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Brought this question from Worldbuilding SE, and still not sure if I’m asking in the right place. If anyone knows a better place to ask, any advice would be appreciated.

The world I’m building revolves around a (albeit heavily exaggerated) religious extremist group/dystopian organization based on a twisted version of Catholic Christianity. This group is intended to be the antagonists and would be illustrated as irredeemably evil and corrupt, largely because of their devotion to their faith. Is this generally a thing to avoid, especially when much of the story involves the protagonist and the religious group killing each other? Is it better to invent some new hypothetical religion for a story involving direct violence?

I don’t want to offend people with my story, and I have nothing personal against Christians, of course, but the Christianity bit is kind of important for some of the imagery and thematic inspiration for my (mostly sci-fi) story, and I think using a realistic religion makes the story more raw. Are there any ways to easily illustrate that a religious group depicted in a story does not reflect the actual portrayal of the religion, without detracting from the group’s presence in the story? For example, I thought of making the protagonist Christian as well to avoid demonizing Christianity too much. Alternatively, should I just drop the Christianity bit altogether?

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18 Answers 18

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I think a matter that helps soften the blow for those who might take offense at your story (those who you don't intend to offend), is to have balance. If you depict someone as extremely evil, and twisting religion to accomplish or justify their dark actions, counterbalancing them with someone who actually uses the same religious doctrine or sentiment for good. Not only does it make it clear that as an author, you are not saying religion, or the specific religion is bad, you are saying that it is a tool, that can be used to help or harm.

One other question used the example of the Hunchback of Notre Dame - because I am very unacademic, I use the example of the still quite good Disney version. Esmeralda, in singing to God to help the outcasts, she takes action to protect the downtrodden, while Frolo misinterprets Biblical warnings against the wicked as his right as a servant of God to carry out God's punishment.

I feel like I come from a special place with this question, as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often referred to as mormons, although official church teaching discourages that name). Few belief systems in the US receive such a constant barrage of negative criticism. When I find good, academic treatment of our church however, it may mention awful things like The Mountain Meadows Massacre, a vicious attack on innocents by members of our church - but it will counterbalance it with good our church members, then and now have done - it makes it clear that the event was a horrible exception to our doctrine, rather than our church's modus operandi.

But it comes down to what you desire to say. Having counterbalance characters or examples of more positive interpretations of Christianity can not just say "I don't hate Christianity" but also be narratively interesting. Showing a character's disdain for anything good in their faith can show just how far they have warped things.

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    Thanks for the answer! I’m super glad you pointed this out. The specific religion is the problem for me; I was planning to imply that the protagonist was also spiritual, but wasn’t sure how similar her and the antagonists’ religions needed to be to soften the blow (do they both need to be Christians? Etc.) I was certainly planning to never directly state the antagonists were Catholic-based, simply imply they called themselves Christians, in hope that I wasn’t targeting anyone too specifically. Thanks again!
    – Mark Price
    Oct 26 at 19:00
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    This is basically the answer I was going to give, except I would take it one step further. Don't just have good Catholics in the story; have them look at what the evil Catholics are doing and be horrified and repulsed by it. They know that this is not their faith and it disgusts them to see what they understand as a source of great good and joy in people's lives being twisted and abused for dark purposes. Oct 27 at 13:31
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    @MarkPrice Not sure what sort of story this is, but have you considered characters other than the main antagonist and protagonist? You can have some minor characters who are the virtuous/moderate Christians, for instance. Perhaps even a splinter group of the evil organisation that tries to reform it for good but is crushed. Obviously you'd need work to integrate this into your main plot so they don't just look shoehorned in, but this would allow you to keep your spiritual-but-not-religious protagonist and your religious Christian antagonist group.
    – Muzer
    Oct 27 at 14:01
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    @dsollen: Others' experience may differ, of course, but speaking as one Jew, I think that LDS (Mormonism) really does get criticized much more freely than Judaism, at least in the parts of the U.S. where I've lived. There's anti-Semitism here, of course, but it's primarily a form of racism -- a cluster of attitudes toward Jews -- rather than bashing our religion; and people usually try to mask it in ways they think they can get away with (e.g. anti-Zionism), whereas I've heard people quite openly mock Mormons and their church. (But you're probably right about Islam. :-/ )
    – ruakh
    Oct 29 at 7:56
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    @ruakh I just can't stand any of it. When serving as a missionary in the south, a missionary I knew was in Georgia, where all they wanted to do was get Chick-fil-A for lunch. The place got their order wrong, and when they told the employees, the employees said "we don't care about fixing the order of a mormon." No one of any religion should be treated like that. It hurt me when I'd visit a church in an area, and they seemed to be generally nice people - and then say something anti-semitic. Went to a messianic synagogue and they were bad mouthing baptists. Do we really NEED to do this y'all? Oct 29 at 8:36
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...heavily exaggerated religious extremist group/dystopian organization based on a twisted version of Catholic Christianity.

I think using a realistic religion makes the story more raw.

You've said some contradictory things: heavily exaggerated, realistic.

