What I’ve Learned from Talking About the Need for More Diverse Religious Representation

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In May 2016, I asked the question “Why Aren’t We Talking About Religious Diversity?”  Some readers suggested that I was brave to open this discussion and shared their experiences with feeling a lack of religious representation in mainstream literature or with instructors who are clearly uncomfortable talking about religion in class.  However, though I have met my share of individuals who are antagonistic towards someone even mentioning the existence of such a thing as religion, on the whole I was not afraid to broach this topic–firstly because I know our readers are wonderful, thoughtful individuals who respect different viewpoints.  Secondly, because as I point out in the post, a majority of Americans at least (and they comprise the bulk of our readership) identity as religious.  I don’t know if it’s particularly brave to tell people you’d like more religious diversity in literature if 80% of your readers could be religious themselves.

Though  just about every response to this post and the follow up I did,There’s No Good Reason Not To Represent Characters of Faith”, was respectful, some of the comments did surprise me.  I called for religious diversity. I gave examples that we might see.  A Catholic wearing ashes.  A Muslim praying in the middle of the day or wearing the hijab.  A Jewish character fasting.  And yet several responses indicated that they thought I was calling for more Christian fiction.  They indicated they would like to see more Christians in fiction, and ignored the possibilities of seeing other faiths represented, as well.

Most strikingly, one commenter even told me that I had said Catholics were not Christians and accused me of an Evangelical agenda.  (I’m not Evangelical Christian, in case you were wondering.  I also can’t figure out why he thinks I think Catholics aren’t Christian. I  read the post several times over, determined to edit anything that might have inadvertently caused offense. I can’t find it.)  This is particularly amusing in light of my final words on the post: “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.”  I go on to list  a few of the examples of characters of faith I can think of, which, I admit are not many and not as varied as I had hoped, as I could think of only Muslim, Jewish, and Christian protagonists–just another indication of the need for more diversity! 

This last commenter counts as the first mean-spirited responder we’ve ever had on the blog, which is perhaps nothing to sneer at if it means our readership is apparently expanding.  I always used to worry about rude commenters showing up, but now that one has emerged to accuse  me wildly of things I never said and to ignore the entire content of the post he’s allegedly responding to, I find I don’t really care. I can’t be bothered to care about the ramblings of a person who seems to have read no more than the title of my post and decided he already knew what I must have written.  I can’t be bothered to expend energy on an individual who is not responding to the points my co-blogger and I bring up to him in the comments and instead resorts to assumptions about and attacks on my personal life.  My one condescension was to add a disclaimer to the original post explaining what “diversity” means since it evidently was not as clear as I had supposed.

But what does all this mean?  Well, I think it means that my call for religious diversity was not unwarranted.  Even in two posts explaining what religious diversity means, explaining why the existence of Christian fiction does not qualify as “religious diversity,” and giving examples of various faiths we might see–several of the responses remained stuck on Christian fiction and Christians in fiction.

And please note that I consider Christian fiction, typically published by Protestant publishing houses, as a genre–the bulk of it seems to be Western, Amish, or historical/Regency romances from what my friends have told me–and not a solution to the religious diversity question as:

  • It represents only Protestants and not other religious or even Christian groups
  • It largely does not help people who want to read something other than a (historical) romance
  • It is mostly adult fiction, but we should also have representation in other age groups
  • It’s not mainstream. It’s geared towards members of that religion who are going to seek it out on purpose.

Even in two posts explaining religious diversity and why I think we have a need for it, especially in light of current events when we have politicians calling for bans on certain religious groups, anti-Semitic crimes happening, Holocaust deniers trying to rewrite history, debates about what religious freedom means and looks like, the desire both 1) to dismiss the need to learn about and understand each other and 2) to equate diversity with Christianity seems strong.  I hoped to explain why we need more representation, but in this case, the comments made my point for me more strongly than I ever could.

