Over the past two thousand years many terrible things have been done in the name of God. People of other faiths have been oppressed, persecuted and even murdered. Children have been molested, the weak minded have been lead about to and fro by men who use God to have their own way. It has not even stopped to this day and age.
Is Religion fundamentally bad? Is it wrong to have faith in an all powerful Creator? It’s a decision we all must come to in our own time and our own way. If that spiritual need is present in your heart, or alternatively absent, then you should do whatever you feel is right for you.
Stripping away the politics of the matter, a system of belief where people attempt to better themselves is not fundamentally bad. Can anyone really say teaching people to love one another is a bad thing? Tolerance, understanding and love are things we need more of in this world as well an ability to step into another’s shoes and see their perspective, whether or not we ultimately agree with it.
Beliefs are an important aspect of a person’s character. Even more so in fiction. While I can know someone in real life and not be clear on their every defining character belief it would be death for a writer not to expound upon these qualities within the confines of a fictional tale. A character with no beliefs is hollow and inaccessible to the reader.
Often, writers don’t give characters actual religious beliefs. Either because they’re atheists themselves or perhaps they don’t feel like putting up with the hassle that will inevitably bring when a reader who disagrees with that point of view assimilates the material and protests. Primarily being a SF writer myself I haven’t ventured much into the territory myself, more often because it doesn’t seem like it really matters to the character in the circumstances presented.
If a character believes in God–or doesn’t–it can be an effective story tool, assuming the writer had the competency to make it interesting and relevant in-context to the character’s world view or journey within the story. Simply portraying a character as a redneck hick because of his religious views, or contrarily as a godless liberal, is sloppy writing and demonstrates a distinct lack of understanding of the fundamentals of character building. People are not stereotypes and a character cannot afford to be either.
Beliefs are important. No matter where a character gets them, they define their very existence. Whether from religion, a good parent or a role model, a character learns to be a good person. To trust in strangers, offer help to those in need and spread love around. Conversely, the same can be said for negative tendencies–a character learned to be cruel and inhumane, to take from the weak and spread misery. Our life experiences help define our beliefs and make us who we are.
Of course, a character has to learn and grow in context of the tale a writer is telling too. If a character doesn’t learn or change from their experiences, what is the impetus of the story? Certainly, Star Wars is about the good guys versus the bad guys on the surface level. But on a deeper level, it’s also about Luke Skywalker moving from the role of a subservient adolescent to the role of a man and assuming all the responsibilities that being the last of the Jedi encompasses.
(I am aware, of course, that one can tell a story where the character learns nothing. But the more satisfying visceral stories always have some element of change to them. Something the reader/viewer can take from the tale, even if it does end up being a relatively straight forward concept such as maturity).
Religion and belief can also be effective in a story when it comes to the examination of whether people are inherently good or evil. Are we born a certain way or do we learn behavior along the way? Perhaps it’s a mixture of the two? If we are born a certain way, inclined to good or cursed with evil, why is that so and can we do anything to fight nature. Are we free willed or destined to a certain path... If we are born neutral, why do men ever incline their nature toward doing bad? Is it malice or self interest? The possibilities are endless and interesting in a capable writer’s hands.
The best tales are reflections of real life. Tales of good and evil. Of belief that motivated a character to make one of two choices along their life path. Whether they brought hope to the oppressed or pain and misery to others. Whether they can, or even should, stray from whatever path they have chosen and the end results of doing, or not doing, so.