Coded Catholicism is Catholicism

We all recognize 'Catholic' tropes because we have seen them for a while, typically spread by other Christians. In Protestant countries, Catholics are portrayed as less capable, hotly emotional, lower/working class immigrants, domestic abusers, mafia gangs, clannish, simple, innocent, childlike, etc.

When Catholics criticize the Catholic Church it gets esoteric. I'd need more than a Martin Luther wikipedia search before I could say anything worth saying. Catholics exist. When writers 'just make them up' it looks like ignorance.

But 'irredeemably evil and corrupt' is going all in. No coding necessary when there is nothing veiled. That's not even a stereotype.

Who do you want to offended?

Entire countries are Catholic, will they be offended? It depends how clearly Catholic your sect is meant to be, and the themes of the story. (I am guessing many bad things happen.)

You don't need 'permission' to be transgressive, it's more about where you aim your punches. Are you punching up at a corrupt Vatican-styled power structure, or punching down at an entire ethnicity?

Is god your target? People who believe? Or the beliefs themselves? The sharper your aim, the more confidently you can nail your message.

A race of… evil?

There is certainly a place for provocative writing that is intended to stir controversy, but maybe you want the "zombie/orc' type of evil that doesn't muddy the emotions, rather telegraphs the reader to feel good when they die – it's ok to kill something that is irredeemably evil.

Maybe you want something like zombie-orc-Catholic-biker-nuns from hell? If your story points to historical incidents but exaggerated, you can be right and controversial. Like 300 by Frank Miller, very biased but also stylized to the extreme. 'End of the world' is already hyperbole so go all out.

But if instead you want something grounded in reality, research the history of cult massacres and holy wars, there is a build-up before extremism (practice runs) that would be important for your worldbuilding. I suggest also limiting the scale of your story to a local apocalypse: an island, an isolated settlement, a ghetto during a race riot. The stakes can be just as high if characters are bottled in. You don't need to have simultaneous Catholic apocalypses happening all over the globe.

Maybe something else?

It requires Bizarro World logic for all Catholics to do the opposite of their doctrine, and still follow their doctrine. All Catholics fall short of their ideal (kind of the point), but here they are from the Mirrorverse, not just bad at religion but bad at human beings. That's an inverted dreamscape where nothing is real, or we have an unreliable narrator, or an intentionally polemic author.

I don't see how it survives its own worldbuilding in a realistic story – so maybe start with something that is hypocritical by design, and extrapolate.

In Mary Shelley's The Last Man there is a plague-denial movement with a populist political leader who both promises a cure and falsifies mortality rates to minimize the fallout. Two centuries later that part rings true, we've just seen it. Their supporters would need to sustain double-think while lashing out at 'fake news' and 'establishment', splitting society into 'truthers' and non-believers. Revolutions can quickly become terrorist bloodsport for purging the impure.

Scientology and evangelical 'prosperity' gospels seem like great environments for ruthless power games between petty egomaniacs. Libertarian doctrines are inherently self-serving or based on entitled grievances – at the end of the world as resources run dry and mutual cooperation beaks down, some kook militia will be hoarding toilet paper and conducting raids to destabilize their enemies. I'd guess most real-world militias have some pseudo-doctrine involved. It would imitate religious language, but superficially.

Since you want something stylized and really really evil, I suggest you take a satyrical swipe at any aspect of society you feel deserves a good kick, something rooted in today like Elon Musk Mars cultists, or people who can't leave Facebook, or morning talkshow QAnon, or Hollywood wellness blogs, royal family tabloids, or anti-vax magnitism conspiracies – it feels like there is so much going on today that is already borderline ridiculous and with the right dystopian ad campaign could be exaggerated to hyperbolic levels at the end of the world.

Personally I would make something up, and in-world show why it has been made up, and how it is arbitrarily abused to enforce the power structure. Better to create something original and make that part of the plot, than to fall back on a cliché that you didn't consciously intend.

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    Simple, innocent, childlike, hotly emotional domestic abusers? Huh? Oct 27 at 15:16
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    @MasonWheeler Stereotypes are a poor reflection of reality, so they don't have to make logical sense. (Which is part of why it's a good idea for the OP to avoid using them.)
    – DLosc
    Oct 27 at 16:53
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    I feel obligated to point out that Phillip Pullman went completely all-in on "Catholicism is evil" in His Dark Materials, and nobody cared for years, until suddenly a bunch of Americans got upset when Hollywood tried to make a movie out of it. I think you can absolutely "get away with" overtly anti-religious rhetoric, as long as it comes across as criticizing the institution rather than the people.
    – Kevin
    Oct 28 at 3:06
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    @Kevin I wouldn't say "nobody" cared. Maybe there wasn't a very publicized uproar. I was aware of the series' anti-Christian/anti-Catholic themes--and decided not to read it for that reason--well before the movie came out.
    – DLosc
    Oct 28 at 14:38
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    "Maybe you want something like zombie-orc-Catholic-biker-nuns from hell?" Yes, yes I do. Oct 28 at 16:08
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Ultimately anything you write is going to offend someone. Is a Christian extremist going to upset people more than some other kind of extremist? Some of them. Is it inherently a bad thing to do? No. If you want to limit the potential damage, take pains to point out how extremist and twisted their rhetoric is compared to another Christian sect within the setting. This makes it clear that it is not Christianity which is evil but the particular interpretation.

