There’s an awful lot of atheists in fantasy’s foxhole. It’s somewhat rare to see religion playing much of a role (outside the antagonistic, which is quite well represented) in the behaviour or thoughts of our various characters. Yet there’s something bizarre about setting a novel in a medieval Europe with no friars or monasteries, or in a Rome without constant propitiation, or in an Imperial China without the Mandate of Heaven.
I understand this. There’s a question of ‘write what you know’, and while many of us certainly are religious, the question of faith is approached very differently now than it was even five hundred years ago. If we’re writing a priest, we’ll send him to church now and again, job well done.
Of course, there’s also the controversy. No matter how you incorporate religion, there’s a decent chance you’ll offend somebody. I’m sure readers of faith are a little tired of seeing organizations superficially like their own brought out only when it’s time to burn a witch or two. Readers of a more skeptical bent can’t help but cock an eyebrow when we come across The Irreproachable Order, who in between opposing the Dark Lord at every turn organize bake sales, run a puppy shelter and heal the sick without any compensation or the smallest division in the ranks.
Today, we’ll discuss religion in fantasy writing, with an eye primarily to organized ‘modern’ faiths (i.e. 2000BC and on; we have an interesting relationship with your newfangled ‘modernity’ here at crow on a wire). Animism, ancestor worship and the like will wait for another day.
The cardinal rule
Any organization – religious or otherwise – is capable of doing great good and great harm, often at the same time, and sometimes in the exact same context. To take a simple example, Dominican friars were one of the earliest forces to speak out against slavery, and indeed the abolitionist movements in Europe and in North America owe a lot to them, to Quakers and, eventually, to the Papacy… but it was a much earlier Papal bull that legitimized European enslavement of African colonies in the first place, by convincing the laity that it was totally cool as long as you did it to Saracens and Moors (who themselves had a rocky relationship with slavery, of course).
This sort of thing is inevitable. Faith organizations are just as prone to infighting and politicking as everybody else. The seizing of temporal power with protestations of Deus Vult started when the very first shaman realized people were really keen on doing what the spirits told him, and it hasn’t let up since.
The important thing: this is not, in any way, shape or form, a condemnation of or an argument against organized religion. It’s simply the game of power disparities being played in yet another arena, and the religious part of it is practically incidental. It’s as human as the big monkey chasing the little monkey away from his stash of nuts. And faiths have been – and will continue to be – both monkeys.
Religion has inspired great men like Martin Luther King Jr., and it’s also brought us swine like Ted Haggard. Or, perhaps more accurately, great men like MLK find beauty in religion, while venal men like Haggard go straight for the ugly, the divisive.
Religion is complicated, it affects people differently, and organizational behaviour doesn’t always intersect neatly with the principles for which that organization stands.
So, rule the first: don’t write a polemic. A religion whose every priest is a money-grubbing hypocrite or a fire-and-brimstone moral crusader is exactly as believable as Standard Fantasy Monoculture. I think we’ve moved past the land of every-dwarf-is-a-Scots-drunkard.
This isn’t some sort of bid for ‘political correctness’, nor is it the exultation of verisimilitude for its own sake. It’s just writing. Different characters can explore different approaches to religion, and that can be really, really interesting.
What religion is
A religion is equal parts philosophy and metaphysics. It’s a group identity and a set of behavioural guidelines for said group. It tells us what its adherents value, what they profess to value, and what punishments and rewards – if any – are laid out for good and bad behaviour. It explains how things came to be, and where they’ll end up, through the medium of metaphor (which, in the absence of Hubble telescopes, was most of what our forebears had to work with).
Every religious story about how something came to be is also a moral lesson. Abrahamic faiths will tell us that we speak in different languages because their god cursed the builders of the Tower of Babel. That’s an explanation of a natural phenomenon, but it’s also an injunction against hubris. If those pesky humans hadn’t tried to build so close to heaven, we’d all be speaking… er, Aramaic, I guess?
But did people actually believe all that?
