The Roving Author

The Lack of Religion in Fiction and Issues this Causes

Worship, not entertainment – Ite, MISSA (MASS) est! GO!!!!! And do My will!!!! | ADULT ...

Kit Sun Cheah had an interesting article on his site recently. Titled “Guy Gavriel Kay’s Religion Without Religion,” he tackles an issue rampant in modern fiction of every variety: modern writers largely cannot write believable religions or religious characters. Every time they try, they leave a hollow world behind that does not satisfy a reader who is looking for more than superficial entertainment. Mr. Cheah calls this a “God-sized hole” and he is indeed right to do so. The hole is no bigger and no smaller than the Almighty.

I have never – to the best of my memory – read Mr. Kay’s fiction. So very much in the way of modern fiction that includes fictitious religions is so vapid that I have trouble reading it at all. Among the exceptions to this would be Jim Butcher’s series, as his Cinder Spires* (the sequel is coming! THE SEQUEL IS COMING!) and his Codex Alera* series have characters who believe in something beyond the world that they can see. Harry Dresden* knows the Almighty exists, too. He’s just not ready to talk to Him yet (which is fair; the Almighty’s not going to push). Dean Koontz is another exception, as are Declan Finn, Kit Sun Cheah, Karina Fabian, Jane Lebak, Julie Frost, and several other independent authors.

Finding traditionally published writers of their caliber, however, can be and often is like wishing for horses. You are essentially a beggar hoping to ride, and it isn’t going to happen in most venues these days. So while I have no experience with Mr. Kay’s work, Mr. Cheah’s piece immediately brought to mind a series which I have read, though it has been some time since I cracked open one of the books. This would be Scholastic’s Spirit Animals series of children’s books.

Admittedly, I read the books less because I wished to and more to help a friend be certain there was nothing objectionable in them for younger readers. The first five books were relatively enjoyable; nothing spectacular, but they felt lived in and real enough to pass muster for the age range. I could quibble with a couple of items yet still sit back and follow the story.

The next five books fell far short of the first quintuplet. When pressed to describe the series and what I thought of it, I had to admit that I considered it hollow. My reason for this revolves around the Great Beasts, the animal gods of the world Erdas that the humans there worship – or are supposed to worship. As I explained to the person who asked, the worship of the Great Beasts is minimal to non-existent, particularly after the first book. The worship of the Evertree – a tree that is more an homage to the Norse Yggdrasil or World Tree rather than a deity in itself – also feels so flat it may as well not exist at all.

Spirit Animals has at least fifteen god-sized holes in it, if you count the Great Beasts and the Evertree together. Mr. Cheah’s description of Kay’s books applies equally well to Spirit Animals, with some adjustment, as we shall see after the quote here:

A pagan holds that the gods are powerful and terrible beings who control many aspects of life, and so seeks to win their favour and their blessings—as many blessings from as many gods as possible. Failing that, they at least attempt to avoid offending capricious beings with frightful powers. A monotheist reserves his adoration for a single god, holding him as the source of all things, revering his teachings as the standard to live up to, and rejects all other deities. An atheist rejects all gods, period, and does not care one whit about religious laws and creeds.

Pagans do not think like monotheists. Neither pagans nor monotheists think like modern-day atheists. Kay’s characters are nominally monotheists of pagan faiths, yet act like contemporary atheists who take no reference from religion whatsoever. Kay’s civilisations are religious empires without religion, the differences between them boiling down to language, politics, and the ambition of their leaders.

The Aeronaut's Windlass (The Cinder Spires Book 1) by [Jim Butcher]

The main characters in Spirit Animals are 11-12 year old children – two boys and two girls. One boy named Rollan is set up as and acts the part of a cynical near-atheist for the first quintuplet of books, an idea that is at least partially believable considering that he grew up on the streets. Two of the others, the shepherd boy Conor and the huntress Abeke, are more reverent in the first five novels and have outlooks formed by the religion of Erdas. The Zhongese girl Meilin is less religious but perhaps not properly atheistic, being concerned more with battle and cunning strategy than anything else.

For the first five books, the writers for the series managed to keep these aspects of the characters on track and expand them beyond this point. Rollan becomes less atheistic and more agnostic, while Meilin learns to appreciate domesticity more than she has previously. Abeke is put through the emotional and spiritual wringer and, by book ten, I had the impression she was more spiritually fragile than might be necessary. Conor is relegated primarily to the background by the tenth book and comes across as flat, falling far short of the promise he exhibited in the first book. He remains, perhaps, the most religious of the group – and he does not get to show it after book five, at the latest.

The series starts with a semi-religious ceremony called the Nectar ceremony. Bonding with a spirit animal without drinking the Nectar created by the Great Swan Ninani can result in something called “bonding sickness,” a mental instability where the human and spirit animal are out of sync. Humans who have the bonding sickness tend to exhibit animal-like behaviors; one of the villains in the series, Drina, became unstable and violent after bonding with her spider. She would threaten her brother and make unhinged demands. Rollan’s mother, who also had the bonding sickness, abandoned him when he was three because she feared that she would kill him in one of her worse moments. She had already hurt him in previous instances when she would black out and the sickness would drive her to scratch and claw wildly at the nearest person: her own son.

Right here we have fodder for a very good story with a competent religion: we have an illness that afflicts those who bond with a spirit animal without drinking a divine liquor. We have beast-gods and goddesses that can deliver such a liquor, and some of their number have been reincarnated after dying. Others have betrayed them and are in prison, though they are on their way to escaping. We have a World Tree that keeps the world and spirit animal bonds in existence. In short, we have enough material for a truly rich, deep world in which the characters and the readers can play.

The first five books play this part of the story fairly straight, even though they do not explore any of these items in depth to my satisfaction. Each Great Beast has a talisman that enables the person who holds it to access their power, so the heroes have to find and/or bargain for these talismen in an effort to collect them before the villains do. It is straightforward and rather mature, given the age group that the series targets. I thought that, while I would have liked to see more rituals and recognition that this animal religion affected everyday life, it was a competent tale that had quite the finale.

Spirit Animals #1: Wild Born Audiobook by Brandon Mull - 9780545643610 | Rakuten Kobo United States

It is a bit of a spoiler, but the first five books end on something of a Ragnarok note, with the gods sacrificing themselves to save humanity and ending their guardianship of the World – er, Evertree. Had the series ended there, it wouldn’t have been so bad. Not great, but then, it was never meant to be excellent literature that would stand the test of time. It was meant to fill a quota for Scholastic and in that respect, it did its job well.

Only, the next five books brought in a demon that had helped to form Erdas and it threatened to take over the world. I will spare you the details, future authors, but suffice it to say that even the Norse knew better than to try this. Ragnarok ends the lives of the Aesir, the old gods, and makes way for new or resurrected ones that will take their place. Based on that model, Spirit Animals would have been wise to follow suit. It would have been smart for them to find, as Chesterton put it in The Ballad of the White Horse*, “the gods behind the gods” or to bring in new ones by finding the cubs or eggs of the old gods. If the writers could have gotten away with it, bringing in the one God after this would have been quite the feat.

Yet instead we are given nothing but a World – uh, Evertree and a Wyrm/demon that wants to devour everything. The Wyrm is a perfect example of what happens when companies tell authors to “go big or go home” and force them to forget that this does not literally mean “go big or go home.” It is also – and more importantly – an expression of an idea that is rampant today: that there is no such thing as good, and all devolves into evil.

One might suggest that the transcendentalist movement, itself an outgrowth of the Unitarian sect’s doctrine, spawned this idea as a reaction to their insistence that evil is not real, despite the fact that it is very, very real. We know this movement bred Romanticism and thus led to the retaliatory movements of Realism and Naturalism in fiction. It is quite possible that this undercurrent of certainty that evil is the root of all creation has some tie to the latter two movements, though I suspect the ever-present Gnosticism had a hand in this idea’s formation as well.

I have several issues with this, and not just because I am a Catholic who believes that evil is not only not equal to God, it is far inferior to Him. God created Satan, after all; the idea that the fallen archangel is in anyway equal to or as powerful as the Being Who literally formed him out of nothing is laughable. Satan is not God’s equal. Christ died on the cross to prove it and cast him down from the throne his usurped in the first place.

