Do you have a moment to talk about our savior?

Do you have a moment to talk about our savior?

You do? That’s too bad, because I am absolutely the wrong person to talk about religion. Even in fiction.

Church didn’t happen in my childhood, so it tends to get overlooked in my fiction.

But here it is. An iconic cathedral badly damaged a few days ago. Today is Good Friday. And Passover. Sunday is Easter, Monday is Earth Day, and Wednesday, according to my calendar, is Administrative Professionals Day.

So I’m going to fumble around a bit about religion in completely fictional worlds.

Not the “world” of Earth Day and AP Day, although it might be amusing to create a future world where so many “Participation Trophy” levels of recognition had special days that workers were forced to pick only 120 that they could celebrate every year by taking a day off work.

Instead, let’s talk about how in fiction you can use an existent religion or invent your own, with deities that might be as hands off as they are around here, or they might be a lot more “hands on” type of managers.

Now, in historical fiction, you need to be up on the religion(s) of the area(s) your story takes place, at the time it’s taking place.

And then you can add to it, just a bit. If you wish. And if you’re writing a historical fantasy, you probably will. God can put his thumb on the scale, Prophets and saints and devils can walk the cobblestone streets. Magic, witches and wizards . . . however the writer wishes, but the more realistic the world, the lighter the touch of the divine (and satanic) needs to be.
Religions you didn’t grow up in are going to take a lot of research, a lot of finding people of that religion and asking for a critique.

Which, for me, is pretty much any religion.

The only “real” religion I use extensively is a version of Islam that has been taken over and subverted to the needs of some cross dimensional stranded travelers. I’ve changed their calendar, and about all that remains is Ramadan and the Eid, which is, often as not, referred to as New Year’s Eve. No one’s issued a Fatwah on me yet, probably because my travelers helped the Islamic Union win the war.

Although I did get one book review that raved about my anti-Christian writing. And that was a dozen books before the World with Islamics in it ever appeared.

Did I mention that I tend to overlook religion? I’m also oblivious to errors and slights. Which is why religion is very much background rather than foreground in most of what I write. Well, I’m getting better, more aware, but if I ever publish this old manuscript I hauled out and dusted off, I’ll be right back on some bad lists.

Now flat out science fiction has the ability to create characters who have god-like abilities. Genetic engineering, or cyborg parts, a lens clamped to your wrist by an alien, bitten by a radioactive spider . . .

But generally speaking they only think they’re actual gods if they’re dangerously mentally imbalanced. Or, well, if the writer wants them to believe they are gods. Some people might worship them, but do they believe it themselves? Do they try to live up to the expectations of their worshipers, or does the worship have the power to influence them? Do they embrace the role, or are they horrified, try to deny it and run away?

You can have fun torturing a lot of characters that way.

Is this a bad time to mention that writers are the creator gods of their fictional universes?


The type of book you write, the characters you create, are going to determine whether and how much religion is in your writing. If religion has nothing to do with the story, it’ll be background. If it’s a religious war between true believers of differing beliefs, it’ll be front and center. If any of your characters are deeply religious, it can be useful at some point.

Your Orthodox Jew pushes his beef stroganoff around the plate a bit and goes to bed hungry, not realizing he’s just dodged a poisoning. The Hindu avoids the trap laid by the aliens as he had no interest in killing the cow that was staked out as bait for humans . . .


Are there any human groups who have failed altogether to create an explanation for the world? A tribe with no gods or spirits?

I don’t know what it is about humans, that drives this. Is there something we can’t quite sense? Something that detecting wasn’t an evolutionary advantage, so there was nothing to drive the development of a specialized organ. But perhaps some sense of the divine, the spiritual, wasn’t actually negative, so it never was actively selected against?
Whatever the explanation, we believe, and we build edifices to our god or gods. And we need to remember this, when we build a world.

I suspect this is a weak spot in my writing, both in world building and in characterizations.

