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I am a Christian of a conservative evangelical stripe.  (If it matters to you, I lean to the Calvinist end of the Christian theological spectrum.)  I am not ashamed of this.

I also love to read and write science fiction and fantasy.  I am not ashamed of this.

This is not a contradiction in terms, or an oxymoron, or a paradox, or an antinomy, or any other such condition.  Sorry, it’s not.  This is, however, leading me to scratch a particular itch that has been bugging me for a loooooong time.

No, I’m not going to indulge in a theological rant.  Not my purpose here.  Nor do I intend to delve into issues of morality, ethics, doctrine, or comparative theology.  (Contact me off line if you want to have that kind of discussion.)  I’m not even going to discuss whether or not religion should be a part of whatever cultural world building you do.  (Although that would be an interesting discussion in its own right.)  What I do want to do is raise a few points about how religion is portrayed in fiction-or more specifically, how people of faith are portrayed in fiction.

As I have admitted, I read mostly science fiction and fantasy.  In the last (mumble) years, I have noticed a trend.  It’s more prevalent, I believe, in science fiction and modern urban and paranormal fantasy than it is in more general or high/epic/quest fantasies.

There has always been a tendency for science fiction as a genre to treat religion as if it is irrelevant.  But increasingly of late, I see stories where characters who are people of strong religious faith are consistently described as if they are either congenital idiots who are so stupid that they willfully believe in things that are patent falsehoods, or they are amoral connivers and hucksters, or they are amoral religious fanatics whose most fervent desire is to destroy anyone and everything that does not fit their very narrow viewpoint of what is right and proper.  I as a reader am left with the implication that the only reasonable people around are those who are not religious.

Granted, religion has from time immemorial been a haven for con-men to take advantage of their credulous neighbors.

Granted, a lot of people today go through the religious motions just so they can find social or business or political advantages.

Granted, institutionalized religion has been involved in a good many wrongs over the centuries.

This does not mean, however, that all people who are truly believers in whatever they profess must necessarily fall into those categories.  The majority of people of faith are good people, moral people, who care about what’s right and wrong and care about other people.  That’s been true throughout history, and is still true today.  To consistently portray them as a whole as mentally deficient, as power-hungry despots, or as wolves preying on sheep is unrealistic.  An individual character can be credulous, or venal, or fanatical as the story demands, but an entire class of characters shouldn’t be.  It’s sloppy world building.  It makes for cardboard cutout two-dimensional characters, which in turn makes for sloppy writing and two-dimensional stories.

It’s not dishonest to write stories about characters whose beliefs are different from your own.  Eric Flint makes no secret that he’s an atheist, yet many of his characters in the 1632 series are accurately and warmly portrayed in their religious beliefs.  I’ve read that David Weber is a lay Methodist speaker, and I know from personal correspondence that he is a man of Christian faith of some depth, yet he has skillfully portrayed characters in several of his Honor Harrington novels of a level of religious or political fanaticism that would rival the worst we’ve seen in real life in the last twenty years.  And personally, I wrote a story in which the bad guy was totally amoral and a rapist.  (And yes, I was very glad to get that story done so I could get him out of my head!)  Yet I promise you that his nature and beliefs were not consonant with mine.

It is dishonest, however, to write stories about characters and not portray them fully.  It is dishonest to craft characters and tar them with the brush of all the excesses and sins committed by others under a particular banner (be it Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Republican, Democrat, atheist) but not give them credit for their virtues.  Even out and out villains have some virtues-how much more should regular people have?

And in the end, it makes for boring reading.  Really.

Is the same thing happening in other genres?


First published on July 6, 2011.