Thursday, February 7, 2013

God and Religion

I want to take a moment to talk about religion in fiction. Do your characters believe in God or Gods? Are there multiple religions in your world, or only one? Do your characters thank God with some frequency, and mean it, or are they agnostic or atheist? How much of your personal faith (if any) do you project onto your characters?

I rarely read books that identify strongly with monotheism, unless they take the form of something like the Golden Compass. I'm an acting atheist, personal agnostic. I adhere to the literal function of the term "agnostic" in that we cannot know. Until we're dead, we won't know if what we can see and detect with all our current instrumentation is all there is. But until I'm dead, I'm just gonna keep acting with what we do know.

That being the case, I'm unused to "getting into the character" of someone who genuinely and preferentially believes in a god. And not the fantasy gods that show up and actually do stuff, but the sort of mostly absent christian God that most westerners are accustomed to. For me, it draws me out of the character a bit, but I imagine that for many people who do believe, it draws them deeper in, since that's how they usually think.

Do your characters thank God for things routinely? Do they have faith? Do they pray?

I like to play with the religions in my worlds, but most of my characters fall into the agnostic-atheist club. Those that do believe usually do so fervently and wrongly, in faiths that are proven later to be false. I view religions as something to play with and use, to modify and identify why someone would or could believe in something, and what sorts of absurd things religions can make people believe and do. (Most of Leviticus, anyone?)

How does religion play into your worlds? Do you allow your personal beliefs to flavour your work? Wha do your characters believe? What kind of book do you prefer to read - one that heavily includes personal faith or one that shies away from a characters viewpoints. Do pious characters bother you if they stray too far from what you personally believe?

I'd love to hear what you think.


  1. (It's before my first cup of tea and I'm answering this blog post. Oof xD)

    Religion plays a major role in my books, not as a motivation or guide for my characters but as major (occasionally conflicting) sources of power for the different pantheons. The trope Gods Need Prayers is very much in play and Christianity's expansion had some major repercussions for at least two characters. My main character is a practical agnostic and practicing pagan-- He's met multiple entities from multiple pantheons but primarily worships the Norse pantheon. Since he's on a first name basis with some of the gods in that pantheon, he tries to avoid using their names casually. As a descendent from a pagan pantheon, he has an "allergy" to Christianity and deliberately avoids invoking God.

    I'm an agnostic. I think all the religions, where ever they "are", are grown up enough to a) all get along and b) aren't bound by physical laws so there's plenty of space for everyone and everything.

    I don't mind works of fiction where the characters are deeply devoted to their faith, what ever that is, as long as they're not a soapbox for the author. Soapbox characters are irksome in general, whether they're spouting the author's political or religious beliefs. Watching a character change and grow with their faith is interesting-- I love reading rthstewart's Narnia fanfic because she takes this to level rarely seen in fanfiction.

  2. Depends on what I'm writing, really. I write mainly short stories, and I've done five (out of 27) that have overtly religious characters. Three of them have recognizably Biblical angels and demons as major characters. And, yeah, that's my own Christianity bleeding into my fiction, but I still try to make them their own and not my mouthpiece. Preachiness is annoying, and so these characters are still PEOPLE in their own right with their own opinions, shaped by their experiences and their own beliefs--beliefs that don't necessarily line up with my own.

    I also realize going in that these stories are hard sells in any market. They're too Christian for the secular market and not Christian enough for the Christian market (because of subject matter and some salty language)--and two of them are over 15K words and under 20K words long, and the third LOOKS like a standard "guy sells soul to devil" story, even though it's not--so they're stuck in a kind of limbo of unsaleableness.

    But the beauty of the current system is that, once I've exhausted the paying markets, I can self-pub them and maybe they'll find their own market, you know?

    I have also written stories where the internal theology in no way reflects my own, and many, many where religion isn't even a thing except for the occasional startled or mournful "Oh, God." It really depends on what the story needs more than anything else.

    When reading, I'm fine with characters and worldviews that don't reflect my own beliefs, as long as the story is internally consistent and tells a good tale. The trope I despise above all else, however, is the one-note Stupid/Evil/Stupidly Evil Christian Character. It's boring, it's lazy, and I do my level best to subvert it on a regular basis by writing good-guy religious characters when the story calls for something like that.

  3. I just got through reading Leviticus and am now into Numbers :) I have to say that to single out Leviticus (or Deuteronomy for that matter) as an example of either the Christian or Jewish faith is completely missing the point of the Bible. But I do understand that you are coming from a completely different viewpoint than I am as a Christian, so you aren't going to look at the same things in the same way that I do.

