Writing Excuses 14.19: Religion and Ritual
Key points: Worldbuilding religions in fantasy and science fiction? Why? Most people are religious, and we can reflect and explore that in our fiction. Religion is a strong source of conflict, and lets you explore actions and motivations. How do people know things, why do they believe things? When you build a religion, how do you do it? Start with random generators online to get a set of bare-bones dots, then connect those, like an improv game. How does your own belief affect your writing about fantastical religions? Start with existing religions, and jump off from there. Treat the beliefs that influence behavior with respect. Be aware that your own experience of cultural participation in a church may not be how everyone goes to church.
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 19.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Religion and Ritual.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Mahtab] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mahtab] I’m Mahtab.
[Brandon] We’re going to be exploring how to write religion in fantasy and science fiction. Specifically, worldbuilding religions. So, my kind of first question for you is why? Why do you approach using religion or not in your science fiction and fantasy stories? What’s your motive?
[Dan] I always go back to Contact by Carl Sagan where he makes the point that the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of human beings are religious to some degree. Science fiction as a genre was started in large part by atheists, and it tends to be very areligious. But most people are not. I like to kind of reflect that aspect of who we are. Whether that’s science fiction or fantasy, that’s just how the human brain works. We look for patterns and we have those things. I think it’s really interesting to explore new takes on it.
[Mahtab] I don’t have to look farther than my own country, or used to be, India as far as why religion is so important, because it is a very strong source of conflict. If you have that in your story, I mean, you definitely have the conflict, but it also helps you address a character’s actions and motivations, because you have the two major religions, which is Hinduism and Islam in India. These, through the ages, have caused many riots. But it has also brought out the best in people and the worst in people. I remember in the 1980s, when I was just getting married, we couldn’t even get someone to come to a civil marriage because of the riots in India. That was because [Ahmedabad?] had been attacked and the whole city had pretty much shut down. So, for me, just having grown up with that kind of experience, I know that religion could be something… People do identify themselves with it, but it can also be a fabulous source of conflict in your story. The way you can show your character, whether they’re good or bad or… And make sure that they are shades of gray, not white or black.
[Howard] I think that the trick for me in terms of building a religion that is not just mapped onto an existing religion is to back all the way out of the word religion and talk about epistemology. How do we know things? When you look at religions, when you look at spirituality, when you look at superstitions, when you look at suspicion, when you look at all of these things, we believe a huge number of things absent personal evidence. We’re taking other people’s word for it. We’re taking the word of people who we trust because of falsifiability and reproducibility in science. Or people we trust because they are religious leaders whose faith has borne them up as examples in our lives. But these are epistemologies. These are ways in which we know things, or ways in which we think we know things. So when I start at that level and I ask myself, “What is it that these people believe? Why do they believe it? What are the evidences that they accept?” James Sutter, on an episode we did at GenCon seven years ago, said that religion in D&D was fascinating to him, because you gotta ask the question how is religion different when you can see your God? When the gods can make an appearance, can power your spells? Are there atheists in the D&D universe? The answer is yes. But it’s fascinating to look at it from the epistemological… Did I pronounce that correctly?… Standpoint. Because when I start there, I end up in far more interesting places than if I try and map… Well, my aliens, these are going to be my Catholic aliens and these are going to be my Protestants.
[Brandon] Robert Jordan said, when people were asking him about religion in his stories… He kind of took an interesting tactic, because in the Wheel of Time, he… It’s kind of one of these things. You can directly see that evil is real and you can directly see that there is a power and a force religiously opposing it. He actually thought that would in some ways destroy religion. Meaning there are no religions in there. Because there’s… You don’t need to be told what God wants because God is there and around. You just… You can figure it out. You do… So there’s actually no religion, there’s just lots of spirituality where people are choosing their side, or things like that, but there’s no organized religion. He thought that the presence of magic might lead people that direction. I’ve always thought that was an interesting take on it.
