Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is "That Old Tyme RELIGION: Does Religion Change the Course of a Story?"
My answer? It depends!
I'm a big of a mixed bag, religion-wise. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family who were pretty much all lapsed, to the point that my stepdad was a former Catholic priest and my mother flunked theology in (her all-girls, Catholic) college because she stormed out of class after arguing with the nun. Extended family included an ex-Carmelite nun and a lifelong Catholic priest. On the other side we have Missouri Synod Lutherans, which my father left behind to convert to Catholicism, a wedding surprise for my mother, who had hoped to escape by marrying a non-Catholic. There's some kind of inverted Gifts of the Magi shiz going on there.
So, while I grew up well versed in liturgical debates, I mostly considered myself Catholic in the same way I'm Irish - by weight of ancestry. In (my co-ed, liberal arts) college, I majored in Comparative Religious Studies, along with my primary major of Biology. My honors thesis compared Meister Eckhardt's (an excommunicated Catholic priest and scholar) sermon On Detachment with Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching.
For a long time I described myself as spiritual, but not religious - which didn't seem to explain anything to anyone. Now I just say I'm a practicing Taoist. Since almost no one knows exactly what that means (including, arguably, other Taoists), that at least gives me space.
All of this is by way of saying that, in my books, religion crops up a surprising amount. Or maybe it's not surprising. I find spirituality and the religions that grow from spiritual study fascinating. One of the terrific aspects of creating alternate fantasy worlds is that I can make up my own pantheon of deities - and I can use the worship of those gods and goddesses to explore and comment on religions of our world. The religions I've created have ranged from distant gods (Forgotten Empires) to a trio of goddesses who interfere with fate to the point of taking avatars (The Twelve Kingdoms and the Uncharted Realms).
In only one series so far have I included absolutely no hint of religion or deities: Bonds of Magic. Those of you who've read DARK WIZARD should feel free to write an essay on why that is. I can promise you that it's a deliberate choice.
In fact, I'd argue that religion always affects the course of a story. Even in its absence, there is a consequence on the world and how the characters live in it.