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Author Topic: Religion in Fantasy  (Read 8963 times)

Offline Patremagne

Religion in Fantasy
« on: September 03, 2013, 03:58:04 PM »
Teresa Frohock stopped by my blog with a post on religion in fantasy, a fairly controversial topic.
Here's the post: http://abitterdraft.com/2013/09/random-thoughts-on-religion-in-fantasy-by-teresa-frohock.html

Feel free to read the post and discuss the topic either here or in the comments on the post!

For myself, I think that religion can provide very compelling stories if it's done right. I'm not religious myself, but in stories like David Dalglish's Paladins and his Shadowdance series, paladins of various gods appear at times and I find it especially compelling to see into their heads, why they're following the god and what they're fighting for. Another example would be Paul Kearney's Monarchies of God. The series is clearly a fantastical representation of the clash of faiths between the followers of Islam and Christianity around the time of the schism of the Christian church. While he didn't create new religions, Kearney writes about them very well and further cements the idea that religion can, as Teresa said, help create a believable and compelling world even though in some cases the religion(s) may have been conceived with little creativity.

I've recommended the Kearney series to many people and I've had a few toss the series aside because it involves religion and the person isn't religious. I don't think that stance is particularly fair, either, because the books aren't trying to convert you to their made-up religion or turn you theistic. Different strokes and whatnot, I guess.

Discuss!
« Last Edit: September 03, 2013, 03:59:37 PM by Patremagne »

Offline Arry

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Re: Religion in Fantasy
« Reply #1 on: September 03, 2013, 04:32:05 PM »
I'm not the least bit religious, but as long as a book isn't preaching about why I should have religion in my life, I don't have issues with. Religion is often in the center of conflicts and societies in history, it makes sense that it would feature heavily in epic fantasy. It is a very important component of how people function, what motivates them. As long as the author approaches religion in the same way as they should approach characters it should be fine. Avoid blatant stereo-types (or creating stereotypes within the fictional world), make it realistic, don't preach to the reader. Religion provides so many possibilities for conflict! Both personal and on a larger scale, there is so much room to build your world, your characters and the story.
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Offline AnneLyle

Re: Religion in Fantasy
« Reply #2 on: September 03, 2013, 05:14:37 PM »
I agree with Arry. I'm an atheist myself (with Taoist leanings), but I was obliged to think about Christianity when writing my Elizabethan series - and it certainly did add some conflict, since I made my protagonist Mal a Catholic.

That said, I read a review of my first book The Alchemist of Souls recently which felt that religion was downplayed a little too much, but tbh it wasn't something I wanted to focus on, given there were already lots of plotlines in the book. It was enough for me to mention differing religious attitudes from time to time - and also that Mal was seen to pray when worried about something :)
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Offline tebakutis

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Re: Religion in Fantasy
« Reply #3 on: September 05, 2013, 04:06:24 PM »
I can totally see fantasy books working without religion, but personally I find creating the religion for a book one of the most interesting world building exercises. It's fun to just make up your own deities and creation myths, and in some cases, you can actually have your characters interact with those deities (or be hunted by them!) It's also a good prism for determining how your characters view the soul, death, and other concepts.

There's also the simple fact that most characters in fantasy books go through some fairly traumatic experiences, which generally involves lots of cursing. It's useful to know their chosen deity so they can curse it or use its name in vain. :)

I suppose you have to tread slightly more carefully if you're incorporating real world religions into a book.

Offline Linda Bell

Re: Religion in Fantasy
« Reply #4 on: September 07, 2013, 03:54:02 AM »

My series Sidonia The Sorceress is set in 17th century Germany (Holy Roman Empire). That's the Witch Burning Times. That's the Protestant vs Catholic prelude to one of the bloodiest European Wars known as The Thirty Year War. That's the time the Ottoman Empire attacked Vienna twice and Europe almost became Muslim. 

But it's a fantasy: What if witches really existed during the Burning Times?


Offline Shadowhand

Re: Religion in Fantasy
« Reply #5 on: September 07, 2013, 05:23:23 AM »
I've actually done a series of posts about religion in fantasy fiction on my blog over the years. I am a religious person, but just from a cultural standpoint, religion is so integral to the formation of societies and the interrelations of groups, especially among low-technology cultures, that it often strikes me as poor world-building when an author ignores any reference to it in their stories. That's not to say every story has to have a religious focus, but even REH and Leiber took time to add religious elements to Hyboria and Lankhmar.

I think one of my favorite examples of the use of religion in fantasy is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion series. She does a great job of showing how religion is foundational to the culture without being preachy.
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Offline Kim ten Tusscher

Re: Religion in Fantasy
« Reply #6 on: September 08, 2013, 10:05:29 AM »
I agree with Arry: 'Religion is often in the center of conflicts and societies in history'. That's why I think it needs to be in most stories.
Fantasy involves worldbuilding, so it seems logical to me religion plays a roll in any fantasy story. Religion sets the rules, tells your characters how to live and what's wrong or right.

