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Worldbuilding A Religion – Part One: Religion vs. Cult

Euphrates Disaster by Thitipon DicruenThose of you who have followed Fantasy-Faction for a couple of years (or pretty much 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 delved into worldbuilding before, particularly worldbuilding a religion, you should go read it now. It will be a good foundation for this series.

However, as a somewhat experienced worldbuilder, I was hoping for something a bit more in-depth when I followed along with those posts. (I say ‘somewhat experienced’ because I only realized a few years ago exactly what my sister and I were doing when we created all those imaginary worlds when we were children. I also started worldbuilding as a hobby the summer after I graduated high school. It’s addicting.)

This series will focus more on the how of worldbuilding a religion, and helping you know what to look for and what to draw from in other parts of your worldbuilding to create a religion (or religions) that feels organic in the world you’ve designed.

Feel free to ask questions as the series progresses, whether it’s a question about something I’ve said, or something you’re having a difficult time with in your worldbuilding. I will do my best to be helpful!

Your Authority as Author/Creator

Soul Ascending by SuiatsuLet’s establish this first: your story and world are yours. You are creating it, and you have the final say in what is acceptable in your world. You do not have to apologize for things being a certain way. You do, however, have to remain consistent in what you establish, or your readers are going to get very frustrated. “I don’t know,” is not an excuse. If you’re writing fantasy, you don’t get the option of not knowing.

The only difference between writing this genre and writing a real-world-based genre is that you have to make it all up. This can either be very freeing or very frustrating, depending on your desires. But you must prepare for the inevitable questions you will get. They will be questions about your world, about your story, and about how and why you decided things. Hopefully many of these questions will come from an agent, editor, or publisher interested in your work, and they don’t like I don’t know. If you do publish one day – whether through traditional or self-publishing avenues – you will get questions from readers.

The Dream Weaver by DreoilinMost of all, though, you must be able to answer your own questions about your story, particularly in instances of religion. The belief in or lack of religion is deeply personal, and if religion plays any role in your story or with any of your characters, whether it is a defined part of the plot or not, you must know why your characters make the choices they do.

There is a comforting certainty in writing fantasy that you don’t get in real life – you, the author, are the ultimate decider of what is truth, and what is not. You can also, with consideration, decide to leave a question like this up in the air. It’s always a bit fun to be able to answer the question, “Well, which character is right?” with “You’ll just have to decide that on your own.”

Is ‘the divine’ truth, myth, or both?

Depending on the purpose religion serves in your world and story, you may not have to answer this question. However, you should consider that after a certain amount of time passes, any truth will eventually be perceived as myth simply because of how long it has been since the event, and because of the lack of living eyewitnesses.

Now, if you have immortal creatures that becomes a whole other situation. But even so, if not everyone is immortal, the part of the population who is mortal will begin to doubt what the immortal ones have to say, because why should they be trusted?

Cults vs. Religion

There is a difference between the two, and each serves their purpose in worldbuilding and in fiction in general. But sometimes it’s easy to confuse them, and sometimes you want the two to merge. Here’s what you need to know:

Characteristics of a Cult

A cult often develops around a charismatic leader (who may or may not claim to be divine). This leader is usually the recipient of a ‘new revelation’, but this revelation can only be shared with their followers, and they make a point of excluding others, especially publically.

Face of blue by meddersThe leader is stylized as perfect and infallible: they can do no wrong, even when their actions contradict the standard morals and laws of a society, or the tenets of the religion they are supposedly endorsing. Anyone who questions the actions of the leader is severely punished and/or excommunicated. Blind obedience and loyalty is demanded. Oftentimes, converts are required to leave their family, friends, and commitments so they can devote all of their time to the cult.

Individuality is not allowed. Everything is for the good of the ‘community’, or for the good of the leader. Followers are allowed very few/no personal belongings or income, and anything they do have is often confiscated by the cult. Gender roles are often exaggerated and strictly adhered to.

