Religion in Stories

Yesterday I talked about my excessive fear of offending people as self-centered, which it is. It is neatly disguised as other-directed, but in my case my primary concern is with people liking me rather than their own feelings. This is work I need to do on my self to become a better person and a better writer.

The problem is that sensitivities are often unpredictable. We don’t see them specifically because we are not part of the group being hurt.

Last night I was challenged to name science fiction/fantasy books with religious Christian characters who were presented heroically, and are intrinsically good. My brain slides off this topic because its not my ox being gored here.

Then as I thought about it, I realized that this lack was also the case for Jewish characters in science fiction/fantasy. With the exception of Mary Robinette Kowal’s excellent Lady Astronaut series, we don’t see a lot of religious Jews in SFF. Buddhist characters are also rare. Hindus? Muslims? I don’t recall any. So it’s a broader problem.

One issue here is that science fiction imagines a world without religion rather than doing the hard work of figuring out how current religions will change over time. Fantasy often imagines secondary worlds with their own religions. That’s an easy way to avoid the whole problem of religious sensitivities.

It’s hard to write honestly about how religion will work in the far future and how religions will respond to challenges in space. I wrote a short story last year in which I wrestled with the issue of how Yom Kippur works in a zone of space not tethered to linear time. How do you repent of your sins if they occur out of sequence?

It was an interesting story but the people I showed it to didn’t understand it. Either they didn’t understand Yom Kippur or they didn’t understand how I’d envisioned Judaism changing for space travel or they didn’t understand the convoluted repentance topic. It also doesn’t help that my own religious understanding was formed by the Reconstructionist movement, which is a tiny movement within Judaism. It’s still a great idea. I am going to write it again, but better next time.

My 38 AD Alexandrian novel ran up against the shoals of religious conflict and sensitivities, as well. That’s part of the reason it’s not finished. Alexandria was a wonderfully diverse city in the 1st century, but that diversity began to tear it apart through a series of riots and violence. By 66 AD the city was aflame and 50,000 Jews lay dead in the streets. The schism between Hellenized Jews and religious zealots was part of the reason blood ran like wine in the streets, but the primary conflict was between Jews and traditional Egyptian priests and Jews and Greeks. These riots began a dark period in Jewish history that echoes to the present day.

How to deal with that? And how do I deal with the many, many other religions and peoples who lived there? How to do it fairly, compassionately, and honestly?

I have no clue. Which is one reason that novel is resting.

Dealing with sensitivities well is hard. It’s easy to just not write about those topics. But that causes pain as well as writer after writer makes the decision not to deal with religious characters, leaving the depiction of others to the people who are least willing to deal with religious people compassionately or fairly.

Obviously I’m only talking about religious sensitivities here. There are many more sensitivities, but they each deserve a closer look. To lump all of them together into “OMG! People will be offended,” is just not helpful. That’s the mistake I was making by being shy of offending people.

Each person and each character needs to be approached seriously with compassion. How that is done is something I need to learn.


We’ve had a lot of fun this weekend, but I’ll be back to work today.

There are a number writing projects on my plate: I will be incorporating edits for Secret Project #2. Over the weekend we acquired Secret Project #3, which is in early stages. (Both 2 and 3 are gaming projects.)

The Fantasy Writing Intensive begins in about twelve days. I received the first short story assignment for that, which I need to write. (It’s a fun assignment.)

I’ll also be incorporating edits for the Thule novel. And working on Peak Love. Plus getting some early writing/brainstorming done for Journey to the Bears. And doing my Advanced Depth homework.

I know it looks like a lot, but having so many ideas and so many projects to work on makes me feel incredibly fortunate. I love having a number of projects in various stages on my list.

Today starts our planning for 2021, which continues until we finalize it on January 1. We will also update our five year and ten year plans. I have great hopes for 2021 and look forward to the planning.

I hope you are doing well and that whatever religion or philosophy brings you peace shines like a beacon illuminating your life. Be well, friends.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Laurell K. Hamilton’s early Anita Blake books. The character is Catholic and is conflicted because the church excommunicated her for being an animator.

    However, I think the reason it’s not in more science fiction is that most editors don’t want it. Unfortunately, it’s gotten negative press because Hollywood hates it (everything that Hollywood does goes against all the moral codes religion teaches). If religion shows up in a TV show, it’s usually depicted as a nut or a cult who is planning on killing people.

    1. This is a very intelligent point and one I hadn’t considered. Thank you!

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