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Creating God: Religion in Fantasy, part 2

If you missed Part One of this article you can read it by clicking here.

Religion in FantasyContinuing where I left off last week in my post about creating a new religion in fantasy, this week, I want to look at levels of involvement and belief in your world. First, I want to look at the societal considerations, and then I’ll narrow the focus down to the individual considerations.

Let me start by clarifying something I said last week. I mentioned that I don’t think every story has to have religion in it. What I mean is that you don’t have to write in an organized religion. However, I *do* think you have to realize that some kind of belief system is fairly central to the human experience. That belief system could take a lot of different forms. For instance, one could argue that in Orwell’s 1984, the government and political structure replaces organized religion as the central belief system. I think writing in something that qualifies as a belief system is fairly central to any work of speculative fiction. You just don’t have to call it a “religion.”

Also, let me give another disclaimer: I am not a philosopher. I’m writing this blog from a writer’s perspective, so if my “philosophy” or spectrums seem wonky, chalk it up to my lack of college philosophy courses.

With that, let’s look at your potential religion from a societal level. I’d say there’s something of a spectrum that ranges from a theocratic world, culture, government, or society where religion rules everything to a world that shuns religion entirely—at least on the surface. It’s important to remember that people living in an organized society have certain expectations and needs, and some of those are met by religion. If you don’t use religion to meet those expectations and needs, you have to find something else.

On a societal level, I think you need to start by asking what the overall role of religion is in your world. While the range is pretty wide, I’d break it down into four stopping points on the religion spectrum:

1)      Church = State. This extreme could be either good or bad, depending on what your ultimate purpose is in your story. Here in the U.S., we tend to think that church and state should never meet, but it’s entirely possible to write a benevolent church/state government. Not saying it could really exist, but the possibility is intriguing… And setting up a benevolent theocracy would provide lots of opportunity for conflict with those who might buck against the system, even if it’s a “good” system.

2)      Large, Active Religion. I’d say this is possibly the most common type of societal set-up that we see in the real world. A government of some sort exists alongside a very active religion or religions, and both must take the other into account in a sort of unspoken (or perhaps spoken) system of checks and balances.

3)      De Facto/Nominal Religion. In this kind of system, the religion is something everyone just “is,” whether or not the faith is practiced or believed on an individual level. I think that, to some degree, this system sort of bleeds over into both of the previous types, because in any system, there will be people who are rather unconcerned with religion at all. They may call themselves members of the faith, but have no real understanding of the central tenets of the faith. There’s just an idea that “everyone who lives here is Faith X, so I must be too.” This religion might be a fairly stagnant one as well—a faith that goes about its rituals and functions without really any growth or change.

4)      Dying Religion, Rising State. Not that these things have to go together, but I do think it’s an important marker on the spectrum, because it’s a phenomenon that exists in the real world. The state or government becomes more and more powerful, sees the religion as a threat or redundancy, and either actively suppresses it or lets it die on its own.

Really, I think there’s opportunity for a lot of good conflict anywhere on this societal spectrum. One thing that religion sometimes does is provide a moral and ethical code for behavior and law, and when that moral or ethical code comes in conflict with what the state wants, all kinds of challenging things can happen (either for good or for ill).

bird-god

So that’s the big picture. What about the individual pictures—the characters in your story? How do they fit into your religion? Again, the spectrum is very, very wide, but I’d say there are some fairly good markers along the way that provide good starting points for figuring out what your characters believe.

1)      The Active Unbeliever. The active unbeliever is a vocal opponent to the faith—perhaps an atheist who tries to convince through reason and science that there is no god, or perhaps a jaded former practitioner of the faith who has shunned it and now wants everyone else to do the same.

2)      The Skeptic. The skeptic could be agnostic—one who believes “truth” can’t be known—or a philosopher who’s seeking truth or someone who’s new to the religion and is asking genuine questions about its validity.

3)      The Uncaring Non-believer. This is the character who doesn’t care about the faith at all. He’s not actively trying to bring it down or build it up. He may call himself one of the members of the faith, but he doesn’t really practice it. He’s neutral. I’d also include under this label the Moral Non-believer—that is, the person who acts and looks like one of the faithful in a moral and ethical sense, but doesn’t share the beliefs of the faithful.

4)      The Faithful. This character is a genuine believer, faithful follower, and active practitioner of the religion. I tend to think of this character as the “thinking” believer—the one who believes and practices, but isn’t a zealot about it—the one who allows for other perspectives and faiths, but is open and willing to share when asked.

5)      The Zealot. The zealot is all in. Whatever the faith asks, the zealot will do. This person can be both the scariest and the most comforting person on the page, depending on your perspective.

Please keep in mind—these are just starting points! Creating a religion isn’t a recipe that I can put into a few blog posts. I’m just trying to condense some of the basics to make it easier for you to create your world.

Next week: The intersection of science, religion, and magic

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9 Comments

  1. Tumbletick says:

    Amy,

    Extremely interesting and cogent piece which demonstrates the depth of care a true author takes when creating their own world. Difficult for one individual to do so wonderful when the characters start getting involved and make it their own.

    Kind regards,

    Tumbletick

  2. TJ Huguenin says:

    I think it’s also important when creating fantasy religions to decide what in you religion is real, and what is not. In the real world we don’t know what is real, god may exist, or may not, what you believe won’t change that. In your own fantasy world you will know. But the people may not. Many fantasy worlds exist where all the poeple know exactly whats going on, and thats fine, but it isn’t necessary. You could have a benevolent all powerful god that nobody believes in. You could also have a world completely ruled by science, but everyone believes in a FALSE, multi-god, ancient greece style religion. As the author you have the power and don’t be afraid to experiment with these opportunities. I find (and this is just my own style) the most entertaining thing to do is have a mix, use real gods but have the religion misinterpret, exagerate and generally get wrong everything that the gods do.

    • TJ, I totally agree, and I actually plan to go down that road next week. In my own work, I know what’s real and what’s not, but the characters don’t know everything, and they constantly misinterpret stuff. Thanks for your comment!

    • I wouldn’t say it’s compulsory for the author to know exactly what’s real or not, although that might normally be the case. It’s possible just to have a de facto religion that people practice without any proof being involved one way or the other. I have a system where there are various gods and pantheons of different people who make conflicting claims, and even the gods don’t really understand how they fit into the overall picture.

  3. Geoffrey M says:

    This is a topic that’s of quite a bit of interest to me, so it’s nice to see someone else giving it the attention it deserves as a part of the worldbuilding process. Over on my website, I’ve been writing a series of posts that cover some of the same subjects as you have, along with some that you might get to in the future; you might find some ideas there if you’re planning on making this an extended series. (And I hope you are.)

  4. I have to say I enjoy these posts. They really do help keep my mind on the task, and not getting overly carried away. 🙂 Thank you!

  5. […] If 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. […]

  6. José says:

    Hello Amy! Very interesting article. May i ask for a piece of advice?

    For my story, I would like to create an animistic religion, but i’m a bit baseless about it. It doesnt have to be strictly animistic, i was thinking more in the lines of animistic monotheism, but i have some questions i couldn’t figure out for myself. Do the nature spirits have names? or is it just the concept? I couldn’t find any in african animism, while in Shinto there are several… but then, what is the difference between the Kami (Shinto’s nature spirits) and gods? Are there more advices you could give me?

    Thank you! (and sorry if my english isn’t very correct)

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