Friday, August 11, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #22: Spreading Ideas

Religions spread ideas, either as an entire religion, or more often, as an idea that gets reinterpreted and re-examined as its incorporated into an existing religion. In turn, those new ideas change how characters think, feel, act, and interpret the world around them. Those ideas can also fail to change a person. How that person changes or doesn't changes is a story.

While other aspects of religion can be reduced to color and characters, ideas can't. Being exposed to ideas, examining them, and determining how they fit or don't fit is the very stuff of stories. Not every idea need be chased or thrown open, but at least some of them must, on presentation, have something to do with the story.

We see this very firmly in Star Trek: The Original Series. On one side we have Spock saying, "Logic dictates," while we have Dr. McCoy on the other doing his best to fulfill his Hippocratic Oath. Both these ideas provide compelling arguments, requiring Kirk to do the hard work of leading.

Nothing spreads ideas like religion because religions are packages of ideas, but not perfect packages. Although these ideas may appear to be systematic, they are systems in the loosest possible sense, more like Rube Goldberg machines than sleek engines, mated to parts from older systems while creating custom parts for itself.

When parts of religion move, they don't just plug into a culture, they require a culture to learn and adapt, to rebuild connections, to remove some ideas and alter other, until those ideas again resemble a workable system, no matter how cumbersome.

When ideas are moved, they get translated into something that the local population can understand. Because of that, old ideas stick around even while new ideas show up, and the new ideas change in character because of this translation.

The same holds true for characters, for people. Each person learning a new idea must also incorporate it into their life, figuring out what must stay and what must go, and what conflicts prove irresolvable. Ideas are the very stuff of internal conflict. Ideas are the very stuff of character growth.

Because ideas take a while for characters to understand, the character gains a continuous way to grow as the story unfolds because their understanding of the idea deeps and evolves, from a shallow understanding to an ever increasingly complex understanding. In this way, your character can never fully understand any idea, and so always have something to get wrong, consider, and improve upon.

Paganism is generally better at absorbing new ideas than monotheism as paganism is because that religion is neither comprehensive nor centralized. That doesn't mean that paganism embraces all new ideas, because there's old codgers who shout "get off my lawn" in every culture throughout history. This also doesn't mean that monotheism doesn't absorb new ideas, but with its comprehensiveness, folding in new ideas takes far more work. In the end, there's more than enough idea flying about that something new is always coming along. Damn kids.

Given long enough, ideas get absorbed, adding more complication to religion as some ideas don't always mesh well. New gods get accepted. The novel becomes the ordinary. New ideas appear. Society is really good at coming up with new ideas.

Ideas spread a number of ways. Travelers bring their culture with them, so there's always some cultural exchange going on. This is especially true with slaves and prisoners, who learn about where they are and in turn relate what they know. Religion and cults also seek to spread themselves, sending out people for the sole purpose of spreading the cult or religion. This may go well or go badly, depending on whose lawn you stepped on. Some concepts just don't translate easily. The rarest way that an idea spreads is through force, because killing the person you're supposed to be convincing is the essence of futile. There are scholar who believe that Islam spread like wildfire, not because there were swords, but because people were so sick and tired of their current government and religion that they used invaders as a means of revolution.

Ideas are spread through schools. However, temples and churches didn't necessarily run schools through most of history, and where they did teach, they taught the specific religious language necessary to act as a priest. Most schools operated independently of temples and churches.

Finally, there's stories, which spread ideas better than most everything else. Religions are chock full of stories. Perhaps its better to say that stories form religion rather than religion forming stories. In that sense, a religion is a shared set of stories that create a relationship between ourselves and the divine shared between people.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy