The secularization of Romanceland

aka: Why are there no Muslim sheikhs?

In my introductory post, I mentioned that my romance reading tends to be limited to contemporary, category and some historical romances. Within those genres, I read books set in Europe (I have a strong preference for the UK, but have also read books set in France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and made up European countries), North America (mostly the US), Australia, New Zealand, occasionally Asia (Hong Kong, Singapore and India that I can think of), and the Middle East. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in a real Middle-Eastern country; they are always made up. The nearest I can think of are some historical romances set in Egypt. For the moment, I’m going to focus on the contemporary settings and then I’ll come back to historicals.

How secular is the real world?

It’s easy to think that we live in a secular world. Well, it’s easy to think that if you live in a Western country with secular media and education. It’s easy to think that if you’re in a society that is significantly more secular than it was, say, 50 years ago. Religion is easily dismissed as a thing of the past. For many, many Westerners, this is simply true. There are a lot of people with no belief in God, with no religious affiliation, who take no part in religious activities, and who see religion as having nothing to say to their contemporary experience of life. But even in the most strongly secular countries, that is not the whole picture.

In the 2011 UK census, the religious affiliation of the population was as follows:
59.5% Christianity
4.4% Islam
1.3% Hinduism
0.7% Sikhism
0.4% Judaism
0.4% Buddhism
0.4% other religions
25.7% no religion
(7.2% did not state an answer).

More than twice as many people claimed a religious affiliation than claimed no religion. But, of course, people tick a census box for many reasons. Things like family loyalty and ethnic identity can be as important in claiming a religious affiliation as faith and practice. Wikipedia cites an interesting survey done by the Guardian:

An ICM poll for The Guardian in 2006 asked the question “Which religion do you yourself belong to?” with a response of 64% stating ‘Christian’ and 26% stating ‘None’. In the same survey, 63% claimed they are not religious with just 33% claiming they are. This suggests that almost a third of the non-religious UK population identify with Christianity out of habit.

People identify with a religion even if they are not religious. I’m not sure it’s just ‘habit’ that makes people do this, but it’s true that for many people a religious label is not much more than a label. However, even if 33% of the population are ‘religious’, rather than the 67% from the census, that’s still a sizeable part of the population claiming that religion plays some active part in their lives. That’s not the same as regular attendance at religious meetings, though. Only 18% of the UK population consider themselves practicing members of a religious organisation. Just 6% regularly attend church. People who claim non-Christian religious affiliations are much more likely to be active in their religion:

One study shows that in 2004 at least 930,000 Muslims attended a mosque at least once a week, just outnumbering the 916,000 regular church goers in the Church of England. Muslim sources claim the number of practising Muslims is underestimated as many of them pray at home.

Around a third of the UK population say they believe in God and about 20% pray daily.

Statistics aren’t everything, obviously, but those statistics suggest to me that religion is still an important, active part of the lives of a substantial minority of the UK population.

What of other countries? Here’s the percentage of the population affiliated to the dominant religion in each of these countries:
France – 63% Christian
Italy – 83.3% Christian
Spain – 78.6% Christian
Greece – 88.1% Christian
USA – 78.3% Christian
Australia – 67.3% Christian
New Zealand – 57% Christian
Hong Kong – 14.3% Christian (by far the biggest group in HK is unaffiliated at 56.1%)
Singapore – 33.9% Buddhist
India – 79.5% Hindu

With the exception of Hong Kong and Singapore, all of these countries have a dominant religious affiliation. Most of them have much stronger religious affiliations than in the UK and in some of these places, religious affiliation is also more likely to involve active religious practice than it does in the UK.

Since Romanceland sheikhs almost invariably live in their own, made-up countries, it’s impossible to gather actual statistics. But for actual Middle-East countries, here’s some numbers:

Bahrain – 70.3% Muslim
Iraq – 99% Muslim
Kuwait – 74.1% Muslim
Oman – 85.9% Muslim
Qatar – 67.7% Muslim
Saudi Arabia – 93% Muslim

The Middle East as a whole is 88.94% Muslim. In most of these countries, Islam is the dominant cultural force, influencing every aspect of life, the legal system, government, education and so on.

What to make of all the numbers and what do they have to do with romance novels?

If we were to assume that fiction merely reflects its surrounding culture, we would expect that to be true with respect to religion as much as any other aspect of culture. Since most of the romances I read are written by UK, US, Australian and NZ authors, I would expect them to reflect the religious culture of those countries most accurately, but I’d also hope that when the books are set elsewhere, they would reflect the religious culture of their setting. That is, I’d usually expect books set in southern Europe to have characters who are Catholic or Greek Orthodox, books set in India to feature Hindu or occasionally Muslim characters. For books set in the Middle East, I’d automatically assume characters were Muslim unless the book made it clear otherwise.

But books are about individuals, not societies.

Well, yes. And also, no. Yes, it’s true, every romance novel will have specific characters. And writers are free to give these characters any background they like. They can be the exception. They don’t have to conform to the majority expectation. Why not write about a French Muslim character? Or a member of the Jewish community in London? (I’d read both of those books in a heartbeat, by the way.) Why not pick the atheist living in an Islamic Arab nation? Or, as mostly seems to happen, why not write about the atheist with some Christian background that means they want a church wedding in the UK? There are plenty of those in real life, why not in romance novels? No reason at all.

What’s interesting to me is not the individual characters, but the overall effect. That’s why I’m talking about the secularization of Romanceland. If Romanceland is the accumulation of all the romance novels I’ve read, it’s a place with all sorts of odd biases and divergences from the real world. Enough billionaires to go round, for one thing. Extreme whitewashing, for another. And it has almost no religion, even in the parts of it that reflect the most religious places in our world, like the Middle East. When was the last time you read about a sheikh who attended mosque, prayed five times a day, or kept Ramadan? No, I can’t think of one either. I’ve lost count of the number of sheikh books which include a ‘Western-style wedding ceremony’ or end with babies being christened. Yes, really. No, I have no idea.

In the Teach Me Tonight post I referenced in my introduction to this series, three reasons for using religion in romance were suggested, the first of which was ‘to advance a religious agenda’. I can’t help wondering if Romanceland as a whole is unconsciously advancing a secularist agenda. Characters of faith are exceptionally rare outside of the inspirational subgenre. Much rarer, I think, than they are in real life. Religious ceremonies still sometimes mark out significant events such as births, marriage and deaths. But regular religious practice is all but non-existent in Romanceland, and faith is rarely a factor in character motivation. Religion, where it exists, is relegated to the periphery of romance. That AAR list of romances featuring characters of faith is significantly shorter than most of their other special lists* (29 historicals, 34 contemporaries, 7 alternate realities = 70 titles. Compare cross-class romances: 245 titles, addiction: 88 titles, mixed-race: 92 titles.) When I’m reading romances it often feels like I’m in a parallel world where there simply is no place for religion or faith.

The existence of a separate subgenre for inspirational romance encourages, I think, the marginalisation of religion in mainstream romance. That’s problematic to me for a number of reasons, but especially because inspirational romance really only represents one tiny sector of the religious community. It’s exclusively Christian and a very specific brand of Christianity at that. That leaves no room for characters of other faiths and other forms of Christianity in the romance genre at all. In fact, it’s very noticeable on the AAR list that there are only two Jewish and one Muslim characters – all of whom are matched with a Christian partner.

It’s interesting to note that the secularization of Romanceland extends into historical romances too. If religion is a thing of the past, then perhaps we might have expected it to feature in historical romances even if not in contemporaries. In Jane Austen’s Regency novels, the clergyman is a central figure in the community (Mr Elton in Emma, Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice; both Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility and Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park aspire to be clergymen). In Regency romances, not so much (Jackie Barbosa’s Hot Under The Collar is a great counter-example to this). Historical romances are written for modern readers and reflect modern sensibilities with respect to religion.

So, why are there no Muslim sheikhs in Romanceland?’

Truthfully, I don’t know. But I can speculate with the best of them!

My first guess is sales figures. No, really. This is a business and publishers are savvy about what sells. I bet Muslim characters don’t sell, especially in the huge North American market. You don’t need me to tell you why.

My second guess is sales figues. I know. But I think it’s probably true that religious people are more likely to buy books without religion in than vice versa. My top favourite romance featuring a character of faith is Laura Kinsale’s masterpiece, Flowers from the Storm. Reviews of that book show that a LOT of readers hated Maddy and found her priggish and prissy. Many couldn’t understand why her religion was such a strong motivating force in her life. I think that it is always going to be difficult to write characters of faith in a way that makes them accessible and sympathetic to readers who don’t have that experience, or who have negative experiences of religion.

My third guess is fear. Which is also about sales figures. Fear that if you include religion you might unwittingly offend or alienate parts of your readership, or even the wider religious community. It’s 25 years since Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses but the response to it is still vivid in my mind and although I think a romance novel is unlikely to create anything like that sort of outcry, it is still a reminder that religion is not a subject to treat lightly or cavalierly. It’s something that people feel passionately about. It’s a powerful force, even in increasingly secular societies. Religious groups still get books banned.

I admit, I don’t see the secular landscape of Romanceland changing any time soon. I’m sad about that. I’m sad because I’d like romances to give people of all faiths and none a chance to see their experiences reflected, valued, and challenged in their reading. I’d like women of all faiths and none to know that they can love and be loved. I’m also sad because I think the absence of religion diminishes the genre, by excluding such an important part of the human experience.

*I don’t want to pretend that the AAR list is anything like a rigorously-examined representative list of the genre. But since this is a blog post, not an academic paper, I’m using it as an easily available guideline to what’s out there. If you’ve got things to say that challenge its usefulness, please let me know in the comments.


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  • I find the lack of faith outside of inspirational romance astonishing, particularly in historicals. I don’t know how someone can write a character in 19th century Britain or the United States who doesn’t have a connection to–or a specific reason for rejecting–religiousity. Religion was such an enormous part of public and private life in the most popular settings for historical romance that its absence always surprises me (and says much more about our world than it does about theirs).

    I’m similarly surprised by the exclusion of political opinions and sports team affiliations. I sometimes feel like in romance, the characters are allowed opinions on nothing more controversial than how they take their coffee.

    I saw an interview with Tiffany Reisz in which she said she’s received surprisingly little backlash for the religious content in The Siren, so maybe the fear is more perceived than actual. Perhaps if writers started to write religion into straight (vs. inspirational) romance, readers would show up.

    Great post, regardless!

    • I agree and I think your parallels to politics and even sport, are good ones. I think authors (or maybe editor and publishers? Don’t know) are so scared of offending any potential readers that they make up a sort of bland world in which characters don’t have any actual opinions or loyalties at all.

      I haven’t read any Reisz (erotic romance isn’t really my thing) but I’m interested to hear that she has religious content and didn’t get backlash.

      And thanks!

  • I think that you’ve hit on part of the explanation when you mention inspirationals as being their own sub-genre, with their own rules–specifically, that a conversion narrative must also be part of the story. Therefore, if you include any mention of religion in a non-inspirational, people might assume that you, the author, are about to begin proselytizing. And I can understand how non-inspirational readers would have a knee-jerk response to that.

    As for the near total lack of religion or faith in historicals, it’s baffling to me too. There’s often talk of errors in historicals with regard to titles, mores, and technology, but lack of religion is almost never brought up as one of those errors.

    • That’s interesting. It never occurred to me that people might expect that conversion narrative if there’s a mention of faith.

      I did wonder if there’s some (intentional?) marginalisation going on, akin to the marginalisation of African American romances in the Kimani Harlequin line. Though the two issues are not completely analogous.