What’s Wrong with Putting Religion in Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories?

parallel universes

Found at numerous publications including TrendInTech.com – Not image credit available

I just finished reading a blog post called Of Permanent Things, Part II written by my friend and Holocaust educator Dan Hennessy. It reminded me of the importance of including religious and spiritual themes in fiction writing, including science (speculative) fiction and fantasy.

I’m in the process of producing first drafts of two novels. The first is about five children mysteriously transported into a fantasy world of dragons, demons, and elves having to undergo a heroic journey and facing danger and adventure at every turn. The second is about a fifteen-year-old African-American girl taking up her recently deceased Grandpa’s journey into a Steampunk world in order to help a younger version of her Grandpa stop a corrupt tycoon from destroying both of their universes.

While I don’t make it explicit in the fantasy novel, the five Davidson children are Jewish. No, they’re not observant, and aside from the occasional mention of praying (usually when the situation is very grim), I have, at best, cast them in the role of Reform Jews. Why I’ve made them Jewish as opposed to generic “white kids” will become apparent only in the latter portion of the third novel where their journey will be finally resolved.

Keisha, the heroine of the second novel, isn’t religious, but her Grandfather Isaiah Covington was a Christian. During the novel, she mentions having Christian friends and even going to church with one of them a few years back. More importantly, her Grandpa’s counterpart in the other universe is a devout Christian as is his family, though his wife, who is a South Sea Islander and also of African descent, has indigenous spiritual beliefs which she learned in childhood. On top of all that, one of Isaiah’s closest friends is an Orthodox Jew, and the two are so tight that Isaiah has even learned many of the Hebrew prayers and observes Erev Shabbat with him.

Why the heck did I do that, especially if I want to get these books published (is a film deal off the table as well)?

First of all, it’s part of who I am. No, I’m not Jewish, but my wife and children are. I am a Christian (it’s what my wife calls me), albeit a highly unusual one as evidenced by the writings on my religious blog (yes, I compartmentalize my blogging based on my interests). I believe the only reasonable way to read and interpret the Bible for Christians is through both an ancient and modern Jewish lens (and yes, I get into trouble with plenty of traditional Christians and traditionally observant Jews because of that).

Secondly, religion and spirituality are part of who we are as human beings, both historically and contemporarily (that is, both in the past and the present).

I found an article at NPR.org called World’s Muslim Population Will Surpass Christians This Century, Pew Says, which states in part:

“As of 2010, Christianity was by far the world’s largest religion, with an estimated 2.2 billion adherents, nearly a third (31 percent) of all 6.9 billion people on Earth,” the Pew report says. “Islam was second, with 1.6 billion adherents, or 23 percent of the global population.”

So just counting Christianity and Islam, as of 2010, over half of the world’s population is religious. If you look at the actual data at the Pew Research Center, you’ll see the projected fertility rate by religion for 2010-2015. I took a screen capture of their graph which is displayed below.

What’s more telling is the data on Size and Projected Growth of Major Religious Groups from the same source, which I’ve also present below.

That’s a lot of religious people, and according to both Pew and NPR, religious folks will not be going away any time soon, although it’s important to note that the overall population of Christians is gradually declining, and except for Orthodox Jews, the birthrate for Jews in general is also on a downward curve. Islam, on the other hand, has a birth rate that’s skyrocketing.

So in spite of what progressive atheists may want you to believe, faith and religion is alive and well in the 21st century, even among Christians and Jews.

It certainly seems that there should be a pretty big audience for stories that include faith, religion, and spirituality.

I don’t have the data to back this up, but I suspect in the realm of speculative fiction and fantasy, religious and spiritual themes are not generally supported by literary agents, editors, and publishers.

But why would I say this?

According to a number of blog posts at SuperversiveSF.com including Con Carolinas Set A Dangerous Precedent For Sci-Fi Cons To Advocate Fascism, Science Fiction and Fantasy conventions (Cons) routinely ban authors who are religious, as well as those who are politically and socially conservative.

That’s pretty disappointing. In fact, it’s so disappointing that I sometimes wonder if I’m wasting my time even trying to become a published SciFi/Fantasy author, especially when science fiction luminaries such as the late Ray Bradbury have been recently called out for perceived racist themes in some of his novels.

