So religion. Always a touchy subject, right? Let’s get one thing straight from the get go. You do not need to deal with religion in your writing if you don’t want to. However, you might not be able to avoid it, so we should have a talk about using religions, both real and fictional, in writing.
Maybe you want to simply approach a fictional culture in a realistic fashion, thus want to explore said culture’s faith and religion. Maybe you are dealing with a historical, contemporary, or future Earth and feel a need to address the faiths of the time. Maybe you want to deal directly with issues of faith and religion. Whatever the reason, there are some guidelines you should keep in mind when you do introduce religion to your writing.
First and foremost, I think, is that you should always present any real world religion in as factual and well-researched a manner as possible. Yes, research is always a watchword when it comes to writing about real-world things, but it’s doubly important when dealing with religion (among a few other things). These are the beliefs and feelings of real people, people who might very well read your book. You had better get it right, or else you’ll find yourself in deep trouble!
This is just as important with fictional analogues of real-world religions. Even if your fictional faith worships Crystal Dragon Jesus instead of the Christian one, you still draw connections and allusions between your fictional faith and the real one. Especially if you plan to use these connections to tackle issues of faith as part of your book’s themes, you need to handle the issues and truth behind the faith to the best of your ability. An extra wrinkle when it comes to faiths like this is just how close you pull inspiration from the real-world religion. Some readers might find it distasteful to copy-past, let’s say, Judaism and file off the serial numbers to pass it off as something else. With a delicate topic as this, the care you take in handling it will determine a lot about how well it will be received by your readers.
A last footnote about real-world religions: Never assume a religion is ‘dead’ just because it isn’t commonly practiced any more. It might very well be. After all, they are building a temple to Norse gods in Iceland this year.
Now, how about completely fictional religions? Well, really, the first step to consider is the ‘reality’ of gods in your fictional world. Do gods walk the world? Do they grant miracles to the faithful? Do they meddle like the Greek and Norse gods of old? Do they even exist at all?
The answers to these questions make a huge difference in how a religion should be approached. After all, if God shows up in public regularly and casts down the unfaithful, you can imagine that His religion might be almost universal. People are usually more willing to have faith in things they can see, that they can know. Maybe a better way to think about it is more that people find it harder to disbelieve something they can see or feel or experience. Once you see Zeus smite a man with a lightning bolt, you really can’t unsee it, after all.
There is a difference, though, between faith, observation, and religion. One can practice a religion, for instance, without faith in it. It becomes simply a social or cultural structure to that person. Likewise, one can observe something yet not have faith in it. Yes, that big glowing man can shoot lighting from his hands, but does that mean he’s an actual deity? He may have access to powers and abilities beyond what you know, but that doesn’t equate godhood. To complete the comparison, faith can transcend observation and religion. You can have faith in something, yet neither practice an organized religion or ever have to directly observe what you have faith in.
Playing with those variables (reality, observation, faith, and religion-as-culture) can be a great way to both come up with a fictional religion and figure out its place in your world. Tweak that with what themes you want to explore through the religion, if any, and what plot elements are wrapped up in the religion. Through all that, you can produce a religion to fit your world, your needs, and hopefully make it seem believable and ‘real’ to your readers.
What are your thoughts about religions in fiction? Any suggestions, thoughts, or corrections can be put down in the comments below!
Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!