Monday, August 26, 2013

Religion - Daily Practices and Religious Diversity, a Worldbuilding Hangout Report

This is a written report of the discussion I held on Thursday, August 15th on the topic of Religion in Worldbuilding, with a focus on Daily Practices and Religious Diversity. I was joined for the discussion by Erin Peterson, Glenda Pfeiffer, Lesley Smith, Misha Gericke, Brian Dolton, and Spencer Ellsworth. Thanks to you all for your great contributions!

We started by asking the questions, "What are the kinds of evidence for religion that one can put into a story? How do you create a religious atmosphere?"

Lesley told us about an interesting fictional scenario in which the government was by Oracle, so was essentially theocratic, but where belief didn't have bearing on law.

Erin jumped in by talking about services and ceremonies, and daily practices such as saying "bless you" when people sneeze, of saying Grace. These don't necessarily have so much to do with faith as with habit, but they are the visible evidence of the existence of the larger faith within the culture. Names of the days of the week are another example of this, as are dietary practices.

Swearing is one common way to indicate that a society believes in a deity or set of deities, but though it can be fun and flavorful, it's usually not sufficient to give the sense of a religion permeating a society.

Sometimes it is interesting to ask: is there a place for contemplation in this society? Is it religious contemplation? What form does it take?

Lesley mentioned that she had been to a place in Kyoto, Japan called Teramachi (temple town) and that there had been all kinds of temples, including one dedicated to octopi. I myself have been to a temple dedicated to rats and mice, where a friend of mine who worked in biology (involving experiments on rats and mice) would make an offering each year.

If there is a religion in your society, how uniform is it? Christianity has been known throughout its history for having all kinds of heretical schools (or we could say, subgroups with varying beliefs).

Spencer mentioned his work on an Indian reservation, where the Tribal College is a community and spiritual center but also a 'law center.' He explained that in this small community there was a lot of blending between the spiritual, the social, and the political. We asked whether it was more likely for a cosmopolitan society to have religion be distinct from politics or law, rather than incorporated into all aspects of daily life.

Japan is a place where daily practices of religion can be found all around, yet at a low level. Most restaurants will have a shrine of some sort, and many families have a small Buddhist shrine, or Shinto shrine, in their homes (my homestay family had one Buddhist shrine and two small Shinto shrines which they kept fresh every day with salt, water, and fresh leaves).

When you are working with a fictional world, consider where that world falls on the spectrum of religious impact. How important is religion? Does it impact every aspect of daily life, or is it only relevant upon occasion?

Religion can sometimes serve as a motive for small social groups to cut themselves off from others. We considered the departure of the pilgrims for the American colonies, and also the isolation of the Mennonites in  Paraguay and Bolivia, and the family who lived for 40 years in isolation in the Russian taiga after fleeing for religious reasons.

The idea of separation of church and state came up, and Lesley asked about it in the context of US strife on the basis of religion. Erin explained that its intent is only to say that the government must tolerate any religion (or no religion) rather than specifying that the people themselves must be tolerant. I also mentioned that the era of Russian "godless" communism created a swing toward more overt expression of Christian religion in the United states, including the addition of the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance and the words "In God we trust" on US currency.

These historical events and trends in the area of religion are excellent sources of inspiration for worldbuilders. I think it's really important to look at the religion that you are using in your world and ask yourself how it came to be in its current form. History leaves long-lasting footprints in all kinds of areas, and religion should not be exempted from that. I created a history for the Varin religion after I realized (years ago) that I only had one major religion in Varin, and that that was not a particularly "normal" state of affairs. Thus I came up with the idea that the Varini had been religious fugitives who had gathered members of their sect from various areas of the place where they previously lived, and left in ships to try to find an isolated continent where they would be free of persecution. Brian remarked that though the United States is a nation of immigrants, but for a long time all of them were Christian.

The US is known for being very Christian, and I have often been asked by Japanese people if I am Christian. Explaining the diversity of US religions can be an interesting challenge when traveling overseas. Erin remarked that though we think of the Middle Ages as being entirely Catholic, they were characterized by all kinds of splinter groups and heresy was something to worry seriously about (whether you were looking out for it, or part of it!). Religion does not stay monolithic - and neither does language, and the two have enormous influence on one another.

