We had a fascinating and widely ranging discussion about religious privilege with Pat McEwen, Reggie Lutz, Che Gilson, Lesley Smith, and Glenda Pfeiffer.
I started us off by talking about the historical role of religion in education and literacy. Becoming a nun was one way that women could drastically change their social roles.
Lesley mentioned the translation of the Bible into English. When the learned folk in the priesthood were only speaking in Latin, that effectively cut off common people from ownership of their own faith. Pat mentioned that the Chumash people had a special language for priestly privilege within the context of an oral religious tradition, so the use of language being a sign of religious privilege isn't confined to written contexts.
Reggie noted that privilege also exists within religion-internal hierarchies and between religions where society perceives some religions as more acceptable than others. Here in the US we get Christmas and Easter holidays but there is no expectation that the high holidays of other religions get honored in this way. Using vacation becomes a form of privilege or bias. Many countries show a similar civil alignment with a particular religious calendar, and it's not surprising to see this appear in a fictional setting. The privilege of the Anglican church in England was part of what caused people to emigrate to the American colonies.
Mention of God and religion is also made on coinage and in the American Pledge of Allegiance, but this was a much later development due to the perceived encroachment of "godless" communism in the 1950s.
Here is a link to thirty examples of Christian privilege.
When you are dealing with fiction it can be tricky to create religious privilege from an internal perspective, because when religion is built into a society from the ground up, it can be somewhat invisible. There are religions which assert themselves everywhere, but it's always good to look for more subtle aspects of religious influence. It's also valuable to consider what other religions might be around. Pat told us that there was an active temple to Athena in the Balkans (former Yugoslavia) up until the 15th century, meaning there were pagans in the area. There were also Jews.
Uniformity of religion is created by certain historical factors, but it usually isn't complete. (I often try to have characters question their own belief systems, and interact with them in personal ways). Diversity of religion leads to more complexity.
There is also syncretism, meaning the view that many beliefs can be held at once. Japan was known for its syncretism. Pat agreed that some of the new religions of modern Japan also show syncretism. Buddhism and Shinto coexist and mix. In the Buddhist temple of Sanjusangendo, many of the guardians of Kannon are Hindu deities that have been adopted into the Buddhist pantheon. Che noted that Hinduism itself ended up with so many gods because they were adopted from local religions.
Religions change over time. They are both strengthened and altered through practice. Christianity often co-opted or translated things into their tradition, such as the ancient Pagan holidays. Some entities who had been deities became saints. There is a difference in attitude between syncretism and assimilation, however.
Some saints have actively contributed to mythologies and the expansion of religious canon. Pat told us that Saint Columba was a Catholic missionary in Scotland and invented the Loch Ness monster as a water demon that had attacked his companion and was banished by the name of Christ.
Many religions have a centralized body perceived as the head of the religion which is responsible for defining its tenets and excluding heresies. However, new beliefs continue to arise and sometimes will break off from the old.
I have sometimes seen science fiction where a corporate entity is used for swear words or portrayed as if it has become a deity. I usually don't find this convincing, because religious beliefs are very resistant to change at their core, and generally it seems as though not enough time has passed, or that there is not sufficient justification for the switch. (So if you are going to do this, think through how it might have happened!)
Pat brought up a really important topic. Religion is not just a feature of a society, but also carries out a lot of its critical social functions. There is the issue of religious charity, which is sometimes contrasted with government charity. But more than that, religion was an organizing force that brought communities together to rebuild towns and muster incredible resources, like cathedrals that take 500 years of community work to build. It often would bring together people who might otherwise fight. Religion has a moral function and also supports and codifies societal cohesiveness. Membership in this community can be very important. Religious groups have also provided sanctuary for people who needed it. A cathedral can be a social message. It also holds the history of a group of people (this can be very valuable for worldbuilding purposes). Lesley also mentioned that the stories that bring a religious community together don't necessarily need to be written down, as when stained glass windows tell a story for children or others who can't read.
My guests recommended these books: Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearne, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Angels in America by Tony Kushner.
We talked about learning and religion. School was always a rest from work in the fields. Some religious groups like monasteries or convents were supported by the community and in this way allowed men and women to pursue learning. At other times, Pat noted, these religious communities had to be self-supporting because there wasn't a lot of excess economic activity.
We asked whether religion was unifying or dividing, and whether this had changed over time. It can have both effects simultaneously. There have been religious wars throughout history, and also there have been large cities where people of different religions can come together and learn from one another and/or have friction. Both Glenda and Reggie noted that religion is often used as a justification for war, but that we shouldn't neglect the underlying causes of war, which are often economic.
I recommended these two books, which have terrific melting-pot cities with very religious diverse populations: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin and Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.
Pat told us a fascinating historical story about how in the Balkans, a tithe of young Christian men was taken to Turkey and brought up as Muslims. These men were trained as soldiers but then became viziers in the Ottoman empire. They were called Janissaries (and now I want to read a story about them!). Che noted that these weren't the only men brought up in Turkey (Charlemagne was apparently one).
Dietary recommendations came up. Usually we conclude that there were historically sound reasons for the dietary recommendations to be instituted, but then over time they become a way of marking membership in the religious group. Originally, though, they may have had to do with food safety (as Reggie noted, some hoofed animals have pretty nasty parasites) or with what kind of food consumption was more economically viable. It may also have been designed to stop overconsumption or extinction of certain species.
Thank you all for the fascinating discussion! I hope to see you tomorrow at our 10am hangout with author Brad Beaulieu.
And here is the video: