Why Aren’t We Talking about Religious Diversity?

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Disclaimer: I had thought that a post advocating for more religious diversity in mainstream literature, particularly in YA and MG (since that is the focus of this blog), with examples including Christians, Jewish, and Muslim characters would indicate to readers that I am, in fact, advocating for all types of religious diversity, from Buddhist characters to Hindu characters to any other character with a faith you can think of.  However, many of the responses seem to assume that I advocating only for Christian fiction (meaning the typically specifically Protestant selections published by a house like Tyndale).  Needless to say, this is not the case and I welcome any and all religious representation.  Feel free to leave your recommendations below.

Also, I have addressed some of the objections to my call for more religious representation in this post, again noting that the Christian fiction section of Barnes and Noble hardly counts as diverse religious representation.  Now, onto the post!


Over the years, it seems the book blogosphere has committed itself more explicitly to diversity in books, advocating for more protagonists of color, more LGBTQ representation, and less sexism in media.  However, religious diversity is regularly glossed over in discussions of representations or is regularly dismissed by those who find a character of faith to be “too preachy” or don’t want religion “shoved down their throats.”  This attitude does a disservice to the many people of faith throughout the world who would also like to see themselves reflected in characters in books.  It assumes that the presence of an individual of faith is, by nature, overbearing, unwelcome, and oppressive–that is, apparently an individual is allowed to have a faith as long as no one else has the misfortune of knowing about it.

However, despite the lack of characters of faith in modern and mainstream literature, a majority of the world identifies with some form of religion.  The Pew Research Group in 2010 determined that 16.3% of respondents were not affiliated with any sort of religion.  The other ~83% identified with a religious group.  That is, in any group of ten people, you could theoretically assume eight were religious.  And yet religion remains absent in most YA and MG books.

But, for many individuals, religion is more than an abstract belief in a higher deity.  Religion is something that affects one’s philosophy, one’s actions, one’s daily life.  For instance, a Catholic teen might have to give up going to a sleepover because she has to attend Mass on Sunday.  A Jewish college student might have trouble eating in the school cafeteria.  A Muslim might have to plan the day around prayer. A Protestant girl might find herself feeling awkward or even bullied for wearing  more modest clothing instead of the crop tops and short shorts currently in style. Religion impacts people every day, shaping them as individuals and creating challenges others might not face–and yet we continue not to recognize this in most of the stories we tell.

Religious diversity does not have to look “preachy.”  Religious diversity just means telling more stories about people living out their faiths, the same way most of the people around us are living out their faiths every day.  Having a character struggle with saying no because she is waiting for marriage, or being made fun of for wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday, or trying to struggle through school and work or even sports while fasting, does not mean an author is promoting a particular religion or trying to convert anyone.  It means an author is representing the life of an individual.  The struggles of a character with questions of morality, with being bullied, with trying to find their way in life, does not become less valid because that character thinks of morality in terms of a deity.

We like to talk about how reading can expand our horizons, allow us to talk in the shoes of another person, and make us more empathetic and sympathetic people. The fact that a belief in a deity makes some readers uncomfortable, does not mean we should refuse the represent the lives of a segment of the population, but instead that we should take that as a challenge to expand our understanding of the lives of people of faith.  Perhaps we will find that individuals of faith are not freaks of nature or weird people trying to convert everyone, but rather normal people who also have stories to share.  After all, remember–eight out of every ten people you know probably identify with some sort of faith, even if they currently feel they have to hide it to be accepted.

Getting Started with Religious Diversity

But what does religious diversity look like if it’s not the Christian fiction you’re thinking of, the one with the mail order bride who marries a preacher who fills the pages of the book with his sermons?  It looks like most of the other literature you read, except that the people have a faith and it affects their lives:

  • The Chosen by Chaim Potok: A story about friendship between two Jewish boys.
  • My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok: A Jewish boy who longs to paint struggles when his rabbi says his artistic gift must be evil.
  • The Mira’s Diary series by Marissa Moss: A MG time travel series where the protagonist is Jewish.
  • Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson, etc.: A Muslim teen gains super powers!
  • Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah: Follows an Australian teen after she decides to start wearing the hijab.
  • Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery: Anne is Christian and learns to pray.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: Again the protagonists are Christian and they even play Pilgrim’s Progress.
  • The Father Brown mysteries by G. K. Chesterton: A Catholic priest solves mysteries.  It has been compared to Sherlock Holmes.

You’ll note that most of these selections are older–in the past, it seems, mentioning religion was less taboo.  And yet many of these books are considered classics.  Generations of readers love Anne Shirley and Jo March, even though they are Christian.  Yet when it comes to modern books, readers seem to fear anything that looks like faith.  It’s time to rethink what our characters look like, and to introduce again characters that reflect the wide diversity of religions in our world.

Update: See the list of reading suggestions from our follower here.

Krysta 64

 

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84 thoughts on “Why Aren’t We Talking about Religious Diversity?

  1. Briana says:

    One of my professors just said in class this week that he was uncomfortable with a book (which he assigned) because the characters appear to be Christian. As in, they occasionally mention God in a sense that seems like a reference to a Christian God. They do not pray, go to church, evangelize, read the Bible, or anything that might look “overtly” Christian. I was pretty surprised that a respected English literature professor would be “uncomfortable” about characters mentioning God in passing in a book that really has little to do with religion. I find that concerning in terms of open-mindedness and tolerance in academia, to be honest. Is he uncomfortable with students who he realizes practice a particular religion?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I’ve seen this a lot in academia. Both professors and students are reluctant to talk about religion even when the text is overtly religious. For example, if you read a text from the English Renaissance, it’s almost certainly going to address the religious climate of the time and possibly even choose a side. Yet students and professors alike will sit there either blatantly ignoring the religious content when it’s relevant to the conversation (unless the author seems to be subverting doctrine, in which case it is apparently okay to applaud the author) or trying to explain it away, like the demons are psychological manifestations. It’s the Renaissance. The demons depicted are 100% real in the minds of the people. You don’t have to be Christian or believe in demons to accept that Shakespeare and his contemporaries almost all thought demons existed and acted and wrote accordingly. I truly don’t understand it since the number one rule of reading is to begin by reading sympathetically with the author. Reading sympathetically does not make you religious as a result and it does not ruin your credentials as an academic.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Briana says:

        Medievalists tend to be pretty good with addressing religion in my experience. It’s kind of hard to be a medievalist if you’re not going to recognize Catholicism was a serious thing for most people and you often have to enter that mindset to understand the text. I think one medievalist wrote an article kind of about this topic, but I haven’t read it and can’t remember what the title is. I’d like to look it up sometime. (I think the article is about what it means for her as an atheist to have be able to consistently talk and address Catholicism when it conflicts so much wit her own worldview.)

        Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      I think the closest thing I have seen to that is the atheist protagonist being surrounded by Christian characters they make fun of…. But it would be far more interesting to see someone grappling with the idea of religion, whether that means accepting it or rejecting it. Both are very serious choices that are likely to impact someone’s life.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. luvtoread says:

    Fascinating post. This is a very real issue. I am Christian, and have been writing a review of a book that has Christian themes (A Million Miles In A Thousand Years). I was unaware of the Christian aspects of the book before I started reading it, and in my review (which I haven’t posted yet) I state that the book has Christian themes, but that I didn’t find it preachy. I felt like I needed to state that it had Christian views, because I think people might be angry if they purchased it unknowing about that aspect.
    I honestly don’t have a good reason for this, but it’s just something I feel that I need to explain in my review. Would I explain this if it were a different religion or even atheistic? I don’t know. Perhaps. Maybe I’m just more sensitive to the Christian themes because that is my religion.
    It is interesting that so many YA books have zero religion in them at all. I honestly have not noticed that, but now that you mention it, it’s all I’m thinking about right now. Wow.
    Also if there is a religious character it is usually an exaggerated caricature, and is almost always portrayed negatively.
    This is a very interesting post. Thank you for writing on this issue!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      In my experience, people tend not to notice religious themes in a book. Divergent and LotR are pretty Christian, yet no one I’ve talked to seems to have picked up on Divergent and people tend to be pretty resistant to the idea that Tolkien was an orthodox Catholic. I think maybe in a way we’re not expecting a YA book to be religious, so it’s just assumed that if a book doesn’t have a character making long speeches about God, it must have no religious worldview. And I think you’re right that when religious is depicted, it’s usually through a fundamentalist Christian whom the other characters mock.

      And yet it seems ridiculous to act like 1) religion doesn’t exist and 2) that anyone religious must by default be a bigot or fool. I think the political climate at this point is such that it’s extremely important for us to be depicting characters of various faiths and showing them as people, not caricatures or monsters. Islamophobia, for instance, is on the rise. I think we can combat that through our art.

      Liked by 2 people

      • klyse3 says:

        Yes to Divergent having Christian themes! If nothing else, just about any Christian teenager would recognize Beatrice’s shift from Abnegation to Dauntless as a typical struggle. I was very curious to see if Roth would address those themes more clearly throughout the series, but she steered away from saying much about it.

        Rick Riordan wrote a female Muslim character in one of his newer works, the first Magnus Chase book. I really appreciated how he explored the ways a religious girl might struggle with being part of the fantasy/religious world surrounding Norse mythology.

        Liked by 3 people

        • Krysta says:

          Yeah, Abnegation as a whole is pretty much Christian thought in action. I think that’s why the ending of the trilogy was not really surprising.

          That’s cool! I’ve only read The Lightning Thief by Riordan and didn’t like it that much, so I haven’t read any of his other works.

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          • luvtoread says:

            I hadn’t picked up on the religious themes in the Divergent series, but now that you mention it, it is very clear. I agree with you in that if there aren’t long speeches about God, or if God is not mentioned directly, people don’t read religion into it.
            LOTR is extremely Christian, but many don’t pick up on that, and it isn’t explicitly stated in the book, but anyone doing research on Tolkien will see how Christianity influenced his writing. Same with CS Lewis and the Narnia series. It is interesting that you point out about how probably 8 in 10 people are religious but that books don’t represent that.
            And I find it interesting that even though I reviewed Anne of Green Gables, which has a lot of “God talk” in it, it never even crossed my mind to mention that in my reviews, whereas for my modern book (A Million Miles in a Thousand Years), I feel compelled to mention it in my review.
            I completely agree with you about how people of different faiths need to be portrayed. I read a wonderful book a while ago, called I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits, and it focuses on the Satmar, a Hasidic sect, and it was absolutely fascinating.

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            • Krysta says:

              I’ve seen people who argued other philosophies for Christian for LotR and met people who didn’t realize Narnia is an extended religious allegory, so I guess it depends on a person’s background. If you don’t know much about Christianity, it’s probably difficult to recognize a Christian symbol. But I think both Tolkien and Lewis’s work illustrates that it’s quite possible to write a religiously-based work that can be enjoyed by a wide range of people. And I’m sure that’s also because Lewis recognized that the elements of a good story are the same, regardless of whether or not an author is treating religion.

              I sometimes wonder if people are more forgiving of religion in older books. I would say most classics address religion and they’re quite popular, but once you put religion in a contemporary book, people think it’s too preachy. Little Women is probably actually preachy and fewer people seem dismayed about it. Jane Eyre is incredibly popular and it’s about a girl who leaves a man because of her religious convictions and then literally walks into the house of a missionary and considers becoming a missionary, too. Anne Shirley gets lectured about religion, attends Sunday school, prays, and ends the book with “God’s in His Heaven/ All’s right with the world” but I’ve yet to hear anyone talk about how she’s too religious. Maybe if a book is older it’s easier to mentally relegate the religion to that stuff they did in the past, when they didn’t know any better.

              Ooh! I’ve never heard of that one! I was hoping people would bring up books they’ve read!

              Liked by 1 person

  3. Briana says:

    I want to also note that I think Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson is very interesting in terms of religious. Obviously all fantasy, invented religions. However, the book takes a really thoughtful look at people of different religions interacting with each other, trying to deal with conflicting views, trying to figure out how their own views fit in the world. It’s also a very good portrayal of people who will or will not take certain actions because of their religion, whether that’s related to their clothing choice or what types of actions they’re willing to take they consider moral/immoral. I think a lot of time fantasy religion involves people muttering “Praise be to [god’s name]” once in a while and lighting candles at shrines. Warbreaker is one of the few fantasy books I’ve read where people’s religions impact the choices they make on a daily basis.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      I think you’re right in that fantasy tends to have religion more than other books (like religion is some sort of magical thing like a unicorn??) and that it’s not often depicted with any real depth or meaning. Often characters do tend to mutter prayers at times, but it’s often pretty clear they don’t expect anyone to answer and I think a lot are just prayers when they want something, so it’s not like they have any ongoing relationship with their deity.

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    • Nandini Bharadwaj says:

      Even the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson talks a lot about religion. It’s interesting to see this in fantasy as I rarely come across books which even briefly mention having any kind of faith.
      I myself am a devout Hindu, but we’re never ever represented in mainstream books – at least not those I’ve heard of. Some sitcoms make fun of being Indian, but that’s the most representation that we get. However, I do understand that the world is a big place and we’re only a small part of it, so I’ve made my peace with the issue.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. rantandraveaboutbooks says:

    This is such an interesting post. I’ve read a lot of tweets and posts lately about diversity in books, buy they only address people of color. Religion was not a part of any of them. One book I want to mention is The Diary of Anne Frank. What a heartbreaking but important story. I read the book when I was in grade school, and it was an eyeopener. Even now I think about that book and it hits me all over again. I think it’s important to read about other religions because that exposes us to a culture we might’ve otherwise never knew about it. My friend once told me that being Jewish was not a religion to him but a lifestyle. I thought that was a really cool response. I don’t understand why authors omit religion from their books. Unless you’re an atheist, you identify with one group. I honestly can’t remember the last time I read about religion in a book. Anne Frank is the only book that comes to mind, which is sad because I would read others like it, and I’m sure other readers would too, if presented with the option.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Anne Frank’s diary is probably a really apt example right now in light of what I’m hearing about the new Captain America and Marvel in general erasing the Jewishness of their characters, such as Wanda and her brother in the MCU. The Holocaust isn’t that far behind us and it would be more than a shame if the world learned nothing from it, if all the survivors who testified to their experiences to n o account.

      When I see what’s happening in the world right now in terms of people still denying the Holocaust or engaging in Islamophobic dialogue or politics, it seems more important than ever to start combating hatred and misunderstanding through our art.

      Chaim Potok is one of my favorite Jewish authors, incidentally. He does such an excellent job of doing coming-of-age stories that also integrate the experience of someone living their religion. That being said, whenever I suggest a book like this where religion is obviously important to the story, people do not tend to react with excitement over the possibility of expanding their worldview but with cries for me to get religion out of their faces. :/

      It’s kind of a strange response. If you read about a criminal mastermind, no one thinks “Oh no! I’m being tempted to the dark side! They’re trying to convert me into becoming a criminal mastermind, too!” But if you read about a character who has a faith, that’s the author being pushy about a belief or lifestyle?

      That doesn’t happen just with religious characters, of course. You can see the same argument about LGBTQ characters. I know people who will read about murderers and prostitutes, but, you know, if J. K. Rowling says Dumbledore is gay, suddenly HP is off-limits for them. No one thought the murderer was promoting a murderous agenda–he was just being depicted because murderers exist.

      Liked by 2 people

      • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

        So that was the Marvel news. I saw a post on Twitter where someone asked about what was happening with Marvel and I didn’t see any responses. I don’t see why they would do that, considering their culture and experiences are part of their characters. It’s religion or a person’s heritage that help us to understand a character’s motivations, so I think taking that away from them shows poor judgment on Marvel’s part. I don’t know why everyone gets so upset about Dumbledore. It’s almost as if some people prefer to pretend that there’s no need for diversity, yet they will acknowledge, like you said, a murderer like Dexter Morgan over a person who’s gay or Jewish. I’m assuming some authors do this because they want to make the characters seem generic, as in anyone can be them. Most characters are described as white with either blonde or brown hair and very little information beyond that other than maybe their height or weight. And the characters are hardly ever overweight. That’s another thing you never see in novels. I just bought The Song of Achilles so I could read something a little more diverse than the usual story I’ve read a hundred times. I once had an editor tell me to provide less details about a character so the reader can imagine them the way they want. I thought this was so strange because how do I feel connected to a character if I’m not even sure what they look like, let alone their background?

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        • Krysta says:

          I had to search why everyone was mad about the new Captain America comics since I don’t read them, but it does seem like a slap in the face to the original writers. Aside from the fact that it makes absolutely no sense.

          I think it’s very interesting that Dumbledore bothers people since there is technically nothing in the books about his sexuality at all and Rowling’s revelation changed nothing about the character that made people love him originally. He’s still the same character.

          It’s true few characters are specified as being overweight. But even if the author leaves it to the imagination, the cover model is probably going to be traditionally gorgeous and thin.

          I appreciate leaving characters open to interpretation, but I also like when authors specify a little something about them, whether that’s eye character or frizzy hair or whatever. I like to know how the author was envisioning their own character. If you say “frizzy hair” immediately everyone with frizzy hair can feel ten times cooler because a frizzy-haired person is saving the world in this book.