As a historical note, extremist ideology has almost always been evil regardless of which particular religious or political system it has hijacked. It's not usually the teachings, it's the intolerance of other teachings, and the lack of leeway for those who disagree/waver, that causes the most grief.

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One of the first things that stands out as concerning is the fact you described this sect as "irredeemably evil" is not something a real faithful Catholic would actually describe any one ever. One of the core tenements of Catholicism is that of forgiveness and redemption and they believe no one can ever do something that is beyond God's forgiveness and that forgiving those who have hurt you is an important step to the healing process (this is why Pope Saint John Paul II, upon making his physical recovery from an attempted assassination, the pontiff expressed forgiveness for the assassin and met with him in private in prison two years later.).

It should be pointed out that, in the English speaking world (especially in the U.S., where Catholics have been a historical minority religion and were often subject to anti-Catholicism bigotry), and possibly Australia which has a large Catholic population. Globally, the Catholic church claims over 1 billion members, or 1 in every 7 people, so it's a very large block you do not want to alienate. This is especially true if your "evil" acts are calling out the church's more controversial beliefs and stances.

With all that said, it's not like the Catholic Church hasn't been portrayed in a negative light before... it's been at the center of western politics for 2,000 years... it's not going to get everything right... and again, Catholics put a great deal of importance in forgiveness and one of the steps in being forgiven is to admit you have done wrong. Additionally, Catholic rituals are very archaic, ornate, and to the outsider, mystical (Hey, the Church finally stopped saying the mass in Latin in 1962, nearly 1500 years after the Roman Empire fell.). For example, Catholics tend to appear in exorcism stories because they are one of the few Christian Sects that actually have rituals and customs to deal with exorcism.

Just be sure to do your homework and make sure you write your villains in a way to best not offend. As other people are bringing up the Disney adaptation of Hunchback of Notre Dame (which by the way, was way more about religion than the original novel, which was written to get people interested in Parisian Architecture and not to make religious commentary), remember that Catholics actually praised it after an initial worry period because Disney actually did some homework and contrasted Frollo against less spiritual characters who embraced Catholic ideas of good living despite not being strict followers or believers (it helps that the original character of Frollo was split into to two characters in the Disney work: Frollo himself and the unnamed Archdeacon. In the original novel Frollo was a villainous priest. It also helped that the Latin Chanting used throughout the film actually is quite meaningful, and the Chanting in the song Hellfire serves as counterpoint to Frollo's state of mind and sincerity in seeking to turn away from sin... it helps to know that the Latin is actually the Confiteor, a prayer said as part of the sacrament of reconciliation and Frollo's lyrics are in direct violation of the chanted part of the prayer the precede.).

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Thanks for asking - as a Catholic, I truly appreciate it. Hmm..would you consider doing the same portrayal but instead of Catholicism, using Judaism or Islam instead? If not, then perhaps it's an indication to avoid it.

I haven't really seen any answers from actual Catholics, so decided to volunteer from that perspective. I am Catholic, and have come across many examples of this in fictional works. Each time, I was usually disappointed and hurt.

Is it potentially offensive?

To answer your main question, I probably would not be offended - because it's hard to be offended by something so far from reality. Disappointed yes, because the portrayal is usually quite false and shows a misunderstanding by the author about something important to me.

Is it harmful?

Realising, or re-encountering, the fact that people view one's religion, beliefs, values, family, friends and community so negatively definitely hurts. Even more so because the negative views and opinions are of something that doesn't really exist. Yes, there were bad Popes, the church went through some bad times (especially recently with the child abuse revelations). But so did every country in history - we don't hate germans because of what the Nazis did. We don't hate Japan because of what they did in China and WW2. It hurts when people don't make the effort to look past mistakes and at least understand and see how the church and its teachings really is, before casting judgement.

Is 'fake news' harmful?

If you value the truth, you may like to consider avoiding this. Or at least doing what one of the other answers said - include a group of true catholics in your story, who represent the real Catholic faith and are opposed to the current evil organisation. It still might hurt overall (I think) but that would definitely help by helping to a) fixing the false impression many people hold and b) show the reader and those whose religion is being represented, that it is just a story device and that the author understands not all Catholics (and hopefully Catholicism itself) are like that.

You say: "I don’t want to offend people with my story, and I have nothing personal against Christians"

I truly appreciate this - I wonder, if you have nothing against Christians, then do you want to continue perpetuating damaging stereotypes against Christianity and Catholicism? Maybe there's a better way. I'm not an author but I see some good suggestions in the other answers here, by Zoe Sparks and others e.g. the Far Cry one.

Wishing you all the best with your story.

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To avoid negative connotations, show a positive one.

