Being a Better Writer: Religion and Faith

Hello and welcome back readers! I hope your weekends treated you well?

Well, if not, then I’ve got a bit of lighthearted humor to share with you before we get down to today’s post. As long-time readers will know, I’ve forever been a proponent of always do the research, and have noted before cases where authors have done a Google search and rather than click the results simply skimmed the page of results and drawn entirely incorrect conclusions for their work.

Well, this weekend someone made international news with an exceptionally impressive flub (which you can read about in more detail here if you feel like granting The Guardian your clicks) that proves once again that skimming Google results is not enough research. Especially for a historical novel.

What happened? John Boyne (a name some of you might recognize) listed a number of ingredients used to make red dye in his latest novel, The Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom (which, given what you’re about to read …). Such as keese wing, leaves of the Silent Princess flower, octorok eyeballs, lizalfos tails, and of course, Hylian mushrooms.

Some of you are wondering “huh?” while others in this audience have already started to giggle. Because you’ve recognized those items for what they are: fantasy ingredients and species from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Yes, it would seem that this book was in the process of being written around the time Breath of the Wild released, and as such when Boyne Googled “red dye ingredients” the current most popular result was … how to make red dye in Breath of the Wild, using ingredients from the fantastical fantasy realm of Hyrule.


According to the story, prints of the book will be amended to offer an acknowledgement and credit to The Legend of Zelda. But for the rest of the writers and authors out there, let this be a lesson to you.

And let’s have one more giggle that, as a title from a well-known and respected author, this gaff made it past who knows how many editors over at Penguin Random House. Oops.

All right, that’s the last giggle. It’s time to talk about today’s Being a Better Writer topic! Which is both a reader request, and as many of you have likely thought upon seeing the title, a bit of a hefty subject. But don’t fret, and don’t panic (that’s right, the old hitchhiking logic). This isn’t nearly as painful a topic as it sounds. Well, unless you’re reading a book that handles this topic badly, which, well, I doubt any of us want said about our works.

So let’s knuckle down and talk about religion and faith in fiction.

So, to begin with I realize that religion isn’t exactly a popular topic these days for a lot of people. Sands, I remember back with one of my first books when an editor suggested I remove all references a character made to religious beliefs by a character as they could be “offensive.” And by and by, that sort of mentality, I think, has moved into a lot of books. It’s hard to find fiction these days that references any sort of religion or belief past either extremely generic acknowledgement (Religion exists) or (more commonly) old beliefs that are no longer actively worshiped (like ancient Greek gods). Or, even worse, if it does mention religion, does only to make a whipping boy for the author’s dislikes and issues.

None of which is the best approach to worldbuilding, because it leaves a vital element of the human experience out: that of belief and faith.

Let me explain. A few years ago the web-series Extra Credits ran a bit on the scientific method that inadvertently angered a lot of people, as they noted something that many people didn’t like. Specifically, they noted that people had faith in science, which led to thousands of angry commentators stating that “faith” only applied to ‘obvious make-believe’ things like ‘religion’ and how dare Extra Credits insinuate that acknowledgement of science was in any way faith.

Which, Extra Credits fired back, showed that a number of them had watched the video with blinders on, because they didn’t understand how belief or faith worked, and that one could have faith in science and religion both, one or the other, or even neither.

Belief in science, they pointed out, was still a belief, be that science right or wrong, and that concept was at the core of how the scientific method worked (testing an idea over and over again to see if it holds up, then move forward from there). Sometimes (in fact, quite often throughout history) something that was “fact” changed or refined because new information came to light. In fact, Extra Credits noted that often when science came across such a change in “fact” there were those who refused to believe it because their “faith” in science was ultimately blind in some aspect.

If that reminds you a bit of religion and “blind faith” then you’re on the right track. But probably wondering what this has to do with writing.

Well, let me pose you this question: Imagine you picked up a new Sci-Fi novel with a shiny cover and lots of praise, opened the pages, and found that it didn’t contain any science at all? I’m not talking just glossing over it, just straight up never mentions it. At all. Ever.

