WorldBuilding: Components of a Religion


There are fewer forces in our own world that carry the same weight as religion. Wars are fought, lands conquered, and entire peoples wiped from the face of the planet in the name of the gods. From the earliest forming of human societies, religion has shaped the way we view ourselves, our fellows, the natural world and the greater forces around us. We give them names and attributes to make them more relatable. We build monuments in their honor and create sacred rites to amuse them. There are as many faiths as there are individuals, and that’s the perfect playing field for the fantasy writer.

No matter what its intent, religion causes strife in the real world. Period. People are tormented, persecuted, polarized and killed over differing perspectives. Even if religion doesn’t play a large part in your fantasy novel, it can bring undertones of conflict that help color the world. It can also serve as a haven or justification for a character’s actions. In cases where faiths do not play any major roles, usually describing a few key difference between two religions and/or deities suffices. But if faith and the valor of the gods has more of an impact on the world or your characters, it’s vital to develop those religions (organized and not) further.

Consider the following:

  • What is the focus? Do they direct their love and admiration toward a god or a mortal leader? An ideal or a concept?
  • What kind of religion are you dealing with? Is it monotheistic or polytheistic? Do they trace their family lines through the mother or the father? How do they identify themselves?
  • Who are the deities? Is there more than one, and if there are multiple, what are their relationships to each other?
  • Once you’ve established the gods, determine if they resemble the people in your story or if they have more abstract attributes. What do their worshippers call them?
  • How do mortals interact with the gods? Are your characters scrying or actually hearing voices in their heads?
  • What’s the policy on the afterlife?
  • Regardless of what you the writer write as fact for a story, how far does the culture’s supernatural acknowledgment go? Do they share your same view of ghosts and goblins or are those just myths meant to frightened children?
  • What methods of worship do your people employ? Do they build churches or dance skyclad under the full moon? Do they require an intermediary to speak with the gods, or do their own prayers reach the Great One’s ears?
  • Establish at least one holiday that is based on the faith, and write a general history of how it came to be. For added variety, make a couple of variations that are both considered real parts of the history.
  • What kind of clergy will your religion have? Will they develop a warrior-priest order or be the keepers of al knowledge? Will they be only one gender, a certain age, or from a certain social class?
  • To a certain extent, religions usually attempt to dictate certain parts of secular life to its followers. Will this faith merely tell them how to dress and speak, or will it infiltrate their entire lives? Will it control how many children it is acceptable for a couple to have, or determine which animals they may eat on certain days?
  • Develop a symbol that will be universally associated with the religion. Possibly consider the symbolism of color as well.
  • How are their traditions and teachings passed down? Are they oral tales, or kept in a single, sacred book?
  • Creation myths—every religion has one. Does your religion have an Adam and Eve, or twin brothers who ripped their mother’s womb apart to be born?
  • Consider too, the other known stories that will come from the religion. Chose tales that could be universally told, or that would further the cause of the religion.
  • Does this religion ascribe to the idea of deadly sins and/or heavenly virtues? What are the vices, the qualities of admiration?
  • Most religions that try to infiltrate life outside of worship will develop their own coming of age rites. These are fairly straightforward in concept, but are pivotal in-story, especially if your main characters are close to the typical age for these rites.
  • Everyone dies. It’s a fact of life, and we all have different takes on the ending (or renewing) of the circle of life. Develop death rites within the context of the religion. They don’t necessarily have to match those of the people.
  • When you’re prompting your own way of life, you tend to stigmatize anything outside of your norm. Thus, taboos are born. They’re effective because of their dividing nature.
  • Prevalence: How far wide-spread is this religion? More importantly, how widely is it accepted? Is it the religion of the people or the ruler? Look at how this religion might overlap with others.
  • How do they treat outsiders? Are non-believers pathetic lost souls waiting to be converted, or devil-tools to be vanquished?
  • What do outsiders believe of/think of the religion? Is it a peaceful faith that others would not have a problem with, or is the mere name of the religion a battle cry?
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16 Comments

  1. This is such a great article. I love to study religion and philosophy and I’ve often thought of how I would establish my own religion, what rules it would have, etc. Have you fully thought out your own?

    1. Most of the religion I’ve developed so far for my novel is based largely on Paganism, with little variation. It still helps to lay things out profile-like though, if for nothing else than to just have everything in writing. Are you writing a religion for a story?

      1. That’s fascinating. I’m glad you’re doing that and I’d love to read some of your work if you’d be willing to share. I’m not writing a religion for a story. I just find the phenomenon of religion one of the most amazing and confusing and wonderful in life.