As an aside, I’ve also read that an award named for stellar children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose books I remember fondly from my youth, has recently been renamed because of perceived racist themes in her books.

It certainly appears to be some sort of “purge” going on in both the publishing industry and national associations of librarians (and don’t get me started on a certain Massachusetts elementary school librarian and Dr. Seuss).

Of course, those issues don’t directly address religion in general and Christianity or Judaism in specific, but they do indicate a major drive to rewrite history and the current nature of literature to satisfy the specific agenda of a certain demographic.

In a recent blog post by African-American author and screen writer Steven Barnes, he urges nascent writers specifically, and well, everyone really, to not give up in the pursuit of their dreams, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

In fact, as far as I can tell from the content of his blog, Mr. Barnes is an adherent of Hinduism, though I have no idea if he includes his beliefs in any of his fictional works.

I read a 2000 interview of Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game) by writing-world.com called On Religion in SF and Fantasy: An Interview with Orson Scott Card which I continue to find very refreshing. Of course, the publishing industry can’t “unpublish” Card’s works, and aside from an effort to boycott a film version of Ender’s Game a few years back, consumption of his writing seems to be going along just fine.

In the aforementioned interview, Card states in part:

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.

Yes, it’s very strange indeed.

Of course, we have a lot of made-up religions in SciFi and Fantasy, the most famous being “the Force” of Star Wars fame, but since it’s fictional and pretty much has to do with giving Jedi Knights superpowers, it’s non-threatening to general audiences.

But let’s shift gears. Do leftist progressives hate Christianity, and if so, why?

According to Christian website World View Weekend, there are Ten Reasons Why Liberals Hate Christians:

  1. Liberals are relativists and hate Christians because Christians believe in absolute truth.
  2. Liberals do not want anyone to say that immorality is immoral.
  3. Liberals are selfish and are more interested in their “feelings” then [sic] they are with what is right for others.
  4. Liberals misunderstand what Christians really believe.
  5. Since liberals see themselves as the superior enlighten [sic] ones they do not recognize that taking a position against their position is not automatically hate.
  6. Liberals do not want to listen to what makes sense, they would rather listen to their senses.
  7. Liberals ignore the clear evidence of the result of their philosophical positions influence on the last 40 years. It had been a social disaster and they do not want to hear it.
  8. They see Christians as intellectually inferior.
  9. Liberals see Christians as wanting to impose their religion on them when in truth it is the liberals who have used the courts system to impose their secular humanism religion on all of us.
  10. Liberals are spiritually lost and blind to the truth of the gospel.

I don’t know if I go along with all of those (and that list is in desperate need of editing), since they seem to be playing to the stereotypes, and ignores the fact that there are Democrats who are also Christians, although their churches tend to be more liberal, inclusive, and progressive (No, not every Christian is an Evangelical or Fundamentalist).

However, I can see the point being made among liberal religionists and atheists in the publishing and entertainment industries. They tend to shy away from Christian and Jewish themes in SciFi/Fantasy works, and even behave with prejudice against those works and their authors. This is because, in my opinion and as I’ve alluded above, they feel threatened by the real or perceived attitudes and beliefs of Christians and religious Jews (and anti-Jewish bigotry is often conflated with anti-Israel prejudices).

Well, it’s not entirely true that religion isn’t found in popular SciFi novels. In his 2007 book The Accidental Time Machine, author Joe Haldeman, who I used to admire and respect until I read that book, goes way out of his way to make fun of and generally denigrate Christians.

I’m sure you’ve encountered books, television shows, and movies that have depicted Christians as generally deluded Luddite fools, and their religious leaders as greedy, power-hungry hypocrites. The only other possibility for being a Christian in fiction is to be a Catholic Priest or Nun, as if there were no other Christians in the world.

No, I’m not bashing Catholics. I went to graduate school with a Priest and I really liked Father Rick (only our study group knew he was a Priest, since he felt if it were generally known in our program, people would start “acting weird” around him). Also, at one of my former day jobs, one of my co-workers was (and I suppose still is) Catholic, and he was probably the most positively Christian man I’ve ever met.

