The Sacred: Religion and Mysticism (Build Better Worlds, 3 of 4)

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The Sacred: Religion and Mysticism (Build Better Worlds, 3 of 4) – How To Write the Future podcast, episode 102

“So how does religion or mysticism fit into your story and how can you make it complex and nuanced and not homogeneous, which is the authors here say is one of the biggest problems they see in people’s fictional worlds.”

In this episode, “The Sacred: Religion and Mysticism (Build Better Worlds, 3 of 4),” podcast host of How To Write The Future, Beth Barany, continues her discussion of the book Build Better Worlds by Michael Kilman and Kyra Wellstrom. Beth focuses on the different types of religion and their meanings including mysticism and shares prompts for writers to use to incorporate religion into their stories.

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Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers and Filmmakers by Michael Kilman and Kyra Wellstrom ****

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About the How To Write the Future podcast

The *How To Write The Future* podcast is for science fiction and fantasy writers who want to write positive futures and successfully bring those stories out into the marketplace. Hosted by Beth Barany, science fiction novelist and creativity coach for writers. We cover tips for fiction writers. This podcast is for readers too if you’re at all curious about the future of humanity.

This podcast is for you if you have questions like:

– How do I create a believable world for my science fiction story?

– How do I figure out what’s not working if my story feels flat?

– How do I make my story more interesting and alive?

This podcast is for readers too if you’re at all curious about the future of humanity.

Transcript for episode 102. The Sacred: Religion and Mysticism (Build Better Worlds, 3 of 4)

Hey everyone, Beth Barany here. Welcome to How To Write The Future podcast. I’m your guide and host. I am a science fiction and fantasy writer, creativity coach, and writing teacher and editor. This podcast is for writers where I offer tips and support and guidance around: how do you build a positive optimistic future.

Now I’m speaking in broad generalities. You get to decide what that looks like for you. So for the last few episodes, I have been sharing about this wonderful book called Build Better Worlds: An Introduction To Anthropology For Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers by Michael Kilman and Kyra Wellstrom. So Kilman and Wellstrom are both anthropologists and have created this wonderful book. I recommend that you go back and listen to the first two episodes that I’ve created in this series. 

The first one, I talked about cultural context from their Chapter Three. The second one I talked about myths and the past and cultural purity. And that one was from Chapter Seven. And I’m jumping around here because this week I am going to talk about Chapter 16, which they call Studying the Sacred: Religion and Mysticism. 

Now I probably, at some point will do a much deeper dive into this topic because it fascinates me. And because my parents were hippies and I grew up around philosophy and several different religions. 

And so I know at some point I’ll do an even deeper dive. I’ve mentioned on the podcast before I’m also going to do another part or like a part two to my World Building Workbook for Fiction Writers, which you can grab for free. The link on how to do that is in the description. Also I want to let you know that I do take on a few clients and, I do have a few spaces in my group mentorship program. 

So if that interests you stay tuned to the end and I’ll share a little bit about that. 

About Religion and Mysticism 

In this episode, I want to talk about religion and mysticism and read a little bit from their book. And then talk about it as applies to you, building your story world. So I want to say that, I just love their setup for this chapter. 

And they’re anthropologists. So they are really about understanding, not whether or not something is right or wrong, but how it impacts the society and how it impacts behavior. And so for you as a writer, you want to think about how religion and mysticism impact your character and characters. 

Okay. So here’s what they say:

“Religion may be the most difficult thing to approach in understanding diversity. Everyone, religious or not, has their own particular beliefs and thoughts about how the world is structured. Even atheists frame the world through science. This is not to say that science and religion are the same things, far from it. But the same kinds of mechanisms that structure the secular world also structure the religious one. 

When asked about the number of world’s religions, most people would give you a number that ranges from a handful to perhaps the upper limits of a few dozen. However, with a more focused look at societies around the globe, what we realize is that there are well over 6,000 distinct religious traditions. Keep in mind, this doesn’t include denominations of religions, as there are roughly 200 formalized denominations of Christianity in the United States and hundreds more, less formal ones. When asked about the various kinds of religion, many people in the Western world revert to a Western framework and look at only the major religions known as world religions. World religions however, are just one flavor of religion. 

In this chapter, we will explore a lot of the misconceptions about religions and some of the key elements that you should consider when building a fictional religion, or even including a real religion in your fictional world. One key thing to understand about anthropologists’ exploration of religion as a social science, we aren’t all that concerned with truth or fiction. In other words, our investigation doesn’t usually ask if something is real or not. But rather, what are the social implications of the practice or tradition? 

How did they structure norms in society? 

What happens when new technologies or experience mixed with the religion? What things do all religions do?”

My Experience With Multiple Religions 

As I said, I grew up in a kind of a cross-cultural home with Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Native American traditions. And even introduced at a young age, African traditions and some Asian traditions. 

And then later on in my early twenties, I was married to a North African who’s Berber, and now I’m married to someone who is Jewish. So I have a lot of different influences. Plus I’ve lived in France where there’s a big confluence of religions. I’ve lived in Paris twice. And then I also lived in Quebec, which is heavily Catholic. 

And I visited north Africa and visited the Middle East multiple times. And I’ve been to Israel, been to Saudi Arabia. So I’ve been in a lot of different cultures. I haven’t been to Asia yet. 

And what’s so interesting is religion and mysticism color people’s behavior from the littlest thing to the biggest thing. 

So here are some things to think about. 

Religion and Mysticism Aren’t Rational 

One of their points is that obviously religion and mysticism aren’t rational. And I would say all belief systems aren’t rational. We don’t know why we believe what we believe sometimes because we’re often inheriting those beliefs or choosing those beliefs we’re very young. 

