kaigou: this is what I do, darling (3 love the stars)
[personal profile] kaigou
Currently writing a scene in which the pivotal/cultural religion of the story's world takes center stage. This is rather odd for me, and I'm wondering if it is for anyone else.

For the most part, I'm an apatheist. For me, I don't disbelieve a god, nor believe; I just don't care. I live my life according to ethics and principles (not morals), and try to do good in this lifetime with no hope nor care for any after-life rewards. If there are, fine; if not, fine. Which really amounts to: I don't like ritual, I don't like organized religion, I don't care much for massive displays of faith/belief, or the trappings of either. I kind of look at all of it... not with a jaundiced eye so much as a disinterested one. Some people require ritual, especially of a social nature. I'm not one of them.

No surprise then that the religion I've devised for my central culture is a relatively ritual-free religion. It has a lot in common with Shinto, in that very few elements are public (no weekly sunday get-together), most of it's not just personal but also private/solitary. But for the story, it's also crucial that this religion have an obligatory aspect, as well. Certain people are considered automatically priests, and it's not always within the person's say. It's somewhat like the old European tradition that the youngest son always entered religious orders -- there wasn't much choice to the role. It was pretty much set from birth, fated.

Which, seeing how I'm rather lukewarm about ritual, it wouldn't be a surprise that obligatory ritual gets my goat even faster. Yet here I am, doing a scene in which a culture explains and justifies its obligatory ritual. And for the story's purposes, it's not right for me to subtly imply via the narrative that this is a wrong thing; to be true to the story, this must be seen as a right [for that religion and its adherents] thing.

It'd be very easy to write a story in which religion (any religion) gets its comeuppance, or gets dissed or shown to be wrong in some way. I've seen that, too, when some religions -- usually ones written as seriously-close analogues to existing/real religions -- are portrayed by authors who don't believe in that religion. It feels like a failure of empathy on the author's part, because they'd rather demonize the non-Christian (or non-Pagan, or non-Western, or non-Eastern) religion than see it from the other side. (For the record, I hate those stories even more, oddly. I don't like any religion demonized, even if that sounds strange given my intro.)

It actually feels harder to write -- believably -- characters who really do cherish, and respect, and feel obligated to fulfill, a set of religious precepts. It's like I can't quite see ever being so deep-down in it that I couldn't understand how one could not be, or believe, such-and-such. Like people I knew in college who tried desperately to convert me (since apparently Episcopalian doesn't really 'count' as A True Believer) -- they were absolutely flabbergasted, even genuinely hurt -- that I couldn't seem to see how So Very Important the issue of "what you believe" really was. To them, yes, but to them, their belief was an all-encompassing thing and thus I, as someone whom they otherwise felt something in common with or whatever, must therefore also have the same something inside me that would call me to belief just as strongly as it called them. If that makes sense. (It did in my head.)

That's really hard for me to write. I can't write strong-faith characters believably. (I could say fanatic, but with the caveat that my personal attitude kind of skews the grading curve; I'm so far below "casual religion" that someone who does church once a week and sometimes on Wednesday night get-togethers is practically a fanatic in comparison.) I have an even harder time writing someone trying to justify their fanaticism, which on a good day might just be Very Strong Belief.

Anyone else deal with this in stories, or read a work where you get the idea the author's dealing with it? Or the opposite -- an author with Strong Beliefs struggling to write non-believer characters? Any tips, ideas, something to help me make sure I'm not dissing characters who in all other ways deserve to be non-demonized and treated respectfully?

Date: 8 Mar 2013 03:01 am (UTC)
majoline: picture of Majoline, mother of Bon Mucho in Loco Roco 2 (Default)
From: [personal profile] majoline
I've been (very slowly; I need a beta) writing a Paganism in action fanfic. Writing religious stuff believably without losing readers is hard work and I had to take a break for a while from it.

I'd say if they're Shinto/hard polytheist/animist types, don't forget that ritual isn't something that happens all the time. Yes, they might drop small offerings off at shrines/their personal altar, but otherwise, big occasions aren't as common as going to church on Sunday.

For instance, us Druids meet for the cross-quarter days. That means that we all are expected to convene only eight (8) days a year. Yeah, there are weddings and funerals and conventions, but otherwise religious stuff happens at home and is small.

I guess I'm arguing that you might not have to write "strong-faith" people, rather "strong-practice" people. They don't do it much, they might not even believe it at all, but the cakes and ale and candles have to arranged just right, don't you know!

A good RL example of rituals like that are Scouting ceremonies. There are candles and ritual lighting and flags and everything. Then everyone goes home and goes about their business, if that makes sense.

