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Thread: 'Not real' religions/beliefs

  1. #1
    figuring it all out Flanderso's Avatar
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    'Not real' religions/beliefs

    I'm currently working on a story where the people about which I am writing have a steadfast belief in spirits. However, these spirits do not in fact exist in their universe; it is just the people's way of explaining the world around them.

    The issue I have as the author is conveying this to the reader. Now, I don't want to explicitly say that these spirits are merely a product of the character's culture but I am trying to find a way to drop in hints to the reader. I have written a bit of an info dump that is preceded by something like "the ways of the spirits can be summed up by any knowledgeable shaman thusly:", and then i go on to describe a bit about them - so in other words, it is not the narrator describing them but one of the people in the book.

    Are there any examples of this in other fantasy books? Or all all mentioned religions/beliefs considered to be "real"? This is one thing I don't quite understand about ASOIAF - there's a few different religions but are they coexisting, or have some people in the books just got it wrong?

  2. #2
    figuring it all out
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    I would find it more interesting to be kept in the dark about that as a reader, to have to keep guessing whether they're real or not.

    Look at the real world - atheism vs. religions. One character says the spirits did it. Another says they didn't, it's all hokum. Who is right? If you scatter fantasy/supernatural elements throughout the story, but also have a few phenomena to be discovered as simple laws of nature - now that'd be an interesting conflict.

    I don't know what your story is about, but I enjoy things more if they're not quite as clear cut from the start.

    In the case you described, the easiest solution would probably be to have a character, as mentioned above, discover a thing as a natural law previously assumed to be done by spirits.
    Last edited by Eilyfe; 10-13-2017 at 04:31 PM.

  3. #3
    Not as sweet as you think Aggy B.'s Avatar
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    You don't have to explain it. And, really, in order to explain it you would need a character within the world who figures it out.

    You can, if you want, hint at it though. The way you tell the story will give the reader the idea that maybe these things aren't magic but merely coincidence or wishful thinking.

    I wrote a book last year where most of the people believe in the gods, but there is no magic, no instance of divine intervention. There is some centuries old and highly advanced tech that only a few understand. (Most of the societies no longer use electricity for anything because they believe it was "the Spark" that gave Machine sentience. Which turns out not to be what happened, but there's a disconnect between the available knowledge and the actual history - some of it deliberately muddied by certain factions within the world.)
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    Mostly harmless SuperModerator dpaterso's Avatar
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    If the characters believe it then it's real, don't get between them and the reader and explain "these spirits do not exist in their universe." SAYS WHO? Respect their customs and traditions, don't be that doubting guy, no one likes him.

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  5. #5
    practical experience, FTW
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    Is the fact that the spirits aren't real is important in any way, shape, or form to the story? If it isn't, they my honest suggestion would be to simply don't touch the subject.

    Plus, if need comes that you REALLY feel like saying something about it casually, you can always just bring up the fact that the spirits don't always work or something. Just an idea.

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  6. #6
    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    If the non-reality of this world's religious entities is significant to your story, it will emerge organically as the story advances and you reach the points where this fact becomes significant.

    If it's not significant to your story, why do you want to belabor the point? In the real world whether religious entities are "real" or "not real" is a question that most people don't worry about much and in any case there is no way to determine it on a purely factual basis -- even the arguments of committed atheists are largely founded on belief rather than proof, because (as any philosopher will explain) there's really no way to *prove* a negative, the most that can be proven is that no evidence for the positive has yet been presented.

    So you, as the creator of your story universe, can decree externally that the religions the characters follow are bunk. If you're writing in an omniscient pov you can come right out and say so. If any of your characters are skeptics, non-believers, freethinkers, etc. they can present their doubts, either as explicit arguments or by demonstrating their skeptical attitude in their thoughts, observations, actions, etc. as appropriate to the story you're telling.

    I don't think it's necessary to hold fantasy religions to a higher standard of proof or reality than real world ones. Very few people in the world today have ever personally witnessed a miracle or any unambiguous intervention of the divine in real life. Yet billions go through life with strong religious beliefs sustained only by faith (& by the confirmation bias & other cognitive biases that shape the experience of every human). Is any of it real? Who says? If it isn't, but there's still no proof (see above), what changes? Nothing.

  7. #7
    figuring it all out Flanderso's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Eilyfe View Post
    I would find it more interesting to be kept in the dark about that as a reader, to have to keep guessing whether they're real or not.
    Which is what I am trying to do while trying not make the reader believe that the spirits do exist and are just uncaring jerks who don't respond to prayer.