A really good example here is Judge Frollo from the Hunchback of Notre Dame (as the negative connotation)

Note that I am intentionally choosing the Disney movie, not the book, because Disney spent a lot of time making sure the story was palatable to a largely Christian audience. The book, however, took a reasonably strong (for the time) anti-religion stance, so it's not a good example here.

enter image description here

“Judge Claude Frollo longed to purge the world of vice and sin. And he saw corruption everywhere, except within.” ―Clopin

Frollo is a villain who is driven by religion, or at least his interpretation on how religion should be implemented. He uses it to oppress both others and himself, and he rules through fear and violence. He spent years (at least from Quasimodo's birth to the present day) persecuting gypsies, effectively trying to ethnically cleanse Paris.
In pursuit of his persecution, he has little regard for collateral damage.

And he does it in the name of God. It is his justification for everything. And the movie never actively dispels his justification. There is no literal word of God which disavows Frollo.

Also note that Frollo is genuinely religious. The reason he doesn't go through with killing baby Quasimodo is because he fears divine judgment for his actions. If he were only faking his belief, he would likely not have kept Quasimodo alive.
However, as these past events are a story being told by Clopin to children, it's possible that this is not what actually happened. We can't know that for certain, but there is no indication that any of Clopin's story is untrue. He seems to be a knowing narrator, one whose character is also tangentially woven into the plot.

It's very easy to interpret this move as being anti-Christian. But this movie isn't anti-Christian. Why?

Because of the archdeacon

enter image description here

Notice that black vs white contrast. It really just boils down to how they present themselves in terms of Christianity.

Note: in the book, Frollo is the archdeacon, but not in the movie. This is presumably part of the same move to remove the connotation of the Church being evil.

“See there the innocent blood you have spilt on the steps of Notre Dame.
Now you would add this child's blood to your guilt on the steps of Notre Dame.
You can lie to yourself and your minions,
You can claim that you haven't a qualm.
But you never can, run from nor hide what you've done from the eyes, the very eyes of Notre Dame”

―The archdeacon to Frollo after murdering Quasimodo's mother and attempting to murder baby Quasimodo

Here is the link to the archdeacon's first scene. It's his most important scene and sets the stage for his character and how he is not like Frollo, right form the outset of the movie. The video explains it better than I can with words.

The archdeacon dispells the viewer's possible interpretation that the Christian faith is the real villain here, by showing us a good Christian.

He rescues Quasimodo from being dropped in a well, he provides sanctuary to Esmeralda at a time where gypsies are actively being hunted and persecuted, tries to intervene in Esmeralda's execution, and he is the only character who has consistently pointed out Frollo's evil deeds with little regard for how doing this would impact him (by getting on Frollo's bad side).

When you consider that Frollo is the archdeacon's superior in the movie, this proves the archdeacon to be a stalwart beacon of good and kindness.

This saves the image of the Catholic faith, as it ensures that it is not only shown in a negative light. It is made apparent that Frollo's justifications are fabrications for personal gain (he is a fascist at heart, and uses God as his excuse to enact his own will), whereas the archdeacon is selfless, kind, and stands up for what is right.

The conclusion the viewer now draws, instead of assuming that evil Frollo represents the (therefore presumed to be evil) Church, is that evil Frollo uses the good Church as a guise for his villainy.


Does your story think religion is inherently evil?

This group is intended to be the antagonists and would be illustrated as irredeemably evil and corrupt, largely because of their devotion to their faith.

The crux of the issue here is the same as for Frollo. Are they evil/corrupt because of their faith, or because of an overzealous devotion to a faith that (by itself) is not corrupt?

If you take the stance that the religion is inherently corrupt down to the core, which is perfectly fine (and what Victor Hugo intended with Frollo in the book), then you should either accept that those who disagree with your stance will not like your book, or you should use an alternate fictional faith to reduce (but you won't completely avoid!) the amount of offense that will be taken.

If your stance is that this group is corrupt, but not necessarily the faith in and of itself, show the difference. Show some religious people who are not corrupt. Show some corrupt people who are not religious. Dispel the idea that corruption and religion go hand in hand, and make it clear that your plot villains are both corrupt and religious, but that these are two unrelated traits.

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In short: It's a trope that has been used and used again. Even Disney has done this with The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As a Christrian myself, I can recognize that this trope is nothing new to the point where I'd argue that it's a cliche. What I'm trying to say is: it's been done before, and I don't see critique or outrage for it, so why not do it again? Though I do advise not to make those from this twisted Catholic view all terrible, as villains don't exist to serve a plot but rather their narrative! :)

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    Thanks for the reassurance! I’m planning to have some minor redemption arcs through the story, don’t worry. It’s good to know Christianity isn’t as sensitive of a topic as I thought. Most of my concern is that I know many out there already don’t like fictional violence, and probably wouldn’t take kindly to a story that involves violence against devout Christians, even psychotic, evil ones. Maybe the best answer is to take it in stride, but I’d rather not offend more people than I have to.
    – Mark Price
    Oct 26 at 18:51
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    @MarkPrice: Redemption arcs show exactly what you think was evil about a character previously. One thing that would be potentially offensive is if all your redemption arcs involve rejecting Catholicism (or religion, or organized religion) altogether. It's fine if that's an intended them of the book (e.g., if you want to show that organized religion is bad); but if that's not your intent, be very careful with the redemption arcs, especially with what they all have in common. The end of Brandon Sanderson's Elantris does a good job with this. Oct 27 at 16:54
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Not in Saudi Arabia.