Date: 8 Mar 2013 05:20 am (UTC)
majoline: picture of Majoline, mother of Bon Mucho in Loco Roco 2 (Default)
From: [personal profile] majoline
Ah ok, I was misunderstanding where you were coming from there, I thought you were having problems writing rituals in general.

Well, first you have to define all the reasons the group have for believing in that manner and then you have to build a reason for them keeping it that way. For instance, the lines in Leviticus about "no vegetable gardens and no crop rotation" don't get used very often these days, as opposed to others. Why?

Because of how the in-group sees themselves, the overarching idea of who they are. It's less about the belief in deity, and more about how they see themselves.

Date: 18 Mar 2013 06:19 am (UTC)
beatrice_otter: Dali's Christ of St. John of the Cross (St. John of the Cross)
From: [personal profile] beatrice_otter
Like, say, you have a character who objectively is the best person for the job, but he's missing part of a finger. For a long time in the Catholic church, he would've been barred from the priesthood based on a certain interpretation of a single line of text. If you're a believer, then there's not much to discuss, here.

Er. Um. I'm guessing you really haven't spent much time in religious circles. Or, at least, the only ones you've spent time in have been some of the more strident "Conservative (American) Christian" ones. (I am politically conservative, and I am a devout Christian. I have a huge number of very, very large theological disagreements with the entirety of the "Conservative Christian" wing of American Protestantism for both theological and political reasons.)

The "not much to discuss, here" only holds true if you are speaking of believers in that particular interpretation. And there are very few points (if there are any at all) that are always interpreted the same by everybody. For example, if you ask me if the Bible is the Word of God, I will say yes. So will a fundamentalist. But if you ask us to explain what it means that the Bible is the Word of God, we will have vastly different explanations because we both mean different things when we say "The Bible is the Word of God."

Basically, a lot of religious people spend a lot of time debating theology and practical applications, and various interpretations thereof, and (at least in the Western Christianity with which I am most familiar) there tends to be a far wider degree of diversity of belief and practice at any given historical moment than is generally remembered today. So if I'm reading a story with religious characters (whether set in the real world or a fantasy/SF world) and everyone believes the same thing and interprets the sacred text the same and emphasizes the same bits of theology and practices everything the same way, I raise my eyebrows. Because that's not, in my experience, the way things actually go, even if the leaders of that particular group/kingdom/church/whatever would claim that everyone believed and worshiped exactly the same. There will be similarities, yes, but not identical anything.

It may help you to focus on relationships. From what I can tell, pretty much every religion focuses on two basic things: how its adherents relate to the divine (in whatever way that religion perceives the divine) and how they relate to each other. So, what kind of relationships do your characters have with the divine in this world you have created? Is it a personal relationship with a vaguely human-like deity or deities? Is it a more general sense of connection to the divine as found in some sort of a spirit world? How does their relationship with that divine affect their relationships with other people? How is all that different for Character A than it is for Character B? Then, once you have all of that planned out, ask yourself how those relationships would be ritually acted out, keeping in mind that no two people are going to believe and practice exactly the same way. Don't assume that nobody in this religion grapples with the problems you have, but at the same time don't assume they frame the question the same way you do, either.

If you're trying to make a sympathetic/understandable portrayal of why someone would do something that would normally be considered awful, don't focus on the awfulness of it (unless they're a sociopath, the character won't be focused on the awfulness of it). What are they trying to accomplish by doing that? What other evil are they trying to prevent? Even if, to you, it seems like a stupid evil, you have to take it seriously.

A historical example. Christians have, in some places and times, burned heretics and witches at the stake. This was, in many cases, seen as the merciful form of execution, more merciful than hanging. Why? Because it gives the heretic/witch time to repent. If you believe that someone will go to hell and be eternally tormented for the sins they have done/their wrong beliefs, then giving them as much time as possible during their final moments to change their mind and throw themselves on God's mercy and possibly escape Hell is the merciful thing to do. So, if you were asking someone who burned heretics alive why they did it, they might say something like "it's a horrible way to die, and I hate it, but I hate the idea of them going to Hell even more. The torment of these earthly flames is far, far less than they will have to endure if they go to Hell. I hope and pray they repent, and if burning alive helps them do it, then it is worth it."

I hope that helps. Thank you so much for being thoughtful and open-minded enough to ask these questions.

(here from [community profile] metanews)
Edited (fix formatting to make the quote clearer.) Date: 18 Mar 2013 06:20 am (UTC)

Date: 8 Mar 2013 04:19 am (UTC)
law_nerd: process bar showing brain loading... incomplete (Brain loading)
From: [personal profile] law_nerd
Would it help to think of ritual as procedure?