That’s a thorny question. We like to pretend that our ancestors were credulous buffoons who accepted everything at face value, and that we enlightened sorts know it’s all just fable and metaphor.
In reality, the literalist/interpreter divide goes back quite a long way, as do prioritization questions – how much of this do we really need to follow?
The Protestant reformation, let’s remember, was in large part about that. Paul Veyne’s ‘Did The Greeks Believe Their Own Myths’ goes back even further, and addresses the issue with the argument that truth hasn’t always been about verifiability, which makes the scientists among us twitch, and those of us who pay attention to politics say “Duh” (also, twitch).
People are very, very capable of picking and choosing what exactly they want to believe in. The traditional-unto-the-point-of-cliche example is mixed fibres or shellfish. Leviticus hates ’em, but we don’t much care. But lordy, when two men want to marry, all of a sudden a poorly translated treatise on proper ritual behaviour for Levite priests becomes Holy Writ.
Do they actually believe this? Short answer: Yes, no, both, neither. Work out the details of belief character by character.
The idea of an ineffable, distant and omnipotent deity is a new(ish) one, in the grand scheme of things, but certainly appropriate for the medieval context in which most fantasies find themselves set.
If you’re looking further back, to Rome, or to the Celts, or to Egypt, you may wish to reevaluate this. Religious conceptions that predate Christianity (some might argue Judaism, for which see below) generally involve deities who are more likely to get their hands dirty down in humanland. They can be bargained with, they can be tricked, they can be bought off. They squabble with their co-deities. They’re prone to fits of god-sized jealousy and love to give insufficiently respectful worshipers a chance to cavort about in animal form, or roll boulders uphill forever.
They’re less like the modern conception of deity as Cosmic Dad, and more like royalty whose heads have swollen with power. And, importantly, this is frequently how they were treated by worshipers. Certainly, the gods were propitiated with sacrifice and people generally acted respectfully towards them, but it wasn’t a respect born of any great love – it’s just, if you don’t play nice, they’ll fuck your shit right up.
But even the Abrahamic faiths had their genesis (haw haw) in this religious context – the G*d of the Old Testament could just as easily be Odin. He appears to worshipers directly, makes bargains with them and is held to these bargains by his worshipers*, tricks people into demonstrating their loyalty, and alternates without warning between the magnanimous fellow that leads the Jews from slavery and a brooding, vicious sort that visits collective punishments on humanity.
*Okay, that last bit’s not very Odinly.
Who is worthy of speaking to the gods? Will they visit anybody? Can one interpret their words without the help of a qualified professional? These questions of spiritual distance can shape entire societies. If meeting a god is as simple as climbing Mount Olympus, or if they constantly and visibly intercede, that has implications on society far different than: “Yeah, he’s out there somewhere, being ineffable.”
Polytheism, monotheism, monolatry
Definition time! Polytheism = worship and recognition of many gods. Monolatry = recognition of the validity of many gods, but worship of only one. Monotheism = worship and recognition of one god.
After a few millennia of you-don’t-believe-what-I-believe strife, it’s easy to forget that, for the most part, earlier conceptions of religion generally made room for other people’s gods as perfectly valid – if, of course, lesser – spiritual options. In fact, when this whole organized religion thing was just finding its feet, there was a lot of “My dad can beat up your dad” going around. Conversions were common after losing battles, because hey, the other guy’s deity protected him better than ours protected us, so nuts to this weakling.
Cyrus, Persian imperialist extraordinaire, was the other side of that coin. When he took Babylon, he made a point of praising and publicly worshiping Marduk, that city’s god. Because why piss off the people you’re gonna rule, y’know? Ich Bin Ein Babyloner.
As monotheism became more common, this sort of your-god’s-cool-too approach faded in the Western world, until the Enlightenment and more modern times. Today, Unitarians are the foremost champions of the old ways: worship whoever you want, but stay for tea and cake.
Religion in writing is an enormous topic, and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Join us next week, when we continue on in this vein but get into some specifics – ritual purity, animism, apotheosis, and how beliefs in the afterlife shape the now-life.