Anyone outside the community, especially those who express any sort of disagreement or concern for a particular member of the cult, is suspect. Outsiders cannot be trusted, and interaction with them is to be kept to a minimum. If emotional ties between a cultist and an outsider are discovered, an ultimatum is usually issued. Compassion is considered a weakness, whether it is direct at outsiders or fellow members.

There is a system of reward and punishment in place, and it is usually biased in favor of those in power or those who have been in the community longer. Private grievances are usually aired publicly under the guise of honesty and submission to authority, especially when established members have problems with newer converts.

Characteristics of a Religion

Notre Dame by JuhupaintingA religion will usually develop around some sort of revelation or unexplained phenomena. While a revelation might only be revealed to followers, it is usually not done so with exclusivity of a cult. Instead of the revelation’s existence being announced to the public at large, and then followed with the caveat of, “Oh, but you have to join us to find out what it is,” the revelation is delivered in public (to be either shunned or accepted, depending on the people and society), or delivered in private to an assembled group of followers.

The leaders of a religion usually represent a higher power, rather than representing only themselves. They may claim to be an incarnate version of a deity (you can decide whether or not they actually are what they claim), or a prophet, but the defining difference between a cult leader and a person of authority within a religion is how they treat questions and doubt from their followers. Normally, within religion, questions and doubt are treated with care and thoughtful answers, rather than punishment.

Joan of Arc by Donato GiancolaObedience and loyalty are expected, especially of devout followers. But most times it is not expected that one follows every tenet without question. Followers are also more likely to be encouraged to spend time with their families, and to share the faith with those outside of it, rather than locking themselves away with only like-minded people.

Individuality is embraced, each person being recognized for their unique talents that can benefit the community. The religion more often exists for the good of the populace (both believers and unbelievers) than the good of a chosen few. There may be codes and tenets for those who are a part of the faith, but mistakes are expected more than perfectionism.

Those who don’t believe are considered just that – unbelievers. They are not necessarily to be trusted in matters of religion, but that does not diminish their value or function as a person or in society. There may be a system of reward and punishment, but it is not exercised for the sole purpose of controlling the community. It is in place to help followers gain control of their lives and impulses, not to discourage them.

When Cult and Religion Converge

Cults can, and do, turn into established religions. The opposite is true as well. How it is handled in your world depends on if there is an absolute truth, if there is an absolute divine being (or beings), and if the divine interferes with your people.

Time to pray by neisbeisWithin the fantasy genre, it is very rare for there to not be any supernatural or magical forces, whether those forces are sentient or not. Whether they are truly gods, or whether they are something entirely different, depends on what you (the author) decide.

There are different levels of obedience and loyalty. Depending on the position the follower holds within an established religious system, what is expected will vary. Questions and doubt should never be shunned, but it is more reasonable to expect unquestioning obedience from a high priest/priestess than from the newest convert. In some cases, the obedience and loyalty of someone holding higher rank might seem cult-like. The defining factor is in what is expected of those not in authority.

Recognizing individuality while simultaneously teaching someone to be selfless seems like an oxymoron. Selflessness should never extend to the point where Person A expects Person B to be selfless (according to A’s definition of selflessness) for the sole benefit of A. A follower may not want to be selfless and still choose to do so anyway. But it is not the same if someone makes them feel they have no other choice. That is coercion, not devotion. Both of these situations can exist within established religion.

Isis by DavidGiraudThere is a certain amount of exclusivity in both religion and cultism. There wouldn’t be a draw to religion if they didn’t have something to offer that non-religious belief doesn’t. But if societies in your world are anything like our societies (you know, full of fallible, selfish creatures), then this is going to cause some issues. Maybe even some wars. Okay, probably some wars.

Matters will not be simply black and white. There will always be doubters, and those who decry the entire system of religion because they don’t like being told they can’t have something, and there will always be zealots (on both sides) who take things just a little too far. But conflict is the heart of a story, no?

Reward and punishment within a religion is always tricky. It completely depends on the religion and the purpose of it. Sometimes punishment may involve public humiliation and submission. And sometimes there is no reward.