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          • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

            That makes zero sense. Why would Cap be Hydra? He’s a US solider and a patriot. That really irritates me. And you’re right that’s a complete slap in the face because of Hydra’s Nazi ties. I don’t recall any mention of Dumbledore’s sexuality either, nor do I care. He’s one of my favorite HP characters, and I would like him regardless. Yeah, that’s true. The cover models are always thin. That’s why I want to read Dumplin. You never see the overweight MC in YA, and I’m excited about The Song of Achilles. I think it’s so interesting that the author decided to explore the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. And the writing is terrific. I’m trying to find more books that deviate from the norm. I’m sick of reading about perfect white picket fence type characters. I’d actually love to read about a girl with frizzy hair. As far as NA, I think most women like the male MC to be unlike the guys in their lives, but I love when you read that one book where the guy is a little nerdy or what I call nerdy cute. I like smart guys, so I wouldn’t mind reading a book about a guy who’s sort of an awkward mess but still kinda has it going on. I like characters who don’t fit the mold, that you can’t put a label on because they feel more real.

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            • Krysta says:

              Apparently Cap’s original writers were Jewish Americans so to rewrite Cap as a Nazi is incredibly offensive. It would have been offensive, anyway, but, I mean, really. We still have people who probably wish they could be Hydra in real life and Marvel takes a hero who is anti-Nazi and turns him into a Nazi?? Superheroes should be showing us how we can be better as a society.

              I thought the great thing about Dumbledore was that his sexuality literally doesn’t matter. As in, readers fell in love with him because he’s a smart, caring, and incredibly cool and witty wizard (well until Book 7 when things become more complicated). Then it’s revealed he’s gay and the message should be, “Oh hey, look. Dumbledore can be gay and still smart, caring, and incredibly cool and witty!” But that is not, unfortunately, what many people took away.

              I just read The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd and the character has frizzy hair and I was all Yes! because I’ve been having some bad hair days. ;b But I want to read Dumplin, too!

              And I just looking at the cover for the film When Marnie Was There and contemplating again how the protagonists are usually thin and other less desirable characters are thicker or even have unusual shapes and it’s almost like we’re equating thin=good and not thin=bad or at least not thin=average (aka not the hero/heroine).

              Liked by 1 person

            • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

              I agree with you on Cap. That’s extremely offensive. They better not do that with the movies, and after all the backlash, I wonder if they’ll pull the comics. I hope they do. I feel the same way about Dumbledore. I loved him as a character. He’s probably my favorite. I’m actually surprised anyone cared about his sexuality. How could they read all the books and see how awesome he is, then turn around and say I don’t like him anymore. Some people are so narrow minded. That’s cool. I haven’t heard of that book, but I like that the character is not picture perfect, frizzy hair and all. I think everyone likes someone who’s more like them and less like these beauty queens in some YA books. That’s so true. It’s usually the MC who’s thin and her friends can be overweight or unattractive but never the MC. I hear Dumplin is really good. That’s what I liked about The DUFF. She was average and sounded like a girl I’d want to hang out with. And she was funny. I like normal everyday characters that I could see myself wanting to be friends with. That’s what makes me like the story more.

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            • Krysta says:

              They’re probably planning to retcon the new Cap storyline anyway, so I doubt the MCU will pick it up, so at least there’s that. I just really hope they come up with some explanation of how it wasn’t really Cap doing this or something.

              To be fair, middle-grade seems more open with diversity and characters who aren’t labelled pretty. I guess when you’re eleven people don’t care much about how frizzy your hair is. But I still think it’s cool that a character can be in middle-school and not obsessed with how society expects her to appear.

              And that’s true that other characters can be unattractive, but not the protagonist for some reason. I actually sat down after studying the cover for When Marnie Was There and tried to think of a protagonist who was a dreamy type and not waifish and I couldn’t.

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            • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

              Yeah, I agree. I noticed that with MG, but it makes sense. You’re more awkward when you’re younger and less likely to care about what you look like. I can’t think of any either. Everyone is always so glamorous and wonderful in YA books. 😂

              Liked by 1 person

  5. alilovesbooks says:

    Initially when I read your post I thought you’re absolutely correct but now I’ve thought about it I think it is there it’s just not always the central point of the story. I read a lot of fantasy so find authors tend to build their own religions and beliefs into the books. I’ve also come across books where due to events people have lost their faith or they turn to prayer. I do agree that authors don’t tend to have overly religious characters but I think there is religion there. Great post. I’m probably going to spend the day trying to think of examples 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Fantasy works do tend to have religion more than other genres, almost as if religion is some mystical thing that can only be discussed in context of unicorns and dragons, and other things people understand are not real. However, I think it’s important that books also reflect the lived experiences of individuals. It’s not enough for a fantasy to have a made-up religion. Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, etc. readers need to be able to have characters like themselves whom they can look up to or at least feel they understand. I think about the current political climate and it seems obvious that a Muslim teenager, for example, could benefit a lot from seeing herself reflected in literature–and not as the villain. And others would benefit, too.

      Islamophobia is a growing concern. The memory of the Holocaust being lost is a growing concern as the survivors pass away. Religious division in America is a growing concern. We can combat that through our art, if we’re willing to depict individuals of faith as real people. And we can do that by depicting their lives, not just throwing in a character who utters a prayer now and then when in trouble.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Briana says:

        I agree fantasy is much more prevalent in fantasy, though I think there are still concerns.

        1) Often (though not always) the religion doesn’t actually influence anything about the character’s life. They might use a god’s name to curse or mutter a prayer once in a while, or walk past a temple, but they really do anything related to their religion. It doesn’t influence their choices or even their beliefs on morality. The religion is kind fancy background world-building.

