Unhelpful Portrayals of Religion

This is part of a series of posts about the value of speculative fiction in understanding religion.

I’m editing an anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories about religion called Strange Religion, planned to be out in April. So I’m writing a series of blog posts that I’m going to use to write the introduction for the anthology.

On first blush, it behooves me to define religion. How else should readers know what ties the stories in this anthology together? But a major goal of the anthology is encouraging readers to engage critically with their understanding of religion. I worry that any definition I lay down would do more to limit understanding than expand it.

But there are some understandings of religion prominent in speculative fiction that I aim to disabuse readers of in bringing the stories in the anthology together:

  • Religion as Christianity: Speculative fiction writers have so consistently engaged with Christian tropes and so consistently operate within Christian cultures that many alien and fantasy religions end up being ciphers for Christianity (dogma, priestly hierarchies, prophets and saviors, Bible-like scripture, sacraments, etc.). Readers end up thinking that Christianity is typical of all religions when in reality religious traditions are much more varied.
  • Religion as fundamentally foolish or oppressive: Religious persons and communities are sometimes foolish or vicious, but that’s because of specific historical circumstances not because of anything inherent in religious thinking or practice.
  • Religion as essentially connected to morality: People in some cultures don’t look to their religion for guidance on their duties to others. Rather they look to their religion for practical purposes: the success of a business or on a test in school, the healing of a sick neighbor, etc. We find this in many Hindu traditions, shamanic or indigenous traditions, and elsewhere.
  • Religion as fundamentally about doctrine or belief: Religion is often more about what people do rather than what they believe. Living as a Buddhist monk or nun involves meditation and following the monastic rule established by the Buddha rather than hewing to a creed. Even in traditions like Islam that prescribe certain beliefs (e.g. monotheism), believers focus on following the example of the Prophet Muhammad as described in the Hadith and following God’s commandments in the Qur’an.
  • Religion as gods giving characters magical powers: While there are narratives in the Bible, Hindu sources, and elsewhere that involve gods doing precisely this, in speculative fiction this is commonly a plot device or Dungeons & Dragons pastiche.