Yesterday I talked about politics and today I talk about religion. Are there any more controversial subjects in existence? I doubt it. Probably because there are no two subjects that people care about quite as passionately. Whether you believe in God or not, it is undeniable that religion is an important part of the human experience. It has been with us since the dawn of civilization and it plays a major part in every culture on the planet. Which leads us to the question, how large a role should religion and spirituality play in fantasy?
I confess that I am often very disappointed by portrayals of religion in fantasy. Too often authors resort to using caricatures of organized churches and representing members of such churches as either ignorant or malicious. There is no depth to it, only the author's personal bias. Why is it that some authors have no trouble exploring the magical realms of the imagination but utterly fail to understand the natural human inclination to seek the divine? I don't know. On the other end of the spectrum there is The Lord of the Rings, which for all its breadth of history and culture fails to explore religion at all. As much as I love Tolkien's work, I wish I could know more about what the peoples of Middle-earth believed and valued. Reading The Silmarillion will tell you about Eru, the creator, and the Valar, his servants, but it will not tell you much about the relationship of the Elves, Men, Dwarves and Hobbits of Middle-earth with them.
As a reader, I long for a work of fantasy that is not afraid to explore religious themes without demonizing religion. This is something I hope to accomplish with my own writing and why I have chosen Ancient Egypt as my inspiration. Most people think of Egyptian religion as a basic pantheistic "god of this, god of that" formula. But, as I've said before, Egyptian philosophy and belief was infinitely more complex and meaningful than that. Egyptian thought was very different than modern thought (for the better in many cases, I think) but it was not primitive or barbaric as modern people like to think. (Modern people love to think that we know better than everyone else who lived a long time ago because we have better technology, but I would venture to suggest that the opposite is actually true for precisely that same reason. Humanity may, on the whole, have more information nowadays but we also, on the whole, think less. Who needs to think when you can Google everything? But I digress.) My goal with my fantasy world and my current WIP is to use Egyptian belief and philosophy (with some Greek philosophy thrown in for good measure) as a foundation for exploring some deeply religious and deeply human themes.
I know that probably scares some people off. After all, many authors tend to becoming obnoxiously overbearing when they get up on their soapboxes and start putting messages in their characters' mouths. (I'm looking at you, Terry Goodkind.) That's certainly not what I want. I don't want to preach. I don't have a message for you. But I do want my characters to struggle with and explore such questions of life the universe and everything that are, inextricably, tied into religion. I want them to have morals and values that are not only based on what they want, but on what they believe is right and good. I want to write much more than a book about a quest. I want to write a book that deals with universal truths. I think you can only do that if you stop to ask, "Is there something outside of myself that is greater than I am?" And the followup question, "If so, what do I do about it?"
How do you feel about religious themes in the books you read? Does it turn you off? Interest you? Do you like exploring religious themes in your own writing?