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Religion As Mythology

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, April 11, 2020

It's all fine and exciting when using lore and myth to create new stories. Especially when it comes to modern genres like urban fantasy, it can yield pretty alluring and impressive results! From ancient Greek mythology to all kinds of Asian myths and legends, to Norse mythology and Egyptian one, all of them hold enormous potential for engaging stories within a fascinating setting. And with good reason! All those myths and legends were active and powerful religions in their time.

But what happens when stories, especially fantasy or science fiction, draw from current religions with actual followers and practitioners of the particular faith?

There is already a level of respect and care one needs to take when using the mythology of any culture or people, even though usually the corresponding faith has faded or been replaced with another. Even if the religion from which the mythology was derived has no followers anymore, often there is an emotional connection to it within the culture that has it as part of its past and heritage. The requirement of not misrepresenting a mythology, or reimagining it in a way that is offensive to the source material and the culture attached to it is extremely pivotal.

That requirement is even stronger, more demanding, when the source material, the mythology, if you like, comes from a religion that is still alive, still has followers. The backlash can be great, whether the religion is big or small. Or especially, if it is the religion of a minority or marginalized group. Not even entertainment giants are above backlash if the source material is not respected.

It is true, that you might get more leeway with some active religions as opposed to others. Being disrespectful or cavalier with a big one might be considered edgy, while being disrespectful or cavalier with a smaller one, or one with a protected, so to speak, status, might be considered punching down, racist, inappropriate.

In my opinion, mishandling, or handling carelessly the symbols, elements, stories and messages that other people invest their faith and emotional, mental and existential wellbeing in is at least inconsiderate, if not malicious, regardless of which faith it is, how big, how established or how tiny and limited to a small population.

But how does one draw from a religion to write fantasy without causing offense and/or distress to the religion's faithful?

One might argue that it is practically impossible; someone will always find offense, someone will always loudly protest and make accusations, even at the best intention and the utmost care from creators. And that is true. Some, a very select few that make it their hobby to be offended and create controversy, will definitely be ruffled.

But, again in my opinion, those are irrelevant. There's an objective line that shouldn't be crossed, but beyond that, a creator should feel at ease with his/her conscience about how the material was handled. So what goes into respectful handling of a live religion's mythology or legend in stories?

1. Do Your Homework

Definitely study the religion well. Know what the symbols stand for, how they are used, the cultural and spiritual significance they hold for the people that worship through them. Know the legends and mythos, and the significance for each major personality, deity, and being. Do not depict them differently in your worldbuilding- that is, whatever reimagining you might do, make sure the general trajectories and uses remain the same.

2. Do Not Shorthand Religious Stuff

Don't write any existing religion as “The Religion of the Bad/Good/Weird/Marginalized/Cool/Uncool Guys”, especially if juxtaposed with another existing religion that is also written as “The Religion of the … Guys”. Within any religion, all kinds of people exist, and that includes the clergy connected to it.

3. Separate Religion from its Institution

The practices of the clergy often divert from the main dogma or main spirit of the teachings, as happens with any social institution that wields power. When giving commentary and castigating such practices and transgressions, separate the actual dogma from its proclaimed practitioners. It's likely to not only have a better reception among audiences that ascribe to the religion at hand, but also to keep people from polarizing and getting fanatized over it.

4. When Judging Religion, Make sure you Show Awareness and Respect

The clergy aside, there are elements within every religion that are anything from imperfect, products of a different era and time, or just simply wrong. They cannot be off limits to art, not at all. But at the same time, the religion shouldn't be painted as a grotesquely twisted, unholy concoction of evil tenets. Such a thing does not exist. All religions, when stripped down to their core, have the basic set of rules that roughly translate as “Don't Be a Douchebag” and “Try to Better Yourself”. Make sure you don't lose track of that, nor of the fact that unlike what is stereotypically thought of, religions are actually living, dynamic systems of ideology that evolve along with the people that observe them. They are bound to change and reconceive the manner in which the main dogma applies in daily living, and that, too, is something that should be recognized.

So what if you don't want to put in all this work, and aren't really interested in the religion, but only one thing you saw from it that you really like, like an especially fun demon, or a very awesome holy artifact, or an amazing story from its scriptures that you'd like to give a spin yourself?

That's easy! Repackage it! Call it something different, reconstruct its surface characteristics enough so it's not a mislabeled religious icon, and go to town!