  8. #8
    figuring it all out Flanderso's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dpaterso View Post
    SAYS WHO?
    I says who. But my issue is that if these spirits exist in the way the people in the story assume they exist, then I have the problem of trying to explain their inactivity. If they really did exist, then when my characters make an offering or prayer that goes unanswered, then I would need to explain why.

  9. #9
    Resist. Love. Go outside. Marlys's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Flanderso View Post
    I says who. But my issue is that if these spirits exist in the way the people in the story assume they exist, then I have the problem of trying to explain their inactivity. If they really did exist, then when my characters make an offering or prayer that goes unanswered, then I would need to explain why.
    Unanswered prayers happen all the time in our world with little loss of faith. Just have the characters believe that their entities work in mysterious ways and/or have a greater plan that mere mortals aren't privy to.

  10. #10
    It's perfectly okay for the answer to a prayer to be "no" or "not yet" or "not the way you think". The people who get discouraged when their prayers aren't answered in exactly the way they expect them to be are often the ones who confuse God with Santa Claus.

  11. #11
    just a literary gearhead shortstorymachinist's Avatar
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    As a reader, books that present me with questions -- forcing me to think about them and examine them -- will usually be more engaging than books that provide answers.

    In your case, I wouldn't really care if the spirits didn't answer prayers, because I can think of all sorts of reasons a supernatural being might not answer. Plus, if I knew for certain the spirits didn't exist, it would make that particular fantasy world a lot simpler and less thought provoking than the real world I currently live in. While fantasy books are often an escape from the real world, I think it's also important that they're just as engaging. When answers about the supernatural are provided for the reader with no room for questioning, I feel like it only forces the atheist/religious characters into the role of willfully ignorant, prideful counterpoint for the main characters to feel superior towards. And that feels kind of flat.
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    Swooping is bad. mpack's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Flanderso View Post
    Are there any examples of this in other fantasy books? Or all all mentioned religions/beliefs considered to be "real"? This is one thing I don't quite understand about ASOIAF - there's a few different religions but are they coexisting, or have some people in the books just got it wrong?
    So far at least, ASOIAF has remained vague on the "reality" of the religions. Given that they have overlapping truth claims, they can't all be true in a categorical sense, but that doesn't deny their validity for the characters involved in their worship. Catelyn Stark, for example, seems to have a genuine belief in the Seven. She prays, she questions, she struggles with faith and doubt. From a reader's PoV, her character struggle is more relevant than the objective reality of the Seven -- if objective reality even has an applicable meaning in this sense. Contrast her expression of faith with the High Sparrow's, however. Comparatively, Mellisandre believes in the Red God with intense fervor, and again it is her belief that matters for the story. I believe GRRM is more interested in the experiences of characters in relationship with religion than he is about the truth claims of those religions.

    I've adopted a similar position with my own writing. I write about what the characters believe, not an abstract objectivity. Even if a given entity exists, there may remain questions about its precise nature (possessing great power may not make a being a deity in a monotheistic sense.)

  13. #13
    practical experience, FTW themindstream's Avatar
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    Religion is a personal thing and so I'm going to ask you a couple personal questions. I will not ask you to answer them in your replies, just consider what your answers are and how they relate to your conception of the story. If they don't really apply to you at all then don't mind me and carry on. All literary writing is, at some level, personal.

    Are you a person of faith yourself? If so, does your worry come from not wanting to appear to give credence to faiths that don't align with your own? My response to you if this were the case is that readers, especially fantasy readers, are pretty good at understanding that this is fiction and that in a fictional world, anything goes. If it is then plot-relevant that the existence of the spirits be denied, that, as mentioned, will take care of itself. (And if the gods existing is a plot point they will manifest appropriately.)

    Are you an atheist/skeptic instead? Are you uncomfortable treating your character's beliefs as sincere when you know it's superstition? Then I believe mpack's answer above is the most relevant: it's not about whether the faith is true, it's about how faith shapes the characters. Faith can have good effects as well as bad, it can feed civil rights campaigns as well as holy wars. My personal rule for dealing with religious faith in the real world is "as long as you aren't trying to push your beliefs on me/others, believe what you want." If the faith of your characters is bringing about negative consequences in the story then it certainly makes sense to start drawing attention to the questions raised by that; if not then there is little farm in leaving it be.

    For what it's worth, I have been on both sides of this coin and currently fall on the latter.

    In any case, I suggest reading up on real world shamanistic beliefs, Shinto being the one that jumps to my mind as being both actively practiced and well documented. Look at how they deal with the questions of what happens when the spirits don't answer...and keep in mind that not all religions assume that the spirits are benevolent or omnipotent.