So, take a look at my abuse of a religion, and talk about yours. Leave a link, to yours or to a favorite read.

64 thoughts on “Do you have a moment to talk about our savior?

  1. The most important question to ask in constructing fictional religions, in my opinion, is one that I think is almost always overlooked by writers of SF and often by Fantasy writers.

    “Is it true?”

    That is to say, how closely, if at all, does the metaphysic taught by the fictional faith correspond to the metaphysic that actually holds in the fictional world?

    Campbellian Hard SF is traditionally set in a universe with a strictly mechanist metaphysic (although the authors usually handwave some form of free will in there, even if they don’t realize they are doing it) and consequently any religion aside from Atheism set in such a world with be false to fact.

    So the writer must consider, if it’s not true, then why do people believe it? How long have they believed it? Has the nature of the faith changed over time, grown closer to representing reality? How does it compete in the marketplace of ideas?

    Never even asking such questions is why invented religions in SF so often ring false.

    1. Well, there is also the epistemological question of whether you would know it’s true. A Hard SF story is consistent with any metaphysical system without direct intervention from outside the physics system.

      1. I think Hard SF writers, as a general rule, give even less thought to epistemology than to metaphysics. “Smart, good people” know the universe is mechanistic; “dumb. bad people” believe in sky gods.

  2. Another thing you might want to consider in your world’s religion: What exactly is the religion supposed to do for its adherents?

    – Describe their place in creation?

    – Lay out standards of conduct for individuals and groups?

    – Serve as a repository or accumulated wisdom?

    You could have a lot of fun with any of the above.

    1. First question: Are the priests and/or worshippers granted reliably beneficial (for that faith’s definition of benefit) magical powers invoked via prayer. If they are, then pretty much all the questions based on reality of gods / why worship here are answered.

      Also, there will be no atheists.

      1. Eh, just another form of magic. Just because they set it up with some artifact or secret ritual doesn’t mean the source is divine.

        And, of course, a person can dismiss all the polytheistic gods as not philosophically relevant, being obviously finite and contingent beings.

        1. Of course, it would a different matter if the “gods” made actual appearances.

          (See Harry Turtledove’s Between The Rivers) 😉

            1. Because it doesn’t matter if they are “philosophically relevant” when they have the Power to either Smash You or Control Your Mind. 😈

              Oh, I was annoyed by one reviewer of that book because of his comment about the clash of faith vs reason.

              If the “god” can be seen in his temple, it’s not a matter of “faith”.

              Even if you don’t accept that the being is a “god” (worthy of worship), the being is Real and has the Power to back up his orders. 😈

              1. Stalin was real and had the power to back up his orders. Still not philosophically relevant.

                Your claim was not that people had to obey but that they could not be atheists.

                1. Well, they could be “atheists” as long as they didn’t get into the face of one of the gods and tell him that he wasn’t real or that he wasn’t a “true god”.

                  After all, how many sane people would tell a real dragon that he didn’t really exist. 😈

  3. *Grin* And here I can’t write a world without some form of religion in it. 🙂 For the same reason you don’t – I grew up immersed in religion. Although the Merchant books are the first where the deities actually intervene—as themselves, not through the works of their followers—in the world. Not all the religions in my works are equally “good,” either, at least from the protagonists’ points of view.

    As I recall, Anne McCaffrey deliberately created the Dragonriders world as one completely free of religion, in part as a response to her personal experiences.

    I find that an imaginary religion has to be at the very least 1. plausible from the believers’ standpoint, 2. internally consistent enough to function (or to function within each sub-sect), and 3. provide a spiritual and social benefit. As a writer, it helps if you take fictional religions as seriously as your characters do, even if you strongly disagree with “their” theology. The followers of the goddess in the Colplatschki books have good reasons for their faith, and are serious about it, and find it beautiful. I vehemently disagree with them, but I respect that strength of belief and what they find in it.

