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Religion

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The members of my immediate group at work have known for a while that I don't drink alcohol, don't usually consume caffeine (except in chocolate), and don't smoke. (And don't eat red meat.) They've also seen the aging Habitat for Humanity bumper sticker on my car. And they know that I used to fly out to Salt Lake City now and then. And a couple weeks ago, very nervously, I mentioned in passing to them (in an email about an outside-of-work dinner party the group was having) that Kam was "one of my sweeties."

I wonder if any of them have connected the dots and erroneously concluded that I'm a Mormon.

I'm fascinated by religion. I'm an agnostic myself, with occasional atheist leanings and occasional leanings toward mysticism of various sorts, but I have a lot of religious friends, and it's clear to me that religion is a huge part of a lot of people's lives. I sort of feel like if I want to really understand people (which I tend to feel is an important goal for a writer), knowing about religion is essential. Arguably, an intellectual knowledge of religion isn't enough; I would guess that to truly understand faith, you have to have it. But since I don't (well, okay, I have a fair bit of faith in the scientific/rationalist worldview, but although that's related, I don't think it's quite the same thing), intellectual knowledge about religion is probably as close as I'm likely to get.

The dislike of religion that I see in the speculative fiction community bothers me. The fannish community prides itself on being accepting of differences, but it seems to me that devout adherence to any religion other than perhaps paganism tends to be viewed in fandom with distaste bordering on distrust. This is understandable; many people in the sf world have received unpleasant treatment from religious people, and many others pride themselves on a scientific/rational worldview that they feel leaves no room for "superstition." (Though there are many scientists who are also religious.) But it's divisive, and it bothers me—and I see it in the fiction as well. Too many science fiction stories either slam organized religion or simply ignore it (besides being straight and monogamous, the vast interstellar society of the future is monolithically and devoutly secular humanist). (And when they slam religion, it's often by setting up a straw-man religious character whose weak arguments the smart scientifical characters can easily demolish. Hint: if you're going to feature a religious argument in your book, go read some of the great religious thinkers and see whether your argument is an old one. It probably is.) Too many fantasy stories feature the good guys (the magic-using people, often allied with the world of Faerie one way or another) battling the evil and intolerant Church.

That last in particular (good guys vs. intolerant Church) is a tempting story to tell, 'cause everyone likes an underdog, and everyone can see the intolerance that some kinds of religious people have in the real world, and it's emotionally compelling. But it's a cliche (it's been done many many times), and it relies on a stereotype. If the only religious people in a story are fanatical Spanish Inquisition types, eyes gleaming, ready to burn all witches and heretics, that's just as much a stereotype as having flouncy gay guys in your story, or watermelon-eating poor ignorant Southern black guys, or Chinese-Americans who are quiet and well-mannered and do well in school, or whatever.

Huh. This seems to have turned into a rant. I didn't really mean it to; sorry. I should note that there are lots of good speculative fiction stories in which religion plays an important or even central role, and/or which feature prominent religious characters who aren't evil or insane. (There's a good page about religion in sf, featuring 34,000 citations, but I suspect there are plenty of works not listed there.) Religion is a great way to examine fundamental questions about humanity and the universe, and plenty of authors have taken advantage of that fact. And some science fiction probably even romanticizes various religions; I note in particular that there seem to be a fair number of stories and books featuring interesting Jesuit characters, and I am not at all immune to the allure of the (stereotypical?) fictional Jesuit—brilliant, perhaps slightly eccentric, inquiring after Knowledge at any cost.

In conclusion, I'm not sure I have a conclusion. Except: religion has been a part of the human experience and has helped shape human society for thousands of years, and if you're gonna write about humans, I think it's a good idea to take that into account. 'Nuff said.

16 Comments

The dislike of religion that I see in the speculative fiction community bothers me. The fannish community prides itself on being accepting of differences, but it seems to me that devout adherence to any religion other than perhaps paganism...