But maybe in some places where there are a lot of Christians.

In history there have been many different conflicts. A significant proportion of conflicts include violent actions by members of at least one side in the conflict.

When conflicts are violent, and often when they are not, people on one side tend to think that people on the other side are very evil, while people on their side are not. I tend to think that in such cases those beliefs are half right and half wrong.

Throughout history a lot of people have believed that a lot of members of different groups were very evil during conflicts with them. And those other and believed to be evil groups had all varieties of religious affiliations from very mixed to being all followers of one religion (at least officially) to being all atheists (at least officially).

And the people who thought that their opponents were evil also had all sorts of religious affiliations from very mixed to being all followers of one religion (at least officially) to being all atheists (at least officially).

And sometimes both groups were all (officially) believers in the same religion but considered each other to be evil anyway.

So there have been many cases when groups of people who were all at least nominally and officially Christian have been considered to be evil by members of another religion or even by fellow Christians.

And there are many examples of Christians who used Christianity as a justification for doing evil things which they wanted to do anyway, like robbing pagans they considered to have no rights, for example.

And there are other examples of Christians who were motivated by Christianity to commit harsh and cruel deeds because they believed it was their Christian duty.

So a group of Christian religious fanatics who commit acts of terrorism, or plot to overthrow democracy and establish a theocracy, or to exterminate all non Christians, would have a number of historical examples to be used as models.

So a group of Christian religious fanatics doing evil deeds is not exactly an unprecedented situation in history.

And many poeple, even Christians, know that.

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    This does nothing to answer the question, it looks more like a rant. The question was not "is there an example of Christians who did bad things?"
    – vsz
    Oct 27 at 7:53
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I'd like to add a perspective that hasn't been covered as much as I would like by the other answers, although I think some of the other answers here are quite good as well. In general, if there's a topic you want to write about and you're worried about causing offense without meaning to, I think the best thing to do is to learn more about the topic. The problem will naturally resolve itself one way or another through this.

If you're worried about offending people with your presentation of something even though you yourself have nothing against that group of people, learning more about the group will allow you to find out what you think about them more strongly for yourself. You may discover:

  1. that their membership is quite varied and hard to generalize about. Then you can probably find some members who hold views you think are in line with your presentation, or have held them at some point in history. You will then understand more deeply how to capture them or people somewhat like them in your fiction. If you decide to portray them in a broadly antagonistic fashion after that, any offense caused on your part will presumably be deliberate—although you may decide that the social dynamics are too complicated to be reasonably portrayed in this fashion even in fiction.
  2. that their membership is easy to generalize about in certain ways (usually only possible if the group is small or organized along lines that are easy to quantify). Then once you've recognized what those ways are specifically, you can decide for yourself how you feel about the group in light of those things and present them accordingly. Again, if they take offense, you will presumably be expecting this. If you don't want to offend them, it will be easy to see how, as you will presumably have developed deeper sympathy with them to some extent instead of just a vague sympathy with them as generic humans.

It's worth asking yourself why you want to have the antagonists be evil pseudo-Catholics. From what you're saying, you don't have much against real-world Catholics per se, but you don't seem to have strong feelings in their favor either exactly.¹ The trouble with this is that even "vague indifference" can be pretty hostile-feeling in fiction when we're talking about actual living people, and that's likely the friendliest you can come across if you tag the antagonists with the iconography of a specific real-world group. You might as well learn enough about Catholocism that you develop deeper and stronger feelings, whatever those might turn out to be. Your writing will follow.

¹ I know that sometimes a piece of media gives the antagonists a vaguely Catholic aesthetic just for style, in a way where the creators clearly don't know much about real Catholics but just think the imagery is kinda cool. However, most examples I can think of have thinly-presented villains (usually not in novels, more like action games, B movies, etc.) and come from a time and place where there weren't many Catholics and general knowledge about them was minimal, which is presumably not true of yours at present nor is it really an excuse per se.

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Like so many world-building questions, the answer can perhaps be found in the world we've already built.

Real-world Christian groups feud, denounce each other, and in the past, got into deadly, long-lasting conflicts.

If your story includes a fictional group that resembles the Catholic Church, but is not the Catholic Church, why not also include the real Catholic Church, and have them denounce these frauds? Or have the fictional group attack the Catholic Church.

Consider the Westboro Baptist Church. They have routinely positioned themselves against mainstream Christians, by saying terrible things about them. They have very few sympathizers outside of their members.

Have your evil church say things like this:

Considering the dispositions of priests and parishioners, more accurate names for some of Topeka's Catholic churches would be: Most Foul Heart of Satan, Antichrist the King, Our Lady of Sodom, Unholy Name.

or this

Like the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, et al., the so-called Christian Church-Disciples of Christ (generally, Congregational Churches) are sodomite churches. They are not true churches of Jesus Christ.

or this

Filled with shyster lawyers and crooked judges, the Episcopal Church USA is a cesspool of sodomite sin and crime.