        2) Religion in fantasy has the weird paradox that, on the one hand, it’s not real, so people don’t feel offended/uncomfortable/whatever by it because it doesn’t *really* exist and the author can’t possibly be trying to convert people to it. On the other hand, a lot of authors go out of their way to show that their fantasy religion is true (like the characters literally meeting the gods in Tamora Pierce’s books). So this can comfort readers that this religion is actually real in the story, it makes sense that the characters believe it, and they’re not a bunch of deluded crazy people believing in something that’s probably fake.

        I think representing religion in contemporary/realistic novels is, in some ways then, much more complex. It’s also important in terms of representing real people and their experiences. I think we wouldn’t say “Well, there are invented people of colors in many fantasy books, so no need for POC in contemporary fiction.” Because the experiences of invented peoples are not the same as the experiences of POC in our world today.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Sammie @ booksandbiros says:

    This is a great post! 😊 I agree with all the points that you make. I’m not religious myself, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see religion represented in YA. Part of reading is about learning and experiencing things from different perspectives, and I’m always open to that. I can’t think of any examples I’ve read recently that include positive representation of religion or belief. X

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes! I love reading about characters who are not like myself and learning about different cultures and religions! Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss others as weird if we don’t know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. I think our literature could help us all be a little more understanding, though.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. readbooksanddrinkcoffee says:

    This is such an amazing post. I one hundred percent agree with what you’ve said. I think the main reason why authors don’t mention religion in their novels as they don’t want to come across as preachy. I know we were studying a poem in english and the words Hell and Heaven being used in the poem caused a huge conversation about religion and teaching religion in schools and schools that are religious, a girl in our class went to a catholic school, I know this doesn’t exactly tie into your main point in your post, but little things like that started a conversation about religion and it was quite a interesting and informative conversation. I think if we did have more characters that are religious, and not just christian and catholic, it’d inform a lot of people on what it’s really all about because a lot of us are honestly under educated when it comes to different religions.
    – Yasmin

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    • Krysta says:

      Well, that example brings to mind the problem that the Bible has been hugely influential in Western literature and art, so when we don’t teach it or its stories, a lot of other literature becomes incomprehensible. I was once in a class where the other students spent ten minutes trying to decipher the meaning of bread in a painting. They kept coming up with increasingly elaborate symbolisms for this mysterious bread. In actuality, it was just a painting of Christ multiplying the loaves, but because we separate ourselves from religion so much in fear of talking about it being the same thing as preaching it, no one could offer this pretty basic explanation.

      I think we have the same problem with books. People think the presence of a religious character equates to preaching religion or tying to convert them. This is an interesting assumption because no one is afraid that the presence of a serial killer, baseball player, or music lover character is trying to convert them to similar lifestyles.

      Liked by 2 people

      • readbooksanddrinkcoffee says:

        Exactly! I think we as a society are afraid of religion for some unknown reason and we have these stereotypes of people from different religions and I think those stereotypes would be erased if we did educate ourselves on religion
        – Yasmin

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  8. Stefanie says:

    What a great post! Indeed, there are so many people focused on reading more diversely it’s weird that I haven’t picked up anything about the religious diversity in books. But now that I think about it, there aren’t that many books that I’ve read that mention religion.
    The thing is, I really don’t like it when a book is too preachy about religion, when you’re just feeling as if the book wasn’t written to tell a story but to convert you to the awesome ways of whichever religion. But I don’t mind it when there is religion sprinkled through the story just because it is part of someone’s identity. When it makes you realize someone’s motivation to do certain things or to have certain struggles. I think that would be brilliant. I do think that it might not be super easy to write about this without becoming too preachy. I feel like authors who do include religion in their books, are super devout and want to share their love of their faith a bit too much to some people’s liking.
    Something along the lines of what Briana said in her comment: all of the dragon-age games feature different cultures and some of them are highly religious, they act according to what their faith tells them to and it’s a great plot-devise for conflict when different groups meet. Obviously it’s all fantasy but it definitely makes the whole thing feel so much more real.
    Which makes me wonder why it seems easier to write about a fantasy religion rather than a real religion? Are authors shying away from these topics because the topics of religion are too sensitive and they are fearing massive backlash about certain things they would want to put in writing concerning real-life religion? Are they afraid of stereotypes?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      I think fantasy is an easy out for authors because if you put religion in fantasy, it’s understood by all that religion is not real and thus is non-threatening. But it’s odd to relegate religious characters to a certain genre. It would clearly be a problem if someone asked for representation for another group and they were answered with, “No, no, it’s okay–you can find protagonists of color in fantasy.” That’s not good enough. Readers need to see themselves reflected in all genres.

      In my experience, however, books that are “preachy” about their religion are probably already being marketed to their target audience as something like Christian fiction. But I think authors are probably afraid to create a character of faith because so often the mere presence of such a character equates as being pushy or trying to convert in the minds of readers. They’re probably afraid they won’t be able to sell it to an agent or market it when it comes out because the stigma against religious characters is not insignificant.

      I think the the fear of stereotyping might be real, too, though. When Ms. Marvel came out, there were accusations of stereotyping, even though the writer indicated she was writing what was true to her experience.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Stefanie says:

        Yeah, you’re very right when you say that representation should be in all genres, not just a couple of them. Imagine there only being correct representation of your reality in a very specific genre and then not liking that genre. That would be hugely unfair because everybody deserves to connect with characters that represent aspects of their life.
        I agree with you that I think most people are scared of putting in characters of faith in books because it will be pushed into its own subgenre, as is the case with christian fiction. IE you can only talk about faith if you market it as a book about faith, even though I imagine that there are so many ways to integrate faith into a story that it would be nonsense to base the subgenre just on that.

