Thursday, October 3, 2013

Personal Faith - A 'Dive into Worldbuilding!' Hangout report with Video

I was joined for this hangout by Glenda Pfeiffer, Deborah J. Ross, and Lillian Csernica. It was a treat to have new people at the hangout - and super-thoughtful ones, too! I hope you find the discussion as fascinating as I did.

The last time we spoke about religion at a hangout, we'd spoken about world religion, and what kind of evidence one could put into a story to show that the world had religion, and religious diversity, in it (that post is here). So this time I wanted to look at the question of personal faith - characters who believe very deeply in their god/gods. This question is not an insignificant one because there are many stories out there in which the gods are real, and can interact with people. In that case, can the character's belief really be called faith? Or is it more acceptance of reality? N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy took a really interesting approach to that question, because while the gods were real and people took them on as patrons, there were also "atheists." What is an atheist in a land where the gods walk among us? Well, in her book, it was someone who believes that the gods should not be worshipped, because the gods old no relevance to their life even though they clearly exist - thus, more of an ideological stance than a religious one.

This contrasts sharply with the more Earthly view of personal faith that we find in, say, religious fiction and religious-inspired fiction, where plot, character, metaphors used, and many other aspects of a story will be directly inspired by elements of a real world religion. Some of these can be parables or stories from a religious text (like, say, the Bible) translated into a speculative environment. Bryan Thomas Schmidt's The Worker Prince, a science fictional retelling of the story of Moses, falls into this category.

I have always felt that because religion is such an important and pervasive cultural influence in the world, an author needs to make a deliberate choice about what kind or religion will appear in any given story. A lot? A little? None? Any of these options will likely be significant to the way the story is received by readers.

Glenda noted that you can pick and choose aspects of religion that are relevant to the story. You don't want readers to be bothered by the sensation of "something missing," and you should certainly make sure to avoid any inconsistencies in religion. You can have religion, and still have non-religious characters.

Religion is something that often comes into play during rites of passage. Birth, marriage, death, and other major events come to have metaphysical significance, and aspects of them will probably stay with your characters. Glenda remarked that there was a time (the middle ages) when you would have three baths in your life (birth, marriage, death). The final bath was a ritual of cleansing of more than just bodily significance - "not just getting rid of the lice before they put you in the ground."

I asked what kind of works people thought of as having handled religious faith very well. My own pick was the first book where I ever noticed the presence of a non-Earthly religion, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. Glenda mentioned Harry Turtledove's "In the presence of mine enemies," Jo Clayton's A Bait of Dreams, and A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller. Marion Zimmer Bradley did a lot with spiritual discipline of women warriors. Recent books that have great use of religion - and specifically non-European types of religion - are Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones, Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, and The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin. Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon also includes earth mystics and pagans, for a different religious approach.

Lillian made an important point by noting that people don't just stand there with a list of Dos and Don'ts. They have a relationship with their faith and its morality, which often involves a lot of deep thought. Religious faiths themselves are held in diverse ways.

Glenda also recommened Katherine Kurtz's Derinyi series, and Lillian mentioned Frank Herbert's Dune, where the Bene Gesserit women were a huge force in the society, and steely down to their bones.

Deborah Ross spoke about her own new series, The Seven-Petaled Shield. It has three major cultures, each with its own religion. The main religion is influenced by the Hebrew scriptures, while a second takes a Rome-like pantheistic approach with gods who look after you, and the third, a group of nomads on the steppe, have a nature-based religion whose deity is the "Mother of Horses."

Land and life have a deep influence on religious beliefs. Lillian asked, if you are in a survival-level culture, what do you conceptualize as a higher power? To a land-locked culture, would the ocean itself be a deity? Historically, some slaves from inland cultures who were shipped suddenly across the ocean had a terrible fear of it and thought of it as some sort of underworld. One could imagine the same kind of reaction from desert people seeing mountain forests. Would they suspect a different land gives rise to different gods?

When a person holds a particular religious faith, they tend to be steeped in the stories of that faith. While the Star Trek episode Darmok, in which an entire race of aliens speaks only in allusions to their own canon of stories, is a bit extreme (which is why I responded to it with "Let the Word Take Me"). However, the metaphors and analogies and imagery of those core stories permeate the thinking and language use of any member of that religion, and indeed can permeate the thinking and language of anyone in a society which was primarily based on that religion, whether or not they hold the religion for themselves. English is full of references to the Bible and the Judeo-Christian concept of God. Other languages are similar.

Lillian brought up Thailand, where there are stories of spirits who don't yet know they are dead, who may ask for a ride to the airport in a taxi and then disappear. Concepts of lucky colors can come from an underlying religious viewpoint.

In ancient Japan, traveling in certain directions on certain days was considered unlucky for religious reasons. This got us thinking about The Awakeners by Sherri S. Tepper, where there was a North Shore and a South Shore, and with the river flowing in one direction, people never traveled in any other direction. There was an underlying secret involving learning what happens to dead people if they travel backward, and the priesthood guarding that secret. Directionality can thus be an interesting cultural concept.

Prophets came up as a topic, though we didn't have a lot of time to discuss them. It would be interesting to consider the faith that prophets hold, and how they are viewed during their lifetimes versus how they are viewed years later. We talked about the character in Babylon 5 who wrote a book while in jail and accidentally ended up founding a religion of people who became caught up in the letter of the book, not the author's intent, even though he was still alive to argue with them about it!

Religious texts are yet another topic that deserves later discussion. You have the original text, then the commentaries, the historical discourses on the topic, and all of this is complicated by the translation issues. Lillian particularly mentioned Mary Magdalene and how her identity is interpreted differently in Orthodox Christianity and in later forms of Christianity. We also spoke about how texts - and the people and events portrayed in them - can be reinterpreted by people with specific political agendas after the fact, and how those people's oppressive or suppressive interpretations can substantially influence the interpretation of the text thereafter.

I always end these discussions feeling like we've just barely begun! But I hope we'll be able to pursue some of these subtopics later. Thank you, Glenda, Deborah, and Lillian, for being awesome discussants.

And here's the video!


  1. I'll take this opportunity to plug my buddy Jason King's "Valcoria" series because personal faith is a cornerstone to the story. I prodded him to attend your hangout for this very reason, but he was unable to (obviously).

    I always consider religion/mythos as I worldbuild, but I usually struggle with how to tie it in to the people, story, places, etc. You make an excellent point that the geography itself can influence religion. In one of my worlds a previous sea culture abandons their worship of the sea god and takes to worshiping the sun. This causes all sorts of schisms and strife. But I hadn't considered what such an island-hopping culture would think of a great river flowing in the opposite direction of their migration, or what their new home in the high mountains would do to their overall concept of a god living beneath the waves.

    As always, thanks for making me think.

  2. You mean I missed someone else bringing up B5? Awwww!! G'Kar was one of my favorite characters, too.

    Sounds like it was a lively discussion. Wish I could've made it.