Krysta 64

8 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned from Talking About the Need for More Diverse Religious Representation

  1. Sierra says:

    I’ve appreciated your series of posts on the topic! I’d like to mention And I Darken by Kiersten White. It is a historical fiction set in the 1400s with a female Vlad the Impaler that incorporates both Islam and Christianity within the context of her characters and the setting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beth says:

    The irony is, it’s a hot-button issue because there’s SO MUCH marginalization with religions, historically as well as in modern day. Religion is exploited in politics, it’s argued in justice systems and schools, it’s misrepresented in the media (constantly). It’s to the point where it feels like discussing religion is inviting people to yell at you. And yet, as you pointed out, if we had religious diversity in books (including atheism, non-western religions, and faith-based systems that are not monotheistic or dogmatic), there would likely be less of this extremism fear. I’m all for it, so long as the author understands and is accurately representing the religion, and it serves a point in the narrative (to further our understanding of the character, or to introduce a plot point, etc.). So basically, if it were handled the same way as ethnic, racial, gender, and sexual diversity in books should be handled.


    • Krysta says:

      Yes, there is the fear that with increased representation, a religion might not be represented in a way that seems fair or accurate. I like to think that more representation means less of a burden for authors having to represent the religion, however. For instance, right now if you were to say write about a Catholic nun and portray her unfavorably, many people might read that as a deliberate critique or even attack against Catholicism. However, if there were a bunch of books about nuns, it would, I think (or hope), be easier to represent nuns as people who run the spectrum of, well, people–good, bad, flawed, etc–without it seeming like a sweeping statement about Catholicism as a whole.


  3. Cait @ Paper Fury says:

    Omg that is horrible that you got attacked by that commenter! I find that usually even if I post something controversial, followers are still very polite in their disagreements! (Although I have had commenters attack me after completely misreading my post…I think those kind of people should just be ignored! They have no idea what they’re on about.) ANYWAY. I honestly tend to avoid books about religion at times, because I feel like it’s often forced down my throat. What I’d like is to have books about religion (all religions! Jews! Muslims! Buddhists! Etc.!) just written as part of the characters’ life and not necessarily with an agenda to the reader, you know? I find Christian fiction is REALLY pushy, eek.

    I’m really excited to read When Michael Met Mina soon because it’s about muslims and I want to learn more about what they believe!

    Anyway. I don’t think we should be scared of religion in books! But it’s okay to not be particularly interested as well. It’s all so subjective! I DO think it should be out there so people have the option to read it!
    Thanks for stopping by @ Paper Fury!


    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I don’t read Christian fiction myself because my friends who do say there’s usually a sermon involved, and that’s not really my cup of tea. (I’ve also heard that some can be anti-Catholic, so it doesn’t seem helpful to me for someone to tell readers, “Well just go read Christian fiction if you want to see religion in literature so much!” This type of agenda is obviously hurtful to Catholic readers and not exactly embracing the type of understanding approach I am advocating.) I like religion that seems to be inserted naturally as part of the plot. And that can be easily done–though the lack of religious representation now makes that unthinkable to some people, it seems. But there are some examples of what this might look like. Ms. Marvel, for example, has a protagonist who is motivated to help people by her faith; she consults with her religious leader to determine what the actions of a person trying to do right might look like. And there you have it. Her religion, naturally part of her life. No preaching needed.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. daleydowning says:

    I read the original post, and loved the way you said what you said. And I completely agree. Personally, the belief system I follow is classified by many as “umbrella Protestant Christianity” with a bit of “evangelical” (and I really don’t like that term being applied to a group of people, by another group who really don’t understand what it means to the believing group). But I honestly don’t like most of the “Christian” fiction out there… and quite frankly would prefer to read fiction that either allows/incorporates for other belief systems and non-stereotype representations. In fact, although I originally was going to try to cut out any definitive talk of religion in my own writings, but then I realized that if it serves a purpose in the story – for example, as part of a character’s life or development – then why shy away?

    Thanks for opening this discussion. You’re absolutely right – we’ve heard about sexual equality, minority equality, and diversity equality in fiction until we’re sick of hearing it… But apparently it’s still taboo to mention something that is quite simply a fact of everyday life for so many people the world over.


    • Krysta says:

      I usually hear people throw “evangelical” around as sort of a catch-all term; I’m not sure most of them could define it, if pressed. Just another example of the need for more understanding.

      And I do find it interesting that we can be so open about so many things–but not religion! Even in academia, where theoretically “anything goes,” religion still makes a lot of people uncomfortable and is routinely glossed over or dismissed.

      Liked by 1 person

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