Religion is an integral part of every society in this world, and thus it comes as no surprise that religion often features so prominently in fantasy literature, wherein authors construct imaginary worlds that must balance the fantastic with the believable in a way few other genres have to deal with. The issue I want to explore is how various authors approach this most delicate of human subjects. They say one should never discuss religion with the barber, but as cyberspace doesn’t have a razor blade in hand, I shall take my chances here.
My capitalization of the term “God” will strike some as idiosyncratic, I’m sure, but I’ve tried to consistently capitalize only when the term applies to the Judea-Christian God of our world. Any similar god in another fantasy universe is written in lowercase, unless such a parallel to the real-world God is implied, necessary, or explicit.
I must admit that I am surprised more fantasy worlds out there aren’t constructed around a purely atheistic framework. That statement sounds horribly vague to me, so let me try to explain further, for while I believe atheism manifests itself quite a bit in fantasy, it does so through the guise of the other forms of deity I’ve spoken of before (and will summarize at the end of this post). What I mean to examine here is the existence of actual atheistic cultures in fantasy; more than that, even, is the existence of purely atheistic universes.
The first of those two is easy enough to find in fantasy, though far from prevalent. Authors dream up fantasy universes, replete with races and gods, but somewhere there exists an atheistic culture. Christopher Paolini’s elves are an example. The Aarian Dominion of my book The Scion of Abacus is another. But in such worlds, there are those who believe in a god or in multiple gods. Sometimes the religion becomes a point of discussion, whether openly or more allegorically (as in Pullman’s His Dark Materials), and then we see the author’s worldview come to the fore—whether theist or atheist. I think in part the issue here is the modern writer’s perception of pre-modern cultures, which in our world are almost all religious.
I think it should be noted, though, that religion doesn’t necessitate belief in a god (Buddhism, for example), and we are talking atheism here in all its forms. That being said, I have yet to come across a properly Buddhism-like religion in fantasy. The closest thing I can point to is the Jedi “faith” of the Star Wars universe, but I am sure many would argue the finer points with me on that one–i.e. whether Jedi-ism(?) is in fact a religion at all.
Anyhow, given what appears to me an inordinately high number of progressive thinkers who are also fiction writers, I am surprised that we don’t see more purely atheistic universes. In other words, we don’t see god-less universes populated by knowing atheists. We do see god-less universes populated by people who believe in gods, but that is a quite different thing, and I have mentioned it periodically in the past posts. Alternatively, we do see quite a few fantasy worlds in which religion is entirely absent, but that is not the same thing as creating an atheistic universe. That is simply a story in which religion has no part in the conflict whatsoever.
I do wander what a purely atheistic universe would look like, and if there are books out there like that, I’d like someone to point me in their direction. I’ve never encountered one myself. Again, I think the issue here is one of preconceived notions of the pre-modern mindset, and pre-modern cultures are the primary sort found in fantasy. What we do see a lot of is worlds in which people believe in gods that are obviously false fairytales, and this is somehow extended to suggest all religion is fairytale. I think it is no mistake that most of these universes deal with polytheistic deities, for as I discussed in the last post, there seems an odd relationship between atheism and polytheism in their relationships to nature.
Now, I have failed utterly so far in the five previous posts to discuss the manner in which these religions manifest themselves functionally in the literature, in other words, not just the existence of gods but how people go about worshiping or serving them. We will take that subject up next week.