My other issue with this contention is that it flies in the face of historical pagan religions. Classical Greek and Roman myth did not countenance the idea that evil begot the world and the gods and men were doomed to be consumed by it. Even the Norse, whose religion was more than a little pessimistic in some ways, did not believe this. There is not a whiff of this idea in Irish mythology, either. At present I do not know enough about Eastern religions to assert one way or the other that they possessed such a belief. It would not surprise me, however, to learn that they did not possess it either.

So, if the Ancient pagans did not believe this, why do modern writers? Nihilism is the most likely culprit: when you believe that nothing matters and entropy wins, then of course evil would seem stronger than good. To Spirit Animals’ credit, this was pretty much the Wyrm’s MO, and it worked for the villain very well.

What did not work was the idea of no new gods or a God stepping in to help stop the Wyrm. There is no historical basis for this in pagan religions from the West for certain, nor the entirety of the East. Erdas is saved in Spirit Animals through the work of men who have no real religion now that their gods are gone. They cannot even transfer most of their religious belief to the Evertree, as it is a stand-in for Yggdrasil, which was never a deity in Norse myth. It was the tie and the highway between worlds, not an item of worship.

Christians believe in a personal God Who Is knowable even through reason, though Revelation (the Bible and Tradition, in Catholics’ case, which helps explain and apply it to the believer’s life) is the only thing that lets one put a Name and a Face to Him. Reason is great, and several Ancient pagans came very close to finding God. But they never quite made it because reason unaided by Revelation – which is God speaking directly to a man and telling him to tell other men about Him – cannot pierce the veil of Infinity unaided to see God’s face. It’s like trying to find the sun when you are blind; you can feel its rays, but you can never see it due to the impediment in your eyesight. That’s what reason unaided by Revelation and faith does – it leaves you groping in the dark for what is right before you.

Remember the blind man Christ healed because he asked to see? He knew Christ was there. He could hear him, and he could touch him, even talk to Him. But he could NOT see Him until He opened his eyes.

Now you are getting a picture of what I am talking about. Since we are discussing fiction, there is nothing stopping Spirit Animals’ writers from following through on this for their fictional religion and their characters. Nothing, that is, except two things: the aforementioned certainty that evil is stronger than good and will therefore win, and the fact that people do not know their faith anymore.

As a Catholic I speak from the Christian perspective, and I cannot answer for anyone who practices a different faith entirely. But from the view of a Catholic who must lament her brethren’s lack of knowledge of what their religion and faith teaches, I can say that when one does not know what they believe, giving a fictional character a dearly held faith or religion is next to impossible.

Spirit Animals: Book 2: Hunted eBook by Maggie Stiefvater - 9780545522564 | Rakuten Kobo United ...

After the first or second book, why is there no mention of prayer in Spirit Animals? Why is the Nectar Ceremony the only public ritual? Where are the feasts and festivals? The little rituals asking for a blessing on the house, or a good night’s sleep, or even help with a task of some kind? It is stated in the narrative that no one summons an animal of the same type as a Great Beast; ergo, since one of the Great Beasts is a wolf, no one bonds with a wolf as a spirit animal.

So why are we shown no prayers to Briggan, the Great Wolf, to protect the flocks from the deprivations of wolves? Conor mentions there are some, and since he is a shepherd, he should know about this. When he bonds with Briggan, it is meant to be ironic. Why do we never get a slight mention of people calling upon Briggan to help protect the flock from wolves? Moreover, Briggan is supposed to give and have prophetic dreams. Why do none pray and ask him to guard their dreams at night, or give them pleasant dreams, or even prophetic dreams? Furthermore, why do we see the other children strengthening their bonds with their animals while Connor more or less meanders along, having prophetic dreams and yet not seeking to better understand Briggan in an effort to clarify his visions?

