Wednesday, April 27, 2016

GUEST POST: The Significance of Religion in Fiction by Shar

Hey! Today's guest is Shar from Virtually Read! She has brought some food for thought today; enjoy the feast. 

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. Brunei..
Flickr Credit: Bernard Spragg

Religion is a part of life on Earth. I don’t think it matters which religion—Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Zorastrianism, animism—but religion shapes morality and family values and what you do on a certain day of the week and even your friendships and how you see, well, everything. Even though being agnostic or atheist is technically against religion, I’m going to argue that it’s a religious belief at any rate, and will still shape the way you see the world.

Books are written by people who have a religion, or a set of moral codes. They are read by people who have a religion of some sort. So whether a book is high fantasy or contemporary, there are going to be aspects of religion that shape it’s writing and reading. Today I’m going to talk about 4 ways books deal with religion.

1. Nothing. 

Religion is a difficult topic that basically everyone has an opinion on (even if it’s that religion is stupid). (In fact, that’s why I had to write this to be as politically correct as possible). No matter what they personally believe, lots of writers (especially of contemporaries, I’ve noticed, and high fantasy) just ignore religion because it’s easier and avoids controversy. For example, religion is never mentioned or addressed in Harry Potter although it is set in the real world and magic and religion could have interesting conflicts.  But you can’t really get rid of religion, even if you try. In Harry Potter, there are still plenty of biblical parallels, especially in the 7th book.

via Pinterest

2. Be biased.

Like I said, everyone believes something—and that’s going to come out in writing whether you want it to or not. Genres such as Christian fiction promote a particular viewpoint in a way that often is not that inclusive. However, this can be done well—many non-Christians enjoy Narnia, although Aslan is quite clearly a God-type figure and it says some clear things about being saved and sacrificed and such. There are plenty of examples of badly done Christian fiction, but I was not impressed by Anomaly. While I can’t think of examples, other books promote atheism, especially contemporaries.

(Uninvited appearance by Heather: I dunno if it's fair to say it "promotes atheism," but His Dark Materials falls into the anti-religious bucket. Or so I've heard. *awkwardly hasn't read and probably isn't helping*)

3. Make up new religions

I can think of a lot of books that do this, such as the House of Night series or Tamora Pierce’s Tortall. If it’s a fantasy or non-Earth setting, this is sensible because a) it makes sense—why would a made up world have Earthen religions, b) avoids offending anyone, or being biased c) is realistic, because religion’s prevalence in all human cultures seems to indicate that people (even if they’re magical) have a tendency to believe in something.

via Giphy

4. Deal with it

This is probably the hardest and most controversial way to write religion, but also (at least in real world settings—if fantasy, see #3) the most realistic. Religion is everywhere, and in a world that is rapidly getting more multicultural, this has got to be represented in books. People and their beliefs are diverse and overwhelming, but also fascinating. Books with characters from multiple (or even just not common) religious backgrounds can be really informative as well as realistic, if they’re done well. If they’re not, then that’s unfortunate. Books that do a really good job of this include Does My Head Look Big In This?, Good Enough, and Immaculate.

All of this is to say, religion is interesting and diverse and fascinating. For a writer, it’s easy not to include it, because religion is important and matters to people, so they have strong opinions. But the world is a diverse place of diverse opinions about everything, and there’s always going to be something for someone to find fault in. I’m going out on a limb here to say that thoughtfully written religion—whether fictional or real—is worth writing, because it reflects the real world. And the real world might be full of religious conflict, but religions also are pretty interesting, no?

What are other ways books handle religion? Did I miss anything? What are some books that deal with religion really well? (or terribly.)

Shar lives in India, and has classmates of all the religions she’s mentioned. When she’s not busy with school she reads, writes, and sings ABBA. She blogs at Virtually Read.


  1. Religion can be a tricky subject to deal with in fiction, because, like you said, everyone has an opinion on it. I do think everyone's beliefs seep into their writing, though some are more overt than others--like The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials. And yep, I wouldn't say His Dark Materials "promotes atheism", but from what I can remember (and it's been years since I read those books) it's Narnia's counterpart in a lot of ways, including its portrayal of religion. I enjoyed both series, but it's been ages since I read them.

    1. *His Dark Materials screams read me! read me! from bookshelf* I don't know whether I would appreciated either Narnia (which was definitely my childhood) or His Dark Materials (if I ever read them) as much now because they're not really aimed at our age group. But yes, religion is both important and difficult to write about. Thank you for commenting :)

  2. Hmm... I do believe that religion should feature in books more often because it's also part of diversity. I usually don't see many examples except for references to churches... I would like to read a book about how a Jewish person lives in today's world. I have read books by Khaled Housseini so I've read a bit about characters of the Islamic community.

    1. If you're interested in a book about a Muslim girl living in a developed country and how that works, Does My Head Look Big in This by Randa Abdel Fattah is really good. It definitely fulfilled all my requirements (I think. I read it like 2 years ago). Hush by Eishes Chayil is about an orthodox community (I think. I never finished it). If you want a really light book in a Jewish setting, there's also 'You are so not invited to my Bat Mitzvah' . I'm glad you find religion in books as interesting as I do!

  3. Cool post! I definitely agree that different religions can be pretty interesting to read about, but I'd also say be careful not to just stuff a bunch of different religions in a story just to say that you dealt with all the religions (not that I think you were saying that, just I think that's the approach people sometimes take with things like this). Like, dealing with different religions can definitely be interesting, but I think it's also important to just write your story and include whatever religions end up mattering to it.
    For instance, like you mentioned with Christian fiction, it doesn't often include other religions, but that's because most Christians have a very specific mission when they write a story: we want people to believe in our Jesus because He's a very important part of our lives. So it just wouldn't make sense to try talking about a bunch of other religions at the same time. Now of course we shouldn't talk bad about them, but since we are trying to promote our faith, there isn't always a point to going into too many others.

    So yeah. I think it just depends on the author's mission and whatever story it is that they want to tell. :)


    1. I agree about Christian fiction promoting faith and obviously it wouldn't have other religions in it, but I almost always find it doesn't work for me? Maybe this is because I already believe in Jesus, or I disagree with aspects of the author's portrayal of God and Christianity. (I'm relatively liberal, whatever that means)Also I find often the way God is found doesn't make sense (to me). For example, I read this Christian sic-fi where a girl is playing Handel's Messiah, basically becomes convinced of God's existence and that Jesus is her saviour, and then tells all her friends to leave their super oppressive dystopic society with her. Her faith didn't have roots, and I'm sure such conversions are possible, but sometimes it felt more like a plot point than anything else? That said, I do agree that including religious diversity for diversity's sake without being realistic (like, how many Muslims will you really find in rural new zealand) is pointless. Thank you for your comment!

    2. I haven't read that one, but yeah, I can see what you mean with that. Conversions that are more like plot points than anything else definitely take away from the power of the story.


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