Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #17: Religion and the Individual

"How do I fit into the world?" Answering that basic question is one of the most important jobs of religion. Society is made of individuals, and these individuals must each find their way within their society.

In most societies, although almost everyone is religious in some way, most of them are not professionally religious. They may seek and experience religion, but they have other jobs and concerns that engage them on a daily basis. While they may have religious experiences, ones to share with others, they are not the ones with the deep understanding of rites, of passing down traditions, of knowing the stories, of knowing all the right things. For most individuals, religion is part of their identity, but not more so than everyone else.

Most societies with religions have experts, people whose job or privilege it is to be the expert. They are the ones who know the right things to do, the right things to say, the right way to approach a problem. Because these jobs are so few, yet so important, matching the right people up to the jobs is usually part of the job. While an individual may seek such a position, and even get training, it's the community who does the accepting.

Some experts aren't experts to the whole society, they're experts within the family. The oldest male may act as priest to his ancestors. One of the women may be an expert in the female gods, overseeing childbearing and household welfare. While these positions are not as noteworthy as a true religious professional, they are still positions held in importance by the societies and families.

Yet, who should these experts be? That depends on the nature of the position, the society, the family, and the individual.

In shamanism, there are personalities recognized as better for the duties. Although anyone can be a shaman if they put the work into it, the strongest ones will be those who have the natural aptitude, the calling to the position.

A High Priest may need more of a managerial temperament, organizing all the facets of what's essentially a religious franchise. The high priest isn't there simply because he believe more, but because he understand how to run the complex operation that is a temple.

Some people go into religious life temporarily. In some Buddhist countries, everyone spends some time living in a monastery. While for some this was a spiritual time, for others was little better than slavery under the cruel hands of their monkish masters.

Not all religion is about ceremony. Some of religious life is about how your live. Retreating from the world, monastic orders arrange themselves different from the outside world, living by a different routine, seeking something other than the profane pursuits of daily humanity. Because living in these communities requires so much, most of these communities have a getting to know each other period, a time when the applicant gets to know the rules, and the community decides whether they want the person.

People who wander off to the wilderness to live alone with religion are hermits. Nobody has to approve of them. They make their choices and they go. It's their living far away from civilization which puts them closer to the divine.

Many people don't pick a religious life at all. Their families need them in religion, so they are placed into religious life. In the middle ages, many families sent their younger sons into the clergy, creating person who would be able to take over powerful clerical duties, thus extending their family's powers. Noble families also sent daughters into nunneries to limit procreation. While that sounds awful, family fights were solved by the sword, so fewer claimants to a title meant less social instability.

Getting called is a frequent theme in religions. It's not that these people chose the divine, it's that the divine chose them, whether they be prophets, priests, or madmen. Whatever the nature of their calling, they find it impossible to walk away no matter who extreme the consequences seem.

Some religion is associative. It's not that you live a particularly religious life, it's that you enjoy helping a religious cause. I heard a minister say, "If there were no women in the church, we'd have to close up shop." Women clean the church, decorate the altars, fill out the choirs, run the fundraisers, organize the parishioners, and do a thousand other things to make sure that the religious experts can do their jobs. While some of these women would become professionals if they could, most are doing what they want, finding value in religion with the skills that they possess.

Within any religion, individuals have duties to their gods and their society. Whether these duties are followed or not is another decision by the individual. Do you adhere closely to the religious laws or are you rather lax?

As a person ages, their relationship to religion changes. How a young person feels about tradition and sees the world is different than how an old person feels about tradition and sees the world. As perspective changes, so does the religious experience.

In times of stress, religion can prove an emotional anchor, giving the distressed something to hold onto, a place of certainty amid the emotions, even a means of processing grief. 

In fantasy literature, how a characters comes to religion greatly informs us about the character. Whether they be reformed criminals, guided by voices, mad for infernal power, forced into vows, or dutiful servants, their perspective must come out. These characters then bring religious questions and answers to the people around them who, hopefully, also wrestle with religious questions.

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