Religion plays a big role in my own stories, because I think it's interesting to play with somebodies perceptions about good and evil. In order for some-one to rethink everything he ever believed, I need to work out the religion as best as I can. So you can feel the struggle of the main character when everything seems to be a lie.

I don't like preachy books. Books are meant to tell a story, not to make the reader believe what I believe. But I like to make a reader think about their own believes on a more basic level than about who is the reall God.
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Offline AEMarling

Re: Religion in Fantasy
« Reply #7 on: September 09, 2013, 03:54:59 PM »
I'm currently reading a historical fantasy, where the Aztec's religion of gods and blood-sacrifice is real. I love how the fantasy brings their beliefs to life, and more to the point, it's a great mental exercise to see the world through the perspective of another's religious beliefs.

Fantasy should offer other ways to approach religion, however. The power of sorcerers could become so great that they could take the place of gods. People make their devotions directly to them. We saw a real-world example of this in Mao alters in China during the cultural revolution.

I'd love to hear more examples of alternatives (if you could call it that) to religion unique to the fantasy genre.
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Offline HAnthe

Re: Religion in Fantasy
« Reply #8 on: September 09, 2013, 07:01:17 PM »
I'm currently reading a historical fantasy, where the Aztec's religion of gods and blood-sacrifice is real. I love how the fantasy brings their beliefs to life, and more to the point, it's a great mental exercise to see the world through the perspective of another's religious beliefs.

Fantasy should offer other ways to approach religion, however. The power of sorcerers could become so great that they could take the place of gods. People make their devotions directly to them. We saw a real-world example of this in Mao alters in China during the cultural revolution.

I'd love to hear more examples of alternatives (if you could call it that) to religion unique to the fantasy genre.

If you want a sorcerors-become-like-unto-gods book, one of my favorite books this year is Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, which is basically that.  Plus magical lawyers and deity-powered cities and...  Well, it's definitely appropriate to this topic.

Most of the conflicts in my series are over religion, from an animist Dark-and-Light level to pantheonic infighting -- and sometimes alliance or cooperation -- that is reflected through the gods' followers.  I'm personally an atheist but I don't see why that matters.  Beliefs are integral to people and help shape their behavior.  I'm currently reading a graphic novel, The Unwritten, with a great quote from a bad guy: "Beliefs are collars to which leashes can be attached."

Pessimistic, yes.  But true of any closely held belief, religious or otherwise.  I like writing on the psychological end of things so I spend a lot of time examining my characters' beliefs and their journeys toward losing, adjusting or gaining faith, whether in the gods or their governments or their friends or themselves.  The internal struggle is just as interesting to me as any martial or magical conflict.  How do you become good when no one can agree on what good is?

Offline Kim ten Tusscher

Re: Religion in Fantasy
« Reply #9 on: September 09, 2013, 09:06:47 PM »
That's an interesting question, HAnthe. It's something I am researching through my stories myself. At this moment, I find the internal struggle more interesting than the epic travel around the world to find answers.

I am wondering if there is any real difference when you replace Gods by sorcerors... It's still a religion in the eyes of many believers, I think. But maybe that's the power of this idea, many people believe in Gods, but how real are they? I'm sorry, I don't think I am saying this right, but I don't know how else to describe it. Anyway, it gave me some food for thought, AEMarling.
Fantasy is distant from the real world. Because that’s the only way to oversee reality.

Excerpts for Hydrhaga and Bound in Darkness at: http://kimtentusscher.com/duisteren.html

Offline Ray McCarthy

Re: Religion in Fantasy
« Reply #10 on: May 13, 2017, 05:57:25 PM »
It's important to research and understand a wide range of philosophy and religion (Ritual, practice, folk belief, theologies, divisions etc) of the real world for last 3000 years otherwise any religion in fantasy can sound childish, shallow, nonsensical or stereotypical, by mistake. You might deliberately want to have one or more of those attributes.  You can have "founders" or "followers" that are honest, deluded, really inspired, hallucinating or charlatans.  Famously one SF author invented a religion, deciding it was more profitable than writing.
Possibly three or four popular religions (or popular at one time) in the last 1500 years were deliberately synthesised  by  the founder to get broad support. The same might be true of some denominations.
There are various basic kinds of religion:
Folk Magic  and possibly shamanistic
Polytheistic, choice of who your favourites are.
Polytheistic, but there is often one senior god
Dualistic (some supposedly monotheistic religions are dualist, some allegations of dualism are woolly thinking).
Monotheistic. But not all religions that are allegedly related might agree that it's the same god, even when one claims it is. A large number of "pre-colonial" African religions may have/are monotheistic. Some Celts and earlier Western Neolithic peoples might have been monotheistic. No-one knows what Druids before 600AD believed. Not just Christian has concept of three-in-one or resurrection.
A place of punishment isn't universal for religions that believe in an afterlife.
Not all religions differentiate, or even have at all, the idea of a soul or spirit.
Not all have an afterlife.
Re-incarnation can be once, or indefinitely or till perfection.
Perfection can mean becoming more than human or nothing (like a drip into ocean).
I don't think ANY religion believes dead people become "angels" that's a popular later sterotype. Angels in Judaism, Christianity and Islam are immortal creatures that don't procreate, not human, demons are two kinds, fallen angels and malicious magical creatures.

