I’ve always been fascinated by religion. My own—I maintain that the Talmud is the world’s first fix-it fic—and others, real and imagined. The way that the same underlying morals and ideas show up again and again, justified through different cosmologies, canons, and deities—and the way the same sets of core beliefs are used to justify wildly contradictory obligations.
Delve deep enough into linguistics, and eventually you’ll want to try constructed languages, with new vocabularies and grammars that illustrate the principles and limitations of those that occur naturally. Spend enough late nights arguing theology, and you start wanting to make up your own. My first-ever business card was for the half-joking Discount Deities: custom pantheon creation and appropriately biased origin myths.
For the Innsmouth Legacy books, I’ve had a lot of fun adapting Lovecraft’s Mythos into a believable faith that isn’t just an apocalyptic cult. (Not that there aren’t plenty of those in the real world.) Or rather, into three or four believable faiths, with the implication of more in the background. After all, a religion can’t last for a few billion years and spread to multiple planets without hitting a few schisms on the way. In Deep Roots, Aphra Marsh meets aliens who worship the same gods as her, but have very different ideas about What Nyarlathotep Wants From Us. She even participates in one of their sacraments—not actually the healthiest choice she could have made.
A good fictional religion, like a real one, provides appealing insight into our place in the universe. It may even answer yearnings that existing faiths have failed at—at least for the author, and sometimes for the readers. So, just as many constructed languages accrete communities of speakers, imagined religions spill over into real practice. These new faiths start out serving the purpose of their stories, but not all have stayed fictional.
Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land
Religion: The Church of All Worlds
Core Beliefs and Practice: A human-friendly version of Martian spiritual practice, the Church blends free love, language studies, inhuman patience, and rituals that revel in Earth’s bounty of water. Study hard enough, and you’ll pick up psychic powers, allowing you to demonstrate the truth behind, “Thou art god” in some pretty dramatic ways.
Ontological Status: I’ve been to a water-sharing ceremony, and it was pretty cool. No orgies were involved, but then I’m not part of a nest.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Cat’s Cradle
Core Beliefs and Practice: All religion is based on lies, and therefore you might as well be self-aware in finding harmless untruths that will make you happy, and make you treat other people well. Footsie is a sacrament.
Ontological Status: I don’t know any Bokononists, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there. (If I said they were, would I be being a Bokononist myself?) [ETA: Apparently there’s a camp at Burning Man. Which I’ve missed due to my policy of only camping in habitable environments.]
Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman
Religion: The Order of Steerswomen
Core beliefs and Practice: The Steerswomen may be thoroughly secular humanist, but they certainly seem like a monastic order, and treat their work and their vows as sacred. Their goal is to learn everything there is to know about the world. To this end, they swear two things. First a steerswoman must answer any question asked of her, and answer it honestly. Second, she must always strive to learn the truth—and the only questions she won’t answer are those asked by people who’ve refused to tell her the truth.
Ontological Status: The author has one of the rings.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion
Religion: The Five Gods
Core Beliefs and Practice: When gods are real and interventionist, it’s easy to get so caught up in pantheon politics that you miss the day-to-day practice of worship. Not so the Hugo-nominated Chalion series. The religion of the Five Gods seamlessly mixes ritual, magic, and direct contact with deity. Take the ominous-sounding Death Omen, which tells mourners which god has taken up the soul of the departed. Depending on where you live, five dedicats dressed as sacred animals may carry out an ornate dance to communicate the gods’ will. Or alternatively, you could release a basket of five kittens wearing different-colored ribbons, and see which one approaches the corpse. It works just as well either way.
Ontological status: Safely confined to the page.
Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower
Core beliefs and Practice: Michael Valentine Smith says, “Thou art god.” Lauren Olamina says, “God is change,” and encourages her followers to “shape god.” In the midst of a world sliding towards apocalypse, she preaches that “the destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.”
Ontological Status: Parable takes place on a near-future Earth with a growing environmental crisis, increasing social inequality, and someone running for president with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Perhaps it’s no surprise that a few groups and movements have sprung up drawing on Olamina’s teachings. But that’s another column…
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots (available July 10th, 2018). Her neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.