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Creating God: Religion in Fantasy, part 1

Religion in Fantasy

 

If I thought writing last week’s article was tough, I have to say, it was NOTHING compared to how I feel about wading into the morass of religion–even fictional religion. This is where we all get our panties in a bunch no matter where we fall on the religion spectrum. I’m a little afraid of sounding preachy or giving away my personal biases, so I just want to say up front: I apologize in advance for anything in this series of articles that might sound like I’m not maintaining my writing agnosticism.

 

I also realized as I started to write this article that this is a much, much bigger subject than I can tackle in one week. I’m not sure how many weeks this will go, but I want to make sure I take a fairly thorough look at creating a fantasy religion. For this week, I just want to look at the starting point—the basics of the religion you’re creating.

One of the reasons I love reading and writing fantasy is because anything is possible. When it comes to magic, religion, politics, geography, on and on, you can write whatever you can dream up as long as you make it consistent within your world. The wonderful thing about fantasy is that it allows us to explore what ifs and possibilities and such without finger pointing or blame or baggage (in theory, at least).

When it comes to creating a new religion for your world, I think you have to start with asking what people expect from a religion.

This is not to say you have to just adapt a religion from what you see in the real world (although I think that looking at world religions is a perfectly acceptable starting point). What I mean is, you have to start with common human expectations about what religion is and does in the real world. I think the major questions religion tries to answer are:

1)      Where did we come from? Your religion should have some explanation for how the world came to be. You might say, “well, science explains that.” That’s fine, but we’re talking religion here. Look at the world around us. There’s a constant tug of war between religion and science. Perhaps science does explain everything in your world, but unless science is also the religion of the day (which is fine, by the way), you need to have some explanation for creation in your religion.

2)      What happens when we die? You have to answer questions of the afterlife with your new religion. Heaven, Hades, Valhalla, Nirvana, Maya, whatever it is, you need to have some explanation, tradition, story, or theory within your religion about what happens when people die.

3)      How should we act while we’re here? Your religion should provide some kind of moral code. What that moral code says is pretty much wide open, but most religions provide some kind of list, law, code, ethics, what have you for its followers. Within this moral code will be some aspect of discipline as well, which will probably tie into what happens when someone dies.

I really think those three questions are the most important things for your religion to address, but that’s not where you should stop. In order to give flavor to your religion and your world, there are several other things you should think about.

  • Gods, spirits, demons, and angels. You’ve probably come up with a character (or several characters) who exist to answer those questions above. I do think it’s okay to start with a god/gods and create your religion from that one being, but if you keep those three central questions in mind, your religion will feel more like a real part of the world you create. The people who populate your religion are part of the “window dressing” for the character of the religion itself.
  • Ritual. Most religions have some kind of ritual associated with the practice of the faith. From going to church once a week to sacrificing humans, your rituals can be pretty much anything as long as there is some purpose within the religion.
  • Texts, traditions, songs, and verses. Your religion may have written texts or oral traditions, but somewhere, you need to have some kind of record of the stories, laws, and explanations for what your religion believes. Even if it’s oral tradition, there should still be some consistent place where your characters can go to find answers, explanations, and guidance. Which leads to…
  • Wise men, shamans, preachers, and priestesses. Your religion needs leaders. Unless the gods are walking and talking to your characters (which would be fine, but then you need to recognize that they are living this role), you need people for the characters in your story to visit when they need guidance. These leaders will conduct the rites, interpret the texts, recite the traditions, lead the masses, and on and on.

There is one more thing that deserves a mention: the idea or question of no religion at all. First, let me say that I don’t think every book of fantasy has to have religion in it. You can simply not mention it, you can make it a non-issue, you can make it a passing comment, etc. That’s perfectly fine. But if you do include a religion in your work, you need to address what that religion will act and look like. And that’s what I’ll look at in next week’s post—how to weave religion into your world, even if that means not weaving it at all.