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Emily | RoseRead says:

    Excellent post! I wholeheartedly agree. I was raised Catholic, and it was definitely a huge part of my upbringing, even though I’m no longer religious. The fact that it might make readers uncomfortable is such a crap excuse. Where would the state of literature be without making people uncomfortable? There absolutely should be more religious representation in YA.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Sometimes I think it is the goal of literature to make people uncomfortable. You’re supposed to widen your horizons and see people and situations you don’t normally encounter, and try to meet them with sympathy. I’m sure representing Muslim Americans as not the villains would make a bunch of people uncomfortable–but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Fatima @ NoteablePad says:

    I absolutely LOVE this post. You’ve made some fantastic points about the lack of religious diversity in contemporary literature, which I’ve noted too. I completely understand that readers might not like religion being shoved down their throats (and if the book is quite preachy in nature, then you have every right to put it down), but I feel that all kinds of religion in literature have been dismissed as taboo, which is a shame. People of different religions are more likely to hide anything that indicates they’re of a particular faith as a result. In order to encourage more diversity in literature, authors shouldn’t be afraid to depict their characters as what they are. It might even generate more understanding and acceptance if people can relate to those characters (again, not the preachy kind.) Religion is sort of like the white elephant in the room. It’s there; we can all see it and acknowledge it’s presence in our life, but we ignore it in literature. What better way to harmonise the conflicting voices and religious divisions in society than through literature?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      Despite all the people who tell me that religious books are preachy, I haven’t run across any particularly preachy books that aren’t marketed specifically as Christian fiction or something. In which case I think it’s understood that someone’s going to make a speech about religion at some point. It seems to be part of the genre.

      But I think you’re right that religion IS the elephant in the room. No one is unaware that it exists, yet for some reason we’re really determined not to talk about it. But I don’t think that silence is serving any of us right now, especially in the current political climate.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fatima @ NoteablePad says:

        I think it sort of becomes a big deal when there’s mention of religion in books. We’re all willing to represent other kinds of diversity in literature (and rightfully so) but religion has sort of been forgotten/branded as preachy. This is a great post though! I haven’t read anything like it.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Liam @ Hey Ashers! says:

    Thank you so much for writing this post; it’s such an important topic, and I’m surprised it’s not more widely discussed.

    I’m an atheist, myself, but I love learning about religions and how people live (or don’t live) their religious beliefs.

    Regarding people’s discomfort with reading religious-explicit books: almost all of the moral lessons I’ve encountered in such books are great for even non-religious readers to learn: things like “treat others the way you want to be treated,” “be kind and sympathetic to others,” etc. In short: “be a decent human being.”

    The only time I get uncomfortable is when the moral lesson is “You have to convert/exhibit faith in god in order to survive the werewolf apocalypse/escape the serial murderer/have a fulfilling life.” Thankfully, I can’t remember the last book like this that I’ve come across.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I don’t think I’ve read a book where someone had to have faith in a god to survive the werewolves. That just doesn’t seem true to life in a way, though. Terrible things happen to people who believe in a deity all the time; it’s not like having a religion is some magical charm to guarantee you personal wealth and happiness. I would hope that if we do get more religious diversity, it’s also a true reflection of what those religions actually teach or believe and not just a shout-out for what you can obtain if you have religion.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Bailey says:

    *claps*

    Thank you for writing this. I couldn’t agree more. I think people believe that readers are not interested because religion is the antithesis of the demands you mentioned: ethnic minorities, homosexuals, and feminism. But I don’t believe that’s true at all. I’m reading the ARC for And I Darken by Kristen White, which is being released next month, and I’m happy to report that so far Islam and Christianity are taking prominent roles in the story, to my surprise and delight!

    Like

  13. Summer @ Xingsings says:

    Oh my gosh, this is such a brilliant post! Honestly, I’m not a very religious person. However, I do respect other people’s faiths and views. And I think it’s so important for readers to get a glimpse of religious diversity in books. But you’re right it’s so rarely talked about in the more modern books, which is a shame. As for the books that are more “preachy,” though those don’t tend to be most people’s cup of tea there’s so many great things to be learned from them as well! Anyway, fabulous and important post!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I don’t know. The only overtly preachy books I’ve read have generally been marketed as Christian fiction. I think sometimes people see faith mentioned in a book and automatically label it as “preachy,” but this can be dangerou as it shuts down the conversation about faith. I think we need to be having this discussion especially right now when we’re looking at Islamophobia, debates about religious freedom, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Lianne @ eclectictales.com says:

    Brilliant post, Krysta! Thank you for writing this up, I very much agree with you that religious representation is sorely lacking in literature, which seems to reflect that general attitude these days about religion being okay/a right so long as you don’t talk about it at any great length or share it (e.g. how you live your faith or whatnot). Hence I especially like the bit you pointed out: “Religious diversity does not have to look “preachy.” Religious diversity just means telling more stories about people living out their faiths, the same way most of the people around us are living out their faiths every day.”

    Hmm, I thought I had another point I wanted to add at the time I read your post, but I can’t remember it now. Oops xD

    Like

  15. mez_blume says:

    Joining the throng here to say a big THANK YOU for this post. You are spot on. So many schools are even going so far now as to ban “potentially offensive” books like Pilgrim’s Progress from their reading lists!!! And yet children are expected to be reading books about sexuality & all its facets at a younger age than ever. So your point is exactly right — religious diversity is a ‘no no’, and religious secularism is put on a pedestal that nobody better dare try to topple.

    This is so much to the detriment of literature &, more significantly, to the young readers whose diets are being limited to whatever the market says is ‘publishable’ (ie. as long as it’s godless). Who exactly is determining this (dare I call it) propaganda?

    Meanwhile, just as you said, all the classics that remain top of the cannon of great children’s literature have heroes with faith. And is it any wonder? Christian themes like justice, loyalty, sacrifice and selfless love make much better reading than “it’s all about ME” literature! Just look at Harry Potter, for goodness sake!