    One more thing: there's a quote from a rabbi which my aunt clipped out of a newspaper and has stuck on her fridge. It might be relevant. I don't remember the source nor enough of the exact quote to Google it but it went like this: Those who pray for things like money, success, health and so on rarely get them. Those that pray for hope, courage and strength will certainly have their prayers answered.
    Last edited by themindstream; 10-13-2017 at 11:31 PM.
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  14. #14
    Friendly Neighborhood Mustelidae The Otter's Avatar
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    I agree that it could be more interesting to leave it ambiguous and up to the reader's interpretation, but one method to introduce doubt could be to have a skeptical character who either doesn't believe in the spirits or is uncertain about their existence. Once the doubt is introduced and the readers see the lack of hard evidence for the spirits' existence, they will make the logical leap themselves.
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  15. #15
    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    In the real world, it's never entirely clear whether or not the things various religions believe are objectively real or not. As an agnostic, I always have a list of scientific explanations for spiritual experiences or paranormal phenomena, but other people insist they're real and I'm being deliberately obtuse or disrespectful.

    I can't imagine why things would be different in a fantasy world. In fantasy, of course, there are ways to show a reader that something supernatural is objectively real within that world--such as having an actual spirit or god manifest in the story and interact with a character, or to have such an entity do something that has a real effect that is inexplicable by any other means.

    There are also ways to keep the reader guessing, such as having the person interact with spirits from a trance state or in a dream and to heave the effects be more open to interpretation. Hints can point in the direction of it being a subjective experience that might not be grounded in empirical reality, but there would always be a question, just as there is in the real world. First-person (and sometimes limited third) narrators can be unreliable too, though this isn't usually done with omniscient narration.

    I can't think of a way to make it objectively clear to the reader that a given belief is unfounded in the reality of the created world without invoking an external, all-knowing omniscient narrator who tells the reader this. I tend to write from first or limited third, so any "objective" facts stated in the narrative are really subjective--the perceptions or beliefs of the pov character.

    Only you can decide if there's a story-relevant reason the reader *needs* to know that a given culture's beliefs are patently false within the story world. It might be more fun to leave it up in the air, but that would also depend on the nature of the story.
    Last edited by Roxxsmom; 10-14-2017 at 12:05 AM.
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  16. #16
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    you're projecting your own objective view onto something which is largely considered subjective.

    If you want it to be explicitly, objectively the case that those religions are false, then you need to have a REALLY good explanation for why people believe it anyway. Differing beliefs persist precisely because they cannot be proved wholly true or false, beyond every shadow of doubt; you are saying you want to remove that, therefore I question how these obviously false beliefs would have such a strong hold.

    And yes religion has been done a lot. Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny probably handles it incomparably well; it is about a false Hinduism set up by those with technology to control those who don't.
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  17. #17
    figuring it all out Flanderso's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by shortstorymachinist View Post
    if I knew for certain the spirits didn't exist, it would make that particular fantasy world a lot simpler and less thought provoking than the real world I currently live in.
    But if the people rely on non-existant spirits to help them and guide them, then that'll lead to big problema, which is kind of what I'm aiming for.

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    All the nopes. lizmonster's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Flanderso View Post
    But if the people rely on non-existant spirits to help them and guide them, then that'll lead to big problema, which is kind of what I'm aiming for.
    My opinion only, but: if the characters' reliance on false gods is an important part of your story, then you absolutely do not want to "as you know, Bob" your reader about the issue. You want them to realize it as you tell the story.

  19. #19
    Preparing for winter VeryBigBeard's Avatar
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    Perhaps consult that compendium of knowledge and wisdom, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

    As others have said, a lot of this depends on how you want to tell the story.

    But there's absolutely no rule against randomly explaining aspects of your world, theistic or otherwise, if you do it well enough.

  20. #20
    figuring it all out Flanderso's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by themindstream View Post
    Are you a person of faith yourself?
    I am not. You do bring up a lot of points that I hope I have addressed in the book. I am kind of endeared to the people in my story, and at no point is there any mocking of their beliefs. All characters maintain their belief throughout the story, though some do question it. They are an almost primitive people, so I wanted to make sure that there was no out-of-place enlightenment going on where someone discovera 'the truth'.

    There are characters that go out of their way to curry favour with the spirits who get nothing in return while there are others who give a grateful and heartfelt thanks and are rewarded with luck or bouts of bravery, or so they think.

    I know the spirits don't exist in this world but ambiguity is the key here. People in my story end up doing remarkable things because they think they have been blessed with courage. I want the reader left wondering if the strength they receieved was through divine or their own will.

  21. #21
    Have pen, will travel Cindyt's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Flanderso View Post
    I'm currently working on a story where the people about which I am writing have a steadfast belief in spirits. However, these spirits do not in fact exist in their universe; it is just the people's way of explaining the world around them.