It’d not feel like a Sci-Fi novel would it? Sands, it might not feel like much of a novel at all, since science is an underpinning of how the world works on a Sci-Fi novel (even fantastical).

Now note this: Science is, to give a rough—but accurate—definition the ‘systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world.’ Or in other words, looking at how the natural world functions, works, and fits together. What purpose causes things to function the way they do. With me so far?

Okay, now ask yourself this: What does a lot of religion do? If you answered “provide explanations and answers as to how the natural world functions works, and fits together” then you are correct.

Look at ancient creation myths from around the world, for example. Why do they exist? Why were they repeated by people? Because they were explanations for how the world worked, and people seek for that. And this is a trend seen the world over: Intelligent sapients seek to understand and explain the world around them. That which can’t be explained or which isn’t understood is often reacted to with fear and even paranoia.

If you need a current example of that, just Google “5G coronavirus” and boggle at the number of people who are so unfamiliar with how the world around them works that they’re actively setting fire to 5G towers because they believe it to be the source of their ills.

But getting back on topic, this is why books that leave out a culture or character’s religion and faith can feel empty: Because part of human nature is to come up with our own “faith” of how the world operates, and when we read of an entire setting where no one has done that, the setting feels fake.

“But wait,” some of you may say, jumping to modern philosophy. “Doesn’t science replace religion? Doesn’t having science mean there is no religion?”

Not at all, and for two reasons. The first is that science and understood religion often go hand-in-hand. Those that are religious desire to understand the world, and so put their theories to the test with rigorous examination and study with the tools they have.

Sounds a lot like the scientific method, doesn’t it? The similarities run deeper than that. Both “science” and “religion” (both as a generic term) can have blind believers who, rather than self-examine, follow and let themselves become so sure of something that they refuse to accept new understanding when new knowledge comes to the forefront.

In fact, when asked about the concept of “science versus religion,” famed chemist Henry Erying stated “There isn’t anything to worry about between science and religion, because the contradictions are just in your own mind.” As he saw it, the further one got along either track and the closer the hunt for truth came to any answer, the closer the two paths came.

The second is that science can only explain so much in any period, and still leaves gaps, from the “why” to the “what.” Gaps that religious faith can fill in. Or vice-versa, with science filling in religious gaps.

Take, for example, the ancient Greeks. They had science, yes, but they still had a lot of religion, because their science, while capable of explaining and theorizing some things, couldn’t others. And in a jump back to two paragraphs ago, some of their science was also wrong (like the “four elements”).

Some of it was also right, and hundreds upon hundreds of years of research have shown their theories to be correct.

So what’s the takeaway here? Well, first and foremost is that we shouldn’t ignore the concept of religion in our written works or our worldbuilding. Doing so is like ignoring science. People look for explanations of things, be they philosophical questions like “Why are we here?” or physics-based like “Why does this wire glow when I heat it?” If you write any world where people don’t have questions of faith or religion, then you’ve created a world that doesn’t have the drive to find any sort of answers derived from scientific principles.

And that’s just … Well, I’m sure you can see how that might be wrong. That’s a world that can’t experience growth.

Now, this isn’t to say that any story needs to have a treatise on religion in it, no more than any book needs to do so with the science that may serve as the underpinning. But that’s the key term there: Underpinning. Religion and faith is a foundational element of mankind, today and in the past. If you entirely cut that out of your world, it leaves a noticeable gap.

Again to repeat myself, this isn’t to say that you must include a religious treatise somewhere in your work. Again, no more than you would consider including scientific papers in your Sci-Fi novel to explain every bit of math behind your Sci-Fi ship. What I am saying is that if you fail to acknowledge any science at all in your Sci-Fi novel, you’d question if it was a Sci-Fi novel. The same goes for completely ignoring religion or pretending that it doesn’t exist. It simply comes off as unrealistic.

Writing a fantasy world? You’d better believe that there are going to be religions in it. Different ways of explaining how the world came to be, or answering questions, or even assigning purpose. People will have searched for answers to questions.