    Your points are very well made, & I hope more & more folks in the writing community start making them. There’s much to gain from pushing back against the secularizing of children’s lit, representation of a diverse readership included. Let’s not abandon the centuries of wonderful, faith infused literature simply because it’s not ‘marketable’ according to some tycoon out there!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Strange, isn’t it, how just about nothing is taboo anymore except religion? There seems to be this idea in literature that religion won’t sell, that people won’t relate to a character of faith or that it will be offensive. But a character of faith is likely motivated by the same things that motivate most people–a sense of duty, love, fear, etc. Literature is often touted as enabling us to sympathize with and understand others–why can’t those others have a religion? I think we see from classic literature that, in fact, characters of faith are loved and sell well, however, even if not all readers share the faith of the character.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. DoingDewey says:

    I think I agree with you about this. I don’t feel as strongly about reading about religiously diverse characters as I do about reading about characters who are diverse in other ways, because I don’t feel we have as big of a problem with religious tolerance in the US as we do with the way we as a country react to some other kinds of diversity. However, as you point out, people certainly can be misunderstood or mistreated because of their religion and I think the empathy books build can combat that problem. I am someone who strongly dislikes preachy books, but I love books that give me a chance to learn about other cultures or religion because they’re simply part of a character’s life.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think the U.S. does have a religious tolerance problem, though it’s possibly so insidious it’s difficult to notice. The current election cycle is certainly highlighting Islamophobia. There are news stories about hate crimes against Jews all the time. People are going around saying “Hail Hydra” like it isn’t incredibly problematic not to mention offensive. The Little Sisters of the Poor are currently engaged in a judicial battle because the government is forcing them to cover contraception in their health care plan even though it’s against their religious beliefs. The Supreme Court sort of ruled in their favor, but it looks like they could still be forced to pay for those services later. Maybe no one’s being martyred in the U.S. for their religious beliefs, but I think we do have a problem with understanding and acceptance, and that if we wrote about religious characters, readers might come to understand that a person of faith is still a person.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. opinionsofawolf says:

    Eh, speaking as a librarian, I don’t really think this is a thing. Most faiths write and publish their own fiction and even some mainstream publishers have “inspirational” lines that feature deeply religious characters.

    Even outside of that, I see plenty of contemporary books with a character who has a faith and that faith is important but they don’t constantly talk about it….because that’s not what the average person does in modern society. Historical fiction frequently mentions god and religion, and scifi often has whole new religions elaborately discussed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Publishing something like Christian or Catholic fiction that’s marketed to people of the same faith (and a certain audience of those people) isn’t the same as having religions represented broadly across mainstream fiction. This is mainly a YA and MG blog, so I was thinking primarily of these age ranges, where religion, in my experience, is generally not mentioned (except sometimes in YA when you might have the “crazy” religious person, or the freakish prude waiting for marriage).

      Certain genres do have more mentions of religion, but I think it’s important to note why that might be. Historical fiction is safe for religion because that’s “back in the day” and you can dismiss it as “medieval” or unenlightened. Sci-fi and fantasy novels often have complex religious structures–but these are not real religions (and so again may be considered relatively safe and uncontroversial). It’s different to show a character believing vaguely in a pantheistic religion that no one actually believes in than it is to show a Jewish or a Muslim character living out their faith.

      I also don’t think it’s necessary for the character of faith to spend the whole novel talking about their faith or moralizing to the audience. Simply showing a Muslim character, for example, pausing to pray, or a Christian character making a decision based on their faith would be enough.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Lurkertype says:

        Why do you say “Christian or Catholic?” Catholics ARE Christian! They’re the original Christians! This phrasing is pretty religiously intolerant on its own, and I see it a lot.

        Like

        • Briana says:

          Agreed. Catholics are Christians. If anything, I think it’s a bit silly to refer to “Christians” as if all versions of Christianity believe the same things or have the same practices, since they obviously do not, but it makes sense to have an umbrella term for some cases. For better or worse, however, society generally sees a distinction between Catholicism and Protestantism (which society generally terms “Christianity” as opposed to Catholicism). So I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest my co-blogger simply used terms in the way many people are familiar with them and would understand them. After all, when people talk about “Christian fiction,” an actual genre of literature, they are nearly 100% referring to literature that depicts some form of Protestantism, and not Catholicism.

          It’s also worth noting that sometimes when books have Christian characters, they are not always specific about what specific sect the character belongs to. If you can’t say for sure whether the character is a Methodist, or Presbyterian, or Baptist, or whatever, you’re basically stuck describing them more generally as “Christian.” On the other hand, it’s usually perfectly clear when a character is Catholic, which allows you to refer to them specifically that way.

          I am truly sorry you were offended by the post, but it was a good faith effort to open a discussion about including more religious representation in literature, and I think we’re all agreed that’s a good discussion to have?

          Like

          • Lurkertype says:

            Maybe *your* society considers “Protestant = Christian”, but no society I’ve ever lived in does. And that’s in the US. The only people I’ve ever heard with this usage are Evangelicals, mostly Baptist, mostly Southern Baptist or the really out-there born agains — and a lot of them STILL don’t believe Catholics ARE Christian. It’s a very limited/limiting/American viewpoint for a great worldwide religion.

            If you want to be inclusive (which Jesus was quite big on), Christian includes everyone who believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died for our sins. If you need to distinguish, you say “Protestant or Catholic”.

            And of course even that leaves out the millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians, who are rightfully offended at a) not being included in Christian (the faith started in the Eastern Mediterranean; where do you think Galatia and Ephesus are? what languages are the earliest Bibles in?) b) super-upset if called either Catholic or Protestant (YOU tell the Egyptian Copts they’re Protestants!). It’s not a binary, it’s (pun ahead) a trinity!

            This blinkered POV is what turns a LOT of people off and makes all Christians look bad. And then you wonder why the whole thing’s avoided in books?

            This attitude, complaining about not enough religion and then leaving out millions of co-religionists, reminds me of something a Jewish guy said once… it’ll come to me… something about a mote and a beam…

            Also: Jan Karon’s Mitford novels! Religious but not preachy. Hopeful but not Pollyanna. Best-sellers!