    The issue I have as the author is conveying this to the reader. Now, I don't want to explicitly say that these spirits are merely a product of the character's culture but I am trying to find a way to drop in hints to the reader. I have written a bit of an info dump that is preceded by something like "the ways of the spirits can be summed up by any knowledgeable shaman thusly:", and then i go on to describe a bit about them - so in other words, it is not the narrator describing them but one of the people in the book.

    Are there any examples of this in other fantasy books? Or all all mentioned religions/beliefs considered to be "real"? This is one thing I don't quite understand about ASOIAF - there's a few different religions but are they coexisting, or have some people in the books just got it wrong?
    I'd leave the belief subject to character and reader opinion. You can do this with pro and con POVs, offering evidence on both sides. Otherwise, I'd keep the truth hidden until it's time to pull it out of the hat.
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    figuring it all out Flanderso's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roxxsmom View Post

    There are also ways to keep the reader guessing, such as having the person interact with spirits from a trance state or in a dream and to heave the effects be more open to interpretation. Hints can point in the direction of it being a subjective experience that might not be grounded in empirical reality, but there would always be a question, just as there is in the real world.
    Funny you should say that, I do have a shaman going into a trance, but again, as he has inhaled a lot of toxic fumes from the fire, this should suggest that any visions he sees is merely chemically induced.

  23. #23
    Not so new, really dirtsider's Avatar
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    Miracles aren't going to come with a ton of bells and whistles and fireworks. If your fantasy uses spirits to explain how things happen in nature, they're look at miracles in a more subtle manner, what you might think of as coincidence. For example, your MC may be running away from an enemy over a bridge. Lightning strikes out of an apparently clear sky and takes out the bridge just as the enemy starts to cross it. Your MC, fearing for his/her life and probably preying up a storm (pun intended), takes this as the spirits granting a miracle. S/he isn't going to believe that the lightning strike was just a fluke.

  24. #24
    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Flanderso View Post
    I says who. But my issue is that if these spirits exist in the way the people in the story assume they exist, then I have the problem of trying to explain their inactivity. If they really did exist, then when my characters make an offering or prayer that goes unanswered, then I would need to explain why.
    People pray all the time and don't get an answer -- that doesn't stop them praying or believing. (Sometimes God says No.) Often people see a response to their prayers where an outside observer sees nothing in particular -- that's the confirmation bias at work, people look for what they are expecting, and tend to find it where they look.

    It may be that where you say the spirits are doing nothing, your characters see plenty of signs of their activity. Or where the spirits do not respond to prayers & offerings, it's because they have insufficient faith, or didn't follow the forms correctly, or the spirits are punishing them for some other reason, or they may have misinterpreted the signs that the spirits sent in response and need to look harder, or they should have known better than to bother the spirits with triviality ands should reserve their requests for things that are really Important.

    Unanswered prayers, IOW, seldom if ever shake a person's sincerely held beliefs. No narrative explanation is needed.
    Last edited by benbenberi; 10-14-2017 at 01:46 AM.

  25. #25
    practical experience, FTW themindstream's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Flanderso View Post
    They are an almost primitive people, so I wanted to make sure that there was no out-of-place enlightenment going on where someone discovera 'the truth'.
    This is a diversion from your topic but it needs addressing: It sounds like you are assuming that people from so-called "primitive" cultures can't become skeptics or in any other way were fundamentally different from modern humans. (Edit: though on re-reading I see you did try to couch it in qualifiers.) That sets warning bells off in my head. This is a common prejudice and it's not my goal to make you feel bad over it but it needs to be recognized as one.

    Lately I've been reading about India and Hinduism in the name of character research. Hinduisim is the oldest major religion in the world and it has an old and lively tradition of skepticism and theological inquiry. One of the best known offshoots of this tradition happens to be another major world religion, Buddhism. Buddhism in itself does not require belief or worship in any gods, although its followers have tended to adapt their local deities and practices into the faith wherever Buddhism has spread.

    Conversely, modern culture is full of the kinds of beliefs you might label "primitive", ranging from genuine faith to base quackery. Faith healing, astrology, (Holy) spirit possession, ritualized dancing and speaking in tongues, etc.

    Obviously the further back you go the harder it is to find records that contradict the orthodoxy, if records were kept at all. But what you will find, the more you look, is that while culture and civilization have changed, the human brain has not. And nowhere on Earth is there any place where every person in a culture shares the same devotion to a religion as every other.

    If pre-industrial, pre-enlightenment cultures are a topic you're interested in I will heartily recommend my current favorite book on the topic. It is a long and dense read but goes a long way into exploring how different circumstances shape different cultures.
    Last edited by themindstream; 10-14-2017 at 02:22 AM.
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