[Brandon] When you are building religions, how do you then specifically do it, as opposed to… You said don’t… If you didn’t want to map it on to a religion. Now, I’ll take an aside here while you guys are thinking about that and say, one of my favorite religious fantasies, or fantasies that deal with religion are the Deryni books by Katherine Kurtz. She has basically Catholicism, and she’s Catholic. So she’s created a fantastical version of Catholicism. It is 100% Catholicism. It works really well. So once in a while, mapping on like that, that’s not a problem. Right? I think the distinguishing factor there is the fact that she herself, being Catholic, was able to create a religion and do it very realistically and treating it well that worked like Catholicism in a fantasy world. But let’s assume you don’t want to do that, you want to create wholesale a fantastical religion. What tips do you have?
[Dan] I actually love to use random generators online to give me just enough bare-bones to think that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. How can I connect all those dots in a way that is really cool and makes sense?
[Dan] So whenever I set out to do this for a fantasy or for a new science fiction society or whatever, I will find one of these random generators and go, okay, birthdays are really important, but they hate holidays, and they think birds are a symbol of virtue. Okay. Now how can I connect all those dots? I find that it produces something that doesn’t look like anything we have on Earth.
[Brandon] Kind of like playing Scenes from a Hat.
[Dan] Yeah. Exactly. Kind of like the improv games where you’re like, “Okay, audience, gimme three things, and I will create a religion out of them.”
[Howard] I did, for the four armed, 12 fingered race of aliens in the Schlock Mercenary universe. I decided to write out their numbering system based on how they would count on their hands, and what the names for their numbers would be. What I ended up with from 1 to 12 was finger, feet, hand, arms, head, self, crest, thing, strike, secret, magic, power were the names of their numbers. Then from there, I looked at, well, when we name those things, finger, when you have the number one, what does it represent? Well, it represents touching things. Feet represents motion. So I ended up with this numerology if you will for what numbers meant that’s independent from a religion. But now, if I want to say something that sounds spiritual for them, I can use number words and numbers and immediately come up with crest grasp movement, some sort of word that means my soul and the embrace and the walking. It has meaning that grew kind of organically out of me building a numbering system. It feels real. It just feels real now when I look at the spreadsheet…
[Howard] When I write some of these names down, I’m like, “That’s Apetemococo.” That’s a real name. I know what those numbers mean. It grew out of a thing. I mean, this kind of crosses into [conline?] a lot, but when you look at the way our religions have affected our languages, working at it from a linguistic standpoint is not wrong.
[Brandon] Mahtab, you’ve got a book for us this week.
[Mahtab] Yes, I do. I would love to recommend The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It’s set in the Republic of Gilead, which is basically a theocratic government. It starts out with women being denied all kinds of rights. They are subject to… I mean, it’s entirely a male-dominated society. The reproduction rates in that day and age are very low. So all the women who are of childbearing age are basically attached to each household. They are just the vessels of reproduction. So it’s basically a ritual rape. Time and time again. But the most terrifying part of that is the husband and the wife and the handmaid, who is basically a slave, just a reproductive organ, are all there in the same room, and they have to go through this. The woman has absolutely no rights. It’s a terrifying look at what society could get to if something like that happened. Again, I will not give away the ending, but you had… This entire story follows Offred, which is the handmaid. It’s actually interesting, it’s Of Fred. You read it as Offred, but it is because she belongs to the command of Fred, so she is his possession. It’s just amazing. Of course, there is a rebellion and how… So it’s brilliant. It’s chilling. It’s terrifying. And it’s thought-provoking. So, Handmaid’s Tale.
[Howard] It has sold very, very well. You should probably read it rather than watching the Netflix series.
[Mahtab] Yes. I agree. Read it.
[Mahtab] Read it.