However, there are other Christians besides Catholics, and given my “Jewish lens” on the Bible, I do tend to lean in a very different direction.

But the single most important reason for writing about spirituality and religion in fiction is because of the (again, in my opinion) undeniable reality of the unseen in our universe. Going back to Dan’s blog post, he states:

Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr went so far as to admit that the notion of “things unobservable”… that is, things invisible, immaterial… being “real,” was a perfectly logical outcome, just as Shakespeare referred to there being more things in heaven and earth than in all of humanity’s philosophies by way of Hamlet to Horatio. Egads!… creating, perhaps, a hypothetical bridge, if one chooses to see it, between the playwright and the physicist leading to a belief in the reality of a hitherto unknown road connecting us to unknown worlds, parallel universes?

Some scientists, including Neil deGrasse Tyson, have gone on record as stating the universe as we observe it may be a simulation operated by an unseen and unknown being or beings. It’s not much of a stretch to extend that perspective to God as the creator/operator of that “simulation,” and people of faith have believed what science has just recently speculated upon for thousands of years (although I should say that the universe as simulation belief has been more recently been rejected).

Oh sure, there are niche publications such as Mysterion which actively request submissions of SciFi stories employing Christian and/or Biblical themes, but why should we be limited to those venues? If we create positive and even heroic characters who profess a faith in God, practice a religion, and possess a spirituality, why is that so bad, and why can’t it be so good?

I suspect if these publications saw the light of day, and such characters were presented as real people and not caricatures or villains, any members of the general readership who might tend to feel threatened could realize that books containing such people and content will not melt their brains. Further, while editors and publishers (and television and film directors and producers) may tend to feel threatened by religion, specifically Christianity and Judaism, the vast majority of readers are not.

The screen capture below illustrates how I see general audiences.

These days, authors have a greater number of options for getting their books “out there” than just the big box publishing industry, so actually having your book appear for sale on Amazon isn’t a big trick. Getting it marketed so that more than just a handful of people actually buy and read it is the trick, and I haven’t figured out that part yet. I don’t want to talk to myself. I want to talk to the world, or as much of it as will hear me out.

There’s a lot of debate about whether or not self-publishing is killing the traditional publishing industry, and really, my crystal ball is pretty hazy, so I don’t know. Maybe there’ll come a day when non-religious people will stop being so “phobic” about people of faith (specifically Christians and Jews). I hope so. If not, if news and social media have a “lock” on the minds and hearts of Americans such that they continue to surrender their free will because they think that will put them on the “right side of history,” then perhaps the other alternative is for authors of faith to create their own publishing houses, host their own SciFi/Fantasy Cons, create their own marketing companies, awards ceremonies, and compete the heck out of their progressive/atheist counterparts.

news meme

News media meme

I really hope it doesn’t come to that, mainly because I believe in communication and cooperation between unlike groups. One of the (many, many) reasons I stopped attending a little, local Baptist church a few years back is because the Pastor (who in many other ways is a terrific guy) had a strong prejudice against Catholics and refused to have his church participate in any multi-denominational activities.

I think if people put their prejudices and bigotry aside and just heard each other out, maybe they’d start to see those folks who conceptualize the world in a different way as human beings and not stereotypes. I know that one of the ways the general public is encouraged to accept members of the LGBTQ community is to get to know them as individuals, rather than reacting to them as stereotypes.

The principle is sound, since we tend to fear people we don’t understand or misunderstand (sorry for the “Batman Begins” reference). If “normalization” works relative to gay acceptance by non-gays, why wouldn’t the same “normalization” work for religious-person acceptance among progressive atheists? And also remember, the whole world isn’t areligious. As the statistics I’ve presented establish, a huge number of people in the world are people of faith. That’s a big, big potential audience for books positively depicting religious themes and religious people.

After all, Chris Pratt’s MTV speech,which positively presented God, the soul, and the Bible, was widely accepted by a highly diverse audience. I think the potential is there for a wider acceptance for writers of faith, too.

Oh, I’m not limiting all this to Christianity and Judaism just because those are the two ponds in which I swim. If you’re a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or anyone else, and you want to write on those themes, or create characters who positively behave within those contexts, go for it. We live in a diverse world, and it’s about time publishing and entertainment reflects that rather than simply deleting one perspective and inserting another in its place. Let everyone dive into the pool and have a good time swimming together.

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Putting Religion in Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories?

  1. I read 3/4th of this post. Rest 1/4th i skimmed through..
    Well.
    I dont understand why everything has to be turned political.
    I am a muslim. One of very few muslims here. And people approached me with questions that blew me away. I was surprised on the magnitude of misconceptions about what i follow.
    But somewhere they weren’t even wrong. There are hundreds of differences even under one religion. And differences in practices and concepts.
    Now if this can happen to 1 religion..add the rest.. can anyone even remember each and every concept and right and wrong..

    Then why people have to bring religion and politics into everything.

    It’s all about an idea.

    Writing is art of expression.
    I am against blasphemy. Attacking a religion is wrong.

    But not showing acceptance towards people who want to incorporate it in their writing is plain stupid.

    Like

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, stoner. Sorry about the length of this missive. I tend to think in essays between 1,500 and 2,500 words long. My chapter word counts are even longer.

      The reason for this sort of prejudice is probably either really complicated or really simple, and I took my best stab at it in this article. The bottom line is that if you say you support diversity but do your level best to lock out authors because they belong to the “wrong” political group or “wrong” religion, then you don’t support diversity. Sure, you have to draw the line at people who are truly reprehensible such as Neo-Nazi racists and child molesters who use publishing as a platform to spread their ridiculous ideas and foment hatred, but I’m willing to read a lot of books written by people I probably wouldn’t agree with in certain ways. The only way you learn is by listening to voices other than your own.

      Like

      • Exactly!!
        I welcome questions even though sometimes they sound like i am an alien but honestly i would have felt the same way.
        And yes! This is rediculous to put a filter like that on authors.
        And there are books out there that are clearly offensive to human race and they got published.
        Publishing itself doesn’t seem a fair business at times.

        Let people speak it will only help the readers. And they need to put prejudice aside for a change.

        Like

      • I think people really do want to know about how those who are different think, feel, and act, but they don’t ask because the questions are sometimes awkward or even sound rude, and they’re afraid of being ridiculed or rejected. I’m glad you’re willing to tolerate those questions, even if they are sometimes uncomfortable, because the people asking are probably sincere and clueless. I know that I am a lot of the time.

        Like

  2. I found this very enlightening. When writing sci-fi, how to approach religion in the future is a constant struggle. While in the novel I recently finished editing (a work of soft sci-fi) I largely glossed over it, in my current WIP it is indeed a question that begs answering. While, due to various circumstances related to the story’s background, religion is largely gone by the 2090s, I still find myself asking just *how* gone religion would be, even by the early 22nd century.

    If you haven’t, I strongly suggest you look into The Expanse series of novels by James S.A. Corey. They offer a vision of the future that may be the most fully grounded concept we’ve seen in this generation. In their novels, which take place in the 23rd century, religion is very much alive and well, and they offer a very pragmatic take on it, essentially showing the nature and influence of various religious groups hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years.

    Like

    • In one of the graphs I pulled from Pew, the data projects birth rates by religion into 2050, and while some of the percentages move around a little, the majority of the Earth’s population will continue to practice some form of religion, with Islam and Christianity continuing to be in the lead.

      Thanks for the suggestion on the Expanse series (I hope I live long enough to read all the books I want to read). What you (and this series) suggests, is that religion isn’t going away just because (as some folks suggest) its been replaced by science. Faith is more than just finding a way to explain people and the world, it’s fundamentally part of being a human being.

      Of course, since science fiction is really supposed to be about describing the human condition in the present by using aliens, time travel, and different planets to disguise its true intent, it makes sense to have “religion in the future.” That said, if someone did a study, I wonder how many SciFi stories/novels published in the past ten or twenty years have included some sort of religion? Bonus points if those religions are those people practice on Earth today.

      I sometimes wonder how long the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) since each one has a Messianic figure that is supposed to come and ‘fix’ the world. Of the three though, Christianity really hinges on its Messiah. In Judaism (I don’t know about Islam), the Messiah is certainly hoped for, but observance isn’t really dependent upon his existence.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.