Hey everyone, today we also have a guest post from Joséphine, discussing religion in YA. I hope you enjoy this post!
About the Blogger
The Guest Post
Religion is a defining characteristic of many people. Just like culture, it contributes to who we are and who we become. It guides our belief systems and aligns our moral compass. Even atheists who don’t believe in any god subscribe to philosophies and principles of life.
Conflict through Religion
Often when a child is born into a religious family, it is raised in the same religion and parents expect them to adopt the same faith. I know my friends who were born into Muslim families are considered Muslims and are expected to follow Muslim teachings. Converting to another religion is a huge deal and could result in being disowned from the family. I know enough atheists and agnostics who label themselves Muslim, celebrate Eid and do what is expected of them because leaving would inflict too much pain.
It’s not just Islam that makes it difficult to choose another religion or none at all. I recall countless reminders of how making the wrong choices could mean condemning my soul to the depths of hell. After much internal conflict, I left this former church denomination I belonged to. I still am a Christian — just not the kind of Christian that my childhood friends wished for me to be. Save for one, none of them talk to me anymore.
I’m convinced that religion begs a choice — follow, float or reject. Reaching the point of questioning religion and exploring what it means isn’t uncommon. Yet I’ve come across very few YA books that grapple with these struggles. Off the top of my head, I can only think of two books that are premised on questioning religion: Converting Kate by Beckie Weinheimer and Dancing in the Dark by Robyn Bavati. In both cases, the MCs were raised in particular religions but came to find that they simply couldn’t whole-heartedly accept and believe in them.
Grappling with the Absence of Religion
Given how much grief, struggle and conflict religion can bring, I’m surprised at how untapped this potential has been in YA fiction. Does it cut too close to the heart? Is it too personal? YA fiction deals with death, including suicides of loved ones. That’s extremely painful and not particularly pleasant to read.
Is religion too divisive? There’s the LGBTQ debate that’s been ongoing for such a long time and it’s still divisive today, yet there’ve been more and more books dealing with these issues.
Is religion too foreign for some readers, such as when maybe Buddhism is involved and thus too difficult to relate to? Yet publishing stories about foreign cultures tends to be seen as an eye-opener.
So why is religion treated differently? It’s so integral to life and yet markedly absent in fiction.
Tracking Religion in YA Books
Even before #WeNeedDiverseBooks gained traction, I noticed the lack of religion in the books I read. That’s why I started tracking religion in fiction. If it was central to the book, I would mark the genre as religion on Goodreads. If it wasn’t central but mattered in some way, I tagged with the keyword “religion” for reference.
Since 2012 I became proactive about seeking out books with the major theme of religion. I didn’t want to count books specifically marked as Christian fiction because those books are purposely written for Christian teens. They’re not written for all readers at large as can be seen by very specific terms and phrases mostly only a Christian would know. The talk of cell groups, doing one’s quiet time, etc wouldn’t make sense to a non-Christian reader. That isn’t the aim.
No, my search has been for books that treat religion as a fact of life. These books shouldn’t be pre-occupied with teaching religion or proselytising. They should treat religion as a fact of life. A non-Jew should be able to glimpse into the life of a Jewish character, just as a Christian should be able to read the perspective of an atheist without offence. These books should promote empathy while allowing readers to see themselves in those books. With all that searching, I’ve only read 14 YA books that I readily classified as belonging to the genre of religion. I own maybe another 3 or 4 unread ones.
As for at least the mention of religion, I found a grand total of 6 YA books. Religion mattered in those books like it matters that I eat a lot of fusion food at home. I hail from a bicultural household. I’m not preoccupied with that but people do ask me what I eat because they suspect it’s not what everyone else usually eats at home. We read about characters who can’t fall asleep at night. Some toss and turn while others go out for a run and then some count sheep. How many go down on their knees and pray?
Joy of Religion
While religion can be a source of conflict, it can also bring much joy. As much as conflict propels plots forwards, things that matter to characters allow us to get to know them better. I’ve read a few books with MCs who loved to surf. They’d always be at the beach and when they weren’t, they’d be dreaming up new moves to try when they next got onto the water. This obsession translated to music is even more common in YA fiction, particularly in the form of bands.
Interestingly, many of the people I know first learnt how to play an instrument in church, especially the guitar. I don’t know if this is just a common phenomenon among Christians in Singapore. Though I do know more than a handful of music artistes discovered their voices in church choirs. Just because someone sings secular music, doesn’t mean their roots were secular either. Oddly, this doesn’t seem to ever be the case in YA fiction.
Call for Religion in YA Fiction
Amidst the call for diversity in YA fiction, I see a lot of support for more books involving LGBTQ and people of colour. These are important causes. As a person of colour, I very much wish for more representation. At the same time, I believe that something as pervasive as religion shouldn’t be erased from literature.
Literature captures the heart and soul of people. It reflects our realities yet in YA fiction generally casts little to no light on religion. This is why in the pursuit of diversity in YA fiction, I appeal to everyone not to leave religion behind in the dust.
What did you think of the post? Let’s discuss in the comments!