Lesley mentioned that the Tudors in England were known for burning people. Faith is divinely inspired but it also causes people to get into wars and political conflicts of all varieties.

We talked for a while about syncretic religion. There are places where multiple religions can coexist and sometimes more than one can be held by a single person. This is certainly the case in Japan, where Shinto and Buddhism both became accepted, and Buddhism adopted and reinterpreted a lot of deities from Hinduism as well. Christianity also is present in Japan. Sometimes people say "you are born Shinto, get married Christian, and die Buddhist" because they perceive each of these religions to be the "best at" a particular type of ceremony. This syncretic tendency in Japan is why Japan was open to learning about Christianity from the Portuguese early in their history. However, when Christian missionaries made it clear that syncretism and Christianity were not compatible - that they expected people to reject their previous beliefs if they took up Christianity (and by the way, they had armies) - that was when the Japanese government decided to outlaw Christianity. It led to a very bloody and ugly period in Japanese history when missionaries were hunted down and either martyred or forced to apostasize. Silence by Endo is a book which dramatizes this era, as is Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn. The treatment of Christians in this era was horrifying, but Japan had a serious vested interest in not letting the adoption of Christianity lead to the colonization of their country. (And if that's not a historical source of fascinating conflict, I don't know what is!)

I mentioned the author Mizuki Shigeru, who used the Japanese ghost stories in a series of manga, and also the recent discovery of 500 new fairy tales in Germany. We often think of these as cool or cute stories, but it would also be interesting to consider a society in which these tales were active as teaching tales, and as a means of teaching morality and right action to the young.

Thanks again to everyone who discussed this topic with us! I will be trying to get into the habit of posting my written reports on the Friday following each hangout, giving myself eight days to get my reports written (I should be able to handle that, right?). Thus, the report for the Dining hangout will be up this coming Friday.

This Thursday's hangout topic will be Schools and Education. I hope to see you there!


  1. Sometimes, I really do wish that you had a book out with all these worldbuilding posts. Whenever I need to think Worldbuilding, I go here.

    One of the interesting things about religion that I'm dealing with in Vardin which is an interesting tension is that the gifteds are generally Christian (their brand of it), but a lot of those they protect worship the gifteds—in a way that is frustratingly difficult to break them of. I have one athlete that I've been trying to short story for probably a little over a year now who is thoroughly devout and steeped in her religion. She's an interesting case to try to write, especially because it's a sports story.

    There are all sorts of things to consider, but one of the biggest ones that keeps making me slow down and think again is why people do things. Someone who is really religious considers their purpose through the lens of their religion. I never would have imagined a sport as being worship before I met this character.

    Liana Mir

    1. Thanks very much, Liana. I might try to make a book of these at some point... Thank you for sharing your thoughts about your project.

  2. Great stuff and lots to consider, as usual. The bits about Japan are intriguing because I know next to nothing of that culture/history. I remember hearing somewhere that the Japanese thought the Portuguese 'barbaric' because they ate with their fingers and daggers instead of civilized chopsticks. Any truth to that, oh wise and well-traveled one?

    As for religious practices, I agree that one of the most obvious flavors are little daily habits. For instance, I will mutter thanks for the sun, sky, wind, trees, etc. I will touch my medallion if there is not a tree nearby. I will rub another medallion apologetically if I catch myself thinking negative thoughts, or if I see someone who is in a worse position and mentally ask for it to be temporary for them. It's basically like a conscience compass. I pour offerings to my tree. I garden. I talk to plants as I water them.

    Something else that I do, whether people are looking or not, is to pick up litter and rinse, reuse, recycle. People have commented that it's a nice, "green" thing to do, but they don't realize that I'm doing it for personal religious reasons. They think I'm just being socially conscious.

    I don't comment this to toot my horn or tout my religion. I'm just using these as examples that I do daily. For an outsider to watch a character doing these things, they might seem odd, normal, or not worthy of a second glance. But to the character doing these rituals in action or in quiet thought, they mean everything.
    Thanks for making me think.

    1. I think the Japanese considered the Portuguese barbaric for more reasons than that (the fact that they didn't bathe entered in!). I appreciate you sharing how your religion impacts your daily life. There are a lot of tiny details of religion that we don't necessarily think of all the time, which can clearly be very helpful in worldbuilding.