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Religion (Photo credit: Rickydavid)

A few years ago, I read an entertaining book on screenwriting called Save the Cat.  The author, Blake Snyder, aside from laying out his screenwriting format, also included a bunch of tips and tricks.  “Save the cat” is actually a catch-phrase for one of these tips, referring to the fact that heroes are more likable when they do nice things, so if the hero can save a cat in danger or perform some other random act of kindness in the first few minutes of a movie, the audience rallies behind him.

Snyder also included another tip called “Avoid double mumbo jumbo,” by which he meant: Do not stretch the minds of viewers in multiple directions.   Suspension of disbelief only gives you one fantastic thing (or “bit of magic” as he called it) per story, so if you put more than one weird thing in a story people will have a hard time swallowing it.  His example?  The movie Signs, where aliens show up and Mel Gibson does some serious thinking about God.  His verdict?  Mixing aliens and religion is a bad idea.  A very bad idea, because you only get one “bit” of magic per story, and aliens and God both fit into the “magic” box.

When I read this, I could see Snyder’s point, but at the same time, I didn’t like it, because it seemed to be another way of saying, “Religious beliefs in fiction belong on the ‘Religion’ shelf, and putting them somewhere else, like science fiction or fantasy, is just WRONG.”  It sounds like the aggressive scientific atheist who just wants all the “religious nuts” to shut up.

Naturally, being a si-fi and fantasy writer (though not a film writer), I’ve thought for a while about the place of religion in science fiction and/or fantasy since then, and I’ve had a few thoughts of my own that I would like to tack on to Snyder’s caution.

First of all, I think the “one bit of magic” might be better described as “one kind of magic,” that is, one thing that distinguishes the story world from an accepted reality that everybody, religious not not, can agree on.  So if you say that in your story world, unicorns are real, its okay to bring in magic and other creatures of legend, because you’re filling your story world with the same type of “magic,” the magic of ancient folklore.  If you say that your world has wonderfully advanced technology that we don’t know how to create at this time, then it’s also okay to write about more than one technological development, because the different technologies are the same “kind” of story magic.

Second of all, you actually do get a chance to fit more than one kind of magic into a story sometimes, if you begin with a world that’s already different from ours.  An example of this is Star Wars, where we know about the aliens and the weird technology from the very beginning.  They’re part of the story world accepted by all the characters, so we accept them too.  Then we find out about the Force, which not everybody accepts, but which, based on what we can see, appears to be real.  If Blake Snyder’s rule held in this case, Star Wars would have been a major flop.  But the reason Star Wars DIDN’T flop was that there was only one kind of magic from the point of view of the characters.  Everybody was going about their normal lives, dealing with a inter-planetary war, etc, and then this one religion turned out to be real.  Weird, but not too weird for the audience to stomach.

Thirdly, there’s a big difference between writing about religions that some people still follow today, and writing about science fiction and fantasy.  When you write a story about magic, people assume you’re just having fun imagining what would happen if magic did exist; they don’t take it to mean you think magic actually works unless you tell them that in the author’s note.  But if you write a story about a bunch of Muslims being blessed by Allah, people will take your story to mean that you’re a Muslim yourself and you want them to convert.  People have FUN with science fiction and fantasy, but they participate in their religions for much more serious reasons.  So while it’s one thing to mix science fiction with the Force, it’s another thing to mix it with Christianity or Buddhism.  When you do that, it comes across as though you’re telling the readers, “If aliens were real, then religion X would be true.”

This sounds pretty ridiculous, and is, in fact, potentially demeaning to religion X, because the aliens aren’t something that a lot of people take seriously, but religion X is.  It’s as though you were saying, “And X would be real if pigs could fly.”  Logically, since pigs can’t fly, you’ve actually said nothing at all about X, but by way of emotion, you’ve just made X look pretty stupid.

However, lest you think that the fantastic and the religious can never mix, let me add one last point.  Characters are entitled to their own beliefs.  If the characters live in our world, or in our world plus a bunch aliens landing, or vampires being real, or in our world several hundred years from now in a post apocalyptic future, then it makes perfect sense for some of them to be Catholic, some to be Protestant, some to be Jewish….  In fact, it would be weird if these religions didn’t show up, because they’re here in real life.

I think this is part of the reason that religious people are concerned about how un-religious mainstream fiction is at the moment.  Most people are religious, or at least “spiritual” in some way, but by leaving decent religious characters out of mainstream fiction, the media makes it look as though religion belongs in a box, to be practiced by weird fanatics, instead of out in the real world like it is today, and this bothers religious people.

Are there wrong ways to mix religion with other “bits of magic?”  Yes.  One is to make the whole story be “about” a specific, real religion and a fantastical element at the same time.  Another is to (in a non-allegorical work) have some not-from-our-world character belong to a religion with the same teachings as one of ours (because that, of course, is the same thing as saying “if there were multiple worlds, religion X would be true in ALL of them”).  However, there are also right ways to mix religion with other story “magic.”  You can have all the religious characters you want as long as you don’t use the story to imply that their religion is true.  And sometimes you can imply in a fantasy or si-fi story that a certain religion is true, as long as: a) everything else fantastic in the story was already understood to be true by all the main characters and b) the religion itself is a fictional one.

So, go ahead.  It’s okay to be religious in a fantasy novel.  Really, it’s okay.