy I think it depends on two things: 1. whether the fantasy phenomena are religion-based and 2. whether the characters themselves are religious.

    Thank you both for your support and your comments!

  5. Jaleh, thanks for commenting. I knew as I was writing that down that I didn't entirely recall/understand what you'd said, so thanks for clarifying. I'm glad the discussion got you thinking - that's exciting! Good luck with your project. :)

  6. So much to comment on! First off, religion and worldbuilding is the subject of my blog, which you can find here:

    A few points:

    The tendency to make fantasy religions look like the mediaeval Catholic church is somewhat problematic, since our image of the institution is often shaped by early Protestant polemic. In short, if you're writing a setting that opposes a ritual-heavy, corrupt, politically-influential church against a group driven by faith and some surprising revelation from their scriptures, you're basically playing out the Reformation again. That doesn't mean you can't do it, just that it's been done. There are plenty of other ways to describe both religious structures and the changes that they undergo.

    The separation of religion and magic is an interesting point because, in the past, it's one that's been patrolled by scholars of religion. Moreover, definitions of both religion and magic have been shown to be grounded in certain theological assumptions that don't necessarily hold for all religions.

    The matter of religion and the need for scripture is a little too complicated to go into in a comment; I'll point you to the blog instead. Text-based religions that don't also have a grounding in landscape, however, tend to be better suited to missionary endeavours.

    I really do wish I'd been around for this one. Perhaps if you do another in the future, Juliette, I'll have better luck. Or maybe we can trade posts sometime, academic to academic.

  7. Geoffrey, thanks for your in-depth comment. You take on quite a few interesting topics on your blog. I liked your insight on playing out the Reformation - that certainly has been done! Interesting point about the portability of text-based religions without landscape grounding. I'll certainly try to make sure I deliberately invite you if/when we do this topic again.

  8. Sorry I missed it.

    A work day, one of many, alas . . .

    In my observation, there are many religions depicted in fantasy novels, and as Geoffrey observes, many bear a striking resemblance to the medieval Catholic church.

    There are fewer religions in science fiction, and fewer still in 'hard' SF tales. (But that pendulum may well be swinging back, thanks in large part to several recent Analog magazine stories. (Some of them award-winning.)

    One aspect that's rare is genuine alien religions. Not resembling any human religion, especially the major ones.
    A good example, IMHO, can be could in Kay Kenyon's novel "The Braided World." Aliens with a deceptively strange biology, and unusual beliefs to match.