Religion in SF/Fantasy

At Confluence this year, I attended a panel on “7 Things Every SF/Fantasy Novel Always Includes,” which was, as partially intended, a good overview of things a speculative fiction novel needs: a fantastical element, solid world-building, history, etc. Mostly, it was mundane stuff and a good checklist for whether one’s SF/Fantasy novel is missing something readers expect.

But one item that cropped up at the end caught me off guard: religion. The panelists commented that religion was in most speculative fiction, and then the panel wrapped up.

My gut reaction was to snap out, “Oh no it isn’t!” then “That’s only because the MICE worldbuilding guidelines said to!”

Good thing I didn’t. Trying to find an article on the internet that shows religion as a part of Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient turned up nothing. Somewhere, sometimes, though, I did read an article like that, and many unrelated worldbuilding discussions recommend religion as a means of ensuring that characters’ beliefs are addressed in the fictional world’s framework.

A lot of good books use religion to good effect:

  • J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings
  • Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (and any other urban fantasy in which faith can harm vampires)
  • Star Wars
  • Nat Russo’s Necromancer Awakening

A lot of good books don’t seem to touch religion:

  • Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game
  • Lev Grossman’s The Magicians
  • Stephanie Meyer’s The Host 

Don’t get me wrong: establishing a religion or several within a fictional world is an excellent way to systematically explore a society’s ethics and hypocrisies. Establishing ethics different from over-represented Judeo-Christian standards is an excellent way to make a society feel alien, especially to those of that Judeo-Christian persuasion.

But does it have to be in every book?

Should it?

Not every book should focus on the high or low points of religion in society. As atheism and agnosticism become more accepted and prevalent, readers are less and less likely to feel connected to a spiritually-motivated character. In fact, I imagine many readers struggling to establish or reevaluate their beliefs might get turned off to a book with religion as a matter of course.

If you’re going to do it well, you can suck a reader in, regardless of whether they agree with you. If you’re not going to do religion well, because your book is about something else, perhaps don’t bother.
As for my series, religion has been overdone in similar books. If I’m going to touch on it, it has to be new and well-integrated. Until I can fathom how to pull it off, I’m not touching it.

But it shouldn’t be included “just ‘cause.”