[Brandon] So, one of the questions I get asked most which I find very interesting, is, people are fascinated by my own, the fact that I am religious and writing about fantastical religions. So people ask me a lot, how does my faith or things I believe or don’t believe, how does that influence how I approach my writing? So I’m actually going to turn that to all of you. How do your own beliefs or lack of belief system or the way you interface with religion, how has that affected the way you have created religions, the way you have written about them?
[Mahtab] I haven’t really had the opportunity to create a religion in a book yet. I’m just thinking about how I would approach it. My own religion, which is Zoroastrianism, is quite unique in the sense that you’ve got some pretty unusual customs. I’ll tell you one of them is when we die, we don’t believe in the body being burnt or cremated, because it means that you’re polluting the Earth. So we are actually, the dead bodies are taken up to a tower of silence and fed to the vultures. Because that’s also an act of generosity. There is another one, a coming-of-age ceremony, which happens like an initiation into the faith which happens in a lot of religions. But the unusual thing that happens in Zoroastrianism, and at least it used to happen in India, I went through that, is, as part of the ceremony you have to drink the urine of a consecrated bull. Which is the… I’m sure none of you have ever heard of something like that. It’s just a sip, but you have to. Then, of course, you have sugar right after that, so you don’t end up sobbing at…
[Mahtab] Seven years old, that’s when you go through this. So for me, if I had to build it, there are… What I would do is I’d just research the existing religions, the most weird and unusual practices, then build on that. Change it around, but do it in a way that’s… Where you can’t identify where it came from, because, of course, you’ve got to be respectful. You can’t end up offending anyone, but there is so much weirdness already there. I take that as a jumping point kind of thing to go into. That’s what I would do.
[Howard] If my own religion, and this is a point where the lack of diversity in the Brandon Dan Howard trifecta…
[Howard] Rears its ugly Mormon head.
[Brandon] Hey, I come from the Nebraska Mormons. We’re completely different. Absolutely.
[Howard] The Florida Mormons are actually more like the Nebraska Mormons then we are the Utah Mormons like Dan. If I’ve learned anything, if my membership in my church, if my belief systems have colored my fiction at all, it’s been that I try and treat the epistemologies that are absent tangible evidence, belief systems that have nonfalsifiable elements in them, you can’t prove it with science, I try and treat those respectfully. Because we all have those. There are day traders who can look at the numbers and prove or disprove however they want, but they will still wear the lucky socks. Okay, yes, I’m conflating superstition and religion, and for some people that might look wrong. But it is still a belief that influences our behavior, and I have respect for those things. The one place in my fiction where I will make people the butt of jokes, where I will call it out, is when someone is inconsistent enough that you can tell that they are lying to themselves in order to forward some sort of an agenda. That’s the point at which I will draw the line. But it’s not because they’re religious, it’s because there’s a measure of dishonesty that transcends it. I used a lot of big words there.
[Brandon] That’s great.
[Dan] That’s awesome. The way that I find my own kind of personal religious belief and customs bleeding into my writing is, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, it is very difficult to be Mormon without this constant cultural participation. That’s true of many religions, but it is also true of mine. So when I am defining what a religion is, it really is kind of based around what they do, what they interact. It’s not the you only go to church on Christmas and Easter kind of church that I end up creating when I create a church for a book. It’s this is how I live my life, and this is how I am different than other people. Because that’s my own experience with religion.
[Brandon] Excellent. We are out of time. Dan, you have some homework for us, which is an unusual homework.
[Dan] Yes, it is. We’ve been talking about a lot of religions. What we would like you to do is take this opportunity to go learn about a real-world religion. Whether or not you are yourself a religious person, go find a religious service or worship service or something like that, from a church or a religion that is not yours. Whether that is a different kind of Christianity or a different kind of whatever or wildly different, that you’re Muslim and you’re going to go to a Jewish temple. Whatever it is, just go. See what it is, see how it’s different, see what’s the same. Have this experience of just seeing how people other than you carry out their religion.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.