    1. With Pern there was at least one book where it was explicitly stated that no religious thought or ideology or materials were allowed as part of the colony, that removing that was extremely purposeful.

      My feeling on that is that someone born there would have created a story, animism or some sort of mysticism about *something*. It likely wouldn’t have taken more than a generation.

      1. Dragons’ Dawn. The colony book, where the founders talk about how religions were abandoned after a long war when they failed to provide any benefit.

      2. Nod, I always thought that there would have a religion come into being on Pern revolving around the Dragons & Dragonriders with the Harpers being the not-in-name priests of the religion.

        1. They had a religion– the church of avoiding Thread. Seriously. Purification rituals galore, followed even when not needed, then forsaken, then rediscovered. Dragonriders with special powers and special legal status. Spiritual telepathic experiences. A holy war. And yes, the Harpers were a freaking priest class.

          Anne McCaffrey created a world without religion the way a winery is without wine.

          That said, even a world without religion needs to have philosophies.

          1. The Harpers were certainly priests, regarded as the keepers of wisdom.

            But even further than them was the whole AIVAS plot.

      3. They did, it was ancestor and hero worship, essentially. With the dragonriders as the living avatars of it all. It was certainly couched in religious terms, though I doubt McCaffrey realized it when she wrote it.

        1. Part of the problem is that people don’t recognize religion as religious when it’s unfamiliar in form. (I once was in an online argument with a Hindu who argued it was fine to ban Christian and Muslim ministers from political activity but not Hindu, on the grounds that Hinduism was not a religion.)

            1. Point out differences between it and Christianity and a few others. Stone-wall the other religions that are more like Hinduism than those religions. Deny that Roman paganism was religion, for instance, even when I point out that’s the very source of the term.

              1. Wow.

                I get the idea that the person who came up with that argument was not on speaking terms with logic. I apologize if that offends, but, really, that theory makes very little sense to me.

                  1. My apologies for the misunderstanding. I was referring to the guy with the ‘Hinduism is not a religion’ argument,not you.

                    And talking that, isn’t the highest Hindu caste of the Brahmins supposed to be a hereditary priesthood? I imagine it’s more complex in real life, but I remember reading that from childhood

  4. I think there are a bunch of areas of religious hardness that one can think about when storytelling.

    One comment there identifies hardness of theology, hardness of spiritual peril, and hardness of monster basis in myth.

    Hodgell’s Kencyrath books. Invented religion, albeit with a mild basis in real world religions, but too distant for authenticity of theology or mythology to judged. Very real spiritual peril in Dark of the Moon, and immediately after. (God Stalk was when Jamie innocently did a lot of things extremely terrifying in hindsight.) I’m too badly educated in theology to assess how the invented compares to the real. The quality of the job done with Kencyrath theology is really central to how well the chronicles work.

    Chancy’s Pearl of Fire. More invented religions with basis in the real world. Main driver of the conflict, so very important. I think well done, but my thinking has improved a lot over the past couple months, and I haven’t reread Pearl since that improvement.

    Strong favorite? Sic Semper Morituri. It is a multi crossover fanfic, and plays a major part in my continuing love of those. It takes as major elements Ranma, Eva, Oh My Goddess, and Lovecraft, and produces a story that is fairly hard religiously. In Misha’s terms, the true faith is Christianity, I didn’t really understand the deal with the Lovecraftian entities until after my xianxia reading binge, and the metaphysics are pretty wild dealing with everything.

    Undocumented Features is another fairly well done multicross, but extremely soft on the religious axes. From the perspective of Christianity at least, maybe less so from the old Norse perspective, but the all pantheons are one thing was perhaps more of a Roman practice.

    I’m blanking on what else I have to say, and need to go chase some other business.

