Does Religion Belong in YA/NA Fiction?

Let’s start the year off with a terrifying bang, shall we?

After all, being a blogger is scary. And the more I write, the more I start to realize this. If only that made me any braver. But there are some things worth talking about, even if all you want to do is hide a hole with all your fluffy friends.

There are a lot of sensitive discussions out there in terms of fiction and the books we obsessive over, but I never thought I’d really have too much trouble with them. After all, I’m a bit of a goody-two-shoes and don’t really like getting into debates. Plus, I have my motto:

“Be respectful. Encourage kindness. Pet bunnies.”

I mean, what’s so controversial about that? I keep my head down and try not to make waves.

But there’s another part of myself that I’m realizing is controversial to some people. That is, that I’m religious and I wish there was more religious representation in YA/NA fiction. I’ve yet to see this sentiment expressed among bloggers, except for the strictly Christian who don’t believe swearing, drugs or sex belongs in YA fiction. Personally, I don’t believe religious = wholesome. I also don’t believe religious = close-minded. When I say I want religion, I mean in the real sense, in the way real people actually practice and view their faith. Making mistakes. Different interpretations. Religious people, like all groups, are not a monolith, and it’s time we stopped treating them like one.

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Here’s the thing, religion is a tricky subject. A lot of people have completely valid reasons for disliking it, and too many people in the world today warp it for their own personal gains. Not to mention not every book is suitable for a religious slant. Again, there’s plenty of valid reasons why many novels should not, and don’t, include any religious overtones.

However, Christianity alone has approximately 2.2 billion followers. That’s over 30% of the world’s population. Now think about all of the other religions out there. Altogether, 84% of the world’s population practices some type of faith. And with these sheer numbers, finding any sort of religious characters in YA/NA fiction is near impossible unless you’re looking specifically under “Religious Fiction”.

So why are we still ignoring religions, of any sort, when it comes to books? I think of it like this, not too long ago the only way to find LGBT books was to seek out a specific niche. There were no fantasy or sci-fi books with protagonists who just happened to be LGBT. If you wanted to read a story about that type of hero, that’s what the entire books premise HAD to be about (usually rife with awful stereotypes and unhappy endings too). But with the rise of #OwnVoices, things are slowly (omg sooooo slowly!) starting to get better. It’s still not perfect, but people are sick of seeing these types of characters constantly at the bottom of the bin.

That’s where I feel books featuring religious characters still are. You want a Jewish/Christian/Muslim character? That books better be ABOUT that character’s faith. No dragons and swords. No ghosts or shooting up zombies. Contemporary with clean language only.

Why? Why are people still so afraid of reading about religion?

Oh wait, I remember.

“Because it’s too preachy!”

Is it? I don’t know, some novels may come off as preachy, but are they really all? Maybe it’s an unpopular opinion, but it sometimes feels readers think ALL mention of religion is preachy simply based on the fact that they don’t like it. It’s sort of like when a novel features a gay person as a supporting side character and suddenly people are clutching their pearls and crying out ‘They’re shoving their sexuality down our throats! Think of the CHILDREN!!!!!’

Really?

REALLY?

Look, I’m not trying to rustle any feathers, and I’m not claiming that every book ever needs to have some type of religious aspect. But it’s definitely one of those things that starts to stick out after awhile because I do believe that constantly NOT including religion is still taking a stance on the subject.

I admit, this may be due to my own limited reading experience. I don’t read as quickly as other people, so I’m not able to get through as many books to see if perhaps there is religious representation out there I’m just not seeing. But, I do read a ton of book reviews, and in the last few months I think I can think of 2 novels (Autoboyography and Love, Hate & Other Filters), where religion actually plays a role in the protagonists’ life.

Now, more than ever, the book world is making strides in diversifying the literature available to us. Protagonists are allowed to be non-white and LGBT+ (although not always, I’m not going to pretend that battle is won as we still have a long way to go), but we’ve seemed to reach a cultural norm where Christianity is seen as SO “normal” it’s acceptable to mock, degrade and stereotype. Why is this okay? Why is putting down anyone okay?

I realize that in certain novels such as fantasy it might not make sense to reference real-world religions (and as I stated before, I’m not claiming every novel in existence requires some type of religious aspect). But on the flip-side, doesn’t including belief/faith/religion of some sort make that fictional society or world that much more authentic? Isn’t the aim of a purely fantasy world to make it feel as real as possible? Like someplace you can actually step inside and see and touch?

