One of the persistent topics of discussion in the Babylon 5 threads has been annoyance about the depiction of religion in the alien societies of the series. The consensus is that Bab 5 isn’t unique: religion and faith are frequently handled poorly in fictional cultures. I’d certainly agree with that; I can’t think of many nuanced, subtle depictions in books, shows or movies.
A lot of the problem is that many writers have strong views on these are topics in real life and let their biases leak through. But the writers who don’t have strong views can be just as bad, because then there’s the temptation to use a kind of simplistic color-by-numbers approach, and end up with a single [happy and loving/restrictive and repressive] [monotheistic/polytheistic]* religion.
The problem is that real societies are big places full of people who think for themselves, ask awkward questions, and argue about the answers. A certain proportion of them spend a lot of time and energy thinking about the nature of the universe, and how people relate to it, and how the numinous§ fits into that matrix. And they come to varying conclusions, which they then talk to other people about. Then they wind up with a bunch of followers who turn the act of following into a tribal marker†. Bingo! Multiple rival religions.
There will also be a set of people who will look at the concept of the numinous and decide that they don’t buy any of it. If there’s heavy social pressure to pretend otherwise, many of those people may mouth the words and attend the services. But a certain proportion of them won’t, even under penalty of death.
This can create any number of flavors of society. Here are
three a few that it can’t, at least without significant collateral changes to the wider social structures. And yet they’re not uncommon patterns in fiction.
Everyone belongs to the same religion§, and/or professes the same faith§.
See above about people thinking for themselves. People may all belong to the same religion if it is broad enough to accommodate pretty much every form of belief and unbelief. There’s an old joke about the Church of England that’s relevant here: what is the only belief that excludes one from membership in the C of E? The belief that one is not a member of the C of E.
But note that belonging to the same religion is not the same as believing the same thing; the broader the tent, the more clumps and clusters it will hold.
People may also all belong to the same religion if they’re compelled to do so by sufficient force. Think your classic repressive theocracy, where the penalty of apostasy is death. That’ll keep the vast majority of your population in the fold. But a global repressive theocracy will require enforcement, so expect a repressive and intrusive society. And again, people won’t really believe the same thing, or act like they do. They’ll keep the rules (mostly) and say the right things (in their outside voices). But their actions and their private conversation, particularly with an outsider, will give a different picture.
No one has any faith or religion
This is another fallback that I’ll only believe if the wider implications for the society are explored. If you have a species of alien that has no need or desire for religion, their collective behavior will be different than humans’, because our population includes people inclined to belief as well as ones not so inclined.
How else will that difference show up? Will they be comparatively worse at pattern-matching (on the argument that belief in the numinous is the product of over-matching patterns)? Will they have no customs around wishing or hoping? Will they all find games of chance boring, because they instinctively calculate the odds of things and hold no statistically improbable hope of winning?
(It should go without saying that a society of atheists will not be one without ethics, morals, or decency. The fact that it doesn’t is a sign of some seriously deficient imagination on the part of people who should know better.)
Everyone tolerates everyone else’s religion and faith.
Again, I’m going to need to see some significant differences in the species and the society it creates before I’ll wear this one with comfort. Humans, and human-like species, are both tribal and competitive. We turn any common ground into a form of self-identification, even if it’s a granfaloon. And then the tribes start large-scale dominance contests with each other.
A society without religious conflict would have to undo one or both of those traits. So either it would not form the kind of strong associations we have, or it wouldn’t fight over them. I’d expect no nations from the former, and a lot less competition among the latter. In either case, you’re going to need to create a new economic system, because any capitalism beyond sole-trader level relies on both tribalism (company loyalty) and competition.
Added: The gods aren’t gods, they’re just aliens (thanks, wonderer @7)
This is AKA the Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology trope, though I don’t think Clarke meant his Law in that fashion.
Look, if you’re going to write about gods, write about gods, not super-powerful aliens that people get fooled into worshiping. It’s hackneyed, tired, and usually just a cover for beating up on people you disagree with in real life.
Added: Everyone who disagrees with the author’s personal views is wrong, wrong, wrongity wrong
This can manifest in many ways. The three commonest are: all religions are evil; all atheists are evil; all religions except the in-world version of the author’s own are evil (the Hail Mary Sue problem). What these tropes have in common is that they’re the author’s own views coloring their ability to write balanced, realistic characters in a plausible world.
In my experience, the numerical majority of SF&F novels that fall into this trap tend toward the first of the three types: religions and religious organizations are portrayed as harmful, sinister, or downright deliberately evil. However, the instances of the other two are generally so obnoxious and loaded that they, as a class, are just as irritating despite their numerical disadvantage.
I’d be interested in assembling a list of SF & F authors and works who do religion, faith and the numinous particularly well or particularly badly. If people want to mention them in the comments, I’ll bring them up into the main body of the post. I’d also be interested in other tired tropes that turn up in genre fiction besides the three I’ve listed here.
What I am not interested in is an argument about religions in the real world, except as it casts useful and interesting light on the subject at hand, which is their role in cultural worldbuilding.
From discussion, The Good & The Bad:
|Well done||Oh, dear…|
§ A note on terms as I’m using them here. The numinous is a catch-all term for something beyond the observable phenomena of the universe and the rules that can be derived from them. Faith is the internal attitude of a person who believes in the numinous. And religion is a collection of people who share a set of rules and behaviors derived from the numinous. Note that although religions are, in this context, founded by people with it, faith is not necessarily a requirement for membership in a religion.
* delete as appropriate
† Within my own religious tradition, it happened within a very few years of the founder’s departure. Many of Paul’s letters to the various Christian communities are an attempt to keep them emotionally and theologically unified. It was, of course, a losing battle.