Fantasists and Monotheists


Thirty years ago the science fiction and fantasy writer L. Sprague de Camp expressed the view that religious believers were in general not as good at creating believable fantasy societies as are non-believers.

He had observed that the various societies in Lord of the Rings lacked temples, priests, rituals and all the other accoutrements of organised religion. This is a strange omission as all pre-industrial societies have been strongly religious. The explanation, he felt, was to be found in J.R.R. Tolkein’s devout Catholicism.

Middle-Earth is either Earth’s very distant past, or perhaps a parallel world. Either way, modern terrestrial religions could not exist there.  This posed a problem for Tolkein in that to create religions for the Shire and the feudal societies of Middle Earth he would have to have his “good guys” believing what he himself considered to be incorrect things – possibly damning themselves to Hell. He avoided the problem by not having religion in Middle Earth.

De Camp pointed out that non-believers would have no trouble (for religious reasons at least) in creating  religions for their fantasy societies. They do dot have to undergo the mental contortions of making their good guys Hell-bound or of considering a part of creation that is beyond the reach of an omnipotent God. The conclusion appears to be that because non-believers are more comfortable with their creations they can make them more believable.

Is this necessarily true of all religious believers, though? Certainly, a devout Muslim or Jew is going to have exactly the same problems as the devout Christian but the Abrahamic faiths are not the sum total of the religious experience.

Would a Buddhist have any problems in having his characters groping for Enlightenment? Surely a Japanese Shintoist would have no problem in creating properly honourable, ancestor venerating characters? And what of polytheistic religions such as Hinduism?

As I understand it, when Hindus encountered other local religions their gods were incorporated into Hinduism either as lesser godlings or as aspects or avatars of the chief Hindu gods. A devout Hindu fantasy writer might therefore consider his created gods as such. Even though his characters would be unaware of this, they would not be spiritually imperilled by this ignorance.

In short, it seems to me that it is only the believers in single all-powerful gods who would have trouble creating religions for their fantasy worlds. Polytheists, ancestor worshippers and seekers of individual enlightenment would have no more problems than agnostics or atheists.

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