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I've been working on a fantasy story that explores the creation and evolution of religion. But I'm struggling with what I'm fundamentally trying to say regarding religion.

When I first began, I was much more militantly atheist than I am now, and my original plan was to build toward a grand exposure of a particular religion, as being merely an exaggerated, much-embellished portrayal of an event from ancient history.

But since then my own views have evolved. I'm still non-religious, but I better understand why some people have a faith, and the original conclusion to my story lacks the depth I desire.

Now I'm at a loss. I'm thinking of building the story as focusing on several characters who each view religion in different ways, following their growth. But I'm not sure how to do that, and I'm not even really sure what I'm trying to say. I've tried listening to speakers discussing the philosophy of religion, to try and find something that clicked for me, but that was no help.

Where do I go from here, and how can I finish my story?

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    Hi there, I'm not entirely sure what your actual question is? Perhaps you could edit and re-format so that it's not a wall of text? At the moment, it looks like you are asking "what to write" which isn't on topic here, but I thought I'd give you the opportunity to edit before voting to close – user18397 Jun 20 '18 at 2:01
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    Hey, I would love to help you, but unfortunately it is unclear to me, what exactly you are asking. If you could specify it more clearly it would be easier to help you – Pawana Jun 20 '18 at 6:05
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    ani: I've rewritten your question to make it clearer and, I hope, easier to answer helpfully. I hope my edit is true to your intentions and your actual problem -- if I got this wrong, please say so :) – Standback Jun 20 '18 at 7:35
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    IMHO, after my edit, the question is answerable. I've voted to reopen (and intend to answer). – Standback Jun 20 '18 at 11:03
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    Voted to re-open. Question is about losing faith (the irony) in a story's original premise. Seems like a universal question that would fit a lot of writers (not just "religion" as a topic). – wetcircuit Jun 20 '18 at 11:25
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So maybe there's hope that you can still be redeemed! :-)

I'd say that if you can write a story that fairly presents multiple points of view on a controversial issue, like religion or politics, you're a rare person, and I applaud you for seriously trying.

I've read lots of stories that involve some controversial question, and it is no mystery at all which side the author is on. The people who agree with him are all intelligent and likable and reasonable, and the people who disagree with him are all either silly stereotypes, complete idiots, or violent extremists.

Every now and then I read a story that gives a fair shake to multiple sides, and I'm impressed. An example that comes to mind is the movie, "Other People's Money". It's a story about an investment banker trying to take over a failing corporation, with the intent of shutting down the company and selling the assets at a profit. In the crucial scene, there is a stockholder's meeting where the president of the company gives a speech about how it is wrong to destroy this company just because fluctuations in the stock market make it so that at this instant the company's assets are worth more than the value of the stock. Then the banker gives a speech about how this company is no longer serving a useful economic purpose, and the best thing to do is to shut it down and sell the assets to other companies that will use them more efficiently. I thought both speeches were well done, the sort of thing that the people on each side might actually say. (And I found it quite surprising that Hollywood would make a movie about such an esoteric subject, never mind one that was intelligent and fair.)

Some ideas on how to be fair to all sides:

  1. Bring up your opponents' strongest arguments, not just their weak ones. I've read many stories -- and plenty of editorials and new stories -- where a spokesman for one side makes 10 arguments, 9 of them strong, solid points and 1 weak, and then they just quote the 1 weak one and talk about it like that was his whole argument.

  2. Avoid the "straw man argument": Don't restate your opponent's argument in a way that leaves out essential points, and then ridicule this sham version of your opponent's argument and pretend that you have refuted his real argument. Take the best statement of an argument, not the weakest.

  3. Make characters from all sides intelligent, likable people. I've read plenty of stories where the characters representing the side the author disagrees with are all stupid, nasty, maybe even violent. The obvious intent is to lead the reader to think of everyone on that side as being like this. When challenged, the author says, "Hey, it's just a story!" and "Surely you don't deny that there are some people on your side like this". The latter, of course, is probably true. Any honest person must admit that there are people who agree with him but who are stupid, nasty, extremists, etc. (Every now and then I'm in a discussion on a forum where someone on my side (of whatever issue) makes a foolish comment, and I cringe at how this makes our side look bad.) This doesn't mean that all characters must be intelligent, likable people. A fiction story typically needs some sort of villain. But you can make some of the Christians likable and some not, some of the atheists likable and some not, etc., rather than everybody on your side is likable and everybody on the other side is obnoxious.

  4. Don't make one side or the other an obvious loser in the debate. I've read stories where there's a debate between two viewpoints, and the person on one side is obviously humiliated and beaten. Well that makes it obvious which side the author is on.