Note as well that there will be differing answers out there as some people come to different conclusions. No world is going to have “one religion.” Sands, even if their literal diety lived on the planet, performed miracles, and was like “Yes, I am God.” there would be people who would still espouse other beliefs.

Your writing should reflect this. There’s no one “religion” whenever there’s a large number of people. Amusingly enough, science reflects this as well. For example, in the battle for a means to determine latitude, much of the scientific community was split into one of two camps for more than a hundred years: Those who believed that the latitude could be worked out with the stars, and those that believed one could manage it with a perfect clock. Fortunes were made and lost over this battle, and even after the invention of several models of clock and hundreds of tests proving that it worked, there remained a decent-sized group of the international scientific community that refused to accept it.

The point I’m making with all this is that A) any world or setting you write in will have religion of some kind, and B) your world shouldn’t just have “one religion” (unless of course, that’s a very important part of the plot and you’re determined to dive into how that comes about). Failure to acknowledge such is as glaring an oversight as playing straight the idea that “all science has been determined and discovered” (a claim that has been made several different periods of scientific history) or failing to include any sort of acknowledgement of science at all.

Okay, now with all this said, there’s something else to talk about here that’s really vital and goes all the way back to the opening of this post: Respect and straw-manning. Remember that bit about authors that include religion just to make it a whipping boy?

Yeah, that’s a straw-man in action. See, here’s the thing about religion in the settings you create: Regardless of the fact that they exist in a work of fiction, the characters you’ve written that follow that religion are believers and/or followers in some form or another of that religion. And in order to be realistic, you need to treat that seriously.

Does that mean they can’t be wrong or misinformed? Well, no more than the “5G towers spread Coronavirus” crowd can’t be simply because they don’t understand science. So no, they can be wrong. But they can also be very serious about it, or somewhat ambivalent, or anywhere in between.

In other words, religious belief is an aspect of character, and every character may view their particular adherence, acceptance, or even understanding of said religion or religions differently. And as an author, letting that aspect of character be as developed as anything else, or even portrayed, falls to you.

In other words, like any other element of a character, religion should be one that we’re willing to write about.

Oh, but if you’re going to write about a real religion, definitely do some research. More than some, if you’re going to go into anything past “this religion exists.” Much like the news story that headed this post, there are a lot of instances out there of religious accuracy being completely whiffed by authors that didn’t bother to do due diligence (or worse, deliberately misrepresented), such as in one memorable instance where an author wrote about a religion existing 50 years before it did, or a school lesson I once had on “Joseph leading the 12 tribes out of Egypt.”

Now, a brief note I feel I must once again repeat. This is not calling for any writer to put together a religious treatise whenever they sit down to write. Instead, the goal of this post is to draw attention to an oft-undeveloped area of worldbuilding. You don’t need to write The Silmarillion every time you sit down to start a new project. But you should consider religion as a fundamental underpinning of any society.

So, some of you may be thinking at this point, how do you know what to do, write, or create when it comes to a religion in any setting you’re crafting?

You know the answer. It’s the old standby: Research! Sure, you may be building from scratch, but inspiration can be found in looking at how or why myths grew up all over the world! For example. explaining creation is a big draw. Look at how other cultures came up with ideas around the world!

Or better yet, do that and then put youself in the mental shoes of a fantastical deity. That’s fun too.

So, let’s summarize. First, science and religion are not that different, which means that excluding one from any background of the world is noticeable … especially when both are such roots of the real world. Second, when you do include this sort of thing in your world, don’t oversimplify. There’s likely going to be some variance in religions of whatever setting you write. Third, let the characters live it and be themselves. Some will be devout, others not. Let them live this aspect of their character as well as any other. And last but not least: Research. I know I harp on this one a lot, but it’s important. Research and learn, then put that to good use with your own settings and creations. Or at the very least, get the religion you’re portraying correct, and don’t mistake Judaism for Islam.

Good luck! Now get writing!

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