I promised a post on religion, but before I start it I suppose I should make my own views clear.
I am an atheist. I do not believe in the existence of any god or gods of any description. I decided on this probably in my early twenties, after spending a few years wavering between agnosticism and atheism. My childhood was fairly religious, not in the sense that my parents were (they were anything but), but I went to faith schools and got a pretty thorough education in the Bible. I just decided at some point that I could not believe in some all-powerful being up in the sky who created the world. To me, God is a means of blaming someone else.
With that out of the way, I would also like to make it clear that my philosophy is very much ‘live and let live’. I don’t care one whit what you believe, as long as you don’t try to make me believe it too. In return I’ll do the same. One of my best friends is a devout Catholic and we respect each other’s views; it has never been a problem for either of us.
When it comes to writing fantasy, however, you cannot really get around creating a pantheon to work with. Religion is an incredible driving force in many fantasy novels, with heretics or heathens threatening the heroes, or the heroes experiencing their own internal struggle to cope with conflicting faiths (as demonstrated very well in The Light of Kerrindryr by my very good friend H Anthe Davis). Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series has its bickering gods at Cori Celesti, who interfere in the world’s daily affairs to such an extent that to proclaim you’re an atheist demonstrates either stupendous bravery or suicidal tendencies. Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora has its Twelve Gods pantheon, with the Crooked Warden, patron of thieves, as its thirteenth, mostly unknown God. Even The Lord of the Rings has a Creator of All in Eru, with the Valar as the ‘lesser’ gods, even if they are never referred to as such. The only series I can think of off the top of my head that didn’t have gods is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, but I’m not even sure about that (feel free to set me straight).
To write a book without a theology would be an incredible challenge, but I doubt I’ll ever attempt it myself. Not because I need the gods as a driving force behind my overarching story arc or anything, no, my reasons are far simpler than that: my characters swear.
I have spoken about swearing in books before, so I won’t go into the pros and cons of swearing again. The fact is that, in Fantasy, your characters cannot use expressions such as ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’ without it being completely incongruous to the world (unless you write urban fantasy in ‘our’ world perhaps), so as a writer you have to come up with an alternative.
For my books I have kept my pantheon as simple as I possibly could, because swearing really is the only reason I needed gods for. My stories do not centre around farmboy heroes saving the world, with or without the help of the gods, nor do they feature an everlasting war between two different faiths. My stories centre around two people falling in love, with an action/adventure plot to keep things interesting. In a sense, my book is as atheist as it can possibly be while still having gods, and that is purely because as a person I simply have no interest in gods or religion.
As such my world has no temples or priests. I have one monastery, but even if that weren’t the den of depravity I’ve made it out to be in book one, it would still be an archaic relic of older times when people still devoted their lives to the worship of the gods. The people in my world believe in the gods, but in a very detached way. You murmur a quick prayer if you have to do something difficult, thank the gods if something good happens, but other than that no one really thinks about them.
I’ve still not fully decided how many gods there are in my pantheon. At least two, but maybe three. The first god I thought up was Trakan, who is usually evoked in anger or frustration: ‘Trakan’s Teeth, what did you do that for!?’ For milder exclamations, such as surprise or disbelief, people tend to use ‘Mennia’s Mercy’, or simply ‘Mercy’. I figure that Mennia is Trakan’s wife, and she is the gentle balance to his harsh judgement. Together they govern Eternity, which is my version of heaven or paradise or the elysian fields, or whatever. Eternity has a Right side and a Wrong side, and a common curse is ‘may you burn forever on the Wrong side of Eternity’. The Wrong side is of course overseen by Trakan, gnashing his Teeth, while Mennia in her Mercy can decide to let you stay on the Right side of eternity.
For book three I may introduce a third god, Firkan, though I haven’t quite decided yet. If he does feature then he will be Trakan and Mennia’s son, and he will govern fire and sorcerers.
As always this is fairly sketchy, but it suits my purposes. I have no need for thirty-seven gods who deal with rain, sparrows, buttercups or horse manure, so I’ve created two simple, alliterative exclamations and run with them.
As an aside, not having God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost is sometimes tricky enough, but it’s equally tricky when your world doesn’t have a heaven and hell. At some point, without thinking, I had made a character exclaim ‘what the hell are you doing here?’, and it took until the second edit for me to pick up on the fact that I have no hell, so I had to change it to ‘what in Eternity are you doing here?’ Similarly, when it started raining I could not say that the heavens opened, and instead had to say that the skies opened. Subtle differences, but as an author you have to be very alert for those, or risk jarring your reader out of their immersion in your book.
For a less me-centric view on religion in fantasy, check out this thread on this very topic, which started a day or two ago on Fantasy Faction’s boards.
As always I’m interested in other people’s views on this, so please do leave some comments!