It seems so easy to paint religion as evil in fiction. But in my honest opinion Evil Religion (especially corrupt Christianity/Catholicism) is a cliche that needs to DIE. Ditto with the stereotypical pedophile priests, sexy nuns, loud overenthusiastic preachers, annoying Jewish mothers, and terrorist Muslims. However, I’m not advocating that religion in fiction should be portrayed in the other extreme, with constant Jesus Symbolism and heavy-handed guilt tripping.
The best examples of fictional religious works that portray religion as good without being heavy-handed are the works of two authors: CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein. Although both of them are Christian, they have a lot of secular fans. Tolkein especially because he didn’t intend for anything in LOTR to be allegorical. (But then again he’s Catholic. Catholics and allegory go together like bread and wine.) But portraying religion in a good light isn’t limited to fantasy.
A good way to show religion without bashing it or lavishing too much praise is to have characters of different faiths and figure out a common ground. I recently learned that Pope Francis used to be on a radio show with a Protestant and a Jew and the three of them would talk about different topics. Pope Francis and the other two hosts are still friends. Another example of this is a book by Peter Kreeft called Between Heaven and Hell which has CS Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and John F. Kennedy in Purgatory discussing religion.
If you don’t want characters to debate religion or if religion isn’t part of the conflict, show how a character’s faith or lack thereof drives him. But again, don’t use the whole “If I do a lot of good things, I’ll get good karma or go to Heaven” cliche. (It’s also a heresy, but that’s another post.) Instead, show a character whose faith has benefited his life so much that he wants to show it to the world through good works and altruism. Or show a character who has a lot of problems but holds onto their faith not because it’s a crutch, but because it’s their compass, their guiding light in the storm. Priests, nuns, and ministers can be great mentor figures. Not all epic stories have to include wise old monks, after all.
A common ground in many faiths is unconditional love. Buddhists call it loving-kindness. Christianity calls it agape. Jews call it ahavat olam. In contrast to the cliches of romantic comedies, forbidden love, and sexual taboos, unconditional love shines as the ultimate form of true love. (Just watch Frozen!) If you want to include religion in fiction, figure out how that particular faith shows love.
But why write about religion at all?
It seems like society wants to keep religion out of the other things in life because religion to them gets in the way of what they want to do. To the mainstream frame of mind, religion is “holier than thou” with all of its “thou shalt nots,” funeral picketing, and conservative politics. People need to realize that for better and for worse, religion is a part of everyday life and that maybe people should look beyond the often accepted “belief” that religion should be limited to Sunday mornings in a church and nowhere else. In reality, religion is a driving force for a lot of people. And no two people from the same faith are alike. In Catholicism alone, we have hundreds of saints that act as role models whose stories are as varied as comic book superheroes. But that’s another post.
Tl;dr Religion in and of itself is NOT evil. Fiction needs to fix that.