            Like

            • Lurkertype says:

              It might not have been *trying* to, but it came out that way. Words have meanings (in the beginning was the word!). You might as well say — in the other direction — that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all exactly the same, being Abrahamic religions. Ridiculous and dismissive? You bet. So is claiming “Christian” is something different from “Catholic” and entirely ignoring “Orthodox”.

              Communication is only possible when respect is shown and thoughtfulness happens. How can you expect more varied religious characters in books when you’re thoughtlessly ignoring people of your own religion?

              Like

        • Krysta says:

          I am aware that Catholics are Christian. I assumed our readers understand that Catholics are Christian. I simply specified between Christian and Catholic fiction in the June post because when you walk into the Christian fiction section the books there are basically all Protestant. When I’ve seen books that the creators themselves identify as “Catholic fiction” it’s been from specifically Catholic presses like Chesterton Press that publish specifically Catholic material. I have never seen something called “Eastern Orthodox fiction” in the bookstore, which is the point of the post–the original objection was that we don’t need religious characters in mainstream literature because you can find published by religious prints. Well, I’ve never seen Barnes and Noble feature the Eastern Orthodox fiction or the Jewish fiction or the Buddhist fiction section, so original objector seemed to be saying that something like Tyndale House was going to meet all your needs for religious diversity, which is clearly untrue when it’s a Christian publishing house (and “Christian” presses almost universally means “Protestant” in the U.S., but they don’t call themselves “Protestant presses” so I can’t call them that if I want people to know what I am talking about.)

          I also regret that I was unable to include mentions of every religion or sect in my posts, but I assume that our readers understand that when I advocate for religious diversity I am also including Orthodox Christians.

          Like

          • Lurkertype says:

            Maybe saying “specifically Catholic” fiction?

            The wording just sounded like you were those stupid people who thinks Catholics aren’t Christian. Which I’ve heard a lot from down South. I’m glad to hear you guys aren’t. But it’s a shame that they’ve monopolized the term “Christian fiction”, since that leaves out millions. Their worldview doesn’t even apply to lots of mainline Protestant believers.

            There are Jewish sections in B&N and I think Buddhist too (at least in the B&N I’ve been to — they closed the one in my town 😦 ), but they mix fiction and non-fiction.

            But again I’m here to advocate for the Mitford books. 🙂 Published by Penguin, a “regular” publishing house.

            With the rhetoric the way it is, we need some mainstream Muslim fiction. My Muslim neighbors do the same things my Christian neighbors do, (minus the pork and wine) except the women are more modestly dressed. But the kids play at the park, people work at big companies or small businesses, and we all love to eat. Same with the Sikhs and Buddhists.

            Like

            • Briana says:

              I see on File 770 that you summarized this post as :”The post in question seemed to be all about needing to see more representation of Christians in US literature.” I think it would helpful to point out that the post is about religious *diversity.* The entire argument here is that ALL religions should have some representation. You accuse the post of being “unhelpful” because you have incorrectly read it as excluding every other religion besides Christianity, when it clearly mentions and advocates for various other religions.

              It’s also not asking for characters to be portrayed as stereotypes of their religions or obsessed with their religion. You can see that the post lists simple examples of everyday situations where someone’s religion might impact their daily life.

              Like

            • Lurkertype says:

              When “Christian fiction” refers to something other than “strictly Evangelical world-view fiction”, get back to me on religious diversity.

              The town I live in has more religious diversity than just about anywhere on Earth that isn’t a giant megalopolis like NYC. I don’t need white-Evangelical-explaining about the need for more diverse books, thanks.

              You may not have meant it, but it came across the same way rich white fratboys ooze concern for poor black women.

              Like

            • Briana says:

              …You’re making a lot of incorrect assumptions about our personal lives, so I think I’m going to stop the conversation here. We’re clearly not getting anywhere productive.

              Like

  18. Rachel Neumeier says:

    I can add a handful of other titles to the ones suggested:

    The Narnia Chronicles, of course
    Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
    The Fetch by Laura Whitcomb
    The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zack by Brian Kircher
    The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

    and, if I may add:

    My YA title Black Dog, and the related novels and stories

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Oneiros says:

    Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry – it’s been a while but I believe the central characters are Zoroastrian, and there are Zoroastrian funeral rites in there

    Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe – double-whammy of indigenous Nigerian religion and the encroaching colonial Christianity

    The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson – main character is Jewish, relatively sure there’s a passover seder in there

    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell – the title character is a straight-laced Christian; mention is also made of Japan’s hidden Christians

    The Vegetarian by Han Kang – while not central to the plot, mention is made of Buddhism in relation to vegetarianism, and how no one who isn’t a monk should have such an ascetic diet (which, in my experience, reflects Korean culture quite well)

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Great recommendations! I was hoping someone would come on here with suggestions that covered even more religions than the ones I used as examples.

      Like

      • Oneiros says:

        Happy to help 🙂 Howard Jacobson writes a lot of Jewish characters in all of his work, apparently, but I’ve only read The Finkler Question so I couldn’t say for sure.

        I wanted to find one with Buddhism more overtly as part of the story but despite the amount of East & South-East Asian fiction I tend to read, I’m drawing a blank.

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Yes, my post was mostly comprised of examples I could see Jewish, Muslim, or Christian characters doing simply because when I tried to think of something a Buddhist or Hindu character, for example, might do, I drew a complete blank. Because I’ve never read about such a character. I know nothing about them! And so I did hope others would be able to come up with something, but it seems like it’s quite the challenge, unfortunately.

          Like

  20. orchidsarefascinating says:

    I too hope that there will soon be more books with religious diversity. If authors took into account that characters with different moral and religious beliefs would come up with different solutions to problems, their plots would become more interesting. I love how you wrote, “The struggles of a character with questions of morality, with being bullied, with trying to find their way in life, does not become less valid because that character thinks of morality in terms of a deity.”

    Like

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