|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.
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 religionsI 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.
4. Deal with itThis 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.