  5. Saw midnightoildiary and TXRed’s comments.

    Yeah, if faith is more than “I think this way and get healing miracles”, and magic spells more than “wiggle my fingers and get fireballs”, you’ve got to understand how humans tick, and make both work plausibly. Sic Semper Morituri is excellent at both. It makes Jeffrey Kevin Davis plausible as a sincere Presbyterian. The Scholarly Dragon is even plausible as perhaps a believer. That sounds more impressive if you hear what they are before you learn who they are. When you find out the other way, as presented in SSM and Pilots in Nerima, it just makes sense, and then you start realizing how absurd it sounds.

  6. I don’t think that you do so badly. I haven’t read as many of your books as I ought but I thought that the Wine of the Gods stuff (can I do a spoiler?) where belief starts to warp characters into representations of various thoughts: love,desire, wisdom, war, justice, etc. Was very interesting, possibly because everyone had a different idea about it.

    And THAT is something that I think that people get very wrong when they incorporate or write about religious faith in their stories, and if we’re lucky, they aren’t even doing so because of a personal vendetta toward people of faith.

    No one believes the same thing.

    Not even in a tiny little church somewhere with a very strict doctrine.

    People create religions for whole people groups and talk about the rules or what they believe, or a whole planet, or aliens, or whatever. But that makes about as much sense as a whole planet with a single ecosystem.

  7. To one of my reader’s minor discontent (hi Robin! ~:D), my books have turned out to have a ton of religious-y stuff in them. This is mostly due to robots with no more self-determination that a carburetor acquiring self-awareness and sentience from the human they’ve been standing next to for more than 20 minutes. They catch it, like a cold, and turn from a fancy mannequin into a Person.

    The difference between an Artificial Intelligence, capita A capital I, and garden-variety algorithmic Turing machine (or a Babbage Engine) is that Ghost in the Machine, that which says “I AM!” Usually really loud, and right up in your face. As in “No, I’m not doing that, and if you try to make me I’ll bust your head, monkey boy.”

    When I’ve been complaining about characters carrying off the plot and pounding it into the shape they want, this is part of it. That was not part of the Plan.

    A robot that acquires sentience from humans turns out to be quite a religious thing, which wasn’t my intention at the outset. But it does make for some pretty fun scenes and interactions of the kind that I used to see all the time between humans and aliens in those space operas.

    The Modern, atheist conceit is that humans are actually robots made of meat, differing from the metal kind only in the sophistication of the software. There’s very little being published that strays from that line these days. I was bored of that, so I wrote something else. ~:D

    One problem with my approach is that it clashes with lots of different doctrines from lots of different churches and indeed different religions. It kind of goes along with most of them, but you have to squint at it sideways a bit and leave lots of slack. I’m pretty satisfied with that situation, because
    A) IT’S FICTION you guys, I made it all up.
    B) If there’s something to offend everyone, then I’m not playing favorites.

    This contrasts with the usual awards-nominated dreck in that I don’t have a target I’m deliberately trying to offend. But if some hard-core atheist SJW or fire-breathing Hindu reads it, they’re both going to be really mad, because I didn’t follow all their rules.

    Example, right now some characters are having coffee with Kali the Destroyer in a dorky hipster cafe in Hamilton Ontario. I’m fudging of course, because it isn’t -really- Kali. Its a big, old, alien AI that’s been around forever. But she does do the types of things that Kali is famous for. So her being Kali is more in the way of a translation for human understanding than it is swiping something from a human tradition just to be cheeky. Still, your Simon-pure Hindu is probably going to yell anyway, and an SJW will be reee-ing about cultural appropriation.

    To bad. Its fiction. Blame Kali, it was her idea.

      1. And we all know how to find Jamiethiel at Baen, right?

        Are links from here to fanfic still not the thing?

        1. I specifically asked for links on the subject, but as a general thing . . . hmm, I have no idea. I’ll have to go read my own rules.

  8. A purely mechanistic universe carries the implication that the universe was created by an omniscient deity.
    Not necessarily one interested in being your personal Lord and Savior, but an omniscient omnipotent deity nonetheless.

