Some science fiction and fantasy stories describe religious subjects in a fictionalized setting. Probably the most obvious example of this is the His Dark Materials trilogy. I imagine that some of the material in that trilogy might offend some Christians, but not being Christian myself, I lack the relevant context to judge this directly. Wikipedia certainly seems to think that people have been offended, at any rate.

We've discussed religion previously. By the standards set out in those questions, I think it's fairly obvious that His Dark Materials is on-topic while the Bible is off-topic (and one of the answers says as much).

But we can't stop there, because it is not enough to know what's on-topic and what's off-topic. We need to ask and answer these questions respectfully. So, given that we want to treat our users with respect:

  • Is it OK to cite the Bible (or any religious text) in order to answer questions about fiction based on said text?
  • What if the text explains things which are not directly addressed by the fiction?
    • To give a concrete example: Suppose a user asks about Metatron's behavior or motivations in His Dark Materials. The answer cites the Talmud and other rabbinic literature for general information about Metatron's background, history, etc., and then discusses it in the fictional context. Is this OK?
    • It's my recollection that His Dark Materials does not thoroughly explain who Metatron is or why we should care about him, so the alternative is a rather sparse answer. Does that matter, or should we always apply the same policy?
  • What should we do about things like the Divine Comedy, which may not technically qualify as religious texts, but describe things which many people now literally believe to be true?

We had some discussion of answers that cite religious texts, but the most-upvoted answer seems to be describing the situation in which someone answers a question about, say, Harry Potter by citing the Bible, which is just a bad answer because Harry Potter has nothing to do with the Bible. I'm asking about the situation where the fiction is closely related to, and even based on, a religious text.

I realize this looks like three or four questions, but they're all just special cases of my real question:

When asking and answering about this kind of fiction, how can I best avoid hurting or offending religious users? What specific concerns should I bear in mind, and what sorts of things should I avoid saying or doing?

  • 5
    You could start with being careful that you do not assert that their religious scripture is fiction as well. Other than that, I believe citing religious text in order to answer works based on those texts is allowed and welcome. I remember I saw some examples in this regard, I'd look them up and come back with a link – Aegon May 16 '17 at 5:49
up vote 28 down vote accepted

Basic rules

Don’t be afraid to cite religious sources

There are fictional works based on any and all religious sources. There are also works of fiction based on non-religious historical accounts, scientific theories, news stories, and many other, perhaps less controversial (or at least more mundane), accounts of reality. Given that these works influence the fiction we discuss, we shouldn’t avoid mentioning them altogether.

Don’t call religious texts fiction

The users of this site have many different religions, including the lack of one. Some people may feel that religious texts are incorrect, or even that they were written for the purpose of entertainment rather than meant to be take literally. There’s nothing wrong with holding any of these opinions—just don’t imply it in your answer.

There’s no need to say that a religious text is true, just avoid asserting its falsehood. I can think of almost no situation where someone would have to choose between describing a religious work as fact, or describing as fiction. Instead of

Philip Pullman based his story on Christian fiction.

why not go with

Philip Pullman based his story on Christian theology.

(Note: obviously, most people wouldn’t write the first sentence. It’s a bit of an exaggerated example).

Use other words carefully

Even if one doesn’t directly call a religion false, there’s still certain language that could give that impression. It’s probably best to use “theology” rather than “mythology,” for example, let alone “myths” or “legends.”

It’s also important to have a consistent style. Even if one decides to talk about “Christian mythology” (referring, say, to stories told about elements of Christian faith rather than canon), one shouldn’t talk about “Jewish theology” for the same sorts of things.

Basically, if a word carries connotations of falsehood or fiction, it’s probably best not to use it.

Be accurate

Even if you don’t say (or even believe) that a religion is false, it’s still important to accurately represent that religion. It might be best to avoid saying (for example):

Philip Pullman based his story on Christian theology, in which God is a malevolent entity who holds back humanity.

Or:

The Satanic Verses, a universally acknowledged accurate representation of mainstream Islamic doctrine.

Be aware of more subtle things, too. Religious characters that appear in fiction are often altered from their original depictions, and while this is not a bad thing, the two shouldn’t be confused. Don’t say:

Ares is a notorious motorcycle gang member, as shown in The Lightning Thief.

Or:

Gabriel was a real slacker! He tried to get himself worshiped as Loki and abandoned his family! I saw it on Supernatural.

It would be perfectly fine to use textual explications of Metatron’s behavior for His Dark Materials, for example. Just make sure it’s clear you’re not doing the opposite—conflating the fictional angel with the real one, and thus implying something about the real Metatron that believers generally don’t think is true.

Be cautious

  • If a book was not written as fiction, don’t treat it as fiction. This isn’t just about religion, but about any book that many people believe is false, but many believe is true. Accounts of alien abductions, stories of alternative medicine cures, biographies written by known confabulators—all should be taken at face value, at least for the purpose of treating them as fiction here.
  • Don’t use a religion’s prominence or social status as a criterion. Scientology texts (if written as true) are no more fiction than the Bible.
  • If a clearly fictional book (in terms of authorial intent) has inspired a real-life religion, such as the Divine Comedy or Star Wars, it’s perfectly fine to discuss it as fiction. But there’s still no reason to say things like “the picture of Hell described in Inferno is fake” or “no one really believes in the Jedi.”
  • 5
    Would upvote more if I could. – Radhil May 16 '17 at 20:51
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    You start to touch on it, but it might be worth pointing out how 'myth' in the older sense has been largely superseded (or narrowed) to a different meaning today. A religion's mythos is a set of origin stories that help define a belief system or provided context for an entire cultural belief, but today 'myth' is used all too often to just mean "an interesting, but fake, story from antiquity". Understanding the different interpretations of it might help people to avoid misusing it and subsequently offending readers. – TylerH May 17 '17 at 20:49
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    +1. Thorough answer which touches almost all points. – Newt Scamander May 18 '17 at 5:09
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    "Real Metatron" is now and forever Snape. – DVK-on-Ahch-To May 26 '17 at 17:28
  • @DVK-on-Ahch-To - How so? – Adamant May 26 '17 at 18:23
  • @Adamant - youtube.com/watch?v=qfUX1W0PzPc – DVK-on-Ahch-To May 27 '17 at 3:39

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