Some people outline, then write. Some people just write. Some companies manage projects, others just do things. Some coders test accessibility and usability and function and ensure that code is commented and documented and clean ... others use the world as their beta-testers and code name the actual release version "Service Pack 2".

Religion is trying to figure out project management where the project incorporates the known world and it's people, and where cause and effect are not always particularly obvious. Ritual is the procedural bits that seem to cause the right effects (wow, the sun rose again this morning!), or at least not cause the wrong ones (oops, no sunrise, let's not do THAT again!).

Um... which is to say, damn but you ask interesting questions... sufficiently so that after a week of 20 hour days of teaching, marking and teaching some more, trying for an answer seems like more fun than going to bed. Quality of answer, however, may be affected by lack of sleep. Apologies.

Date: 8 Mar 2013 05:41 am (UTC)
mishalak: A fantasy version of myself drawn by Sue Mason (Nice)
From: [personal profile] mishalak
Why would anyone deliberately cut into another living human being, much less submit to it? Yet even without anesthetic suprapubic lithotomy was undertaken. Or why would anyone commit self harm? If society expects it and indeed celebrates it a person may see no other way forward except in death.

Now, your characters who believe in the spirits do not just do these things with no proof. They have the evidence of their own experiences. How often, without the external check of knowing your senses and memories can be wrong, would you yourself remember something that was untrue? For the person who believes they have had the experience, they have felt the spirits, they have even seen it happen.

Date: 8 Mar 2013 06:56 am (UTC)
staranise: A star anise floating in a cup of mint tea (Default)
From: [personal profile] staranise
What if it were for some other abstract ideal? When we worship "love", it permeates our society's entire way of thinking; you have to ~find someone~, participate in romantic days (both publicly universal, like Valentine's, and private-but-expected, like anniversaries), undergo certain ceremonies; even people who deliberately choose to do none of that are aware of what they're contravening. Or when we worship "health", it changes everything we do--we're willing to change what we eat, to have our chests cut open, to revile our bodies, to fundamentally change our whole ways of being. We're willing to endure open-heart surgery because we believe it will help.

This is the same social process as religion. Some religious people have had direct contact with the spiritual--and some people have known true love or excellent health. Some never have, but pursue these rituals, these dates and diets and blessings, in the vain hope that someday they will. Some have reasoned objections, or unreasoned rejection, and some are mostly apathetic but don't go against the grain.

Date: 8 Mar 2013 07:50 am (UTC)
nagasvoice: lj default (Default)
From: [personal profile] nagasvoice
I would point here, from starnanise's comments, to the level of trust in other people these actions require of us. Many religions have a whole elaborate structure for inculcating and reinforcing belief, hammering at their congregations, but that's a response to internal conflict and to external challenges to their authority (well-deserved, in many cases, as we've learned.) Smaller, community-sized, quieter Shinto-style religions may actually be much more powerful because it's not some distant urban blowhard telling you things that are clearly contradicting the ordinary facts on the ground. This is your uncle telling you the strange miracle that happened when he almost drowned in the fishing net (and your uncle is a really good fisherman who knows his stuff otherwise), or how you saw with your own eyes as your cousins who said something stupid while logging and a tree immediately fell on them. People conflate random events all the time with causation (oh hey, lottery time again??).
It's almost irresistible for pattern-making brains not to draw preternatural conclusions from random tragedies and huge natural surprises like floods and volcanoes going off.
If you watch the way that people react in smaller New Age cults, for instance, you can see them grasping very hard after familiar modes of thinking while insisting their theology is new and different. IMHO, they also tend to fall into familiar organizational structures depending on the size of the group and its past history in the larger society. I believe there's some interesting TED talks and YouTube videos on how religion is drawing from the pattern-making way we think. We're always trying to read the leopard on the branch out of the leaves and shadows before it can drop on us. That leads to giving god's names to constellations and trying to figure out the date of the solstice so we can figure out what day to plant the beans when they won't rot in the field.
I know a lot of folks are more afraid of other predators, but honestly, our evolution might be driven pretty heavily by predation of leopards and lions and African tigers on children. Or, possibly, by the need to recognize lethal snakes in the grass or tiger sharks or crocodiles in the water, which still kill an awful lot of folks in places like India and Congo. Drawing faces in tree bark is nothing compared to seeing a snake before you step on it in heavy cover in places like Panama. (I understand the soldiers give lectures to new residents at the Consulate there about not having time to shoot off your arm before the venom from a bite on your hand hits you with lethal force.) So, useful brain feature under a lot of circumstances, but a problem when your crazy catlady gramma decides she needs to hang up more gods-eyes in the windows rather than pay the vet bill. That insistence on drawing patterns out of random noise shows up really strongly when you talk with very superstitious people, or when you listen to conspiracy theorists, or crazy old coots who retired to the woods or the desert or whatever. You can see that mechanism is just revved up like crazy by conditions like untreated anxiety. Regular folks have it in varying degrees, a lot louder or quieter as their circumstances change. "X strange ritual must be done or bad things will happen!" comes out of the group's history somewhere.