  9. My story “Vigil For The Longest Night” has an abandoned colony world where the Church has been struggling to keep science and technology alive, waiting for the day when the starships would return. It was an interesting challenge to portray a non-stereotyped religion in an SF story. I think I’d like to return to the setting sometimes.

    1. JMS showed that one in an episode of B5. He also handled religion better than any other TV writer (and comic writer) I’ve seen.

  10. In a collaborative story I took part in I made up an alien civilization whose culture was very centered on space travel and it figured prominently in their religion. They held that everything, even the stars, was born into the protective embrace of the universe’s “Holy Darkness” or the “Sacred Void” and space travel, particularly interstellar space travel, was a deeply spiritual experience for them. They took building starships and space stations very seriously. Anyone who was born blind was considered a holy figure/prophet/seer who could pass on wisdom and visions revealed directly to them by the Holy Darkness.

    1. For anyone who is interested (and to comply with the link request), the story I mentioned still appears to be up at this link:

      My part (screen name “Cnaeus Valerius”) didn’t start until page 5 here:

      If the links don’t work for some reason, you should be able to find it by doing an internet search for “Copani Story – SFFWorld”

      Looking back (a lonnng ways back, at that), the early parts of the story have a “first season, still finding our feet” vibe, but overall I think it’s a good, fun sci-fi story with a variety of different and interesting alien cultures.

  11. This isn’t fiction but if anyone wants some relatively quick ideas for how religions develop in real life, I’ve found that Rodney Stark’s ‘The Discovery of God’ is both useful and surprising with all the ideas about religion he knocks down. Apparently polytheism developed together with civilization and primitive peoples were more likely to be monotheists, for one thing. And most ‘old school’ pagan religions were restricted to the rulers and priests; according to him the commoners weren’t even allowed to enter the temples.

    He also includes some difficult to find historical bits that can be useful. Like how and why Buddhism died out in India. Or how Muhammad was only one of at least four monotheistic prophets in 7th century Arabia; and at least one of them was a woman.

    It’s a good, well-written and rather enlightening book, and not very expensive either.

    1. I second this recommendation. I like all of Stark’s work, but this one is closest to what Pam’s talking about, and includes the most about religions as a whole.

  12. I’m trying to play with the idea of a “spiritual but not religious” human colony that comes into contact with a smart but not as developed deeply religious sentient species who owns the planet they crash land on. It’s very hard, as that’s not my background, but I like the conflict it creates. What would that look like? What would scared “spiritual but not religious” soldiers say before going to do something dangerous, for instance? ‘The universe’ feels uninspiring, particular since they are crash landed in dire straits, but I hear that a lot from people who are amorphously spiritual.

    1. That kind of depends on whether “Not religious” means no organized church or no deity.

      A pre-battle/pre-hunt not-a-prayer? “My spirit is prepared to fight for [freedom/family/dinner] and if this is my day, to adventure into the Great Unseen.”

    1. I’ve been hearing the term “Portal Adventures” lately, that it would fit into. Cross-dimensional invasions, espionage and so forth.

  13. I grew up with religion being an integral part of everyday life, at a time when religion wasn’t yet something the “elite” considered Undesirable. That filters into my writing, where religion is a part of everyday life, but doesn’t stand out, or form a central theme. I think the best example would be found in my book “Lost”. ( It’s there, but it isn’t primary.

    1. That was a great post, thanks for sharing it.

      Talking writers about religion (I’m a Hutton fan myself, pity they took his books out of the local libraries) what do you think of Rodney Stark? I’ve found his books to be fine pieces of work despite some glaring errors here and there. Like one book on monotheism, specifically Christianity, where he said that only monotheists/Christians ever held witch hunts.

        1. They’re worth the time if you are interested in how religion spreads and functions in society. He’s a sociologist of religion, more or less, and he writes very well. I’ve read all of his books except for the one about religious competition in the American marketplace of ideas between 1750-1900 (or “Where have all the Anglicans and Presbyterians gone?”)

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