15.38: Depicting Religions That Are Not Your Own

Your Hosts: Piper, Dan, and Tempest, with special guest Nisi Shawl

Whether you’re writing about a real-world religion, or one you’ve created for your setting, there are numerous factors to be aware of. In this episode we discuss a few good and bad examples of depictions of religions, and the ways in which these examples can inform the way we approach our own projects.

Credits: this episode was recorded by Ross Smith, and mastered by Alex Jackson


Choose an aspect of culture that ties into religion (dealing with death, for instance), and explore how specific religious beliefs have influenced that culture.

12 thoughts on “15.38: Depicting Religions That Are Not Your Own”

  1. Hi – I was looking for a list of episodes with Tempest and I couldn’t find one. Can you point me there?


  2. One of my pet peeves with fictional religions is when they’re just a lazy means of motivation for characters. The writer couldn’t think of a reason for a character to do what the story needed so they just slapped some vague reference to religion over it and called it good. To paraphrase Brandon, your ability to drive character and plot with religion is directly proportionate to how well your audience understands the religion. Religion shouldn’t be a mere behavioral deus ex machina. Unfortunately, in some stories . . . this is the way.

  3. I think this may be one of my favorite episodes of the recent past. Thank you. I even think I may try out this homework. It’s getting me thinking a lot.

    When I read the title in description the first thing I thought about was the early 2000 Battlestar Galactica and its use of religion to drive the core of the story.

    Bravo, people.

  4. You mentioned NYC giving students Jewish holidays off. My mother is lived in Iran as a child as an American expat. She said they got both the American holidays and the Iranian holidays off.

  5. Piper, Dan, Tempest, and Nisi Shawl talk about writing the other, specifically, religions that aren’t yours. Another culture, historic, or something you made up for your purposes, it’s important to respect and research what they believe, to lay down the lens of your beliefs and try to see through other beliefs. Majority, minority, Orthodox, heretic? Take a look at their discussion in the transcript available in the archives.

  6. I was really expecting Piper to give a food-related prompt (I wonder why), but now I think on it, I have definitely neglected death rites in my recent works, and the homework fits in well with what I need to do next. So, extra thanks from me (although I’m late to the party).

  7. The academic approach to this discussion was a solid one and indeed denouncing the toxic aspects of representation is, sadly, all too necessary today. The discussion of toxic representation is one of basic moral hygiene, which needs to be present for a novel to reach publication level. Yet I was hoping for more visceral religious meaning to be discussed as well.

    When writing a character, to get into their head, that visceral meaning of religion plays out to a larger extent than the phenomenological presentation of religion (i.e. prescriptive ethics, ethnographic and ritual characteristics, supernatural beliefs etc) that can be attained through an academic approach. In fact, it’s probably the very lack of a gut feeling for why people believe that makes writers default to the outer rituals and phenomenology of their most familiar religion.

    In his lectures, Brandon spoke of that gut feeling. He said he prayed before proposing to Emily and he felt god answered him as a feeling of warmth and joy. I remember that feeling from childhood but as someone who lost their faith, I needed the reminder he gave. People follow religions for that feeling of talking to god, for the feeling of belonging to their communities (social components). To write a believer, for me it’s essential to recall that feeling, which is I was hoping to get more insight into why people believe rather than outer phenomenology. In fact, from phenomenology, one can’t even be sure that the internal religious feeling is similar across cultures and geographies. Maybe some people are religious primarily for the talking-to-god feeling, while others are in it more for the social components and belonging (?).

    I’d love to see that discussed in more depth in future episodes.

  8. “Religion” is a peculiar European creation (the latin origins of the word religion is debated), when it distinguished types of clergy and church business (religious/secular) and then in the Enlightenment era when religion was considered a private matter, based on a Protestant Christian understanding of personal faith.

    This conceptualisation isn’t applicable to other cultures, though since colonisation this division between religion/secular has been imposed and sometimes incorporated (e.g. in Japan – see Mitsutoshi Horii and others on this topic). It always jars for me when reading (esp high) fantasy fiction when the word “religion” is used.

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