Edited Date: 8 Mar 2013 07:53 am (UTC)

Date: 8 Mar 2013 01:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] clarentine.livejournal.com
I'm with you on most of that - I really just don't care about religion on a personal level, never have felt the need for that net to catch me if I fell in the course of my life. And I find myself exploring in my own writing what it means to believe. What belief means. Not really how it works, because for the characters the how is beside the point; they simply believe. (Of course, from the author perspective, the how becomes important if you want a reader to accept the logic behind your story!)

I don't know if there's any way in which religion should be approached differently than you'd approach any other variation in character - to me, religious belief is only one aspect of what makes each character distinct, and so long as they're fully fleshed out as a person, I think you'll have done well in respectfully treating their religious beliefs. No one person is the same as any other.

Date: 9 Mar 2013 07:44 pm (UTC)
metanewsmods: Abed wearing goggles (Default)
From: [personal profile] metanewsmods
Hello, would you mind if we included this in the next [community profile] metanews link roundup?

my two cents

Date: 10 Mar 2013 02:14 am (UTC)
ratoncito: cheesus (Default)
From: [personal profile] ratoncito
Even today, going out into deep water in a non-motorized vessel is pretty risky. I would imagine a sailing culture would have plenty of small ritual practices (maybe not so much superstition as lucky charms), plus some type of common religious practice can help hold together a diverse society. But when the society also has magic, that further complicates the picture. The magic is your story is mostly limited to certain people, and its not clear to me how or if the magic varies from person to person in that group or if there are special magical talents that appear randomly, or if they are obtainable by study, or maybe some are and others aren't, whatever. One of the groups that seems to have magic is associated with a religious type organization, and one is mostly definitely not. Still, if some people can turn into sharks, or penguins, or whatever, why wouldn't you believe that other people can call up rain, or that only the blood of a lamb on your door will keep the Angel of Death away from your children? And if the world is a dangerous place, but your rulers/leaders/priests have some claim to extra-ordinary power, whether religious or secular, then wouldn't it be the obligation of the good ruler to sacrifice something important to ensure the welbeing of the society?

Okay, so this reasoning has holes you could toss Quetzacoatl though, and doesn't help with your main question much at all. Religion is mostly a cultural construct that most people follow because it's What We Do to Keep Everything Going As Smoothly as Possible. But how should a True Believer de defined? As one who honestly thinks that prayer will bring rain? (It always does, eventually) Or the "prophet" who abandons his/her former life to follow a vision?
Real True Believers, the visionary kind, are scary, even if you are of the same religion, and even if the RTB is not interested in having followers. Even when they're sane, they're scary.

The RTB doesn't always claim special powers, but often others will ascribe special powers to the RTB.
If you're writing about both religion and magic, but don't want to merge the two, then it's an extra challenge to keep the characters and the readers from conflating the two.
Ursula LeGuin's "Wizard of EarthSea" series has both, and she did succeed in portraying both as separate elements in the society, but that's not always true of some of her other work.

I also think that a lot of the things we consider "extreme" or "disturbing" in religion are there because they reflect other, deeper problems in the society and the religious reasons are the rationalization for the act.

Sorry for the rather disjointed comments. I went back and re-wrote a bit, because I wasn't really making sense.
Hey, I did say in the subject line "my two CENTS", not "SENSE"!

Edited (cont) Date: 11 Mar 2013 02:16 pm (UTC)

Uh, hi... do you still care?

Date: 21 Mar 2013 03:52 am (UTC)
everbright: Eclipse of Saturn (Default)
From: [personal profile] everbright
Ah, I just wanted to pipe up and say, don't discount social pressure hard-coding thoughts into your character's heads. As above, the reason for the belief is probably derived from some form of pattern recognition turned up to 11, and then diluted and mutated as the culture has different needs over the years. The reason the person is following the belief is because they've heard and enacted these strictures since before they hard hard and fast rules about how the world works (childhood,) AND because their family and friends all believe this too. The people they love and trust are cross checking the character's subjective reality according to how are all taught. The religion reinforces the social structure reinforces the religion, etc, etc.

Homer though the seas were wine dark, because ancient Greeks didn't want/need the concept of blue. Their 'objective' reality and ours are totally different, but within their own culture everyone is reinforcing that reality. Your character may not see the other option, because there IS no other option in their worldview.