About Core Beliefs 

And this I know from another one of my influences, which is NLP, neuro-linguistic programming. I studied at NLP Marin and I have a Master Certification as a practitioner, NLP practitioner. 

And all that means is I spent over a year studying deep dive, not just studying, but practicing, this perspective on how humans learn, grow, and change. And there’s psychology in what I was learning. 

One of the things you may not know is that we tend to adopt most of our core beliefs by the time we’re three. That means we’re not conscious when we’re making those choices. 

So it’s not rational. And human beings are not rational. Just saying. 

Tips to consider when including a religion on your story

So some things to consider. 

You can have a belief system in your story and it doesn’t have to make sense, except the people agree that it makes sense. This is how we do things, that kind of thing. 

Another aspect of your religion that you build in your story, if you want to build one or use a what’s from the environment that you know is the buildings. What kind of physical structures represent sacred spaces? That’s really fun to play with. 

Also, pay attention to the fact that some religions allow conversion and other religions don’t. So that could be a key factor.

Some religions are happily monotheistic: one God. Other religions are, you know, the way it is is that there are many gods. For some religions, gods exist in physical forms. In other religions god is not allowed to be visually represented. 

Religion supports these aspects of culture 

“Several core functions of culture that religions facilitate: Agency.”

So who has power. 

“Control. Legitimacy. Solidarity. Community. And the purpose of explaining things. 

And other kinds of intelligences, other ways of knowing. There’s a lot of different kinds of religions or worldviews: 

Animism. That grants agency and intelligence to elements of the natural world. 

Totemism. So it’s where agency is present for non-humans but is present in the idea of kinship. Like a supernatural family. 

Theism. So monotheism, polytheism, one deity, multiple deities. 

Pantheism. The belief that all beings are part of the one deity, like cells in a body. 

Deism. Would be spiritual traditions with a creator. And no interaction with that deity after creation.

Atheism. The lack of a belief in a deity or spiritual tradition.

Anti-atheism. Not only a lack of belief, but a sincere desire to end religion.”

That’s fascinating. 

“Religions are also key for ritual and transformation. Religions have sacred speech and sacred texts.”

In some religions, there’s religious specialists. Usually they have some kind of training, and that could be quite extensive. Some religions are super localized, some spread across a wide area. 

But actually there is no universal religion. There are so many different religions. 

And of course there’s a lot of conflict between groups within one religion. 

Sometimes religion, when it changes the culture dramatically changes. In ancient Rome, they decided to adopt Christianity. That totally changed things. Before that Christians were persecuted. After that Christians were accepted. 

And sometimes religions are revived and the example they give is, there’s a lot of Christian revivalism and there’s also the Native American ghost stance. Which was a dance that was revived in 1889. 

And what does this mean for the people of your story? The religions can explain conspiracy. They can have saviors. There can be sacred land. 

There’s some groups that focus on the millennia as their spiritual practice. And, so there’s some more, oh my God. There’s so much in here. Mystical experiences. Shamans. Possession. Problematic religions in fiction. They talk about that. And one of the biggest problems is homogeneity. 

So like in the current world, there isn’t one Christianity, there’s many flavors of it, for example.

The interaction of technology and religion and other questions to consider 

And then how does technology in your story interact with religion or is part of religion? 

So think about that as you work on your story. 

What type of religion or intelligences does your fictional world employ?

Is one of their questions. 

And think about all the nuances and tensions inside of religion. 

And what is your character’s relationship to the religion of their origin, to the religion of their community, to the tensions of the religion or mysticism in their area? 

So I highly recommend this chapter. I feel like I could totally talk way more about this chapter. That’s great. They give an example of one of my favorite TV shows and the film, Stargate. And they talk about the religion that was built around basically power. And how these creatures put themselves in the position of power to enslave humans and other beings and other worlds. It’s quite interesting. 

So how does religion or mysticism fit into your story and how can you make it complex and nuanced and not homogeneous, which is the authors here say is one of the biggest problems they see in people’s fictional worlds. 

How to get a tool for your world building 

So I’m going to stop here and remind you that if you would like a brainstorming tool on your world building check out my World Building Workbook for Fiction Writers and you can sign up for that. The link is in the description. 

Also, if you would like a more robust planning tool for writing your whole novel, thenI encourage you to check out Plan Your Novel Like a Pro co-written by myself and my husband, who is a thriller writer. We have two very different perspectives. And we put them together in this book and basically give you a curriculum to use and follow step-by-step to help you go from idea to robust plan, so you could write your novel. 

If you would like support in writing your novel and editing it, come talk to me. I have a few spots left in my one-on-one and in my group programs. 

So if that is a fit for you, please reach out. Email me. Fill out the contact form on my website, either one. I’d be happy to talk with you.

Thanks for listening and stay tuned for part 4 

And thanks for listening. I have one more podcast in this series. One more episode in this braille bed, a world series where I am riffing off of Michael Kilman and Kira Wellstrom’s book. Super fun. So stay tuned for that next week and please like and share wherever you get this podcast and share with a friend. 

If you think they need this material. That would be a great gift to me. If you share with a friend.

And lastly, I keep forgetting to mention this. 

You can support my work. I have an account where you can quote, buy me a coffee. And that is your way of saying thanks, Beth, for all the work you do. And supporting us through your podcast and your other projects. 

All right. That’s it for this week, everyone.

Write long and prosper.

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Beth Barany teaches science fiction and fantasy novelists how to write, edit, and publish their books as a coach, teacher, consultant, and developmental editor. She’s an award-winning fantasy and science fiction novelist and runs the podcast, “How To Write The Future.”

Learn more about Beth Barany at these sites: 

Author siteCoaching site / School of Fiction / Writer’s Fun Zone blog


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