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On Religion in SF and Fantasy: An Interview with Orson Scott Card
by Moira Allen

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

In your view, how well (or poorly) is religion portrayed in current fantasy and science fiction?

There is little difference on this point between speculative fiction and literary fiction -- or any other genre except that of religious fiction itself.

In our culture, intellectuals have become so uniformly a-religious or anti-religious that our fiction, with few exceptions, depicts religious people in only two ways: the followers are ignorant and stupid and easily fooled, and the leaders are exploitative and cynical, manipulating others' faith for their private benefit.

I know some people who fit those descriptions. But they are in a tiny minority. Most religious people I know are smart, well-educated, independent-minded, stubborn, honest, and generous -- at least as much so as the average intellectual, and usually more.

The hostility toward religion among American intellectuals arises, I think, from a clear awareness that it was against a publicly religious culture that their own culture rebelled. Now that rebellion is completely successful in terms of capturing control of all the public instruments of transmission of culture -- the universities, the media, and the literature and art -- but it has become such a shibboleth of intellectual life to snipe at religion that, like the aging "revolutionaries" of the old Soviet Union, they mindlessly continue to "rebel" in order to defend their tight grip on the establishment. Indeed, those intellectuals are the establishment. And what was once a daring and rebellious stance is now just another example of lockstep conformists mindlessly echoing ideas that they haven't examined.

That's when contemporary fiction mentions religion at all. Most of the time, in and out of speculative fiction, religion simply doesn't exist. Characters don't believe in God or even think about believing in God. Nobody talks about religion. Nobody belongs to any kind of church. Religion simply doesn't exist.

In my judgment, this is exactly parallel to the way sex was dealt with in most fiction prior to the 1950s. It goes on all around us, but you'd never know it from the fiction.

This is, I think, a serious lapse, a dishonesty in our contemporary literature. It is most seriously dishonest because in fact, even the supposedly a-religious intellectuals behave exactly as religious people always have. That is, the behavioral and cultural patterns that we have always associated with religions are indistinguishable, except by vocabulary, from the behavioral and cultural patterns of the a-religious intellectuals. They band together with fellow believers, feel sorry for or hostile toward unbelievers, immediately punish heretics -- intellectuals who, having once been accepted in the "faith," dare to question its premises -- anoint their priests and theologians (psychologists and therapists being their ministers, scientists and, more usually, science popularizers being their doctors of atheology), and insist on their absolute right to put forth their religious ideas with public funding and the authority of the state behind them, while doing their utmost to silence or marginalize the beliefs of others.

Most fiction has become, in short, an instrument of propaganda for the established religion of our time, which differs from other religions only in the particular content of the faith and the vocabulary used to describe it. Naturally, the true believers are sure that the real difference is that their beliefs are objectively true. But then, true believers have always believed that. This is not what distinguishes them from other established religions, but rather what makes them fundamentally identical to them.

The honest depicter of human life will include the religious aspect of that life. This is not to say that stories need to be about religion, any more than stories about our contemporary culture need to be about cars. But the cars need to be present, at least by implication, and if a character doesn't know how to drive, we'd need to know why.

Why should a writer consider religion when building a world or culture? Is a religious dimension more important in some types of worlds or cultures than others?

Since religion is a part of human nature, and the communities that are most successful in transmitting their culture from one generation to the next are those that use the instruments of religion (along with others) to transmit it, it is hard to imagine a circumstance, in a story of any length, in which a writer should not show some awareness of how the religion functions in the society being depicted. In most human societies, the religion is coterminous with the polity -- that is, if you belong to the city, you belong to the church and are assumed to share the faith, and the powers of the state are not separated from the powers of the church. Religions that stretch across polities, like Christianity and Islam and Judaism, are the innovation, and polities that tolerate multiple religions are even newer (and their staying power is less predictable). So it is strange to imagine creating imaginary cultures that don't have religion.

Of course, what usually happens is that writers who don't consciously think of how the religion works in the society they're inventing end up using the religion they actually believe in and practice, by default. And since these writers are usually true believers in American Intellectualism, that is the religion that their imaginary societies invariably practice. Where they do show religions, those religions are almost always shown as ridiculous and false, and the heroes are always believers in American Intellectualism. Except, of course, when they are believers in British Intellectualism...

Thus, a writer should consider religion when building a world or a culture precisely so that does not end up turning all his stories into confessions of his faith.

What elements should a writer consider in attempting to create a believable religious system? I.e., what makes a belief system "realistic"?

Alas, this question is simply too large to answer without writing a handbook. Here are just a few questions the writer should ask himself. Who is called upon to judge moral guilt? To whom are confessions made? Who is given privileged authority in declaring how the world works and why things happen as they do? When people are in ecstatic mode (O how beautiful are the works of ...) to whom or what do they ascribe the glories they extol? When people are suffering, to whom or what do they turn for relief? When people behave in ways that the society does not tolerate, which crimes are excoriated in moral terms, with outrage instead of mere disappointment? If there are multiple religions, in which ways are they different? In which ways are they alike?

Many science fiction writers seem to imply that mankind will "evolve" past the need for religion. Is this probable? If not, what might religions of the future look like?

When a science fiction writers shows humanity evolving beyond the need for religion, the belief system and culture they depict as being "higher" than religion will most likely be precisely their own present religion. The only exceptions are when they are being ironic, and their point is that the "superior" religion is not superior at all. Most of the time, though, "evolving past the need for religion" is a code phrase for "coming to believe what I believe instead of what those other fools believe."

