Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Invented religions

At tor.com, a post by Ruthanna Emrys: Five Books About Invented Religions

Delve deep enough into linguistics, and eventually you’ll want to try constructed languages, with new vocabularies and grammars that illustrate the principles and limitations of those that occur naturally. Spend enough late nights arguing theology, and you start wanting to make up your own. My first-ever business card was for the half-joking Discount Deities: custom pantheon creation and appropriately biased origin myths….

Okay, so, which five books is she thinking of?

1. Stranger in a Strange Land — I have had no inclination to re-read this at any time in the past 30 years. I suspect it would not have worn well.

2. Cat’s Cradle (Vonnegut) — Nothing by Vonnegut ever worked for me.

3. Steerswoman (Kirstein) — Ah! This is an interesting choice. I would not have thought of this one AT ALL. Why is it on this list?

The Steerswomen may be thoroughly secular humanist, but they certainly seem like a monastic order, and treat their work and their vows as sacred.

Well, well, I don’t know. They seem too secular to me to look much like a monastic order. Yet the precepts by which the Steerswomen live do seem rather like religious precepts, like the thing about never telling a lie and never providing answers to anyone who lies to them. Maybe this is a better choice than I thought at first.

Other books on this list:

4. The Five Gods series (Bujold) — I was waiting to pounce if those weren’t on this list. But not to worry, here they are. One of the best fictional religions out there.

5. Parable of the Sower (Butler) — SAA; I also had this one in mind.

Well, now it’s hard to add more titles to this list. Emrys got the two that leaped immediately to the top of my list. Yet I’m sure there must be others.

Okay, how about:

6. The Bene Gesserit in Dune. If the Steerswomen count, then surely the Bene Gesserit must.

7. How about the healers in Dreamsnake (McIntyre)? Don’t they sort of treat their calling as a religion, especially their handling of the little dreamsnakes?

8. A Thousand Nights (Johnston) — the shrines to the little gods made by praying to recently deceased people, that whole thing feels like a real cultural tradition. Of course praying to a living person and making her into a living god was the pivotal item for the whole plot. Very neat.

9. The Killing Moon / The Shadowed Sun (Jemisin) — the religious aspects to the worldbuilding felt deep and more or less real in this duology.

10. What am I missing? There must be a hundred others, right?

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6 Comments Invented religions

  1. Allan Shampine

    I’ve had some interesting debates with friends about whether a “religion” has to be theistic. A lot of people argue that it does not. As a practical example, secular (or naturalistic) buddhism is generally referred to as a religion even though I would personally classify it as a philosophy. Interestingly, some people classify atheism as a religion!

  2. SarahZ

    It’s obviously adapted from real world religions, but the Kushiel’s Dart books spring to mind. Their variation on judeo-christian faiths is interesting and integral to the plot.

  3. Rachel

    Good one, Sarah! I should have thought of that series. I wonder what others I’m forgetting?

    Allan, I guess we refer to some beliefs as religions because of no reason but historical contingency?

    If an atheist tries to convert theists to his belief that there is no God, I suppose the atheist is indeed acting like the evangelical member of a religion. Right?

  4. SarahZ

    Atheism is an active belief – in the lack/absence of something, but a belief all the same. But, I generally think of a religion as being beliefs + rituals/observances, and unless you count pastafarians, atheism doesn’t have that second part.

    Also, there’s lots of fantasy books where some pantheon of gods actually exist, but having a religion based on knowledge, not faith, almost seems like cheating. I did like the relationship between Eugenides and his god in the queen’s Thief series.

  5. Hanneke

    Sarahz, I get confused by people who consider atheism a belief. Why is believing something for which there is no objective proof isn’t there considered a “belief”, but only in the case of a deity?

    I don’t believe there’s an invisible bike in my shed, or an invisible icedragon prowling the mountains in the Himalayas killing disrespectful mountain climbers, or an invisible but lazy house-elf refusing to do my vacuuming even if I leave out chocolate cookies for it… none of those are considered to be a serious “belief” in the same way, although I’m just as convinced of their absense as I am of the absense of a deity, and in the same way: there’s no plausible proof of their presence that cannot be explained easier by other causes/means.

    I can see that others are comforted and sustained by their religions, and I wish them happiness from that. I see that humans are innately inclined to see patterns, seek explanations, tell stories, and try to get the feeling that they have some control over their lives; and that all this together sets humans up to invent and believe in deities; after which social learning, tribalism and cultural persistence will support the development and handing on of (organised) religious traditions.
    Thus I see that in the absense of better explanations and better ways to avoid negative life outcomes people are biologically set up to have somewhat of a tendency toward religiosity, as prayer or offerings can give a hope of influencing the outcomes of bad events.
    I can also see that religion as an organising principle for social support structures and charity can be important in societies which do not have adequate social safety nets embedded in their official (government-regulated and -supported) civil society; as research has shown, in countries with adequate safety nets for their citizens peoples religiosity declines, so there is at least some correlation there. Religion can be useful for social and financial support, and when that is the case, people are more likely to have religious beliefs.

    So I’m not against religion, though I also see clearly the many awful things religion has been (mis)used for over the centuries; I just get puzzled by religious people’s insistence that I must have one, because they have one, and thus everyone does or should.

    Sorry, but to me believing in (a) God(s) feels like believing in dragons or elves: fine while immersing oneself in the story, to enhance the experience; but it has nothing to do with real life in the real world, and the suspension of disbelief ends when I close the book.

    The next bit is not specifically for anyone here, just some musings triggered by many Americans’ insistence on religiosity as a necessity for being a good person, and statistics I’ve seen about how much Americans in general distrust anyone who’s an atheist (or even agnostic, which probably comes closer to what many European atheists/nonbelievers consider themselves to be: if I ever get undeniable proof that God exists, with my own eyes, I’ll change my mind; but until then I’m going with the premise that he doesn’t).

    I don’t need the fear of an all-seeing deity judging me in order to behave morally; the golden rule is enough for that. If everybody treats everybody else the way they themself would want to be treated, there is no need for divine rules. People are social animals who (mostly) want to get along together, and innately prefer fairness.
    (Of course this includes taking into account people’s preferences: if I love spinach and hate onions, and your tastes are the opposite, I will not feed you spinach to “technically” treat you the same way I’d want to be treated.)

    For all the positive things about religions, they do make it easy for believers to divide people up into true believers (who should be treated the same as I want to be treated, because they believe the same things I do and thus belong to my tribe) and “the others” (who do not believe as I do and thus don’t belong to my tribe, who can be exploited, waged war upon and mistreated unequally). This makes organised religions into powerful tools in any kind of power play.
    Generally at the same time they also set up their believers for manipulation by unscrupulous leaders, by preparing/conditioning their believers to believe what they’re told by the (religious) leaders without too much checking of the facts or looking for alternative explanations.

    For a nonbeliever like me, that’s a harder sell, as I accept as a fundamental fact that we’re all human and thus at a very basic level not so different (despite everyone being unique) – and thus *all* deserving of humane treatment.

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