    2. It is one of the most powerful forces we humans have. It always amazes me how wide of an influence it has–all the way from being on person’s quiet meditation to an entire people’s reason to kill. I too find it fascinating, and it’s a big part of my novel. I have thought about posting excerpts from the novel though…

      1. Yes! I feel like we share an affinity for it. I agree completely. It’s just so interesting to study, to think about, to create. Rituals for food, sex, morality, free time, etc. It’s such a comprehensive entity.

    3. A lot of religion is just habit that after years and years became sacred. Like, looking at some pagan traditions during planting times were started because they helped the plants grow, and now all things related to that time of year are part of a wider religion. Religion is such a huge part of culture that you can’t really separate one from the other, don’t you think? Even being atheistic is kind of religion of itself.

      1. I can see that and I would agree. It just becomes a huge part of a person’s personality. And yes, I think without religion there would be no atheism. It’s just a counter culture really.

      2. I agree! A counter culture is a good way to describe it. And yet, I don’t think atheists would like being called their own religion. Maybe this is a case of mainstream having a set understanding of the word “religion” that doesn’t allow for variations on expression.

      3. I would agree but sometimes the conservative Christians argue that Atheism is just as much of a religion as Christianity is.

  2. Dear Whitney,

    I dropped in to read, hooked by the title. Expected an essay about religions. Received instead a great reference piece for writers re components of religion.

    Was intrigued by the back and forth of your comment section until I read your opinion that being atheistic is “a kind of religion of itself.”

    I could not disagreee more strongly. Atheism is not, and never will be, a religion. That various and sundry adherents to some religions try to liken Atheism to religion brings to mind something my grandmother told me about useless arguments and those who engage in them. She said, “Don’t get into the pen with them.”

    All anyone claiming atheism is a religion is doing is trying to drag them (atheists) into the pen with them.

    I don’t believe in gods. As Robert Heinlein said, “One man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh.” Attempting to have a serious conversation with an individual who believes imaginary supernatural beings created us, watch over us and hold sway over us is a trying task. I don’t ‘practice’ atheism. I simply don’t believe. There is nothing to worship about or to.

    Please don’t lump atheists in with religions or religious people. They’re Apples and Oranges all the way.

    Aloha,

    Doug

    P.S. That 95% of people in the world believe in some sort of supreme being/religion doesn’t make them right or me wrong. We’re caught in a centuries old cultural eddy in the vast whirlpool that is our galaxy. It will get sorted out sooner or later. Sorry if I’ve offended. Wasn’t my intent.

    1. Doug,

      No offense taken. My comment to Tafacory was more focused on the way religion is defined within culture, and the associations we have with it. Religion is often associated with organized religions like Christianity, but my thinking is more that religion is a collection of beliefs, or lack thereof. It’s not so much in that it’s a faith that’s practiced, but that it’s a… school of thought, if you will. That the ideas and concepts contained within one’s understanding of the world (whether they mesh with others or not) could be called one’s “religion.”

      1. That is one of the most reasonable descriptions of religion that I’ve ever heard. I like it. I am as close to being Buddhist as one can get without actually being one. This is a mindset to me. I think it’s safe to say that religions have made me gunshy of even using the word.

        Thanks for your tolerance and open mind.

        Aloha,

        Doug

  3. This one really caught my eye. Good subject. Its actually something that stumps me in writing–when the gods come into play.For instance–are the gods real and if they are, what is the extent of their power? If they are all powerful, what stops them from becoming involved in the affairs of mortals in the story? If they are involved, to what extent and why aren’t they more or less involved? Is there anything that the god can or can not do? If gods in other religions are deemed as false, is the believer misinformed and how do gods react to being deemed as false? Great post!

    1. All valid questions, applicable to real life as well as fantasy writing I believe! Writing the gods is tricky, I usually avoid their direct interference in the story. If they are there, it is through my human character’s faiths and practices. I’ve been listening to a Game of Thrones lately and it gave me another idea for how to treat the gods as well–their power might be limited to a certain region. Like in the first book of GoT, the old gods have no power in the South, partially because no one worships them there anymore, and partially because their influence doesn’t reach much past Winterfell. Just food for thought. 🙂

  4. From the conservative christian side, i found this article helpful. Im mulling over some ideas for a fantasy novel I want to write that I guess you could say would really just be a big literary expression of my faith. Trying to work in religion to it has actually been a very challenging thought. How to make it fit just the way I want it to without corrupting or changing the overall theme or message I’d be trying to comunicate. Fun stuff.
    Thanks for the tips.

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