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Building a setting completely from scratch allows authors to take things like faith and spiritualism in their own hands. If the practices of real-world religions make authors uncomfortable, this is the perfect opportunity to

Not only that, it only serves to make that fantasy world that much more realistic and well-rounded. Remember, 84%? It doesn’t mean every character has to practice their faith. It doesn’t even mean any of them have to at all. But to pretend it doesn’t have a hand in how their civilization is formed is naive. Like it or not, society is shaped by all religions, and it doesn’t matter whether we, as individuals, believe in it or not. Laws are formed around it. Cultural norms are rooted in it. A character can follow along or break against these traditions and beliefs, but the point is that they are still there.

Maybe I’m really feeling this right now since I’m still up to my eyeballs working on Crucible, (Remember that? Do you?) which I not only created a fictional religion for, but it plays a pretty big role in my characters’ lives. Still, despite its title (ugh, should I change it? I love it but I think it’s giving everyone the wrong idea), the book is not a religious one. Not really, anyway. While the main character is constantly questioning his faith, it’s not the central focus of the plot, and the ending is not resolved with neat and tidy answers.

Anyway, I’ve gone back and forth a lot about whether or not I should post this, but ultimately I think it’s something worth talking about. I’ve found that even folks who aren’t religious in any sense, still find the concept of religion interesting because of what a huge impact it has had on societies and history. So why are YA/NA novels still ignoring it? Are we just not there yet? Or is it just too prickly of a topic to deal with?

Do you think religion has a place in YA/NA fiction? Do you think it’s something that can be integrated casually? 

15 Comments

  1. I definitely think this is an interesting topic! I literally just finished reading another blogger’s post on their worries about being too preachy with writing religion! So I think it’s something people are starting to think about more?! Which is good. I personally often avoid religion in books because of that “omg it’s going to be preachy” aspect. But it shouldn’t have to be that way. I loved how in The Upside Of Unrequited the characters were Jewish and it was part of their lives! And I’ve read a fair few books where the Muslim characters were prominent. (Muslim plays a huge part in And I Darken and I found that so interesting.) So I think I WOULD be nice to see a bit more of religion mentioned in books? Even if it’s just part of the character (like them going to church on a sunday!).

    1. Author

      You’re right, it absolutely SHOULDN’T be that way! And I think some of the problem lies with readers, not always the author. A character simply mentioning their faith does not inherently make them preachy, but I think there’s such a knee-jerk reaction to it, it can be difficult for some people not to see it that way. Hopefully, we can work toward including aspects of it more, even if its to explain why a character ISN’T religious.

  2. I often wish that religion was represented more as well. It seems like often when religion (Christianity especially) is represented in a not specifically religious book, they’re portrayed as angry and judgmental. I always cringe when I see that portrayal. I understand that these people exist, but I wish they’d be shown in balance with Christians who aren’t evil. Even more, I’d love to see little instances of faith when religion isn’t the focus of the book—like you say, it’s a part of many people’s lives and cultures, even those who aren’t necessarily super religious.

    1. Author

      Agreed, and I think all that image does it further people’s belief in that stereotype, which is dangerous for everybody. I’m not saying people like that don’t exist, because I’m all too aware they do, but they’re NOT the only religious people out there. I see it like this, as a woman, I’m tired of the ‘token female’, and there’s been a push to include more girls in fiction so that a single character doesn’t have to represent “all” women in that story. I feel like it’s the same concept. Show that angry, close-minded religious nut. But also show there’s another half of the coin too, because religious people come in all forms.

  3. This raised some really interesting questions for me! I think you’re correct in thinking that religion should be better represented in books, but that people may be too scared to step on any toes to include it. As someone whose religion is barely known in real life, I hadn’t really notice the absence of religion before but I’ll definitely be paying more attention to it now.

    1. Author

      I’m glad it gave you something to think about! I know religion is a bit tricky to write about, but I don’t think the difficulty should stop authors from trying 🙂 Not everything is supposed to be easy!

  4. I am a strong, practising Christian, but despite that, I don’t usually enjoy reading “Christian” books, because I find that “Christian” usually means an absence of swearing and “questionable” content, rather than a portrayal of actual, real Christianity. Christian books do tend to be preachy, however there are some genuinely good books out there.
    Like you said, I’m confused by the fact that diversity and #OwnVoices usually means disability or mental illness, POC or lgbt, but doesn’t include religion!
    Good post, I enjoyed it ;D

    1. Author

      I’m glad you liked it!
      I absolutely agree that I think there should be a difference between “Christian fiction” and “books that include Christianity (or any religion)”, but sadly it doesn’t seem we’re quite there yet. Readers see the word ‘religion’ and are already armed with a slew of assumptions. Hopefully with the rise of #Ownvoices we’ll start seeing more diversity among faiths and beliefs as well!

  5. You have such a good point! I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a book mention religion at all. Though I don’t follow a certain religion (I kind of like taking aspects of different ones and following my own personal morals) I’m definitely not against reading about them. And I think creating a religion for a fantasy world would be especially cool. I actually sort of did that in one of my NaNo projects without realizing it (just never got all the details down).

