The last topic in my series on representation is religion. In other words, how do you write about a character who holds/ practices religious beliefs that you do not?
This is something I can speak to from my own experience. For twenty-seven years I was a practicing Mormon/ member of the LDS Church. I was raised in a Mormon family in a Mormon community, attended a Mormon university, and married a Mormon in a Mormon temple. I have since left the church, but growing up, I remember cringing every time I saw a Mormon character portrayed in a film or television show; it was always incredibly obvious that the person who wrote that character knew nothing about Mormonism. They learned one or two things about the religion (i.e. Mormons have bishops and temples, they used to practice polygamy, they wear special undergarments, they can’t drink, etc.) and then stuck those aspects into the narrative without any understanding of how the Mormon worldview and culture function as a whole. I would see characters who were supposedly Mormon acting and talking like no Mormon ever would, and it was incredibly distracting. The lazy writing kept throwing me out of the story.
Let me be clear about this: it is impossible for you, as an outsider, to fully understand a religion unless you have been an observant of that religion yourself. I could try to explain Mormonism to you, and you might get a handle on some of the surface level details, but it will be impossible for you to grasp the nuances of culture and belief that a lifelong member understands instinctively. I can meet a stranger and tell within a matter of moments if they’re (a practicing) Mormon because I’ve spent my entire life around Mormons.
This is why sensitivity readers are critical. If you’re writing a book about a Muslim or a Catholic or a Buddhist, hire someone from that religion to read it for you! There will be details you will miss on your own. There’s no way around it. As always, do as much research as you can. Read blogs written by members of that religion. Talk to members of the religion in person. Read the literature published/ used by their religion. And then pay people from that religion to read your book, and listen to their feedback! They have knowledge and experience that you can not acquire, no matter how much research you put in.
This is the same advice I keep coming back to in this series: if you are not a member of a particular community, you need to listen to people who do belong to that community, because misrepresenting their beliefs, whether willfully or ignorantly, has real world consequences. The stakes are especially high when it comes to non-Christian religions, like Judaism and Islam. No one is threatening to deport or kill Christians for their beliefs, but false portrayals of Muslims, for example, directly contribute to xenophobic policies that harm innocent people.
Finally, a word about boundaries and ethics. I’ll return to Mormonism as my example, since that’s where my experience lies. There are beliefs and practices within Mormonism that are considered sacred. If you, as a non-Mormon, were to write about some of those things, it would be incredibly offensive. (Mormons don’t even talk about some of these rituals among themselves, except under certain circumstances.) If you want to write about someone from another religion, you need to understand that certain elements are off-limits. You may not share their beliefs, but you need to respect them, and so does your character. So, if you’re not Mormon, don’t write about a Mormon who has pre-marital sex or drinks alcohol. Respect the tenets of the religion you’re writing about. In my next post, I’ll talk about how to do that without making your character a stereotype.
In the meantime, here are some resources you might find helpful:
Call to Action
If you want to write about a character who belongs to a religion you do not, find a church/ mosque/ synagogue/ temple from that religion in your community and attend a service. (Make sure it’s open to non-observants first!)
January: Understanding Identity and Representation
February: Acknowledging (and Battling) Colonialism, Marginalization, and Erasure
March: Writing Race and Ethnicity
April: Writing Gender
- Improving Female Representation
- Writing Transgender and Non-Binary Characters
- Gender and Sexuality Terms
May: Writing Sexuality
June: Writing Disability
July: Writing Body Diversity
August: Writing Class Difference/ Intersectionality
September: Writing Religious Difference
- Writing Other Religions