Of further note, where are the priests? No matter which pagan religion one looks at, there are priests or monks therein, and often priestesses and virgins besides. Yet Erdas has none of the former and only a few monks in the Buddhist vein. Even they feel flat and false, lacking true life and true belief. They practice a pseudo-Buddhism, not something that at least vaguely resembles the more vibrant Buddhism of Mr. Cheah’s Hollow City and Dungeon Samurai. Theirs is Hollywood’s idea of Buddhism, not the real deal.

Spirit Animals feels hollow to me for all these reasons. The characters and the world have a god-sized hole in them. To paraphrase Star Trek*, “the world is hollow” and I have touched the back of the book. There is nothing there but cheap paper and cardboard. Where I should have found a rich and beautiful world in which to pass the time, I instead discovered a model that had some measure of symmetry in the first five installments, but quickly devolved into cheap plastic from book six onward.

“Well, what can you expect?” some may ask. “It’s meant for little children. It doesn’t have to be great literature. Aren’t you asking for too much?”

Perhaps I am asking too much. Yet I think that a writer would do well to put as much effort into telling a good story for a child as for an adult – if not more so. The audience is harder to please in childhood than adulthood. Spirit Animals was certainly Scholastic’s latest cash-grab series, and it did not have to be anything more to be a COMPETENT series. The first five books were of a lesser quality than I would have preferred, but they were at least capable stories in their own right.

The rest of the series was not, and for me that makes it a waste of money, a waste of resources, and a waste of time. I cannot bear to waste anyone’s time, nor to have my own wasted. Nor do I think one should “speak down” or write down to children; if you write down to one part of your audience, you will begin to write down to the rest of them.

Children are not stupid. I remember liking series not much better than Spirit Animals in my youth. I wish, in hindsight, that they had been as good as I now insist Spirit Animals could have been, because I would have liked them more if they had been written thoroughly and with an eye to entertaining me as though I could talk to the writer as an equal. When I go back to read them now their vapidity utterly disappoints me and leaves me wondering how I could ever have settled for them when there were richer treasures to hand.

On that note, children deserve to be treated better than those content consumers Mr. Cheah calls “whales.” They should be expected to absorb as much culture, refinement of thought, and knowledge as they wish or believe themselves capable of attaining. If we set artificial limits on them and tell them they only read at this or that level, then how will they ever break out of the fences we erect to keep them from feeding on anything other than krill all their lives?

The next time you consider writing a story, future authors, consider the religion your characters may wish to practice. When you do that, look to the religion you yourself profess. You might find far more there that will flesh out and strengthen not only your story, but yourself as well.

At the very least, it can’t hurt to look.

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth. She has also had stories published in the Planetary Anthology Series. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue, Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue, and another may be read over at Ember Journal. Vol. 1* and Vol. 2* of her series – The Guardian Cycle – is available in paperback and ebook as well. Order them today!

Buy Me a Coffee at

Like Caroline’s content? Then consider buying her a coffee on Ko-fi to let her know you appreciate her work. 😉

18 thoughts on “The Lack of Religion in Fiction and Issues this Causes”

  1. Lois McMaster Bujold also has a detailed religion in her (uh…duh) World of the Five Gods series. And there are the occasional exceptions that don’t need it, such as The Chronicles of Amber, wherein the main characters are effectively gods *and* intimately acquainted with the primordial truth of creation and the universe. But even Corwin ponders the nature of right and wrong and fears that he will end up on the wrong side of a Final Judgement.

    Most fantasy/urban fantasy/fantastic novels in general ring very hollow because the characters as well as the setting are lacking a sense of deeper understanding and meaning. I wonder if this is why I drifted away from most fantasy…?

    Great post 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

      1. The first book in the series, *The Curse of Chalion*, has the best idea of saints that I’ve ever seen in a work of fiction, and is so perfectly written that I had to go back and re-read it immediately upon completion to see every little hint that she’d dropped at the beginning that led through the plot.

        And yes, *very* present religion. And not even one religion for the whole world.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, the toads of Tor. They continue to unperson two of their best authors, John C. Wright & L. Jagi Lamplighter.

        Pool noodles.

        The stories in A book of Feasts and Seasons, the atheist-written Awake in the Night are superb examples. The Prospero series by Lamplighter is good value.