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18 Comments

  1. Overlord says:

    Such a fantastic article on such a difficult topic – thanks so much for this one Amy – you’re my hero! 😀

  2. Edi says:

    I’d recommend anyone wanting to write a good fantasy religion to have a good look into philosophy before they start.

    Beyond just providing great ideas and a place to start, studying philosophy – even fleetingly – will help you argue for and against any common religious stand points or beliefs and allow you to create tension, depth and solid foundations for religion as it would have developed from the ground up.

    Plus it’s fun. 🙂

  3. EW Greenlee says:

    In my trilogy, “The Chosen One of Allivar” I spent 9 chapters in book 1 developing the mythical universe that my story depends upon. If you have ever read “The Silmarillion” you know that JRR Tolkien provided the detail behind creation and Middle-Earth. If readers find an author as pushing religion in a story, then they will miss out on a great story, as all great mythologies revolve around creation, life and end of times. In the end, my first nine chapters need not be revisited when all 18 stories of my mythology are completed.

    Great post!

    • TJ Huguenin says:

      While I’ve read the Silmarillion and I think Tolkien has a brilliant mind I feel he isn’t the greatest example of religion in fantasy. His religious creator is pretty much unmentioned in LOTR and the societies are based on a monarch rather than a religion. In many societies (for example but not limited to a number of arab societies) religion is the major impactor on all of the community. Nothing can function without it. It is completely valid to create a society that is completely driven by religion and if you do you will need to revisit the issue of religion constantly. Everyone’s fantasy world is different, nobody is wrong, but there are great stories in religion in fantasy, nothing will be missed by exploring that.

  4. Tim says:

    Hmmmmm I think ,even if a Fantasy book doesn’t have anything to do with religion, then it still deals with the core values of religion in a mediaval society. I’m probably going to rant and rave about this in a blog post (i’m not advertising).
    This will probably be mentioned in the next post, but another very important thing to include in Religious world building is the anti-religion people. Perhaps they’re just non believers, anarchists, or another religion that is in opposition to said religion.
    I think people should read some of the views of Karl Marx, Emilie Durkheim and Marx Weber. They’re pretty much both sides of the spectrum, with Weber being the laid back cool guy in the middle, on Religion:P
    This post has actually completly reminded me to include Religion in my short story. I’m suprised I haven’t already:S Its set in a war zone.

  5. xiagan says:

    An important point that you may address in your next article (your last sentence hints at it) is how religion shapes the normal people’s life. How it gives structure, reliability and safety. You mentioned rituals, but it is more than that. Holidays, habits, culture, …

  6. Great article, Amy, and good for you for being brave and tackling controversial subjects! Although it doesn’t look like you’re under attack in the slightest. ; )

    • Thanks, Ashley. There’s just always a risk with this subject, you know? But FF readers are a pretty tolerant lot, I’ve noticed. I just want to be REALLY careful not to be too biased… 🙂

  7. […] you missed Part One of this article you can read it by clicking here. If you missed Part Two of this article you can read it by clicking […]

  8. […] you missed Part One of this article you can read it by clicking here. If you missed Part Two of this article you can read it by clicking here. If you missed Part Three […]

  9. […] The true worth of this site to the fantasy writer, however, comes from the articles and the forum. Articles include more than the aforementioned discussions of subgenres, covering outlines, novellas, economics, alternative magic systems, and even poisons (http://fantasy-faction.com/2012/arsenic-and-old-leaves-the-art-of-poisoning-your-fantasy-characters-part-1). And what would secondary-world fantasy be without religion? But religion, even in fantasy, is a fraught topic (http://fantasy-faction.com/2012/creating-god-religion-in-fantasy-part-1). […]

  10. […] since the beginning) will probably remember the Creating God series of articles by Amy Rose Davis. Creating God is an excellent introduction to creating religions in your worldbuilding, and if you haven’t […]

  11. Steve Cook says:

    Thanks! This article is really useful as a resource for thinking about how to construct my own in-world religion.

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