Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #10: Religion-Like Culture

What belongs inside the umbrella of religion? What does't? Every culture and civilization asks that question. Because every culture answers that differently, that means that things that one culture considers religion aren't religion in another culture and vice versa. Simultaneously, both civilizations may have phenomena that technically fit the idea of religion, but for some inconsistent reason, and no good explanation, these things aren't considered religious even though they follow all the rules of religion.

Religion gets complicated, like polyamory dating gets complicated.

A great example of something that is religion and isn't religion at the same time is Confucianism. With great care, native Chinese have explained to me that Confucianism isn't religion, it's philosophy. At the time time, the culture creates statues of Confucius which look just like their gods, have shrines set up to Confucius, and traditional stories about Confucius. So which is it? Is it religion or isn't? And which tools are best to understand the cultural tradition of Confucius? Can you truly understand Confucianism without a good understanding of Chinese religion as a whole, especially as the gods uphold and depict Confucian values?

Another example is flags. In the English world, when speaking of flags, you use the same language for flags as you use in religion, words like honor, sacred, and profaning. For all intents and purposes, flags are holy objects even though they aren't holy objects. The line is fuzzy. One does not worship the flag, except that one does. Go hunting for your local flag flame war, and you're bound to find some enthusiastic differences of opinion.

Rather than thinking of religion as a binary, think of it as a spectrum. Many parts of society are influenced by religion without being formal parts of a religion. They may be associated with religion, have been associated with religion, or be held in such respect by society uses the structures and rituals of religion to express those ideas.

Even if a religion disappears, the meanings and ideas of a religion remain. If all Christians were to suddenly become Muslims, they'd still celebrate Christmas and hold Christmas parties, because that's what you do over the winter. Because people have a certain set of understandings of the world, they will use their present understanding to understand their new religions. The Germanic tribes brought their ideas of evergreens into Christianity because they already understood evergreens inside the culture, and these worked well as a bridge to understand the newly introduced religion of Christianity.

Many institutions have their own traditions and rituals. Masons, universities, and municipalities all have traditions, as firm, fixed, and loved as any belonging to religion. Universities have graduation ceremonies, complete with specialized clothes for everyone. Government have inaugurations and transfers of power. Crafts and guilds have their own internal, secret traditions associated with their crafts. In many cultures, you sacrifice an animal before you start smelting iron because that is seen as a sacred act. Crafting digs into the secrets of the universe to change one thing to another, and so religion and rites matter when doing so.

Even in modernity, we have things are religious like. Psychic palm readers are barely divorced from 19th century spiritualists who spoke to the dead, and they are barely divorced from divine oracles. The psychic readers work in a defined space, wearing a specific costume, requiring from the visitor a specific sets of actions and behaviors, deferring to powers or spiritual interference, all to access the other.

Minor wonder workers bring a sense of religion with them. Rain makers and dowsers each use their ability to help the community. While nobody looks upon them as religion, objectively, they are very religious in scope. What other person can influence the heavens or interact with nature?

When looking at your society, where are special times, places, and ceremonies that have a religious-like feel? Are there any roles which have the trappings of religion without the formality? Are there elements of other religions that have come into the society and been adopted non-religiously, sort of as a popular belief? Are there parts of religion that get more interesting if split away from religion? Are there group or association based beliefs? Superstitions? Rites?

Return to: Religion in Fantasy