An ætiology is a beginning of something expressed in historical or mythological terms, and therefore a highly appropriate concept with which to begin this short series. Last week I spotted a tweet which drove home to me the inherent problems with discussing religion in fiction. In the West, our experience of life is increasingly disconnected from religion, and we view religion as something of a lifestyle choice or hobby (particularly true in Western Europe) or as something de-coupled from institutions (particularly true in the US).
Religions are diverse, not only when compared to one another, but also in how different followers in different – or even the same! – sects express religious beliefs. The main mistake which most observers of religion make, however, is to assume that their own impressions of religion are representative of religion or religious practice. Almost everyone has an opinion about religion and too many people mistake their opinions for knowledge. Despite the commercial success of The God Delusion as a polemical tract, it showed (indeed, boasted) such a woeful lack of theological or philosophical interest that Terry Eagleton wrote in the London Review of Books (and later, Alister McGrath quoted in The Dawkins Delusion?):
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. – T. Eagleton, ‘Lunging, flailing, mispunching’, London Review of Books, 19th October 2006. Electronic version here.
Dawkins is not stupid, he simply thought he did not need to inform himself on a topic in order to hold forth on it (and, if you disagree, perhaps you, too, ought to read The Dawkins Delusion?). This is tragic in many respects, not least because information about religious belief and practice is so easily available, often for free through believers, clergy, libraries, and this new-fangled interwebs of which I have heard.
Dawkins’ problem is not his own: the very first scene of the Daredevil reboot on Netflix shows Matt Murdock making his confession to a priest.
Very engaging, right? Dramatic lighting, poignant setting, numinal atmosphere, an excellent first scene. But the priest is wearing a green stole when it should be purple.
This might seem like fussy pedantry, yet it is but a single example that plagues portrayals of Christianity in media: what is present exists as part of a broad-strokes approach, the idea that everyone already knows what Christianity is so why bother to check the facts? What do Christians wear? What do they believe? What does this kind of service look like? Oh, I know, no need to check.
How can writers portray religions with integrity and verisimilitude if they cannot even get basic, easily checked facts correct? It would be like starting a series in the First World War claiming that it started in 1912, or that British privates in the trenches wore bearskins.
On that note, other religions are no better off; indeed many have it worse. Buddhism is often said (in the West) to be ‘a philosophy of life rather than a religion’ and to be entirely pacifistic, which is by turns insultingly patronizing, just plain wrong, and historically revisionist.
There is also a tendency to seize and maintain as true anything which undermines a religion or spiritual belief with which one does not hold: hoax claims regarding the supposedly pagan origins of Christian festivals roll around at Christmas and Easter each year with tedious regularity; claims that Adolf Hitler was a fervent Roman Catholic; that atheists* are all immoral and depraved and preoccupied with persecuting religious minorities, and so on. These are not only unhelpful to the general discourse due to the preponderance of their own nonsense but also for the way in which they detract from genuinely interesting criticisms of the various belief (or non-belief) systems with which humans surround themselves. It is not true that Easter developed from Anglo-Saxon practices: Easter was kept by the Early Church long before Christianity arrived in Western Europe. Because both the Jewish Passover and the Celtic celebration of Eostara were tied to the same point in the lunar calendar, they coincided and one eclipsed the other but retained its nomenclature. This is the sort of simple, ahistorical nonsense which is easy to refute.
Meanwhile, Biblical scholars note that the Gospel of John’s Logos theology has an antecedent in the Logos theology of Memphis, a much more interesting thread to follow and one which requires genuine Christian apologetics to overcome, if indeed it is possible.
The point of this long preamble is this: portraying an existing religion in writing requires some of the same skills as inventing a religion for fiction. The first step for the writer should be to do the research. Study the history and development of the religion in question. Investigate the claims made by anonymous Internet commenters and anyone who still thinks The Da Vinci Code was based on a true story, and consider what said claims would require to be true and what they would entail could they be proved.
When a writer desires to include religion or a religious character in his work, he should be able to answer this question: Why do I want to portray a religion?
This is not because a writer should only ask this question about religion. When including political parties, dragons, student riots, ecologists, sewer engineers, or whatever, they should always serve a purpose, especially if attention is drawn to the fact. If a book contains someone who is explicitly said to work in the sewers but then it is never mentioned by any characters or used in the plot, it raises the question, why bother mentioning it in the first place? If the ecologist is the only ecologist in the story and exhibits certain vices or virtues, the reader may reasonably assume that the author wants us to understand something about ecologists or ecology.
Consider the part played by Liet Kynes in Dune: his tireless work, senseless and cruel death, and status as an outsider work as part of an extended metaphor for the ecological issues of the day as Frank Herbert saw them and for which Dune is the vehicle. If the only religious figure in a work is irredeemable or virtuous without fault, especially if that character is a member of the clergy, then the audience will assume that a point is being made regardless of the author’s intent, a phenomenon (an entirely reasonable one) which predates even Tartuffe, I am certain.
Care must be taken to ensure that, if a character will in some sense be representing a group – any group – that nuance, sensitivity, and intention are considered carefully. This does not mean that such characters can only be presented positively, but the character must avoid falling into the realm of caricature as a result of the author’s inevitable biases. This need for care and nuance is all the more important when there is only one character representing a group. Having multiple characters who are all interchangeable in this regard is no better: a faceless legion of sickeningly pious clergy or murderous ecologists works only as farce.
If a writer is explicitly using real-world religions, then the choice of religion and the work it is doing is up to him. He will need to do his own research to try to get it right.
If a writer is merely drawing upon real-world religions, however, then the next logical step is the Beginning.
Religions are concerned with beginnings, with ætiologies. The Book of Genesis gives an ætiology for the Earth and all that therein is, for humanity’s unique position amongst all the natural world, for death and suffering, for diversity of culture and language, and so on. These ætiologies, although interpreted in different ways, shape the development of the theology of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Mormons, and others. Norse mythology describes realms of fire and ice (Muspelheim and Niflheim) from whose commingling vapours an asexually-reproducing giant sprang, the forerunner of all other life. Neither the God of Genesis nor the realms of fire and ice are given ætiologies in these stories: they are the ætiologies.
Other cultures, even if joined in a common religious expression, often had competing ætiologies. In Ancient Egypt, philosophy and theology shaped, and were shaped by, the lives of particular cities, thus resulting in different and mutually exclusive accounts of the Beginning.
So, this fictional world now has its fictional religions, and its fictional religions have their own creation stories. Which one is right?
Sooner or later the writer will have to decide whether any of them are right. One thing that might be tempting is to decide that they are all right, to some degree, but this is not very satisfying unless the author has in mind a particular version of events and can justify, at least to himself, how and why the religions diverged. It is better to do this sooner rather than later to avoid writing oneself into a corner and so that later developments can be informed by these events. Just as it is satisfying to trace the developments of a character’s arc, it is satisfying to see how part of the divine plan set everything else in motion.
Alternatively, there can be nuggets of truth scattered amongst all the religions, as long as it is not done in a patronizing way: “all religions are about being nice” is a bloviating mess of a proposition to turn into a literary theme. “Whatever their differences, these faiths all recognize the innate majesty of the universe,” is a bit better. “Based on the unproveable assertion that there was a beginning, certain common themes or ideas are inevitable, but here is how they play out in different contexts,” is actually starting to approach the issue as it exists in real people’s lives.
For example, the writer could decide to invent a hollow world: the gods, being more like super-powerful but fallible wizards or aliens, are experimenting with different forms of life to see how they can increase their own mastery of the cosmos. Three of them enter into an alliance and create the Hollow World, an immense sphere with an outer layer of super-dense matter. Within, the “sun” – the contribution of the first god – is a carefully controlled, pulsar-esque ball of “plasma” which hangs where the core should be. The cycle of day and night is dictated by how brightly it is burning: noon is signalled, not only by its brightness and heat, but by a burst of searing sparks. Over the course of the afternoon the light dims and cools until it enters its “lunar” phase, growing darker and colder until, at the nadir, it begins to heat up again.