You can find more - and much more terrible - of these anti-Christian quotes here: "Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church On Christians"

Make your antagonists sound like this and you'll likely run little risk of offending any members of real Christian sects.


To address the OP's comment that no other religions exist at the time of the story:

  • It's likely that the memory of other faiths still exists. Philistines disappeared from the historical record about 2500 years ago, but we still talk about them. Satanists never really existed, but that doesn't stop contemporary religious groups from talking about them. There's ample historical and contemporary justification for your religion fighting a spiritual war against non- or no-longer-existing religions.

  • Your new, evil religion won't have appeared about of nowhere. If they came into being before all other Christians disappeared, there's likely to be a history of conflict.

And in regard to the question about referencing the concept of Manifest Destiny:

  • No one believes anymore in a principle they would call "Manifest Destiny," but the core themes are as old as dirt and as common as dirt, too. Manifest Destiny involved a belief that the members of the in-group (American Christians) have some special qualities and virtues; that these special people have a mission to civilize a barbaric place (the American west); that this essential duty is destined to be fulfilled. If you remove the specific time, place, and people involved, this idea is such generic ethnocentrism that your readers are probably going to mistake the reference. A 21st century reader might, for instance, think of Zionist settlers inhabiting the "empty" land of Palestine.
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  • Thanks for the answer! Not a bad idea, though (my fault for not clarifying) the religious group is all that is left of humanity, so there isn’t any other church to denounce them (part of why they got so out of hand). However, the part about historical spats between religions could apply, right? For example, I was thinking of making one of the religious leaders believe in Manifest Destiny. As this has historical pretext in Christianity (and isn’t believed so much anymore), it wouldn’t strike an edge, would it?
    – Mark Price
    Oct 26 at 18:36
  • "Make your antagonists sound like this and you'll likely run little risk of offending any members of real Christian sects"... IF the antagonists are not the only/main examples of Christianity in the story. If they are, then you risk implying that their attitude is representative of Christians in general, which is exactly the kind of offensive stereotype you want to avoid. The Westboro Baptist example works for a minority splinter group, but maybe not so well for the powerful majority group the OP is describing.
    – DLosc
    Oct 27 at 17:04
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Having an evil, hateful fanatic religious grouo as antagonists has been done so often it is a cliche. Examples that come to mind: The Whitecloaks in Jordan's Wheel of Time series; the Quadrenes in Bujold's Five Gods universe; The Kargide people in LeGuin's Earthsea books; The Calormenes in Lewis's Narnia books; "The Streets of Ashkelon" by Harry Harrison; the Church of God Awaiting in the Safehold series by Weber. Many more examples could be cited.

Use of a cliche is often bad writing, whether it is offensive or not, unless it can be given a significantly new aspect or spin.

The more recognizable your group of evil fanatics is, the more some will take it as a statement that the group on which they re based, or perhaps all religion, is evil. On the other hand it is an undeniable fact of history that various religious enthusiasts and fanatics have done a good deal of harm and what I would call evil in the name of one religion or another, and a fair number called themselves Christians or Catholics. (The crusades come to mind. So does the Thirty-years war. So do the 6th-centurary wars between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires.)

One possibility is to make your evil group clearly not Catholics, or any other real religious group. Another is to provide other characters, for the same or a very similar belief tradition, who are clearly good. Those deal with the "offensive" part, or at least may help to deal with it. They don't help with the "cliche" part. For that you will have to fins something fresh to do with this idea. I have no idea what you might come up with.

2

The game Far Cry 5 did the same thing. The antagonists are a militant Christian cult who control their followers through religious fanaticism, drugs, terror and torture. They are portrayed as utterly, irredeemably evil.

But in order to not send an "all Christians are bad" message, the game also contains plenty of minor and major characters who are also practicing Christians, but are good people and opposed to the evil cult. Like a priest who refused to preach their perverted interpretation of Christianity in his church and thus became their mortal enemy. This clearly sends the message that Christianity in itself is not evil, just the perverted interpretation of the cult is evil.

The religious views of the player-character are left open, because that character is mostly written as a self-insert for the player.

So you don't necessarily need to counter-balance the demonization of Christian antagonists by giving your protagonist traits you would rather not want to give them. You can also use sympathetic supporting characters for that purpose. Add a couple people to the story who are faithful Catholics who do good in the name of Catholicism or just want to live their lives in peace, and in return get antagonized by the evil cult. Not despite also being Catholics but because they are Catholics who refuse to accept their twisted interpretation.

1

Have whatever violent Catholic extremist group you want but also include as part of your story other Catholics who are devout but object to the extremist sect. This serves a couple things. First, its clear that you are not implying that ALL Catholics are extremists. Second, it allows for more interesting multifaceted debates between characters. There is sooo much more you can do with a three-sided conflict than a two-sided one.

1

People will always be offended.

As others have mentioned, there is no way not to offend someone. What you need to worry about is whether you'll offend reasonable people or not (because reasonable people can take their reasonable emotions around your book and convince other people that your book is bad).

Is your book a criticism of Catholicism?

