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Creating a Believable Religious Society: an ArmadilloCon 2004 panel

Panelists: C. J. Mills (moderator), Alexis Glynn Latner, Louise Marley, Wendy Wheeler, Elizabeth Moon, Uncle River

Synopsis, according to the ArmadilloCon program: You need a religious society for your work, but you have no idea where to begin and how complex you should make it. Should you have a couple of pages written down? Or should you make another book that describes the entire pantheon and religious rites?

Pictures from Armadillocon 2004 are available in my photo gallery.

Religion needs rituals to deal with dark aspects of life

Elizabeth Moon once wrote a character who grew up in very protected circumstances in a very "soft" religion, whose theology was mostly "let's be nice to everyone, and when we get upset, let's think of primary colors". Then she gets put in danger and has to kill somebody. Her religion does not approve killing, but what's worse, she discovers she likes killing. And her religion has no rituals for dealing with this other than "get back in harmony". Just like our religion didn't have rituals to deal with when a child has been sexually abused, etc. So her religion doesn't provide her a way to get back to being a good person, because this religion really condemns killing and it is inconceivable for it that someone can be a happy killer. "And if you tried to make a ritual in a rush, it will most likely be a ritual that does not work long term, that cannot be sustained," she says.

(As far as her own religious beliefs, Elizabeth Moon says she is episcopalian.)

A guy in the audience says it's a challenge to create a religion for a human society, but it's even a bigger challenge to create a religion for an alien society. He asks whether any of the panelists have tried it.

Louise Marley says she has tried in a way, in her work about children on a rediscovered colony planet. She looked into what are some of the elements of a religion: trying to connect to a sacrificial figure, a protector. But her civilization wasn't really alien. She thinks that creating an alien religion has the same challenge as creating an alien society: if you make it truly alien, no one will understand what you're talking about.

Likely features of an alien religion

Elizabeth Moon thinks most intelligent creatures will have a sense of sacred related to their children, to procreation, unless in some cases when the creatures are marine, and one sex puts sperm into the ocean, the other sex puts eggs and then they connect. But most societies consider aggression against children a sacrilege. So Elizabeth Moon's aliens, even though they didn't have a sacrificial figure, were territorial and were protective of their young, and that was a part of their religion. Seeking knowledge also had a high value in their religion. Hunting for knowledge was equivalent for hunting for food.

A challenge to SF writers: portraying alien religions in a limited number of words

Elizabeth Moon. It's hard when you have several religions in a society, and you have to describe all of them in a limited number of words, imposed by your editor. That's one of the things that SF writers deal with that mainstream writers don't have to deal with. If the story takes place in Manhattan, you don't have to explain to the reader what Manhattan is, but if it takes place in an alien society, you need to give the reader an adequate idea of what that society and its religion is. And you still have to have a plot on top of it! And the information should not come in infodumps, otherwise the reader will find it boring.

A guy in the audience. How do you give enough information about an alien religion or a society without overloading the reader with information?

Alexis Glynn Latner. If you find yourself effing the ineffable, you've probably gone too far. (Audience laughs.)

The number of invented religions should be kept to a minimum

Tammy (in the audience) thinks that creating more than one religion in a novel is too much work not only for the writer but also for the reader, to keep track of them. She thinks 5 religions could be justified only in a big fat trilogy, and even then she would introduce no more than 2 religions per book.

Some guy in the audience thinks a space-faring Amish society is a killer idea. He finds it so amusing he repeats it several times.

Why are characters' religious beliefs conspicuously absent from SF

C. J. Mills thinks it's because most of the classic SF was written by young white males, and a lot of young white males are militantly atheist (or militantly libertarian, which, in her opinion, is the same thing).

More on the same topic: my blog post on Religion In Worldbuilding panel at ArmadilloCon 2010.