Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #3: Basic Approaches Towards Religion

We can broadly categorize religion into the following categories, any or all of which may apply in any fantasy world.
  • Religion is literally real.
  • Religion is based on a lie.
  • Religion is discovered to be true.
  • Religion cannot be either proved or disproved.
  • Religion is flavor text.
  • Nobody talks about religion.

Religion Is Real

In a fantasy world where the gods are real, the gods are real. Their existence is incontrovertible to everyone except the crazies. The impact of this truth cannot be understated. If the gods are real, then your relationship and your society’s relationship with them matters, their words matter, their favoritism matters, and their promises matter. They are the literal powers that drive and shape the world, so you and your society wants to stay on their good side.

Because your relationship with the divine matters, people who specialize in interacting with the divine, at every level, matter as well. Priests, clerics, shamans, monks, and other holy people use their expertise for the good of society. They help keep the relationships between god and man working smoothly. Society trusts and values these people, and if they abuse that trust, the welfare of the entire community can be at stake.

Because the gods are real, religious laws matter far more than mortal laws. While mortals can change their local laws, they cannot change divine law. To trespass against divine law risks the anger of the gods themselves. They may misinterpret a trespass against them as the carelessness or faithlessness of the community. Because of this, any breakers of divine law must be dealt with quickly and decisively, so that the gods know that the community remains obedient and respectful.

In a world where gods are certain and incontrovertible, faith takes on a new meaning. There’s no need for belief in the gods because the gods are real. What’s more important is how you act towards them, and how well you keep their interests in mind.

This doesn’t mean that everyone knows everything about the gods, or spirituality, or the divine. Who can truly know the gods? Nor does this mean that all worship of the divine is identical, or even centralized. Different peoples have different experiences over time, so their understanding of identical gods can differ, each forming its own valid tradition.

Religion Is Based On A Lie

In many fantasy story, religion holds great sway over people. Over the course of the story, the protagonist discovers that the religion is based on lies and manipulation. Those in power supporting different goals than those that they tell the people. The revelation of this duplicity releases the protagonists, setting them them free so that they can to turn against the system, setting them on a path counter to their own previous ideals.

However, even though the facts of the religion may be proven false, the protagonists still find great truths in the ideals of the religion rather than in obedience to its power. While they may abandon their religion’s worldly leaders, they re-embrace the spirit of their previous religion, its true intention, their religious purity allowing them to rise to greater things.

Religion Is Discovered To Be True

Stories are whispered between people. Traditions are kept. The ideas of a religion may be ridiculed or disproved. The religion may even be illegal. But somewhere along the line, the protagonist learns the truth, that all those stories are real, and if they want to restore to the world to what it should be, then they must embrace the religion that once was, using its power and its truth to overthrow the false.

This discovery of religion may happen early in a story, setting the hero in motion, or it may be discovered late, its discovery changing the direction of story, and providing the rationale for the hero changing sides.

Religion Cannot Be Proved or Disproved

The religion of reality is one where divinity cannot be proven or disproved. Faith, the belief in a religion, is the foundation of all religious groups. Although some people may be obsessed with finding proof, and many others happy without it. In general, proof is impossible to come by.

Uncertain religion works well where they gray area between right and wrong is an important topic of the work. The characters must wade through messy morality to arrive at an answer, but that morality always comes with a price, and there’s nobody at the end to tell you that you did the right thing.

Because religion is uncertain, adherence to religion is variable, ranging from the devout believer to the showy opportunist, from hypocrite to the  morally bankrupt. Each approaches religion by their own perceptions, their own goals, their own biases. Some don’t believe while others are zealots. Some follow the crowd. Others explore. The motivations and personalities of each person determines how they relate to the divine.

Religion As Flavor Text

In many books, religion exists, adding to the lore of a world, but in practical terms. Behavior of the characters may be shaped or changed by nebulous ideas of good and evil, but these don’t necessarily have great depth. When religion is flavor text, it exists to give the world a specific feel rather than to affect how the characters act or react, standing as set dressing rather than script.

Being flavor text does not have to diminish religion. As flavor text, religion can have a profound effect on your work. It's like putting in a colored light, the hue changing the feel of everything that happens in and around it. The effect may be subtle or overwhelming, but its always there coloring everything.

Nobody Talks About Religion

Religion isn’t right for all books. Sometimes it just gets in the way. Sometimes it not right for the market. Sometimes, you don’t care. Countless books have been written where religion is either minimally present or not present at all. In all such cases, it’s best to just avoid mention religion at all, ignoring its possible presence.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy