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Author Topic: Spirituality and religion in fiction
franc li
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You can have "good" spirituality and "evil" spirituality.
But how do you know which is which? Something that often troubled me about Seventh Son was how Reverend Thrower was set on his course by a miraculous apparition.

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Dune is a great example of how religion is often portrayed in science fiction. If you look objectively at the novels, the religion of Dune is a human construct explainable by science, not a divine creation. The religion in Dune ultimately reflects some of Herbert's personal experiences. The Bene Gesserit were partly based on Herbert's Irish Catholic aunts and Herbert ultimately became a Zen Buddhist which reflects heavily in his writing. Ultimately, much of the religious content portrayed in Dune -the precognitive powers of Paul Atreides, the cultural manipulation of the Bene Gesserit and the primitive memes of the Fremen that mutate into a jihad - can all be explained by science without resorting to the supernatural or divine. Asimov's Foundation series takes an even more cynical approach of a human constructed religion.

This is thematically similar to the Star Trek model as Pantros mentioned. Religion is either viewed as an artificial mechanism of social control or explained in terms of science, and the expansion of scientific knowledge portrayed in most science fiction doesn't allow a lot of room for the unknowable.

I agree with wbriggs that 'deus ex machina' becomes a problem when religion becomes a major component of a fictional work. The religious systems that do work well in science fiction often tend towards the abstract without specific deities or revelations that are typical in mainstream religions today i.e. closer to the Buddhist and Taoist model. The actual presence of omniscient deities inside a story invites reader disbelief.

Generally, tackling religion and maintaining suspension of disbelief is a tough challenge for the author. Although humans in our current time appear to have an infinite capacity for belief, creating a believable religious system from scratch is difficult. L Ron Hubbard is an example of an author who fails my personal litmus test. Creating a believable religious system inside a speculative genre that supports advanced scientific knowledge and starfaring civilizations is exceptionally difficult, and authors seem to avoid it or end up explaining it away using science.

In philosophy, this is similar to the 'God of the gaps' argument and it is well demonstrated in human history. As our scientific knowledge of topics like astronomy, biology and geology has expanded, the perceived role of the supernatural in day to day life has retreated to fewer and fewer gaps. In my experience, religious belief inside fantasy novels always comes across as more believable simply because of the limited scientific knowledge that comes with the societies portrayed in the fantasy genre as compared to science fiction.

I don't think political correctness comes into it, except perhaps as a commercial imperative not to isolate some readers. The trend of religion being trumped by science in speculative fiction dates back at least a century or more. I don't recall HG Wells or Jules Verne tackling much religion. Maybe I've just forgotten it.

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Will you marry me? :-)

It is jarring to see a post on this board about not incorporating religion or spirituality into fiction when OSC is such a prevalent component of this community. He incorporates Moromon/Christian fundamentals in so much of his work, without being obtrustive, and I like it :-)

Generally writers tend to be of a liberal ilk and currently religion and spirituality are not high on the priority list of the left, so to appear religious or judgemental (which oddly arises when you have a sense of right and wrong) are not popular among the entertainment quarters.

Hmm, perfect example, I'm looking over my text trying to make sure I don't come across as some kind of zealot, which if you knew me, you would realize is ludicrous.

Anyway...Survivor let me know if you want to set a date so I can clear it with my wife :-)

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Well, I leave it out. I don't write religious, because if it isn't religious, I'm not forcing my views on other people. I'm Catholic, so if I were to write a story with my religion, someone who disliked the Catholic religion mightn't read it, or they might take offense. So I guess that's why.
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I sometimes pick religions based on connotations. I had one story about the rights of clones; I picked a denomination that strongly values right to live for everyone---Roman Catholic. A more recent one involved human sacrifice; I picked the first-ever religion I've heard of to reject it: Judaism. It makes it both harder and easier to write from a perspective that isn't mine.
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Since I started this thread, I would like to clarify what I meant. I wasn't asking about why we do or don't write big epic stories that weave religious doctrine and meaning into the text.

I was merely observing that even though 90-95% of people believe in a higher power, it's odd that you rarely see characters who make even a casual acknowledgement of having a spiritual life.

People talk about their jobs, their spouses, their kids, their sex lives, as well as the people they know at church in real life. As writers, we endeavor to have our characters seem as real as possible.

So why is it that characters in stories mention the jobs, the spouses, the kids, the sex life... but rarely mention they have a spiritual life?

Here's an example of what I mean:

Joe: I don't know, Sam. I'm not sure I should buy one of these cars.
Sam: One of the guys at my church bought one. He really likes it.

See? A brief reference to a spiritual life establishes a little about the character, just as mention of a spouse, a job, or a child would. So why don't more people use spirituality as a point of character development?

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Hi Elan

I'm only dropping my two cents in because it occurred to me when reading the original post that you compared books and movies - I dont agree that religion is left out of sff novels - it seems to me to be quite well used in fantasy novels in particular, but I do think it is excluded from hollywood movies. The reason? The fear of upsetting/excluding any part of their audience. The Chronicals of Narnia, as already mentioned, is a case in point - Aslan is a character, the rightful King, rather than being portrayed as a God. I can't imagine how they plan to attempt The Last Battle. The BBC did a version of a few of the stories several years ago but stopped at The Silver Chair.

We all know that religion is an extremely emotive subject, in some areas more than others. I think that film, with its focus on immediate, worldwide entertainment shies away it. Of course there are films that deal with religious matters - The Passion of the Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ - but I think they are counting on the contraversy they can generate. The two approaches are polar opposites.

The only novel I can think of that used religion in this way is (I'm ashamed to say) the Da Vinci Code!

Anyway, my 2 cents


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The movie SIGNS (with Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix) was deeply religious, and rather poor science fiction. It was so religious I was amazed it came out of Hollywood, and all I can figure is that they only saw the science fictional aspects of it for some reason (cognitive dissonance, anyone?).

[This message has been edited by Corky (edited January 02, 2006).]

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I'm new here but this topic is especially interesting to me. I have a masters in theology and am a full-time minister at a local church. I am currently working on a fantasy series of books that are rooted in spirituality, but that stems from my personal beliefs, and as they say, "write what you know."

The reason that science fiction/fantasy has little religion in them simply boils down to the writers. Take Tolkien and Lewis as a prime example. If a writer values religion it will find expression in their work.

The impetus for the series I've been working on was reading the Death Gate Cycle by Hickman and Weis. I was so discouraged by the weak conclusion of their religious allusions that I decided someone needed to be writing fantasy with the kind of theological perspective that I desired. I for one wholly intend to let my beliefs inform my writing, as should every one whose beliefs are different than mine for that matter.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Andrew Greeley is a (former?) Catholic priest, right? His novel THE GOD GAME was such a disappointment to me because I hoped it would explore how frustrated God must be with us when we won't listen to him, and he never explored that at all in the novel (as least that I could see).

It inspired me to work on something similar (someone comes back from the future and tries to convince his younger self to make better choices).

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Yeah, the belief makeup of the population of writers (and editors, though I supose I could just say "published writers") matters a great deal more than the beliefs of the general population in predicting what is going to be presented in the body of contemporary literature.

I think that many writers (and the literature they produce) trends more towards spirituality (of whatever kind) than towards religion. It's important to note that a number of religions deny that such a thing as the spirit exists, or at least deny that humans have such a thing. Religious observance and spirituality are not the same thing, though one usually indicates something about the other (just what it indicates depends a great deal on the particulars of what the religion has to say on the subject of spirituality).

Also, as I mentioned, spirituality can be directed towards totally evil ends. It is as possible to hate someone in a spiritual sense as it is to love. That is, to desire the diminishment and destruction of the spirit, rather than its nurture and protection. A very spiritual character could be the anti-christ, after all.

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I think there is a lot of religion in books and movies, and, as someone eluded to earlier, people just do not realize it it is there.

I recognize it a lot more since my wife is a professor of Religious Studies and her field of study is religion in culture, notably religion in literature.

Dracula, Frankenstien and Interview with a Vampire are steeped in religion, man's pursuit to become God like either through immortality or by creating life, which in the long run makes a man immortal.

To Kill a Mockingbird, choosing between the fast and easy choice and the hard righteous choice. Not to mention, the Christ like characters of Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson.

Heart of Darkness: The journey of a soul into the depths of darkness and madness while it tries to hold onto its last strings of purity. In Kurtz we see the downfall of man in the garden of eden. In his Congo domain, Kurtz becomes godlike to the natives and in his quest for more materialistic trappings he suffers the fall from grace. Kurtz' fall is unsettling to Marlow, as it is to many of us, as we see Kurtz as a case of a soul crying out that it is saved but is more lost than ever before.

For Catholics out there a good book to read by a Catholic author that deals with reconcilation is Beloved by Toni Morrison. A ghost story set in 18th century slave narrative that shows the importance of forgiving yourself after God has forgiven you. Sethe, a former slave living in post Civil War Ohio, has to deal with the ghost of her child whom she killed so that the child would not have to grow up in the bonds of slavery. The child's name is Beloved because that was what she scratched into the child's makeshift wooden tombstone. To make matters worse, Sethe actually had two fhildren. She killed one child and the other child, Denver, survived. When Sethe eventually learns to forgive herself she finds the peace for which she has been searching. And Beloved realizes, in weird sort of way, the love her mother had her.

There are religious themes in The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, The Lord of the Rings, All's quiet on the Western Front, The Harry Potter series, A gathering of Old Men, A Lesson Before Dying, The Color Purple, The Red Badge of Courage, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Great Expectations, The Scarlet Letter and many more.

In the movies there are the Christ like characters of William Defoe's character in Platoon Sigourney Weaver's character in all three Alien movies, especially the last one...Resurrection.

There are religious themes in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven and Stephen Kings' The Shawshank Redemption. I think religion is all around us.


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