Writing gods I don’t believe in: how atheism gets along with fantasy

Fantasy stories love using powerful beings — gods, deities, or any other name they might go by. All-powerful beings can be a tool for shaping the story. The god(s) might serve a worldbuilding purpose, highlighting the characters’ beliefs and morals. Or the declaration of, “By Gelfingledor’s blessings!” could just be a road sign warning that there’s fantasy content ahead.

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Do these gods ever align with the author’s personal values? Sometimes. One of the more well-known examples is C.S. Lewis and his Chronicles of Narnia; the lion Aslan is strongly similar to Jesus Christ, and Lewis confirmed that thought. J.R.R. Tolkien was also Christian, but he chose not to overtly mention the faith in Lord of the Rings. It’s there in more subtle ways like the way his Middle Earth characters describe evil. And I’m sure there are some authors who just straight-up have their fantasy folk believe in the Christian God. Fiction doesn’t perfectly represent its author’s views, opinions or background, but it’s hard for a big issue like religion to not make it in there.

Personally, I’m an atheist. I grew up in a vaguely-predominantly-Christian environment, and my agnostic parents pretty much declined to comment except to tell me not to say things like, “oh my God”. But even as a child, commanded to say the Lord’s Prayer each morning in first grade, I recall feeling sceptical at the idea of almighty God being constantly present for no particular reason. It didn’t seem comforting to me, just weird and unsettling. Why was this guy watching me and why did he care if I recited some poem thing? (I didn’t trust the idea of Santa Claus or the Easter bunny, either. Thought it seemed fishy that my parents would blithely allow magic people to break into our house.)

 

Logic, science and happenstance have always been my preferred approaches to explaining this world of ours. I particularly like the way science is humble enough to admit that it’s wrong sometimes. Things we accept as fact — like gravity, and the relativity of energy and matter — are still called “theories” because our human awareness is flawed and we might not have all the details 100% accurate. Not yet, anyway.

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To err is human, to check one’s work is a more conscientious version of human, I guess.

So it seems weird sometimes that I’ve made this Aligare world with gods in it, and characters mentioning their race’s patron god. Who am I to write about these things? I don’t get what it’s like to honour a god with all my heart. I mean, I can logically suppose why a person would find religion comforting and fulfilling, but it’s not something I feel myself. At times, it feels a little like I’m being profane. Not the posting-cantankerous-swear-words-on-Twitter kind of profane, or even the using-phrases-like-“oh my god”-as-figures-of-speech kind of profane. I mean really insulting something that other people do. Especially toward polytheistic religions I haven’t had a lot of exposure to.

I tried to make this world’s faith seem believable. But  I didn’t entirely notice how I had handled the religion issue until a Remedy reader pointed it out: the Aligare characters tend to believe strongly in their gods, and they tell detailed stories of how things work, but the reader is still free to interpret the world in their own way. Take this passage, for example:

The legend Rose told was the story of the High Gods’ great feud, a thousand lifetimes before they agreed to share the Great Gem. That was what the legend sounded like to Tillian, anypace, from the few phrases she listened to; she didn’t know any other legends that mentioned a banished god trapped in electricstone, deep in the earth. Great Dark spent a forever down there, alone as Bright intended. Both of them stewed and resented. Dark broke free and they lashed out at each other until they were tired enough to regret, and regretful enough to forgive.

With that, the time of hostility was over. The High Gods talked away their troubles and worked together, and that was how it still was to this day. Everyone knew that legend by the time they could walk, aemet and korvi and ferrin alike. It was a pleasant story to listen to, a blanket spun from familiar yarn. Even if it sent a pang through Tillian’s heart every time, thinking of great Dark’s time in a cage.

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 11

That feud between Bright and Dark might have been an actual event. Or maybe the “gods” and their feud was a misunderstanding, like how humans mistook manatees for fantastic mermaids. Or the gods might be just fictional characters in fables — a morality lesson and nothing more. All of those interpretations work, and all of them would fit the blind spots Rose and Tillian have from growing up in exclusively Aligare culture. Just because the characters have magic powers doesn’t mean that everything they say is literally true. The reader can perceive Aligare books in any way that makes sense to them, whether that reader is atheist, agnostic or a devout believer of something.

On this blog, I state plenty of facts and lore about the Aligare world. But ultimately, writing is communication, and communication is a two-way street. I suggest that the gripthia sickness could be a bacterial infection, while Rose Tellig believes it’s a monstrous, invisible demon: the reader decides what to make of that contradiction. I’m not here to shove a message down anyone’s throat. (Don’t even get me started on English courses that order you to interpret a book a certain way. The main character’s blue shirt is a metaphor for sadness and if you don’t see it that way, you’re wrong! Ugh.)

So like everything else in the Aligare world, gods and faith are meant to be food for thought. Not food of any particularly religious flavour. Unless you want it to be.


2 Comments on “Writing gods I don’t believe in: how atheism gets along with fantasy”

  1. Christa says:

    I think the way you handled religious aspects in Remedy was well-done. It wasn’t shoving a view in the reader’s face at all.

    As a writer too, I’ve found it tricky to handle things about religion, be it in a real-world setting or fantasy one. It’s a sensitive topic, one that can jar some readers.

    • Thanks, Christa. It’s definitely a challenging subject to treat fairly, from any angle. I think the Aligare world’s attitude of “everyone is different and that’s okay” must be helping my interpretation.


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