Horse and Bull save us from night everlasting and ice eternal.
From ice, night, and nothingness, Horse was spun, and Horse’s hooves ignited the stars. From the fire in Horse’s heart Bull was born, and in the plenitude of his might, Bull gored Horse. From Horse’s blood gods were created, from Horse’s life gods drew their power, and in the fullness of time, the gods killed Bull. From Bull’s blood men were born, and from Bull’s spirit ghast was given them.
Life from death. Death from life.
Tanis and Taris, the goddesses of death and birth, are twins, never parted. Two faces of the same being. I must remember; I must believe there is a cycle and a reason for all the sacrifice and toil, that joy must be waiting.
That, dear hearts is the beginning of the pre-Minoan saga, which shall never see the light of day in any form resembling that.
“But then why, Oh Critter, are you making us read this?”
Because I’ve been thinking – and you know how dangerous this is, about belief, religion, myth, mystery and science fiction and fantasy writing.
At some point we were talking in a panel, and it hit us that most sf/f either has no religion at all, or it is a central point of the story (the gods are aliens in sf, or they really exist in fantasy.) And we looked at each other in shock, because this makes our worlds really different from the real world.
Noises were made about – snort – our people (SF/F people) being more “rational” or less credulous than other people. Snort! People, I read their facebook postings. Leave alone their political eructations, our people are in fact where urban myths go to die. We like stories, we like good stories, and we will tell stories and believe stories that wouldn’t fool a two year old. Our disbelief is dangling from the neck and its face is blue. (Actually of course by “our people” I mean the normal science fiction writers/readers, present company always excepted. Stop glowering and keep reading. I have something to say beyond insulting you.)
The truth I think is much simpler. We – both readers and writers of science fiction – as a rule (there are always exceptions, of course) aren’t joiners. In fact, we look upon all forms of groups with a jaundiced eye. Possibly because ever since we can remember we were the odd kid who stuck out like a sore thumb. Possibly because the same thing – whatever it is – that attracts us to Science Fiction makes us not fit in easily. We’ll call the it the sf-gene for ease. (Not that I’m proposing it’s genetic, though what leads us to read and enjoy this stuff might very well be. It often runs in families.)
The sf gene comes with a non-joining gene. And while we have any number of atheists, I’d bet we don’t have more than the normal, organized religion. But I would bet (it’s hard to tell. All I have is con-going experience) that we also have a higher number of non-denominational believers, or of believers in various religions who don’t attend often, or feel marginally attached to their denomination. (For one I know a couple of people who have confessed to their reading tastes to church friends only to find they were the object of stares. Seeing as I get this at normal social gatherings, that makes perfect sense.)
So when we write we tend to think our characters’ beliefs are their own. It’s none of our business. And we tend to write societies where religion (always excepting the ones that hit the plot, like, oh Tombs of Atuan) is a private matter. We assume they exist, we just don’t bother with them.
This creates a very inaccurate picture of human society, since – of course – all societies have religion, even those in which religion is officially forbidden. It also seems to have very little to do with the correlation between science and technology or with widespread education. Something in the collective human mind believes in the unseen and the unexplained. Partly, I think, because it orders what is otherwise a chaotic system in a similar way to what fiction does. (I’m a believer myself – not a secret – so I’m not implying religion is fiction. Please, keep the religion wars out of my comments.) In places like Europe, where religion is discouraged by being considered profoundly uncool and also old fashioned, a whole pop culture religion is arising, resembling to an extent the most primitive religions we have traced: a worship of the Earth and of natural processes, filled with irrationality and fraught with rituals to avert bad luck in personal life.
I will say it again – the human brain craves mysticism, the unexplained, mystery (in the sense of touching the sacred.) The human brain craves truths larger than ourselves, the feeling of permanence after a life we know is all too brief. And we crave sense in the world. It also craves togetherness and a sense of sharing something beyond space and time and before ya’ll say “But Sarah, you just said we’re not joiners,” I have one word: conventions. Over time they’ve become fraught with ritual, they have shared beliefs and shared legends, and even shared relationships that exist only at cons. My theory is that we’re joiners, within our own subset. We are, after all, as human as the rest of them.
So… How to get that into science fiction and fantasy.
