Many novels feature characters whose religious beliefs shape their ideals. An example might be To Kill a Mockingbird, which tops many lists of “best novels ever”, such as Time Magazine’s. The strongly moral Atticus Finch raises his children in a decidedly Christian manner – and, perhaps significantly, is considered a modern exemplar of ethical behaviour. It’s perhaps not coincidental that I see The Chronicles of Narnia high on these lists also, arguably the best example of religious propaganda for children ever (note “arguably” – I do love the books myself and feel strong that C.S. Lewis had the best intentions).
It would be fair to say that religious characters, or at least non-ostensibly atheistic ones, were always likely to inhabit the bulk of our fiction. After all, it’s only historically recently that the world has begun to shift towards science as the source of their answers instead of faith. Distressingly, I read that in a fairly recent study published on Gallup that 40% of Americans believe in Creationism in the strictest sense. A more recent and significant study by San Diego State found that our current generation of teens are the least religiously observant ever, and not as a result of being “unsettled millennials” as previously suspected by the skeptical. It strongly suggests an actual cultural shift away from religion.
For decades, writers of science fiction and fantasy in particular have embraced science theory (go here for a good explanation as to why “theory” isn’t a word that can be used against science in the defense of faith) and speculative science as vehicles for engaging fiction. However, many writers simply can’t help but bring religion back into the mix. Is this because it’s so engrained in our society that a novel is ‘incomplete’ without it (just as many would say, foolishly, that a novel is ‘incomplete’ without a romantic element) – or even simply as a concession to the faithful? It’s almost as though writers feel unable to generate a proper feeling of awe and reverence in their narratives without making reference to god.
Going back a while, The Matrix film series was a good example of taking something which would have been just as spectacular without its heavy-handed Christian symbolism. Its philosophy is actually a clumsy amalgam of messanic, Zionistic, Platonic and Eastern beliefs, a composite that didn’t seem to strengthen the narrative in any case. Watching the end of the cinematic adaptation of Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader makes me decidedly uncomfortable, with its monotheistic longing for material obliteration and ham-fisted allusions to the leonine Aslan actually being Christ in the world of Narnia, rather than a symbolic literary figure.
The arguments against religion and even faith in general have been expounded by far greater writers than I (love them or hate them, the works of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are essential). Any one of them, I suspect, would strongly advocate the eradication of any meaningful inclusion of religion in fiction. This would be on the grounds that it reinforces mass belief in destructive and antisocial delusions, and that as a go-to for a sense of “spiritual” awe detracts from the pre-existing (and tangible) wonders of the material world. As symbolic references or colourful similes, writers get a lot of mileage out of the old Greek gods, for example. This would be fine. But in 2015, shouldn’t we be exploring more relevant aspects of our universe instead of the tired play of faith and spiritual redemption?
My Western novel, The Gun of Our Maker, makes little reference to religion outside of the title. The key theme is the expectations we place on others and ourselves. It is very interesting to me that the heroes of the Western genre, in literature and in cinema, are often godless. This is despite such characters existing in a faith-based society (regardless of what the American Constitution says) and several of whom were created by contemporary or at least anachronistically-conscientious authors. With the notable exception of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, why is it that so many protagonists are ostensibly without faith (even the nameless, murderous “Preacher” in Pale Rider seems entirely scornful of Christian beliefs). Westerns often seem to inhabit a decidedly god-forsaken landscape.
Examining mainstream literature, I’m frequently baffled by the constant allusions to faith as noble and worthwhile. The troubled hero, at the inevitable point of hopelessness on his/her quest, goes to a church to pray, or kneels in the downpour to beg god for a sign. Sometimes they are rewarded with a light, or the sudden appearance of a mortal saviour, who inevitably pulls them back from the brink and sets them on the right path. Religious experiences of this kind are always presented as a ‘seeing the light’ moment (best exemplified, tongue-in-cheek, by an early moment in The Blues Brothers), accompanied by sureness and renewed strength. A skeptic would wonder why this should be so, when in reality organised religion has often stymied the pursuit of science, art and freedom – a comparative Dark Ages.
I accept that our perhaps-indelible inclinations towards the gnostic (or agnostic) will always influence our writing, but why does it so often take the form of existing religious structures, such as Catholicism or Buddhism? Is there not enough wonder in the world already? As my beloved Douglas Adams said, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
As a writer, I don’t object to seeing references to faith in fiction. But why stick with it, when the modern world is providing us so much more material to work with? I congratulate films such as the recent Interstellar, which put us in awe of natural cosmic phenomena, or writers like Charlie Kaufman, who posits that the complex beauty of orchids should be enough to write a two hour screenplay around.
I challenge writers to abandon god and religion as an element in their fiction. What else in our universe can inspire, clarify, reform, motivate, cultivate, or invigorate? In the endless search for a semblance of originality, this would be a heavenly place to start.