In NY fandom there are a fair number of Conservative and Orthodox Jews, some of whom I'm quite friendly with, and none of whom have reported problems with discrimination or snarkiness. The Lunacon con suite is even designed to meet one of the stricter levels of kosher. The East Coast cons I've been to generally have a number of panels on religion, chapel and Sabbath services on both Saturday and Sunday, and other activities for the religiously-minded. Then there are semi-pro zines like Palace of Reason and small presses like Arx that are not only explicitly Christian but explicitly pre-Vatican II Catholic.

As far as paganism and writing, as paganism isn't yet a cultus publicus and one can pretty much make up one's own precepts as one goes along, they tend not to make very good villains. SF literature hasn't yet gotten over the discontents of the Enlightenment, so endless charges against dead Christianity is par for the course, if tedious. Not as tedious as "But what does it mean to be (a Western, male, individualist --as there are no other kinds) human" stories though.


Very nice post, Jed, and one that boils down a lot of my own thinking on the subject.

Although I will say that while I'm perfectly comfortable and interested in people who profess and practice many religions (and I try to at least brush past religion in my work, when appropriate), I don't do well with fanatics or evangelists of any stripe, and I tend to feel that it's a bigotry in which I'm perfectly justified. If they're going to judge me exclusively and unfavorably by my beliefs, I think turnabout is only fair play. *g*


There is of course the flipside to this, which is that modern High Fantasy as a genre is frequently rife with the trappings of religion but none of its soul. "By the Gods!" these characters will cry, or curse, or sometimes pray, but the gods never really touch their world except when needed for an invokation or A Really Big Spell.

(And lets not forget the fiction where religion serves primarily as an excuse to have sacred harlots!)

I think the trouble with addressing religion in spec fiction is that it's hard to do without writing A Book About Religion. While you can have a protagonist who happens to have a poly family unit and still tell a story about something else (as James Alan Gardner most cheerfully does in "Vigilant"), I think it is a much more daunting prospect to give that character a religion and then explain what that religion is and means to them and their world without losing all track of the original story.

The *only* way I think you can pull religion off without making it the centre of the story is in Judeo-Christian fiction, because everyone in your white western audience will probably think they know what you mean and fill in the rest. (c.f., the token jesuit, or the christ figure ad nauseum)

[Well, okay. So maybe Ursula K. Le Guin pulled it off in some of her fiction, but the religious types were still the bad guys]

Which is not saying I don't agree with you -- I do in principle. I guess I just think it's a much harder thing to do well than introducing gender issues. I can conceive of (and hope for) a future where different sexualities are co-existing as cohesive open parts of society. I can't figure out how to make that case for religion, short of having everyone pick the same one. And if everyone has to have the same flavour of ice cream, I can't see that making them all happy.

But then, I'm officially an agnostic. :)

ps you're lovely when ranting... you stir up such fun ideas.


Wow, three interesting comments in the first half-hour. I figured everyone but me would be away from their computers today....

Interesting about Judaism and fandom, Nick; I didn't know most of that. (The only religion panel I see often at cons is the old "How to create a religion for your fantasy novel" standby.)

ebear: Yeah, proselytizing of any kind (religious, political, or otherwise) tends to make me uncomfortable if too ardent. But even there, I think it's a common mistake among secular humanists (note: you're not doing this, this is just something I see a lot) to lump all strong religious believers (especially Christians in the US) together into the monolithic category "fundamentalist," which is usually used to mean "socially reactionary, completely intolerant of everything, and utterly irrational." So I think it's important to remember that there are a variety of fundamentalists (across a variety of religions), and they don't all believe the same thing or behave the same way.

Naomi: What do you have against sacred harlots? :) Interesting point about the difficulty of having an invented religion be a backgrounded rather than foregrounded part of characters' lives; still, I think it can be done. You mention Le Guin; I just last night finished reading her short story "Mountain Ways," in the totally fabulous The Birthday of the World, in which one of the protagonists is effectively a wandering priest of the local (fictional) religion. Religion is an important part of the story, but it's far from the only part, and Le Guin gives us just enough detail about the religion to give it some solidity without immersing us completely in it. Also, it's a lovely story.