So, what is going to offend reasonable people? If your book is a criticism of Catholicism, then it will offend some reasonable Catholics, and they can frame your book as an attack on Catholicism. Now, in this scenario, you could defend your book by saying it is not an attack, but a well-meant criticism. However, this doesn't change the fact that the situation is still a hairy one, and it may negatively affect you and your book (though it may also drive up sales via the spotlight it puts on you and your book). If your book is a criticism of Catholicism, you will offend reasonable people.

What is and isn't a criticism of Catholicism?

Here's a criticism of Catholicism: "the fact that one can pay a sum as penance for a sin promotes a shallow view of redemption, and is really just a mechanism for the Catholic church to make money." Whether this criticism is true or not is a different matter; what's important is that it is a criticsm.

So let's say your corrupted version of Catholicism takes the practice of paying money to be repented, and turns it to the max, thus illuminating the practice's flaws. Sure, your exaggerated version of paying money for penance isn't real, but it's still making a statement; a criticism. As such, the question isn't about how similar your corrupted Catholicism is to real Catholicism, the question is; how have you corrupted them?

If you take real attributes of Catholicism, and exaggerate these attributes, then you are doing something that can be interpreted as a criticism of Catholicism. It doesn't matter how much you exaggerate these real attributes, all that matters is the fact that they are exaggeration of real attributes.

So then, what isn't a criticism of Catholicism? Well, if you create a religion that only shares general attributes to Catholicism (attributes that many if not all religions have), then nothing you exaggerate can be reasonably seen as a criticism on Catholicism. Let's say you only borrow terms and symbolism from Catholicism, and you slap that onto a religion that is completely different from Catholicism in its essence; well then you're not criticizing Catholicism anymore; you're just utilizing the powerful and well-recognized symbolism spawned from Catholicism.

Will this non-criticism of Catholicism still offend people? As said in the beginning of this answer, yes. Will it matter? Probably not. These people getting offended will probably not be taken seriously; people will think of them as over-reacting. Contrast this with the scenario in which you book is a criticism. In this scenario, people can call your book out as anti-Catholic, and say they feel targeted. They could say that the book completely misunderstands, for example, the practice of paying money for penance, and say that your book spread a misinformed and/or damaging view of Catholicism, etc.

0

Parts of the real Catholic church are or have been irredeemably evil and corrupt at different points in history. Uncountable writings in different genres, from scholarly works to pulp fiction, have portrayed (parts of) the Catholic church in this way. In recent times, Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code has provoked outrage and law suits because of this. And it was a bestseller, in part because of this.

So the first take home message is: Provoking outrage might be a selling point.

If you want to avoid too much conflict, you could invent a Catholic sect or a Christian church or a monotheistic religion or some other kind of religion (listed in decreasing order of offensiveness). Your readers will easily see the parallels, if there are any.

Second message: You don't need to write about the Catholic chruch to write about the Catholic church.

0

You say that the religious group is "irredeemably evil and corrupt, largely because of their devotion to their faith". If that is really the way you portray it, it will likely be offensive. Let's take an example:

If you were to portray Catholics opposing abortion and to imply that they were doing this because they were evil monsters who hate women, this would definitely offend. Many readers would see this as a slander.

If however you were to write about a priest who preached against abortion but arranged for his pregnant girlfriend to get one, this would probably not offend. He is a hypocrite and your readers will share your contempt for him.

In the first case the people are bad because they are Catholic. In the second the priest is a bad Catholic. One is far more offensive than the other.

0

I haven’t read all the other answers, so I might be repeating something, but hey — if I am, you know they weren’t the only person who thought it!

Are there any ways to easily illustrate that a religious group depicted in a story does not reflect the actual portrayal of the religion

Not entirely sure what you mean by 'portrayal' as opposed to 'depicted'... I think you're talking about making sure your readers are aware you don't actually think all Christians are like this IRL.

If so, yes. Ultimately, it's all about nuance. The easiest way to do it is to just include other aspects of Christianity. Show that Christians and Christianity in general that aren't like that.

As a Christian myself, (albeit Protestant, rather than Catholic) if the twisted, extremist Christians were the ONLY Christian representation in the book, then yes, I would be offended. As I'm sure Muslims would be if the only depictions of Muslims in a story were r**ists and bombers who treat women like animals and slaves, with nothing to show what the religion should and does look like for almost everyone who practices it.

There are Muslims who are terrorists. That doesn't mean all Muslims want death to the west. Same with Christians. Just because some Christians are dicks and 'everything-phobes', so-to-speak, doesn't mean being a Christian makes you 'irredeemably evil'. You say you don’t believe that's actually the case: the reason you feel the need to clarify you don't actually believe that is probably a good reason not to include it in your story.

It’s true that no matter what you write/say/do, there will always be at least one person who is offended by it. However, you should still treat people’s religious beliefs and practices with basic respect. There's a difference between people getting offended at being called out on their toxic beliefs and attitudes or at the phrase ‘ok boomer’ — and getting offended at the implication that everyone who follows a particular religion is evil, 'largely because of their devotion to their faith.'

(Also, just as an aside, it's even worse if you have the pure evil Christian antagonists, and the pure good protagonist who believes in Islam, for example. That feels very much like the writer is trying to say Christianity bad, Islam good. Please don't do that.)