It’s difficult, of course. Why of course? Well, because religion and religious thought is not straight forward and rational. And in books we have to make things so that they are at least understandable by the people reading, which means in our turn we insert a certain amount of order, in what is often quite chaotic. Take any religion and even the most rational believer will cling as desperately – or more desperately – to stuff he KNOWS doesn’t make sense even within his belief system. Take Jorge Luis Borges’ quote “I pray the rosary because my mother asked me to. I have no idea if I’m speaking at one end of a disconnected telephone.”
And how many, self-consciously agnostic or disbelieving people do we know who cling to one or two rituals because their mother or father did it when they were little?
That’s the other thing – religion is generational. Which means when an entire population converts, accretions from past ritual still remain, sometimes with new justifications. We know this about the Catholic church – but we often forget it’s all religions, including the more primitive we know.
So… how do I propose to write religion? Well, in the snippet above the novel IS about religion. Or at lest their beliefs are inextricably linked to their ability to use Ghast – a supernatural symbion – which in turn is linked to other things, including the invasion they’re fighting. But note that their religion already shows signs of two belief systems that collided and melded – the world was created by Horse and Bull, but there’s also Tanis and Taris (and a pantheon of gods.)
Even in this novel – which is about religion – I tried not to explain too much. There are big, important rituals (a couple of them very unsavory or cleaned up unsavory – at the back of all our big rituals is blood, sex and death. It’s being human that does it.) But there is also a folk religion with the equivalent of “knock on wood” and “don’t spill salt.”
It is important to resist the temptation to explain or to tell us how this came about. In real religions, one rarely knows (or cares.)
But Sarah, you say, what if my novel is NOT about religion? Can I just leave the things undercover where they belong?
Well… yes and no. Yes, you can, and you’ll be as “real” as the next sf/f world – which, mind, can be plenty. Or you can introduce brief, puzzling bits, and say “Oh, that’s because he’s a Yonolarian, thrice divided. They worship on every third Monday.” And let it go. Or as I did in Darkship Thieves make the casual reference to Gaian religion. Or Usaian religion (just you wait, I found that in A Few Good Men half the zanies are Usaians, which is part of what brought about this post.)
Alternately you can use it as a plot point: such as Heinlein in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, where part of the reason Wyo is accepted so quickly is that she goes to church with them.
Or you can use it in the sense of Now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t way that seems to inform most people’s belief in the supernatural. No? Take ghosts for instance. Most of us will say “We don’t believe in ghosts” but most of us could also point to one or two instances where we cover up with “Of course it wasn’t a ghost” but we’re not quite sure. Evoke that, and it will have a very powerful effect on your reader.
Oh, also, please, please, please, rid yourself of the Marxist fallacy (Marx was just such a warm bucket of Epic Fail, in every realm his mind touched) that religion was invented by priests to keep the masses quiescent. At every period of history you’ll find devout priests and disbelieving peasants, the same as every other type of people. Don’t patronize your ancestors. They weren’t that stupid, and half of what you do would strike them as very dumb too. Not to say the state didn’t use or try to use religion for their ends, of course. The state uses everything for their ends. BUT religion is bigger than any state. Yes, even ancient Egypt.
So… I’ll finish with some rules for what to do with religion in writing spec fic:
1 – There should be multiple religions, unless it’s a totalitarian state that only allows one religion officially. (Though even then there will be proscribed religions or sects, some of which still operate underground.)
2 – It shouldn’t make sense. NOT perfect sense. Because religions are accretions of age-old belief and ritual, they’re often at internal odds.
3- Most people believe in something not quite rational. If it’s not religion, then it’s superstition.
4 – In the ultimate analysis, most religions seem to be a way to account for the fact we know we’re mortal and that our mind is infinite but our body all too brief. (And I’m not saying that religions are/aren’t truth. As I said, I’m a believer, myself. I’m just saying that’s how our mind works with religion.) So, at the center of our religious/superstitious belief is death/sex and always blood as a link to both.
5 – Religion exists even when forbidden.
6 – Religion can serve the state or oppose the state or yes.
7 – Even in a religiously uniform society, there’s ALWAYS dissenters and secret practitioners of forbidden faiths or at the very least of forbidden branches of faiths.
8 – Not all religions are benign. Not all are malign. In any fight for freedom, some religions will oppose and some help.
9 – Not all religions believe in eternal life. Some are just a “rule of conduct” for “proper living.”
10 – The easiest way to preserve the mystery of religion is to give us bits and pieces with NO explanation.
11 – Respect your character’s beliefs. One man’s religion might be another man’s belly laugh, but it’s deadly serious to the believer.