One element that comes across strongly in the "Alvin Maker" series is how individuals respond to their personal faith. What is the difference between religion and faith -- and how might a writer use these concepts in determining a character's behavior?

The real distinction is between the public faith (what you are taught that you ought to believe) and a person's actual faith (what he believes so strongly that he isn't even aware that it's possible not to believe it). When multiple religions are present, then people are aware of more possibilities of disbelief, and it is in that middle ground, where we become conscious of our beliefs because others don't share them, that characters do all their wrestling with matters of faith. Human beings have a constant desire to move things from the category of "I believe this but I'm aware that others do not" to the much safer and surer category of "this is true and everybody knows it," which quickly becomes unconscious certainty in their minds. That is why people are almost always so very quick to try to stamp out heresy. It frightens them because it moves more ideas out of the realm of certainty and makes the world a more fluid place where they have to keep making decisions instead of acting on decisions long made.

What I find interesting is the time of discovery, when a person finds out about one of his own beliefs that was so deep he never thought to question it. Often, the person ends up confirming that this belief is true after all -- but now that certainty is personally earned instead of merely inherited from the culture.

In the real world, the same religious system can produce both heroes and villains. In fantasy novels, however, religious systems are often portrayed as either intrinsically good or intrinsically evil. How can a writer effectively use religious beliefs as motivations for both the good folks and the bad folks?

Your question is inadvertently a "trick" question -- it can't be answered correctly in the terms it sets up. That's because religious beliefs are only tangentially the motives for human action. All humans are motivated by the same basic forces, regardless of their religious beliefs. And all humans will explain and excuse their actions by use of the vocabulary of their religion. But the religion did not provide the motivation, it provided the story. Religion might provide the particular occasion or setting or object for acting upon the underlying human motive -- that is, when people wanted to go a-conquering, they chose the Holy Land because their religion made it a ready target -- but that lust for conquest is innate in many people, and will find its expression somehow.

It is confusion on this point that allows many people to condemn religion outright. "Look at all the evil that has been caused by religion over the years." The easy answer is, in our century we have had several powerful states that openly declared themselves to be non- or anti-religious, and their track record leads to the obvious conclusion that the major world religions have, if anything, served as powerful brakes on the ugliest motivations of their believers. The reason all those evils were done in the name of religion is that everything people do is done in the name of their religion, whatever name they put on it. When today's intellectuals are just as oppressive toward unbelievers and heretics as true believers always are tempted to be, they simply use a different vocabulary. But the behavior and the motivation are the same as they have always been, with religion as the gloss and the channel.

So writers who know what they're doing don't show any particular religion as intrinsically good or evil. Instead, they show how people who embrace good or evil find religious terms to try to win the agreement of others or justify their actions.

How can one define the "power" of one's fantasy deity/deities? For example, it seems a little silly to have all-powerful deities who still need humans (or whatever) to handle the really tough tasks -- but it doesn't make much of a story if one's "god" can solve every problem with a snap of the fingers. How can a writer balance divine powers with "human" struggles?

Actually, there is no such thing as a religion with an "all-powerful" deity or deities. They might use the term "all-powerful," but they don't mean it, because they always have to come up with some story to explain why the god or gods don't intervene to stop inappropriate things from happening. So in designing made-up religions, one vital thing to find is the story the religion tells to explain why God doesn't fix things up better. And there is invariably another set of stories to explain what human beings must do to induce God (or nature, or ...) to act as they desire. (If we just stop burning fossil fuels and using chlorofluorocarbons, nature will give us back the sky and keep us from burning. And no, don't you dare question whether we have any evidence that human activity is actually causally related to climate change or the ozone hole.)

What are some of the perils and pitfalls of writing about religion in a fantasy setting, and how can they be avoided?

The first is that when you use magic in a story, you have to deal with the people who really believe in magic -- i.e., fundamentalist Christians who think witchcraft really exists and that you really can invoke the powers of the devil to do magical things. Naturally, they don't want fantasies that make "satanism" seem attractive to be part of the reading of the children in our culture, and would, if they could, stamp it out entirely.

The second peril is that you actually need to have some understanding, not just of your own religion, but of how religion works in general, in order to create a plausible religion and escape from merely transmitting your own religious beliefs and prejudices.

Do you have any pet peeves about the use or misuse of religion, faith, spirituality, etc., in the fantasy genre?

Asked and answered, your honor.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell writers (or would-be writers) about using religion effectively in fantasy that I haven't asked about here?

You can't explore religion effectively as a writer without, like it or not, exploring it as a person. Just remember that the mere existence of a question does not constitute the answer. That is, when you find out that someone else does not believe the thing that you have long believed, that does not imply that your belief is wrong and his is right, or vice versa. But there are plenty of people eager to tell you that the very fact that your beliefs can be questioned is proof that they are false -- the question is the answer. The way you can expose the fact that these people are merely agents of another religion is by asking questions that challenge their fundamental beliefs. The anger and fear in their response is their confession. You must rise above anger and fear in order to examine the actual ideas and see how they fit the real world of human behavior and the real sources of happiness and grief, success and failure, etc. You must, in short, question everything -- including the questions, and the premises of the questions. Do that, as an ongoing process throughout your life, and you will not only end up writing far deeper and more searching and resonant and truthful fiction, you will also end up discovering a religious faith of your own that is not just a matter of thinking the same things your friends all think and saying the same things your friends all say.

Visit Orson Scott Card's "Hatrack River" website at http://www.hatrack.com/.

Copyright © 2000 Moira Allen

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


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