Of course how far you get into philosophical debate depends on the nature of the story. A story that is just two people arguing about religion for the whole book would probably be boring -- though not necessarily, if done well. But you can certainly write an entertaining story that includes scenes where people debate religion, and where those scenes fit into the story and are interesting. But I take it this isn't the issue you're struggling with, so I won't get into that.

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I’m struggling with what I’m fundamentally trying to say regarding religion

This is unsurprising. Religion is not just one thing and its impact on society and individuals is not easily wrapped up in a tidy conceptual package. Some of the best books are driven by exactly this struggle. Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina come to mind.

But since then my own views have evolved

This is a good sign. Writing and learning about your characters has changed your point of view, made it more nuanced. This might mean it’s likely to have an impact on your audience! Anna Karenina, in particular, was written over a period during which Tolstoy’s religious and moral views evolved a great deal.

Where do I go from here, and how can I finish my story?

Embrace your ambivalence about religion and resist the temptation to tie things together with a clear thesis. Let it breathe a little. Institutions are corrupt and also do good things. People try to control other people and their motives are rarely perfect evil. The other side of someone’s fear of death might be their desire for the sublime.

Your plan to allow these ideas to develop in different directions as you follow different characters is a good one. The Russian literary critic and philosopher Bakhtin calls this dialogic or polyphonic writing. Don’t give one character the authoritative voice. Let them each develop their own voices and ideas.

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  • Thanks. I guess the reason why I'm resistant to the ambivalence is I don't want to be seen as a fence-sitter, or someone who's just being "fair" to both sides. – ani ben Jun 22 '18 at 19:18
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A while ago I wrote a story in which, as a subplot, an intelligent religious character with an interest in philosophy explored whether there was any way to use it to justify her faith. I mention it was a subplot because doubt of one's personal knowledge - not on religion specifically, but in general of people's efforts to draw conclusions - is a major theme of the story throughout. (The length of the story is enough for even subplots to get quite complex.) Let me expand a little on what I did.

The religious character is a Christian, and explicitly disavows not only the least sensible ideas in that faith but also the worst arguments for her faith. I'm not religious either, but I try to understand what goes through the heads of people like Alister McGrath, Francis Collins or Ken Miller. Now, your religion is invented, and it doesn't even need to have stupid elements among a subset of its believers; but if it does, it helps for an obviously smart person to represent the most sensible version of the faith. And you do need to make sure you show their intelligence elsewhere - not in a cartoonish way, like being a child prodigy, but the reader needs to feel like they have an IQ of at least 120.

She attends a philosophy night class and also teaches a literature night class, so she values education and mulls over a lot of ideas. None of your characters will do that specifically, but signs of exploration are important. Not only does it show them to be inquisitive; it also serves character development. Further, if you really want to push for one conclusion you're best advised to take a character on the kind of journey that would change their mind in real life, because humans' opinions come from their experiences. But it's probably even better for their journey to leave them confused rather than having their opinion invert, because readers would rather be left with questions for themselves to answer than your soapboxing.

The main plot of the story involves some rather shocking revelations that have to be kept from most of the community. She becomes aware of these. She keeps the secrets, but they factor into her further confusion. They don't refute her faith, but they do change the context of her reasons for holding it. You could do something similar, although you'd probably have more luck imposing such an effect on some other thought they have. You can even make their religious journey a smaller part of what they're going through, especially if doing that leads to better character development. It depends in part on whether you intend them to be a more major character in your story than she was in mine.

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I've read works by atheists with strong religious characters (Mama in A Raisin in the Sun) and works by religious people with strong anti-religious characters (Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov). The key is that the author let them and their philosophies live and speak for themselves.

I think this makes for a much stronger work, and often, paradoxically, a more persuasive one. For example, the SF author Robert Heinlein was a well-known libertarian. While I am not a libertarian myself, I find his book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to be a wonderful advocate for libertarianism, precisely because it highlights many of the problems with libertarianism, gives respectful equal space to opposing viewpoints, and always prioritizes the story over the philosophy. It's a much better and more persuasive work than more didactic books with a rigid point of view.

Being a good writer means often putting yourself into the mind and the viewpoint and the sympathies of someone quite different from yourself. You have to write the villains, as well as the heroes, after all. There can actually be a real sense of liberation in allowing characters to have beliefs very different from yours. It means you can present the debate as an observer, rather than as a participant.

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Just finish your first draft. First drafts can be full of contradictions, changing perspectives, changes in direction, etc. (In my current story my two main characters kept flipping between married and just living together.)

Then revise. That's the time to figure what the piece's overall voice and perspective is, and so on. Once you have a text you can look at and respond to, it's easier to see what works and what doesn't. This is a huge phase of the creative process; revision is when you "re-envision" the entire piece.

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