I’m asked to write about religion a lot, primarily because of Miserere’s themes, and since it’s my job as the author to present this topic from a different angle every time, I had to think about this one for a bit.
Okay, let’s approach it this way:
My number one rule, especially when working with an established religion such as the ones I use in Miserere, is to always be respectful of both the belief system and the adherents. I’ve seen the religious fanatic portrayed as a foaming at the mouth caricature so many times, I’m starting to roll my eyes when I see it coming. What people tend to forget is that most fanatics are quite reasonable and make a lot of sense to the uninitiated. That is what makes the fanatic so very dangerous. An extremist knows the religion intimately so he or she knows what rules to break. He or she also tends to have an innate knowledge of psychology and how to take advantage of group-think and people’s fears.
The fanatic usually believes their own rhetoric one hundred percent. Extremists can be found in any religion and can often be seen outside of a religion, with atheists and politicians falling into the latter camp. In other words, fanatics come in all flavors and aren’t confined to religion.
What I wanted to accomplish with Miserere was to give an even-handed treatment to religion and avoid the fanatical aspects altogether. I spent a lot of time reading about Christianity and Judaism to help me with the tone and the religious aspects of Miserere. For example, some readers have yet to pick up on the fact that in the Citadel’s cathedral, I specifically mention a resurrection cross stands behind the pulpit. A lot of people have said that Miserere is too Catholic, but you won’t find a resurrection cross in a Catholic church. The resurrection cross is a Protestant symbol and I mixed that image with Catholic and Eastern Orthodox symbols to show how all the various sects of Christianity were housed under one roof.
It’s impossible to be intimately familiar with the practices of all the religions; however, I’m very lucky in that I have a friend who I can call on when I need information about Judaism and another friend who is willing to answer my questions about Hinduism. I have yet another friend who I can call on to ask for advice about Wiccan practices, and I will soon be seeking someone to help me out with aspects of Islam as well. I can’t possibly know everything about every belief system. My job as the author is to be informed enough about the religions themselves so that I can ask reasonably intelligent questions. Beta readers are invaluable in assisting me with details.
Another aspect of world-building, especially one that uses religion as a basis of the magical system, is for the author to thoroughly understand the cultural aspects and political situation in the world that is being represented. This is a personal feeling of mine, nothing that I can base a single fact on, however, I’ve found that the more advanced the civilization, the less reliance one finds on religion and/or gods and goddesses.
In Violence and Miracle in the Fourteenth Century: Private Grief and Public Salvation, scholar Michael E. Goodrich draws a direct correlation between the violence and uncertainty of the fourteenth century and sudden surge of “rescue” miracles. Goodrich states that:
“The oft-noted breakdown of the medieval consensus which accompanied the ‘terrors’ of the fourteenth century and the decline of its characteristic institutions, such as the feudal system, the papal church, and the democratic commune, enhanced reliance on the mystical, irrational, magical, and miraculous.”
When people cannot rely on man-made institutions to protect them, they often fall back on the supernatural for protection. People in the twenty-first century might think of this type of reliance as a psychological placebo, but when a human being is faced with absolute helplessness, the dynamic of self-reliance sometimes shifts to a dependence on supernatural forces.
A lot of fantasy novels incorporate some form of societal breakdown (war, pestilence, etc.) that enables the belief in the supernatural to be more credible. It’s the author’s job to make the supernatural forces as authentic as possible to the society he or she creates. Understanding a little bit about comparative religion and basic psychology can often help create the kind of group-think inherent to close-knit societies in medieval settings.
That is all I’ve got on religion for today. Ask a question in the comments, or tell us your favorite fantasy that uses religion in a believable fashion. I’m interested to hear what you have to say.