    Let's see. I dislike reading stories that have a hostile undercurrent toward the things I identify myself with - so while I have enjoyed stories where the "Christian" is the enemy, or a woman is vicious and manipulative, or someone from the American South is portrayed as dumb or illiterate, those are the stories in which the characters are well-done and fully fleshed out. I know Christians can be petty and wrong and a thousand other things - everybody is broken, and becoming a Christian doesn't instantly cure brokenness and it doesn't excuse Christians when they act badly. I can definitely read about that and write about it too.
    What I don't care to spend my time reading is misogynistic hostility, or hostility toward religion, or hostility toward Southerners - and I don't appreciate a patronizing tone, either. Women aren't irrational, Christians aren't deluded, and Southerners aren't stupid. Some can be, but not all - not even most, or half, or a third, or whatever quantity writers use to justify their sloppy broad stroke characters.
    I have a story now making the rounds - it's long, so not a lot of markets - where my POV character has a series of crises of belief, one after the other. He starts off believing primarily in Science and his identity is in his personal morality of Doing Good. It was interesting to destroy that for him, and then the next thing he believed in, and the next... And he's still wrong at the end of the story. That isn't entirely what it's about, but I think it's good to destroy preconceptions. People tend to stand on them, and they're really fragile and dangerous things. This story didn't even touch monotheism - a character was referred to as a goddess, but she didn't think she was one, and it's implied that people believe in hundreds of gods.
    Prayer is an awkward thing to write into a story. It is a surrender of will to God, and that sort of thing usually takes the reins away from the protagonist, which is a big storytelling no-no. It's like writing forgiveness - great in real life, but in a story, it kills the conflict.
    "Mostly absent Christian God"... I think I see your problem with identifying with Christian characters. My God isn't absent to me. He's absent to people who don't know him. Kind of like you are absent to people who don't know you. A lot of people who "believe in God" and say they are "Christian" simply do so out of a sense of default. They aren't really making an attempt to learn about Jesus and commit to following Him as a person they want to be like. Most settle for imagining ways in which they think they are already like Jesus, or at least not as bad as other people they could name. Actually being a Christian is a lifelong discipline built on a relationship with God, which I know probably sounds crazy to you, but God made us and He likes us even though we are broken, and who's to say the all-powerful God of everything can't communicate with us if He wants to? So I hope that clears up a few things about Christianity for you, and if you have any other questions you'd like the Christian perspective on, I'd be happy to chat.

    1. Wow, thank you so much for this in-depth response! It's longer than my post!

      You make excellent points about stereotyping - and as you pointed out by identifying my stereotypical comments, it's difficult to avoid making them. I'm a fairly well-read atheist, and I love talking about religion, but since I come from a place of non-faith, certain things (like referring to God as mostly-absent) can just be completely wrong. What I meant by saying that was that the Christian God doesn't come down literally in the manner that he did in the old testament, and so is physically, literally absent. But that is a. arguable by those who have faith, and b. not the point for those who believe. It's just because as a "science" bound atheist, I look to my senses and my testable results for proof, not my heart.

      I'm especially glad of your description of prayer. As someone who does not understand prayer, your description of it was was moving. I didn't mean to beat Christianity into the ground in this post, but it is the most common religion of western readers, if any. For me at times I wish I could experience what you describe, if at the very least so I could write it for my characters, but faith is not something that exists in my body - when I am in a church I do not feel embraced and loved but very very uncomfortable and aware. So much so that when someone on twitter yesterday said "I feel like I just got out of church" I did not understand that that was meant to be a good thing.

      One thing I will say I am sad was misunderstood was my reference to Leviticus. I did not mean to imply that in any way, the rules laid down in Leviticus or Deuteronomy are the full extent of the Bible. In terms of modern christianity, Leviticus hardly is relevant, and when used today is often used (only even in parts) by far-right fundamentalists. I simply meant to point out that faith can be used to make you do and believe strange things (or at least they are strange to modern people) We see faiths all over the world who have odd rules and customs. Like, who really cares if your fabric is made of more than one cloth? We wear mixed fabrics every day in America - no one pays attention to that little "rule." Leviticus was filled with rules, and so many of them are so ridiculous for modern believers that they are actually just ignored, not turned into a metaphor like the other stories in the bible. There's not a lot you can change about "'Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard." That's fairly straightforward, but I don't see a lot of Christians wandering around looking like Sikhs, who do follow this rule. But Christians don't follow Leviticus to the letter because following the rules to the letter is not really what christianity is all about. Jesus just wants you to love people and be nice, he don't really care how you do it! Man was a rad dude!

      If you're in your bible re-read, I heartily suggest reading "Who wrote the bible" and excellent book by a very prominent biblical historian who happens to also be a Rabbi. He breaks down who wrote what chapters of the bible and when, and what it says about the history of the people at the time. A very interesting read, and since your in the books he breaks down, I'm sure it would enrich your read.

      Thank you so much for your enlightening comment!

    2. You're very welcome :) Hey, I know what you mean about Leviticus :) It's hard going. I'd just hate for a casual reader of your post to think it would be a good chapter to start in if they really wanted to know about the Bible. Um, save Deuteronomy and Revelation for later, too ;)
      Personally, I think the best place to start is with one of the few questions Jesus came right out with a direct answer (instead of a story or another question). He said the Law and the Prophets (the Old Testament) could be summed up as loving God with all you've got, and also love others as much as you love yourself. And then if you're concerned about the definition of love, 1 Corinthians 13 has an excellent definition.
      Reading straight through the Bible is not something I've done before, but it's making the history hang together better in my understanding of it. The Hebrews had just come out of one polytheistic culture and were wandering around in the midst of a lot of other polytheistic cultures, some of which sacrificed children - extreme measures were needed for them to maintain their cultural identity while homeless.
      Thank you for the book rec :) I'll have to check the library for it.