A few weeks ago, I reviewed Samantha Ryan Chandler’s A Love Story: How God Pursued Me and Found Me, an Impossibly True Story. Later this summer I also plan to read and review Anne Rice’s Memnoch the Devil. For that reason, I think it’s time for me to broach a controversial subject: writing and religion.
Before I start, I should cover a couple matters. The first is a reminder to all my readers to conduct themselves civilly and maturely in the comments. I have not experienced any problems yet but I know that we are treading on uneasy ground with this topic, so I want people to remember that we encourage conversation and debate as long as everyone remains respectful.
Secondly, I want to provide a brief overview of my religious background and beliefs. I feel I should give you an idea about my beliefs so that you’ll understand where I’m coming from with this post. I’ll try not to ramble so bear with me:
I grew up in a non-religious household within a county dominated by Christians. My parents wanted me to be open-minded, at least my mother did, and so I have learned about as many religions as I can since I was a child. I attended religious release at a local Christian church in elementary school. I have also studied the Bible as literature and I find parts of it interesting. I have also read about other religions such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and other polytheistic religions, etc. Through self-reflection and deep thought, I decided, as my parents did, that Christianity does not encompass my beliefs, nor does any other religion.
I call myself “agnostic” because my beliefs do not fully fall under any established religion. There’s no accurate term for my beliefs. The best way to describe me would be to call me “spiritual” rather than “religious.” I believe that there is something greater than us which has a plan for everyone, even if we do not understand what that plan is. I call this thing the “universe” but I’m not sure what exactly it is. I also believe that other deities exist within the universe, deities generated by our individual beliefs, and they are real for those whom believe in them. I think every religion has its good and bad points, its values and hypocrisies, and so they are all simultaneously right and wrong.
I could write an entire book on my beliefs and maybe I will someday. For now, I’m going to continue with the original point of this post, writing and religion.
If you look at the ALA’s most frequently challenged books lists, you’ll see that many books have been challenged for “religious viewpoint.” This reason has been used for everything from the Bible to Twilight.
It’s so common to challenge a book on this basis because everything ever written is going to violate/offend at least one person’s religious beliefs. Honestly, it’s unavoidable. Not everyone believes the exact same thing so odds are you’ll offend someone if even a shred of your beliefs leak into your writing.
With that in mind, should we as writers try and avoid including our beliefs in our work? Should we separate writing and religion?
My answer, as I often say with questions of censorship, is no.
Religion is a part of the human experience. For thousands of years it’s helped us navigate the world, first to explain natural phenomenon and then to answer philosophical questions such as why we’re here. We may now be able to hear the voices of more religions–and those with no religion at all–but that doesn’t mean religion overall will leave any time soon. We’ll never have a definitive answer to everything and so humans will continue to use religion to make sense of the chaos.
Does that mean it should appear in writing?
Writing and religion are as intertwined as writing and politics. Religion makes writing interesting. Writing conveys and critiques religion. Hints of the writers’ religious beliefs, or at least religious beliefs which have held any influence on them, appear in poetry, non-fiction, and fiction. Even fantasy can be heavily influenced by the writer’s beliefs. (Just read some analyses of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia.)
I don’t think writers could remove everything that might be interpreted as religious influence even if we tried. Frankly, we slip in religious references without realizing it. I’m not Christian but it’s one of the religions I’ve encountered most, so it’s no surprise that once in a while I make subconscious symbolism based on the Holy Trinity or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I also draw heavily from polytheistic religions in my writing, especially fantasy pieces.
We can’t control what people see in our work. There’s an argument for Christian influence on Harry Potter, influences which could also easily be interpreted as coming from older mythologies and beliefs that predate Christianity. (The power of three is such an influence.) We may not intend to use certain religious references in a story but a reader may see them anyway. After all, it doesn’t matter what we mean to say so much as what people actually take from our writing.
I don’t think we should use writing to force our beliefs on others. There’s a difference between conveying/critiquing religion and violating another person’s right to their beliefs by shoving yours down their throats. That’s one reason I like Chandler’s book. It delivers the word of God without trying to force conversion, using scripture to raise people up rather than tear them down and make them feel miserable for existing.
Writers don’t need to exclude religion from writing. In fact, we shouldn’t. Religion, like politics, can add tension, obstacles for our characters, and deeper levels of meaning. However, it doesn’t mean that we have free license to violate other people’s rights. Freedom of expression and freedom of religion are important, so long as we do not harm others in the process.