        Two more Zenna Henderson’s People stories are the sine qua non of realistic humanoid aliens with a religion.

        Watership down is the best example of an sentient-animal religion.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve put Christianity in high fantasy. It works.

    In *The Lion and the Library*, I invented the religions because it was about conflict. Still, I managed to suggest more around the edged. I think.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. :smacks forehead: See, I KNEW I would forget to put someone on my list of “people who do this really well”…..

      :marks down The Lion and the Library for future reading: And so everyone knows where to look, here are my reviews of Mary Catelli’s Fever and Snow:

      – and The Princess Seeks Her Fortune:

      They are great, enjoyable reads that recognize the importance of religion in fiction and I HIGHLY recommend picking them up!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good post.

    However, IMO there’s worse things than “Lack of Religion” in Fiction.

    The first is mockery of Religion. In one SF story (that I don’t remember the title or author) the only religion mentioned was the Church of Elvis (Presley).

    The second is the “Religion Is Evil” theme. That’s when the only religion in the story world is an evil religion that the main characters are at war with or otherwise trying to escape. Of course, too many times this “Evil Religion” appears to a stand-in for Christianity.

    Oh, the Chosen of the Changeling series by Greg Keyes is an “interesting” look at a polytheistic world. The humans don’t “believe” in the powerful “Spirits” that inhabit their world. They know that the powerful “Spirits” are very real and dangerous to “offend”.

    I don’t like Chosen of the Changeling and no longer have copies of the two books. I thought it was an interesting look at a Real polytheist world and what it’d be like to live in it.

    Oh one “interesting” “Spirit” was Crow/Raven. No human who dealt with him knew which of the “sides” of Crow/Raven that they were dealing with. One side was somewhat nasty and if you believed the side, you were in Big Trouble. The other side was somewhat good and you should do what he suggested. Of course, both sides would punish you if you didn’t “do what he suggested”. 😈

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Kay was bad that way. His religions were clearly intended to be Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, completely hollowed out of all belief, and with the Christians evil.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Your analysis is most interesting and informative. Thanks!

    Paul noted his dislike of mockery of religion and “religion is evil” themes, which I share. Where would the “Children of the Light” from the Wheel of Time saga fit into that catalogue? Under both headings, perhaps?

    If I may stray into films instead of books, the most ridiculous “religion” I ever saw was the bomb-worshipping caricature of dystopian Catholicism in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” I did not become Catholic until 35 years after I first saw that movie, and did not catch the many allusions to the Mass until I saw it again a few years ago. I now find it a bit offensive, but probably no more so than the ubiquitous disrespect for God now afoot in nearly every aspect of our culture. We are the “radicals” now. Just ask the Pope. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks, this was a really interesting read. I definitely agree that religion is either nonexistent or half-existent in most stories. Some children’s books do this a little better, but not by much. I’m currently reading the Wingfeather Saga with my family, and while there is a welcome presence of prayer and a higher power in the world, there aren’t any rituals or clergy of any kind. It’s a good start, but there could be a lot more to make it feel more fully realized. The other example of kid’s literature that comes to mind is the Green Ember series, where religion was completely absent from the first book, and added on later as a way to relate history and origin stories, but never really had an impact in character’s lives. There wasn’t any sort of afterlife or eschatology mentioned in either of them, so ultimately it just felt like window dressing rather than anything meaningful.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree with his analysis of Kay. Kay’s pagan faiths have a solid bit to them, but his monotheisms ring false and hollow. I was reading more for history than other stuff, but the weakness in the Judaism/Christianity/Islam stand-ins was apparent.

    One reason I tend to take religion seriously in my own books is because I got tired of either “all religions are true, let’s sing Kumbayah” or “G-d’s dead so get over it” in sci-fi and fantasy growing up. Plus I’m a believer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And they seem to think that if you declare that Christianity, Buddhism, etc. etc. etc. are ALL TRUE, you can go on being a Christian or a Buddhist or whatever.

      Nah, if you believe the “crossover cosmology” is true, you are a Crossover Cosmologist.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s