A simple rule to keep in mind when it comes to cults and religions is this: If there is religion, there will be a cult that has branched off from it at some point. But not all cults are based in religion.

To Sum It All Up…

You decide everything, but the story will flow better and the worldbuilding will be more believable if you set up some guidelines and build from there. Religion (and cults) can add a depth and richness to a story, and to the lives of the characters within it. It can also complicate things. Don’t be afraid to use either of these facts to your advantage in the story.

Questions to Consider as You Begin Building:

– Is your religion based on truth or myth, or a combination of both?
– Who began it – a divine entity, or a person seeking something?
– What is the purpose of the religion? Is it there to help people co-exist better, or to spread a divine truth?
– If you had one rule to concisely portray the purpose of your religion (think something like the Golden Rule), what would it be?
– What does the religion offer its followers to draw them in?

Title image by Juhupainting.

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10 Comments

  1. Lots of good thoughts in this, definitely. Some strong structural planning advice which should be really useful for writers. Readers do come up with lots of questions as well, it’s true. On the topic, it’s not really a fantasy book, but Whit by Iain Banks has a really interesting take on cult dynamics. Really humanises it all and gets away from cliches.

  2. […] Worldbuilding A Religion – Part One: Religion vs. Cult | Fantasy Faction. […]

  3. AJ Zaethe says:

    This article brings some fresh perspectives to consider for religion construction. The author does a good job with solid descritions of both cult and religion. However, the description of a cult is limited and could have been expanded upon to move beyond the typical single leader cult that is exclusive and go into hidden cults that work underground. And other forms beyond that. For the next article I would advise to stay away from discussion about the author being the one to make decisions for their world and story, that is already understood. And keep the article focused away from trying to prove one’s credentials, own your words and don’t hesitate.

    • Thanks for your thoughts! The next article will essentially pick up where this one left off, though I’m not going into cults any further. These articles are not the know-all, be-all to worldbuilding a religion (or a cult), rather a place for an author to start and then continue to build on their own.

  4. bainespal says:

    Is your religion based on truth or myth, or a combination of both?

    That doesn’t seem like a useful question, given that fantasy worldbuilding is pretty much entirely myth-making.

    I suppose you’re trying to ask — in the context of the secondary world, is the religion actually true, or is it only a collection of legends that were made up or exaggerated? However, that isn’t fair to the concept of True Myth — myth as a vehicle of truth — Tolkien’s philosophy of sub-creation.

    Also, fantasy religions don’t have to be either “true” or untrue. They can contain a mixture of truth and ignorance,.They can be based on different interpretations of the spiritual reality of the secondary world.

    A good question consider for a fantasy world is whether all the religions originated from one tradition, or whether there are multiple religious traditions. Having multiple religions and eventually exploring their relationships to each other and to the metaphysics of the secondary world is probably something that only Brandon Sanderson can do.

    • Yes, that question is meant in the context of the secondary world.

      I’m not sure how it wouldn’t be fair to True Myth. Legends are rarely just ‘made up’, and are usually only exaggerated over time. A legend can be true, it’s any accounting of a feat of extraordinary strength and/or courage. How it’s told will change, again, over time. Even the outcome may change, depending on how the legend is remembered. But it will still have something of the original story in it. Which, according to the reading I’ve done both of Tolkien’s own work, and people who have studied him, is how True Myth works. Some of Truth will always be present in a story. One just has to look for it.

      And I would disagree that Brandon Sanderson is the only author who could ever accomplish exploring multiple religions and their intricacies – rather, that he is the only author who has been able to market it to extreme success.

  5. […] Worldbuilding A Religion – Part One, we went over the basic differences between religions and cults, and some of the ways they can […]

  6. Seth says:

    Could a real religion be used. Like Christianity. Would that be appealing to readers?

  7. […] Worldbuilding A Religion – Part One: Religion vs. Cult | Fantasy Faction. […]

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