One thing that rarely comes across to me, in fiction, is just how new of a concept the sort of atheism we're familiar with today really is. Even the Enlightenment scholars were firmly convinced of the existence of God; Descartes' cogito is predicated on the idea that a just and good deity exists. Radical as they were for the time, with their scientific views of the universe, the Deists were still quite married to their idea of God as cosmic watchmaker.

My late-19th-early-20th-century philosophy is sketchier than it used to be, but I'm fairly certain you don't see the seeds of modern atheism/secular humanism until Nietzsche and Russell (even Kant still predicates arguments on religious ideas), and it doesn't get really solid until the Existentialists show up. So I'm always bemused when a firebrand atheist shows up in any sort of history-inspired fiction that takes place before about 1880.


Aha. I only just got The Birthday of the World, so I haven't read that one yet.

(I was going to say "I have nothing against sacred harlots! Some of my best friends are sacred harlots!" but that one's wishful thinking and probably best left untouched... And why aren't there ever any sacred boy-harlots? *pout*)


Nick: nah, it's easy to set up pagans as the bad guys -- just model your fictional world on late 3rd-century Europe. Christians were a persecuted minority, and the period even comes with ready-made bad guys like Galerius. If you want pagans breaking down doors, burning Bibles, imprisoning and killing Christians, passing unjust and discriminatory decrees, etc., you can't go wrong with Rome in 299 A.D.

Naomi: it may be that we have different opinions on what "A Book About Religion" consists of, but some of the best fantasy of the past few years has dealt maturely with religion without letting it overwhelm the story: The Curse of Chalion, A Song of Ice and Fire, Guy Kay's Sarantine Mosaic, American Gods, etc.

Great article, Jed!


Oddly enough, the last three (or at least three out of the last four or five) Specfic novels I’ve read have been specifically about religion, or at least have dealt pretty fundamentally with religious topics. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion is about (among other things) what it might mean for a religion to actually have its divinities actually active. American Gods is about, you know, well, anyway, it has something to do with religion, right? And I’ve just yesterday finished Kiln People by David Brin, which, ultimately, shows its theme to be (NOT QUITE A SPOILER, I THINK, BUT I’M NOT REALLY SURE) the nature of the individual soul, and its relationship to the collective.

Not that I’m claiming any of these are deep, or anything, but they are commercially and critically successful novels which appear to have begun with a question about religion (or, in Brin’s case, to have begun with a classic SF what-if which brought up religious questions).

For unrelated reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about H.G. Wells, recently, to not much use. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about how H.G. would react to today’s American society: so much seems unchanged from fifty years ago or so, when he died, and so much seems changed. Certain fundamental attitudes towards marriage, property, and propriety managed to survive him and all his crowd, but it’s hard to imagine how he would have reacted to a Gay Pride parade. I don’t know how Wells dealt with religion in his SF, but I can’t imagine he would have found the current Catholic Church in America remotely plausible (not dogmatically, I mean, narratively).

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.


jere7my: naturally, you're describing a period wherein a religion moderns would describe as pagan was the cultus publicus.

Public cults make GREAT villains, regardless of which magical, invisible, all-powerful, imaginary friends they laud. One of the more tedious bits of the current crop of Nasty Christians vs. Brave Scientists and or Patchouli-Stained Pagan Warrior-Poets is the idea that Judeo-Christianity is inherently intolerant rather than intolerance being an ideological element inherent in public cults.


Two more quickies:

1. Isn't LeGuin's The Telling all about those nasty Maoists trading Taoism in for instant coffee and matching jumpsuits and how horrible that all is?

2. Did somebody say sacred harlots? (not work ok, but fuck it, it's a holiday!)


Hey, some of my best friends are patchouli-stained pagan warrior-poets...! Oh wait, no they're not. I was thinking of the sacred harlots.

