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Creating God: Religion in Fantasy, part 3

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.

Religion in FantasyLast week, I briefly discussed the religious belief spectrums of both society and the individual. I realize that some of my advice isn’t really advice so much as analysis, but it’s pretty tricky to tell people how to create a world and/or a religion in a very general way like this. I do think this level of advice or analysis (or something in-between) is helpful for looking at our own work and seeing what kinds of things we can start, stop, or continue when it comes to creating a new world. In any event, I’ll stick with the analysis-like advice for the moment and try to wrap things up at the end with a bit of more specific advice.

This week, I want to look at the role of religion as compared to the other two big tools we have as writers of speculative fiction: science and magic. Before you all remind me that the name of this site is FANTASY Faction, not SpecFic Faction or Science Fiction Faction, let me just say that I think science is present in a lot, if not most, fantasy works once you analyze the work a bit. Once you categorize science, magic, and faith in a fantasy story, you start to see where they intersect.

Let’s first define science, magic, and religion with good ol’

Science: Systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.

Magic: The art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature.

Religion: A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

When you look at all three definitions, you see some overlap concerning the material/physical world. Science tries to explain it or know it. Magic tries to control it. Religion tries to find the purpose in it. These three things are not exclusive—a scientist can be a person of deep religious convictions, and a religious person might see things that are inexplicable and chalk them up to magic, supernatural forces, or even some unknown scientific explanation.

Of course, the overlap is different for every character, every world, and every system, but you could almost create a Venn Diagram for your world out with these three aspects of the world. For instance, in the world I created for Ravenmarked, I’d have fairly large overlap between magic and religion with science only skirting the edge of both. An author who writes urban fantasy or perhaps has several characters who are of a scientific bent might have a more balanced diagram, or there might be heavy overlap between science and religion with a smattering of magic.


Here’s where your world-building can benefit from understanding how these three aspects of the world collide:

  • You will figure out what’s real and what isn’t within the world. This is probably the most important thing for you to do as an author. As the creator of the world, it’s absolutely crucial that you know what’s real, what’s myth, what’s superstition, etc. within the world you’ve created. Categorizing specific pieces of your world as magic, science, or religion will help you get a handle on the world-specific reality.
  • You will figure out what your characters believe. I would say this is the second most critical aspect of creating a world religion-magic-science system. I think it’s more important to figure out what the individual characters believe and know than to figure out what the society knows as a whole. To a very large degree, what your characters know and believe will influence the choices they make on the page, so defining those things up front will help you make the characters behave consistently and believably.
  • You can define for yourself where each aspect ends and another begins and how big the overlap will be. I keep thinking of the mages in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire—you know, the ones who created the wildfire in A Clash of Kings. Those mages are the perfect example of the blurry line between science and magic. The wildfire was a created thing, something those men made from ingredients found in the natural world, but it acted almost magical and seemed to have some magical properties. In addition, it was perceived as something magical by the common people—an excellent case of science appearing to be magic.
  • You can establish how the societies in your story respond when one or two opposing aspects interfere with the predominant aspect of the societal system. Okay, that was convoluted. What I mean is… If you establish a society that functions primarily on rational, scientific thought—an Enlightenment kind of world—what will happen when that society is presented with a new or resurgent religion? Knowing how and where the lines blur will help make your world more realistic. Think about any disaster movie—when the asteroid is closing in and destruction is imminent, people turn to science to fix the problem or religion to hedge their bets for the afterlife. In fantasy, you can throw magic into the mix—when your society’s religion is threatened by magic, will science save the day? Or when magic is threatened by science, maybe religion saves the day.


Next week: The role of authorial worldview




  1. Oh those three; science, magic, and religion, do have a habit of overlapping in books, or at least two of the three at a time. Thanks for the view to think on.

  2. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Frankly I wouldn’t mind if the site started including more SF or speculative fiction related items. We already have steampunk and semi-fantasy reviews. No need to change the name or anything, but I don’t think anyone will complain about having too much content 🙂 fun article thanks!

  3. Avatar Warren says:

    The first novel I wrote, and am still working through, dealt w/ a lot of spiritual themes. In many ways, it was the linchpin and yet the most challenging aspect at keeping consistent, not just for the primary characters but the secondary ones as well.

    I’m trying to think of books that I’ve read (fantasy) that used religion as a primary source of conflict or definition for characters. I remember some vague religious notions in several books, but they didn’t focus much beyond obviously superficial answers. I don’t remember anything about it in ASoF&I and not really the Shannara books I read (though, admittedly, I didn’t read them all). I wonder what some of the best books were that touched on this aspect of their world?

  4. Avatar Bill Wolfe says:

    This is an excellent series, very thought provoking. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

  5. One of my big concerns when writing religions is making a clear distinction between faith and religion. Everyone has a faith, not everyone has a religion.

  6. Avatar Geoffrey M says:

    One of the tricky parts of dealing with magic and religion is that definitions of magic like the one you presented are often based on implicitly religious assumptions. There’s a recentish book (Making Magic, by Randall Styers) that goes through modern scholarship on magic to argue that it’s more often defined by what it isn’t (not religious, not rational, not moral) than by what it is; and some older work traces the definitions back to early Protestant polemics against Catholicism, which generally implied that Catholic pratices were magical rather than properly religious.

    If you’re curious, I’ve got a longer explanation here:

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

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