To come from a slightly different angle, in my experience, 'irredeemably evil' villains have a tendency to feel a bit one-note and to lack nuance. You say you want to base the antagonists on a real religion to make it 'raw'. Only, rawness without nuance will feel hollow, regardless of whether it's based on a real religion or not. However, if your story takes a more nuanced look at the group, I'd say you're at least a little bit less likely to be offensive. Why are they doing it? What exactly do they believe? How do they control/gain members? How do they treat dissenters? Is it threat of violence, or is it something more insidious? Anything that gives a more rounded view of the characters.

Religious extremism like this happens because people already have a twisted worldview, and so they twist the religion to try to validate that worldview. The thing that makes Nazi Germany scary is the fact that most of them WEREN’T psychopaths. (I know Nazis aren't religious extremists, but the point still stands.)

You have the potential to write a poignant, thought-provoking story that will leave readers staring into space for days after they've finished. It's all in the nuance!

Good luck :)

-3

Drop it Like a Hot Potato!

I see the question has evolved a little bit from its iteration on Worldbuilding. I think I gave you some pretty sound advice from the geopoetical perspective. Here I'm just going to address the specific points you raise in this question.

  1. Is this generally a thing to avoid... --- Yes, this is something that only the most bigoted of anti-Catholic writers would consider to be in good taste. As I encouraged you to do in the other question, avoid well known & obvious names, terminology, etc. Basically: drop the idea of basing this on Catholicism. Because a "twisted" religion full of "irredeemably evil" people who are only out to kill other people is about as insultingly un-Catholic as you can get.
  2. Is it better to invent... --- Yep! As I said in my other answer, it is always better to invent rather than to copy. And it is far worse to copy and slander at the same time.
  3. ...new hypothetical religion for a story involving direct violence. --- While individual Catholics are not unfamiliar with war and violence as a consequence of politics & poor life choices, if you understand anything about your subject, you'll understand that "Catholic" and "direct violence" are about as diametrically opposed as it's possible to be.
  4. I don’t want to offend people with my story... --- Well, you've already offended me, so I guess you're off to a good start with this project.
  5. the Christianity bit is kind of important for some of the imagery and thematic inspiration --- Maybe I'm misunderstanding something here, but you want to create a religion of pure evil where everyone is "irredeemably evil" and only interested in killing other people and waging war. In what way does that have anything to do with Catholic imagery or thematic inspiration?
  6. using a realistic religion makes the story more raw --- The only thing "raw" about this project is going to be the wounds you're causing in the people that you are offending & disappointing by your approach.
  7. Are there any ways to easily illustrate that a religious group depicted in a story does not reflect the actual portrayal of the religion --- Did you not read my answer to your other question? To recap, yes there is a very easy way to accomplish this goal. Don't use an actual religion for poorly conceived purposes. What you're doing is like taking a dozen or so aspects of Japanese and Chinese culture and writing a story about them fighting some Germans just because you want some Asian dudes there, and the samurai swords are cool and you really like a good bowl of egg foo yung.
  8. Alternatively, should I just drop the Christianity bit altogether? --- This is the wisest thing you've said in both questions! Drop it like a hot potato and come up with your own dastardly & evil religion!

And please take note! If you find that you're having difficulty coming up with a religion, please do not hesitate to ask as many questions as you need to over on Worldbuilding! We would LOVE to help you with that task!

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  • 4
    ""Catholic" and "direct violence" are about as diametrically opposed as it's possible to be." this has not been true throughout the history of the Church. The crusades come to mind. Notable quotes: "Then one rode through blood to the knees, by the just and marvelous judgement of God." "Kill them all, God will know his own." Oct 27 at 23:50
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    @DavidSiegel -- shrug Defend the claim! Show me any doctrine or dogma of the Church that says it's okay go and wage war.
    – elemtilas
    Oct 28 at 1:24
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    @Chenmunka -- Bigotry? Another strong claim! To briefly answer, no, it's not bigotry.
    – elemtilas
    Oct 29 at 2:31
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    @DavidSiegel -- Great! Then we're actually agreed. "Catholic" and "direct violence" are diametrically opposed. The issue here is the often very wide chasm between what does the Church espouse as doctrine & dogma -- things that are to be believed and acted upon -- and what do Catholic people, be they popes or 10 year olds, decide to do with respect to those matters of faith. Modern US politics clearly instructs. What I deny is that the Church, the faith handed down from the Apostles, contains nothing in its teaching about waging war and perpetrating violence. I freely admit...
    – elemtilas
    Oct 29 at 2:36
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    (cont) ... that Catholics can be real ding-dongs and can easily be swayed from their faith by political & secular considerations. Crusades for example. There are no doctrines or teachings about waging crusades. Sponsoring a crusade, going on a crusade, fighting in a crusade -- those are matters of politics (for the leaders) and pay (for the soldiers) possibly tempered by prudential judgement of the one who calls for a crusade. Basically, we need to remember to distinguish "The Church" from the "people who make up the Church" when looking back at any action attributed to "the Church".
    – elemtilas
    Oct 29 at 2:42

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