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.