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MatthewYoung at 9:36AM, April 14, 2020

Okay thanks for the clarification. I certainly do agree then. I was thinking more in the world of strictly fictional religions that are based on (or at least heavily parallel) real-world counterparts rather than using actual religious iconography in a piece of fiction, in which case should be handled with utmost care.

Tantz_Aerine at 5:52PM, April 12, 2020

Hushicho: Nicely said! That's definitely part of my point.

mks_monsters at 2:19PM, April 12, 2020

I am afraid to bring religion into my writing because I don't like to get into "politics". I prefer to be neutral so at most, I mention which religion a person is and show how devout they are about it, but that's it. In other words, I am religion neutral, but also, religion harmonious.

hushicho at 1:35PM, April 12, 2020

Honestly, I think usually the best way to do it is to incorporate the institutions more than anything else. It's religion as institution that has caused so much awfulness in the world, and it's something rich for exploration by good writers. It also depends heavily on what you're trying to do; if it's a mass-market cash-in that's incidentally slagging off your spiritual beliefs, which you're going to hear from every ignorant idiot who quotes that work like a moron, yeah, that's wrong and shouldn't be supported. But it's also important to question and criticize organized religion especially -- and not be an uninformed douche about it -- because it's also very easy to abuse religion to, in turn, abuse people. It's a balancing act. It's also important to note that not everyone believes the same things, so inevitably there will always be some people who hate any question of religion. You will never please everyone.

Tantz_Aerine at 9:08AM, April 12, 2020

MatthewYoung: Religion as mythology in fiction would be any story that would qualify as 'fanfiction' to the religion's 'canon'. Anything from Neil Geiman to movies like Dogma and the Exorcist. What constitutes a mishandling would be to portray 'canon' characters/situations/symbols as 'out of character' or completely wrong from what 'canon' is. Where you draw the line as 'deliberately disrespectful' is always up for debate. However, if you wish to deviate so much from 'canon' that it's virtually turned into something completely different or even opposite to the original, you'd probably want to go with a fictional religion with the basic 'canon' miming the real one that inspired you. There's no need to distress people of that faith by putting the objects of their worship in what to them would be blasphemy or very painful/disturbing to be exposed to, when there's no real gain from it except perhaps notoriety. As for example, I've linked to one.

usedbooks at 6:00AM, April 12, 2020

My guilty pleasure is enjoying fiction based on "Christian mythology." Tiers of hell and angels and demons and things like that. I find it a refreshing turn to the Greek, Roman, Norse, or Egyptian myths people make such cavalier use of. I think being within a religion and being able to appreciate the myths that arose from it is a healthy exercise.

MatthewYoung at 4:17PM, April 11, 2020

I feel like I can agree with much of this, but I think I might need some clarification of what you consider religion as mythology in fiction and perhaps some examples on what are mishandlings of them in your opinion. Many if not all fictional religions are based off real world counterparts. Whether it be the mythological, cultural, or communal footprint religions will leave in a society, it is hard not to divorce inspiration from such monumental examples. With that being said, even when using real world faiths as a foundation, it is imperative that you not ignore your creative side by mimicking their sources to a T just to avoid stepping on the proverbial eggshell. I feel the same when it comes to culture as well. Unless you are deliberately trying to be disrespectful, there ideally should be no deviation that is worth taking issue with. Research your inspirations but don't be afraid to scrap your findings to make room for your own ideas. That's what fiction is all about after all.

Banes at 2:19PM, April 11, 2020

Excellent article and I agree. Church, yo!

ShaRose49 at 1:53PM, April 11, 2020

It’s cool that you understand how much better it is to be respectful when handling any religion. This could probably apply to how you handle almost any real-life issue or group of people.

Gunwallace at 2:20AM, April 11, 2020

“Don't Be a Douchebag” and “Try to Better Yourself”: seems like something I'd sign up to. Does it come with free pasta?

Ozoneocean at 2:08AM, April 11, 2020

That's a very sensible and considered post. Nicely written, you consider all sides. As to the "when stripped down to their core, have the basic set of rules that roughly translate as “Don't Be a Douchebag” and “Try to Better Yourself”" That's nuanced in terms of polytheistic religions where it's not all one thing... Odin for example. At least from the stuff written about the belief by Snori, Saxo and other writers, it seems a bit violent and nasty, focussing as it does on lying, war, punishment, deception... While Freja and a lot of the other gods and more positive stuff associated with their worship. (it could be though that all the chroniclers were outsiders to the faith and no record exists of Norse mythology from the point of view of a practitioner.

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