Nice ranting, Jed. I'll add that I'm fascinated when an author can pull off the trick of making me see/appreciate existing religions as magical systems. I mean not in a drippy twee way, but by shedding light on what a religion might offer to intelligent people who find power and strength in it. It's like the pleasure of reading about an SF world in all its strangeness and beauty, but one that's secretly co-existing with my own world on this planet.


Did I say two more quickies, I meant three.

Meredith is generally correct, but forgets Marx, whose Theses on Feuerbach (1845) made much the same point about the general wishy-washiness of atheism, specifically Feuerbach's essentialist views of "species being" -- F-back claimed that "God" is a reflection of an abstract human essense; religion is an artifact of our alienation from our own essence as beings. Marx, in response, claimed: "But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, and society. This state, this society, produces religion, a reversed world-consciousness because they are a reversed world. Religion is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality."

Oh, did I say this would be a quickie? Okay, quickly then: it is certainly acceptable to write atheistic characters after the great bourgeois revolutions of 1848 or so, especially if said characters are socialist or anarchist.


D'oh! I always forget Marx.

So, yes, definitely post-1848. But I'd wager that atheism-as-we-know-it-today, at that point, would tend to get one tarred with the "socialist" brush, even if one were in fact not a socialist, which could lead to some interesting consequences. (OTOH, that's just based on my understanding of American politics of the-day-and-briefly-thereafter; if things were different in Europe, I will not be surprised. Certainly a number of movements that were not, strictly speaking, socialist got tagged as such during the early 20th century...!)


It used to be a fashionable slam in the Middle Ages to say that students learned to be atheists at the great universities, and that no bishops believed in god. Clerical lip service to the creed and actual cynical worldliness was one thing that led to the Reformation.

WRT religion-bashing in SF: I'm more sympathetic to it, if only because most of the political causes most odious to me seem to be organized and directed by religious groups. I don't know if I'm the typical SF reader, but I imagine there're fewer evangelicals and born-agains in the SF ranks than in the general population. (Something like 40%? 50% of the US population has been born again.)

It's like writing about Commies back in the '50s: they're an easy villain. I mean, who else could you use? Megacorporations, I guess.


Fred, that's the point exactly--easy villains because they are often lumped together into a vague generalization. It's the most vocal extremes that get all the press. No way the 40-50% of population that are born again Christians (as you mention) share those extremists views, or US would look very different today.

Jed, great post. Something I've been thinking about lately. We got to the stage when it's "cool" to be religious as long as it's not Christian. Part of it is understendable rectionism, part of thet is just plain silly. That always amused me in Star Trek (as example of mass market sf)--many of the alien characters/culters are deeply religiuos but just none of the humans. Lol.

Mel


I'm up to my neck in Renaissance England now, and you can't get *away* from the religion. What works out interesting is that, for historical reasons, my protags are members of disenfranchised religious minorities who happen to be working to support the enforced moral/religious/political authority of the day: the English Protestant Church. It's all subtext, really, but it's very interesting to write people who unequivocally *believe in God and an external moral order*. Or if they don't, have to have a damned good reason to do so.

Jed, re, fundamentalism, yes and I agree. I also agree that it's trendy to Christian bash.

Intelligent religious SFF? Hmm. There's Sawyer's CALCULATING GOD, of course. Blish's utterly brilliant A CASE OF CONSCIENCE. But in both of those, religion is the focal point.

...odd. You know, when I'm getting to know a character, I tend to think of religion and philosophy in the same way I do as sexual orientation, politics, etc--the character has to come with all of the above, even if they don't make it into the story.

An example of what I'm thinking of as sort of an ideal, actually (don't hit me) would be Chris Claremont-era X-Men. There were characters whose religious lives mattered to them, who were affected by their faith on a daily basis, and I think had more or less believable moral codes.

But enough out of me: I'm rambling.


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