    This actually reminds me of the video game Final Fantasy 10 (don’t know if you’ve ever played it). It’s the only game I can think of at the moment that makes religion a big part of the game and I loved it. It was cool to talk to NPCs and collect snippets of information about the religion. I don’t understand why more storytelling doesn’t do this. Maybe it is a “touchy” subject. I can understand that, I would never want to misrepresent a religion because I didn’t do enough research. Which is why I figure creating your own kind of saves you from doing that.

    Definitely hope more people start including religion into their stories. And good luck with your current story!

    1. Author

      That’s really cool you’ve seen religion mentioned in something more mainstream like Final Fantasy (I’ve never played but I know it’s everywhere!), as well as included it in your work! I definitely don’t think it has to be this big, scary, THING. Like you said, learning more about, even just snippets, is fun because it makes everything feel that much more well-rounded. Even if not everyone believes in it, which is also realistic, simply having it there gives it all that extra oomph.
      Thanks for reading! 🙂

  6. When I saw this on my email earlier this week I knew I had to read it. And now that I did ohmigosh ohmigosh ohmigosh!
    I’m not exactly religious and, personally I have difficulties with my religion at the moment. And I would love to see that in a YA novel! I’ve seen plenty of YA novels that kinda mocked Christianity and even if I’m not exactly devout, it still stung. Kinda like when my race is misrepresented.
    As for books, the Six of Crows duology and Samirah al-Abbas from the Magnus Chase trilogy have religious aspects although they aren’t exactly the central point of the stories but you know the religions are part of some characters’ lives.
    Truly a though-provoking post you have here!

    Kate | https://allthetrinkets.wordpress.com

    1. Author

      Haha, I’m really happy it caught your attention! (even if I was pretty terrified to actually post it 😉 ) Thank you for the suggestions, I’ll definitely check them out (even though I should have read Six of Crows ages ago…)
      I agree. Mocking religion seems quite acceptable, and I can’t help but notice it. I understand why, and I don’t think religion should be painted as this perfect, flawless thing because it’s not, but it does no good to stereotype and feed into negative ideas either.

  7. I think that there’s a strong difference between a religious book, and a book that contains characters who have religious beliefs.

    A Wrinkle in Time is a good example of this: I just finished rereading this one and had completely forgotten the verses that the Mrs. Ws give to the children. But it’s not a religious book. I think that we get really defensive when we think someone is about to tell us what to believe. And I think that religion can be tastefully included in every book.

    I identify as Pagan but I was raised Christian/Baptist and I know I tend to cringe when I’m afraid a book is about to start telling me how to think. This gut reaction comes largely from my parental background, where occasionally my pious father will STILL sit my adult brother and I down and tell us we are leading lives of sin and need to go back to church. At the same time, I adore epic fantasy books that usually have their own pantheons and the series I’m writing has its own tiers of gods and goddesses. Deities show up a lot in YA/NA and we don’t pay them much mind unless they are Christian or Islamic. Which isn’t fair and isn’t right. It’s important to take a deep breath and ask: “Is this book telling me what *I* should believe, or is it telling me what *this character* believes.” There’s a difference, and it’s important.

    That said, the Christian series Left Behind is fantastic, but heavily relies on Christian beliefs (I know many Christians who would chastise me for calling it science-fiction, but…). I think faith is healthy when portrayed in entertainment, but if an author has an agenda (religious, political, anything) it should be kept out of the bodies of art themselves, or labeled appropriately.

    I also agree with the above poster that #OwnVoices should be allowed to include religion. It’s a deeply varied experience, but no less important.

  8. I really liked this post because I usually don’t see ones like this.

    I am a Muslim and the reason I’ve gotten so much into writing in the past year has mainly been because I’ve finally decided to include Muslim characters, such as females that wear hijab, and I fell in love with representing myself through my writing.

    Currently, I am writing a YA Fantasy featuring a Muslim character and she prays and wears the hijab and everything, but her faith isn’t the main plot to the story.

    I think it’s important for my faith to play a part in the stories that I write because I always wanted to see myself in Tris or Katniss, but I’ve never seen another hijabi girl who hones her dagger skills as well as she focuses on her religion. I needed that when I was younger and I only realized this recently.

    🙂

  9. What an interesting post! I totally think religion has a place in ya/na the few books I’ve read that featured and portrayed it well I really enjoyed I find books with positive portrayals of religion are just as important as other #own voice representation. However I am wary when I hear books have religion rep in them because of bad experiences with books in the past. Which of course I shouldn’t be. I also agree that just because religion is part of the story it shouldn’t have to be the main plot of the story why can’t a character be religious with out being all of the character’s purpose?

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