The super-dense matter is the creation of the second god, and it creates a facsimile of gravity. It also conceals the world’s location in the cosmos from the other god-like beings with whom they do not want to share their creation. The seeds of life were sown by a third god, who carefully cultivated the proto-life to give it the best chances of survival in this strange world.
The seas of this world are, relatively speaking, shallow, and the weather and day-night cycle are not conducive to familiar sleep patterns, resulting in a world of creatures which sleep multiple times per day in short, but deep, bursts. Four major religions have developed amongst the single sapient species.
The first and most ancient is a form of animism: the “sun” is viewed as chief amongst the gods, and all other things were cast out from it like light in the beginning. Local gods and minor spirits are thought to permeate other objects and shamans implore them to perform magical acts (actually a way of manipulating the latent forces preventing the world from breaking apart). Local customs vary greatly and so this “religion” is more like a conglomeration of related but different cultural practices.
The second to develop is a sort of ritualized scepticism based around the works of an ancient philosopher. Reasoning that, if there were gods they would have revealed themselves if they cared to, but they have not so they do not, these sceptics concede that inexplicable forces exist and might even be the product of powerful, sapient beings beyond comprehension, but that does not therefore mean that a creator god exists. They reject all ætiologies and their practices are instead based around the theorized Time of Knowing when they will finally comprehend the sum of all that there is to be known.
The third is a recent development and outgrowth of the second. A recent philosopher argued thusly: there is no more proof for the existence of a future Time of Knowing than there is for the existence of any gods. Therefore, the only knowledge of any value is empirical. If gods cannot be theoretically proved or disproved, and knowledge has to be acquired, then perhaps the gods should be sought: if all creation is scoured and there is no evidence of the presence of gods, then there are no gods.
The fourth is about as old as the second and comes from a specific cultural group which has handed down the teachings of ancient prophets who claim that the shell of the world is a great barrier put up by an invisible host of divine guardians to protect the peoples from an unspeakable evil. Should one venture too deeply into the shell they will be swallowed up by this malevolent force. They reject the idea of knowledge as a virtue, to the horror of their philosophical neighbours, and instead advocate a life lived to maximize pleasure, for what good is it to be protected from suffering if not to enjoy oneself?
So, in these examples we have created a fictional world and planted the seeds of religious life. None of these faiths accurately describes the ætiology as the author knows it but all, by accident or design, contain a grain of truth and we have sketched a few theological propositions which flow naturally from their ætiological understanding.
They also resemble real-world religions in ways both obvious and subtle. This is inescapable, but it is the approach that allows for an exploration of religion in literature, or the use of religion as a tool: in the real world, major faiths revolving around prophets tend to advocate asceticism rather than hedonism; likewise, Hellenic civilization, although a major contributor to European thought and Christian theology, did not itself produce any religions based on the lives of its philosophers. There are many opportunities for writing here which go beyond simple expies or caricatures.
- Decide how your universe actually started and what shape it has taken.
- Decide what your people believe about how the universe started.
- Examine why they believe that (cultural forces, charismatic philosophers, actual divine intervention).
- Establish some basic tenets which flow logically from these premises.
- Do not make any religion duodimensional: even those which are in the wrong (which might be all of them) must have some component which draws people to them, otherwise they could not perpetuate themselves. It helps if said religion at least touches on the hidden truths of existence or the universal truths of life.
In next week’s article, we will look at developing these ideas further and learn some more snazzy Greek words in the process.
*I know atheism is not a religion, but it could be said to be a religious belief, in that it is a belief in the non-existence or invalidity of religious claims. If you disagree, then read the sentence in the sense of ‘here is a disingenuous stereotype about a group of people’.