On writing (or not) religion

Hi, peeps!

I heard that George Michael song the other day during a throwback radio show. You know the one. “Faith.”

And I got to thinking about that. There are many kinds of “faith.” Faith in yourself. Faith in your friends. Faith in your family. Faith that you’ll get that big promotion. Faith that things will work out. And, of course, the kind of faith that too often gets grafted onto religion.

I say this because a few days back, someone asked me if I go to church. I immediately froze, because I’m not comfortable with questions like that. The person proceeded to tell me that I’d probably feel better if I prayed. Which only made me even more uncomfortable.

Why? Because it’s presumptuous to think that everybody thinks like you do. And it’s presumptuous to think that your way of coping with something (i.e. religion) is for everybody. I try to be mellow about statements like this, because I’m sure the statements come from good intent. But nonetheless, it comes off as patronizing and, honestly, proselytizing. And yes, I have an uneasy relationship with organized religion, given my current go ’round on this planet as a woman and as someone who identifies as not straight.

And before you ask, I’m one of THOSE people who tends not to discuss religion publicly. I will occasionally discuss politics, but when it comes to religion, I just don’t go there. Why? Well, because I consider religious and spiritual beliefs to be a personal matter, so I don’t ever ask people what theirs are nor do I offer anything about mine. If someone asks, we can discuss it privately. Otherwise, it’s not something I address and it’s never something I ask people.

Why am I thinking about this?

Go see!

Well, that little exchange I had actually got me to thinking about the things I’ve published over the years and the fictional stories I’ve told, and it occurred to me that I haven’t really written a main character who subscribed to a religious persuasion. I suppose I’ve done this out of familiarity — I don’t have a religious persuasion. I wasn’t raised with one, I haven’t wanted one, I don’t feel I need one. Rather, some of the characters I write tend to have to deal in some ways with the fallout religion might create in their lives. You can see some of that in my book State of Denial and a bit in From the Hat Down.

So in some respects, a few of my characters reflect my personal ambivalence, in some ways, toward organized religious traditions. Others of my characters don’t really think about it because it’s not part of their worldviews, beyond something that happens to other people, whether for good or not-so-good.

I’m kind of an anomaly, I’ve realized, in the fraught political and cultural landscape that is modern-day America. But I appreciate that I was not raised in a specifically religious tradition, and that I was instead encouraged to look into whatever religious tradition I wanted to see if it was something I wished to pursue. I appreciate that I’m basically a blank slate in that regard because I haven’t felt the need to unpack the baggage religion sometimes leaves with us — especially those of us who are LGBTQI.

Regardless, I did explore some religious traditions and realized early on that none of them are for me. I discovered, instead, a sense of spirituality and wholeness through the way I approach every day, and the works I do in terms of community and friends and family. Each day is a gift, and I try very much to meet people where they are and to find common ground and humanity in those I meet.

The "church" of Andi. source
The “church” of Andi. source

I don’t use a religious lens for this. I don’t subscribe to the often hierarchical rules that organized religion requires of its adherents. Instead, I look to ideas and philosophies of fairness and hope and love. All of these can of course be found in religious doctrines and teaching. The problem is, they’re layered with dogma about that particular religious persuasion, and layered with the baggage that various religious spokespeople slap onto them. Basically, that dogma is: “this way is the only true way to find spiritual meaning and if you’re not doing that/believing that, then something’s wrong with you.”

I don’t buy that. I never have. There are myriad paths to spiritual awakening and many different spiritual paths. Religion can be spiritual, yes. But spirituality, I think, can transcend religion and often does.

Having said that, I don’t deny that people have found peace, comfort, and happiness through a religious tradition. And I’m so very glad they have. I like stories like that, in which religion becomes a vehicle for progressive social change, that benefits the whole community — and there are many stories about that, because religion has a long history of change like that. Sadly, it also has a long history of not-so-great things, and downright repressive and oppressive things. Those stories must be heard, too. And too often, those are the ones I’m most familiar with, because they drown out the more progressive religious voices and traditions. Or maybe I’m just not listening to the other kind. I’ll own that I’m a bit sensitive about the not-so-great things religion does because of my own experience with it.

So I’m thinking, now, about what a character would be like in my own work who comes from a faith tradition and isn’t scarred. Who has found a spiritual path through it and works to better him or herself and his or her community. Because I think in some ways I haven’t been entirely fair in addressing religion through my characters, and that of course is my own lens and the long history of religious oppression in LGBTQI communities. But there are religious traditions that have been very supportive of LGBTQI communities, and I’d like to read more of those stories, and see them represented in fiction. Perhaps in that way, we might be able to build more bridges between faith and LGBTQI communities, and infuse a new sense of spirituality into those who are seeking such.

Anyway, that’s my food for thought today, and about hopefully growing as a writer and stretching my boundaries.

How about you? Any kind of character you’re having trouble writing? Inquiring minds!

Happy Friday!

4 thoughts on “On writing (or not) religion

  1. Andi, this has been on my mind lately, too. Looking back, I haven’t written much about religious characters. When I do write believers, they tend toward the ignorant, the naïve, or the downright evil, which I think says a lot about how religion has impacted my life.

    Now that I’m thinking of it, I might try to write a smart, positive, and religious character, just to see if I can do it!

    Great, thought-provoking post.

  2. I have no religious belief but do my best not to editorialize in my fiction (though no one would mistake me for a right winger when reading my stuff). The religious beliefs of my characters do come up in my most recent project because of the circumstances they find themselves in (a global apocalypse). I just try to be true to the characters and their backgrounds without conveying judgment one way or the other.

  3. I’m currently exploring the push-pull between religious belief and philosophical atheism in my WiP. At one point my character compares God to Santa–and that’s the religious one.
    I don’t expect it to sell… 😉

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