Discussion: Religion In YA


Religion is a tricky topic. Isn’t it the topic you’re supposed to avoid at dinner parties, along with politics? Young adult books certainly seem to think so – it seems like you only see religion in them if they’re Christian Books, with capital letters. Well, sometimes characters will be Jewish, but it’s normally a character quirk and they’re from a non-practicing family.

This is really disappointing. There are so many ways that YA books seem to lack diversity, but it’s much more than race. YA books tend to overlook non-white, poor, disabled (in any way), fat (or even just “regular” sized), sexually different (more books seem to have homosexual protagonists, but gay and straight aren’t the only sexualities out there), and religious protagonists. You could spend hours talking about the various problems with this, but I’m going to focus on the last one.

Even if you aren’t strictly religious, it’s probably something you’ve thought about a fair bit, even if it’s just to decide that you don’t believe in God or gods or karma or reincarnation or Allah or any other common religious deities and ideas. There’s nothing wrong with that, just like there’s nothing wrong with being Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, or any other kind of organized religion. As long as you aren’t too extreme to the point where you try to force your religion and beliefs onto other people, there’s no problem with being religious, at least in my mind.

So why is religion so taboo in YA? Is it because there are so many other issues to worry about that religion doesn’t even rank? Is it because protagonists have to appeal to a large amount of people and, just as men are apparently unable to identify with female protagonists in books and movies (since you can’t hear me as I write this, know that I’m being very sarcastic and irritated when I say that), the majority of people are unable to identify with a character if she is a practicing Muslim? This seems to feed into the much larger problem of racism in YA and our society in general, but even religions that are predominantly associated with white, middle class people, such as Christianity and Catholicism, are often looked down on, so race isn’t the only issue here.

Back to religion, though. I understand that it’s a difficult topic and that many people can’t identify with a specific religion, but that doesn’t mean we should erase religion from books completely. Having a religious character isn’t a problem; writing a book that isn’t strictly religious but seems to be telling its audience that God is the one true god even though our characters are Not Religious (because Christianity seems to be the default religion when there isn’t an actual religion being used) is a problem.

I want to read about characters who are like me every one in a while. I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through senior year of high school; my family attended Catholic mass every single week no matter what (vacations did not get you out of mass in my family – you were only missing mass if you were too sick to go); religion was a topic my friends and I discussed a lot, since my group of friends had practicing Catholics, forced-to-practice Catholics, Catholics only in name, and Christians (I don’t think anyone at my school was nonreligious at all, but there were a handful of Christians). I still call myself a Catholic and go to mass every time I’m home, but I disagree with many things the Catholic church says and have spent the past few years really thinking hard about religion and what I believe (so, really, I’m more of a buffet-type religious person – I like believing what I believe, no matter what religion it technically comes from).

When I was little, books kind of confused me because I was always asking myself: when do these kids go to church? Is it like going to the bathroom, something that never shows up in books but that they obviously do at some time? When books would specifically mention that something was happening on a Sunday and no one went to church, it really confused me. I had neighbors who weren’t Catholic or Christian and therefore didn’t go to church, but it was unfathomable that no one in my children’s books went to church. Surely someone was Catholic or Christian – after all, the majority of my family and the people I knew were, so that must be a representation of the whole world, right?

Of course, that was totally wrong, but that doesn’t mean that no characters can be religious. We want to include more kinds of protagonists, and that can include religious ones, whether they believe everything that their faith says or they just follow along with what their parents tell them and really don’t care that much. You can have a protagonist whose parents are from two different religions and therefore they have some minor identity crises. You can do anything – just please stop having the stock reaction to religion: Oh, I don’t believe in God because of reasons. First of all, God-centered religions are not the only ones out there. Second of all, could you at least pretend that your character has thought about religion and doesn’t believe in it for actual reasons?

To sum up a very long post, I’m not saying that all protagonists have to be religious. I’m definitely not saying that all protagonists have to be Christian/Catholic/Jewish – I would love to have protagonists with less “mainstream” religious beliefs. It doesn’t have to be the focus of the story – it doesn’t even have to be a big part. Just please, please stop ignoring religion. It’s a big part of our society and has plenty of issues that would be fascinating to look at. Diversity is good, and even though racial diversity is what we need to focus the most on, a little religious diversity couldn’t hurt.

11 thoughts on “Discussion: Religion In YA

  1. Wow…amazing post! Seriously.

    I’ve definitely noticed this in YA fiction, and it’s a big problem (along with those other topics you mentioned that aren’t being written about). I think that mostly it’s a vicious cycle. Publishers/authors choose not to publish/write about religion because they feel that maybe it (a) alienates the reader, or (b) readers aren’t familiar enough with certain religions to be able to identify with the main character. But by not writing about it, you are just furthering this alienation and ignorance.

    But I think that it would be hard to write a book about a character who belongs to a minority religion, because in order to make the character identifiable and/or create a plot centered around their beliefs, you would have to explain a ton about what that religion is about, since most people don’t know. Maybe authors don’t want to put in the work to do that (or think the reader would find that boring/not something they want to read), so nothing ends up getting written.

    I agree that this is a huge problem that needs to be addressed…but maybe it starts in the education system of this country, not literature? Or maybe it’s some sort of combination of the two? I’m not sure, but it’s really something interesting to think about. Great discussion post!

    1. That’s an interesting idea about education. I went to a Catholic school and took a world religions class, and I still don’t know so much about other religions, so it would be nice to learn more about other religions. And I do understand why religion is often a forgotten element in books, I just wish that wasn’t the case. In a perfect world, there would be diversity in religion, race, gender, sexualities, and other areas, but that’s not the way the world is – but hopefully that’ll change in the future!

  2. I’ve noticed this too! I find it strange the big questions about God and the universe and religion are hardly ever mentioned in YA. I mean, not that I expect books to have pages and pages dedicated to it, but it’s a big topic. And despite what some people may say, it IS something that teenagers think about and question–I remember being in high school and overhearing other people talk about these things too.

    1. Yeah, it’s kind of weird that you don’t find it in more contemporary books, at least – in fact, you’re more likely to see religious stuff in paranormal books about angel, only they try not to make it religious while still refering God and angels and such. And it’s not like you need to have tons of religious content, just a conversation or two like you overheard would be great!

  3. You totally hit the nail on its head with your post! Most of the time when I hear people rant about the “lack of diversity” in YA, it boils down to homosexuality and ethnicity. It’s easy to forget then that diversity means so much more! As for religious fiction, I’ve found a handful here and there that didn’t preach any particular religion but rather just showed how integral religion happened to be to certain characters. Takes quite a bit of time to find those kinds of books though, now that you mention it. Or maybe there more such books than we realize but people hesitate to feature them in their reviews or just steer clear to avoid offending anyone? Hmmm. Time to reconsider all the ways in which books I read could be more diverse 🙂

    1. I know that I tend to shy away from books that could be labeled as “religious” because I don’t want to be bombarded with overt religious themes, so I can only imagine how much some people run in the opposite direction when they see books like that! Maybe I should start looking for books that have integral religion, like you mentioned, even if it’s hard work.

      1. Yeah, I’m a bit wary of that too but I go ahead and read them anyway. I remember liking “Dancing in the Dark” by Robyn Bavati. It’s about this Australian Jewish girl whose parents are ultra orthodox, so they don’t allow her to take up ballet when she wants to but she does so anyway. Interesting exploration of staying true to one’s religion while fitting into modern times. Maybe that might be something for you 🙂

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