Finding Your (Fantasy) Religion


What should an author consider when constructing the belief system of a fictional religion?

I’ve been a follower of Christ and a science-fiction and fantasy writer for roughly the same amount of time, although I hope I’ve been a better Christian than I have been a writer (after all, I still haven’t sold a whole book!).

Religion is one of the hardest things to portray when creating a science-fiction and fantasy world, and that’s not terribly surprising, considering that religions are the oldest institutions ever created by man, along with being universal to the human experience and incredibly complicated. Being so near the center of our moral and ethical lives, the religious mythos and directives are intense and powerful. This is why so many authors introduce religions as a way of satirizing or parodizing actual religions. And many authors, not wishing to write a “religious story” give up entirely, or introduce religion as something hardly important to their characters’ lives, neither of which feels terribly satisfying.

In an attempt to discuss the issues of creating believable religions, I introduced a decade ago, while on a panel at Wiscon on religion in fantasy, the ideas of Demand and Consequence. Roughly, I said that a religion’s Demand was measured by what actions a person must take to please the Divine, while the Consequence is what happens as a result of pleasing or angering the Divine. So, for example, Orthodox Judaism would be a fairly high-Demand religion. You follow all the laws. You observe the Sabbaths. You minimize your associations with outsiders. My own religion, Christianity, would be high-Consequence, possibly the highest: eternal paradise or eternal damnation, and you only get one shot at it.

(Of course it would go without saying that individual followers might perceive this spectrum very differently. I do know those who claim to be Christian who deny the existence of Hell, despite scriptural statements to the contrary, and would expect to find similar differences of theology in all major, and probably most minor, faiths.)

But it has recently occurred to me that the concept of Demand needs some work. After all, is Christianity high- or low-Demand? Jesus says that “if any man come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” That’s about the hardest thing that can be demanded, but most of us do not get martyred for Christ. Even many of the Catholic saints didn’t. On the other hand, Jesus also says that God will forgive any sin, for the asking. So it occurs to me that we need another quality to measure, between Demand and Consequence. What is the cost to a person to make up for failing the demand? I will call this quality Penance. Christianity, so far, would be a high-Demand, low-Penance, high-Consequence religion.

But the different religions might also be considered in terms of what Consequence results from simply not following the religion. I shall call this quality Allegiance. Christianity and Islam would be high-Allegiance religions. Not belonging to them is interpreted as a rejection of God. Buddhism, however, would be low-Allegiance. Your actions are what make you enlightened or not, regardless of whether you’re actually “believing in” the Buddha or his theology.

On the Consequence side of things, there are also difficulties to work out. For one thing, Consequence may be perceived radically differently by those in different cultures or simply by different individuals. To me, Hinduism appears to be a fairly low-Consequence religion. After all, if you believe in reincarnation, and you fail the demands of your religion in this life, you can always try again. However, given that fundamentalist Hindus are even now engaged in persecuting Muslims and Christians in India, I am going to have to assume that I am missing some vital piece of this religion, at least to some of its followers.

More crucially, though, the idea of Hinduism raises another point: does the religion teach that souls have multiple earthly lives, or one? That matters greatly to Consequence, enough so that perhaps a religion should be classed as a Repeating or non-Repeating religion.

Another thing that considering Hinduism brings up is its habit of Syncretism, or adopting the practices and prophets of other faiths. Hinduism, the ancient Greek faith, and Baha’i would be examples of faiths that tend toward Syncretism, while the Abrahamic faiths specifically forbid it.

Finally, another quality that should be included is what I might call Zeal. How much pressure do followers of the religion find themselves under to spread the faith, and make others abide by its tenets?

So far, I have kept my examples restricted to real-world religions, and have only done so in a limited fashion. While you could use these scales to quantify and compare real-world religions, I don’t think that’s very useful, and would likely lead to a whole lot of acrimonious debate around the details that the devil is in.

But I think that as we examine SF-nal and Fantasy faiths that it’s interesting to look at some of the contrasts that show up.

One of my favorite Fantasy religions is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Quintarianism (along with its Quadrene heresy). Quintarianism is low-Demand and low-Consequence. It’s possible to offend the gods, but you really have to work at it. Damnation isn’t so much Hell as being condemned to fade into nothingness as a ghost. Low-Penance and low-Allegiance follow from the low-Demand, here. It’s a non-Repeating religion that is non-Syncretistic. It’s Zeal is fairly moderate. The Quadrenes are about the same but with much higher Zeal, but this is understandable, since the major point of contention is whether the “fifth god” of the Quintarians is in fact a god or a demon lord. The Quadrenes believe that the Quintarians are devil worshipers, and since demons CAN be proven to exist in this world, their fear is somewhat justified. Quintarianism and Quadrenism feel like fully thought-out religions, with developed theologies, that assume their followers are more or less ordinarily reasonable people.

By contrast, we have Robert Jordan’s Children of the Light. This religion is low-Demand (there don’t seem to be any commandments of the Light), seemingly low-Consequence and low-Allegiance, or at least no spiritual penalty is ever described for violating or ignoring the Light. It’s a Repeating religion, but non-Syncretistic. However, it’s incredibly high-Zeal, as the Children of the Light have been for centuries trying to spread their faith and subdue their enemies (and have apparently succeeded only in taking over a nation about the size of Belgium). And so we are left with the question of why the Zeal is so high. The Children are portrayed as essentially religious bigots who merely think themselves morally superior to everyone. And thus it feels as though this is merely the author’s own dislike of the overtly religious. Heinlein’s approach to the Martian language felt very similar in Stranger in a Strange Land, when Michael Valentine Smith overturns all human religion by introducing the Martian language as the ultimate spiritual principle: (low-Demand, high-Consequence, low-Zeal, Syncretistic and low-Allegiance) Heinlein disliked existing religions, and invented one he, and many readers of the time, liked, which as a bonus, was absolutely provable.

My only conclusion from all this is that to create a real-feeling religion, the elements must be balanced coherently. Why, for example, have a high-Zeal religion when there is low-Demand, Consequence, and Allegiance? But it raises some interesting questions for me as a writer. Like Heinlein, most authors today prefer to cast their religions as low-Demand, low-Consequence, low-Zeal, and low-Allegiance, to avoid the charge of religious bigotry. But if the religion is worth following, like Heinlein’s, the Consequence HAS to be at least PERCEIVED as high at some point, or why does it succeed? Hinduism and Buddhism may be low-Consequence in comparison with, say, Islam, but only in comparison, otherwise, why would people devote their lives to them. Also, is it possible to create a high-Consequence, high-Zeal religion that doesn’t feel like bigotry? Bujold portrays the Quadrenes as bigots and inquisitors, and yet, if they are right, their Quintarian foes are actively helping demons eat souls in the guise of piety. If true, that would be monstrous, and the Quadrenes would be the heroes. Could this be done in earnest, or is it impossible? It is a question that interests me, and I look forward to authors capable of taking up the challenge, even as I seek to do so myself.

G. Scott Huggins
G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern”. If you like to laugh, “Phoenix for the Amateur Chef” is in Sword and Sorceress 30.

Scott's regular non-fiction column for Sci Phi Journal is entitled The Mote in God's "I". In the column Scott explores the nature of SF&F genre writing from the perspective of a committed Christian.

When he is not teaching or writing, Scott devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

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