So you can invent what you like, but be careful about using real religions. In my SF there is mention of Islam, Hindu, various sorts of Christian (Catholic and Reformed), Judaism and Scientology (though it's not named), because Alien priests (one a monotheist and one polytheist) discuss belief with a person of human origin and also there is a scene where an Alien Ambassador is questioned about religion by members of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Research!   
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Offline Ray McCarthy

Re: Religion in Fantasy
« Reply #11 on: May 17, 2017, 09:07:22 AM »
A fantasy book religion though can have the idea (or that aliens have the idea) that people become creatures like angels, or stars or whatever.
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Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Religion in Fantasy
« Reply #12 on: May 17, 2017, 02:26:33 PM »
This was never intended to be shared in this form, if at all, so forgive its amateurish design, but this illustrates a philosophical religion in my novel. It is virtue-based, and proscribes a Peaceful Path, a lifestyle where extremes are avoided in favor of a balanced path. My novel's rebellious poet-warriors adhere to this religion, which shares many aspects with some actual faiths, but is its own, distinct thing.

I don't know if this is comprehensible to anyone besides myself, but if you look, you will see that the virtues have three versions shown left to right, with "good" on the left, "Bad" on the right, and balance in the center. So loyalty is good, treachery is bad, but a neutral "commitment" is the proscribed approach, the balanced choice.

This provides my religion with the chief metaphor for its symbol: the Ferahi Scales. The Ferahi posit that we all have to walk a path, and if we remain in the center with the load balanced across our shoulders, we will suffer the least and inflict the least possible suffering on others. Imbalance to either side, including the 'good' side, will inevitably lead to problems. Or so they believe :)

Spoiler for Hiden:
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"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell

Offline Henry Dale

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Re: Religion in Fantasy
« Reply #13 on: May 17, 2017, 02:57:57 PM »
This was never intended to be shared in this form, if at all, so forgive its amateurish design, but this illustrates a philosophical religion in my novel. It is virtue-based, and proscribes a Peaceful Path, a lifestyle where extremes are avoided in favor of a balanced path. My novel's rebellious poet-warriors adhere to this religion, which shares many aspects with some actual faiths, but is its own, distinct thing.

I don't know if this is comprehensible to anyone besides myself, but if you look, you will see that the virtues have three versions shown left to right, with "good" on the left, "Bad" on the right, and balance in the center. So loyalty is good, treachery is bad, but a neutral "commitment" is the proscribed approach, the balanced choice.

This provides my religion with the chief metaphor for its symbol: the Ferahi Scales. The Ferahi posit that we all have to walk a path, and if we remain in the center with the load balanced across our shoulders, we will suffer the least and inflict the least possible suffering on others. Imbalance to either side, including the 'good' side, will inevitably lead to problems. Or so they believe :)

Spoiler for Hiden:

Sooo... Would a person who commits many good deeds willingly stray into evil to balance himself out? Or is it something that automatically happens?

Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Religion in Fantasy
« Reply #14 on: May 17, 2017, 03:19:10 PM »
Sooo... Would a person who commits many good deeds willingly stray into evil to balance himself out? Or is it something that automatically happens?
No, nothing like that. Not willingly. Treating this fictitious philosophy seriously, the issue of balance suggests that it's not a conscious thing, but more of an inevitable reaction. Take a virtue like Romantic Love. It's terrific, but inherently imbalanced. situations arise where that imbalance manifests itself. Perhaps not while you're in love, but when that love leaves, or hurts you, etc., then problems come along. And that might be quite against your will or driven by your passions despite yourself.

 The whole point of a Peaceful Path, vs. just a path, is that one does not seek to balance oneself by seeking opposing extremes, which would just lead to further imbalance later on. One seeks the center. In the example of Love, one might balance oneself through Compassion - understanding that your love interest isn't your possession, that s/he is human and will err, and above all, remembering that your love will inevitably hurt you - perhaps when they die after a lifetime of love, perhaps in three weeks when you find your partner with someone else. The Peaceful Path does not lead to a peaceful life - if successfully followed, it only leads to a life that is not worsened by one's own good or bad intentions.
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"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell