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Worldbuilding A Religion – Part Two: How Religion Shapes Culture

Priest Holy by GimaldinovIn Worldbuilding A Religion – Part One, we went over the basic differences between religions and cults, and some of the ways they can enrich your worlds and stories. Cults do not affect culture and society in quite the same way because they often rely on the isolation of their followers, and obviously if you’re isolated from society, you can’t do much to affect it. Religion, however, often thrives in society and becomes a part of prevalent culture. But before we get into the nitty-gritty, here are the definitions I’m using for this post (courtesy of Dictionary.com):

Culture
The behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.

Society
An organized group of persons associated together for religious, benevolent, cultural, scientific, political, patriotic, or other purposes.

You can certainly write a story where culture and religion never meet, but you’re going to put a lot of effort into making your characters believable. Individual people (or even groups of people) with no religion – whether they are atheist, or they simply don’t like labels – are one thing. An entire society where there is no religion present at all? If you can pull that off in a story believably, you have my greatest admiration.

People like to be around other people who believe the same things they do – and your characters need to be similar enough to real people that your readers will be able to connect with them.

Creating Religion and Culture

Knight Prayer (Plegaria del Caballero) by La MoraThese two things do not have to be complicated – especially at the beginning of your worldbuilding. You don’t have to know everything right away. Just start asking questions about your characters. Ask what they do, and why they do it, especially in regards to their morals, ethics, and superstitions. Most of the time it will trace back to their exposure to their culture.

In the beginning stages, it’s okay to work off basic themes. You want a religion that focuses on the sacredness of nature? Start there! Just write that down. Then look at the environment you’ve given your characters to work with, and start asking why.

If nature is sacred, can they build with wood? Why or why not? If they end up being limited to only naturally occurring caves as sources of shelter, life is going to be complicated. But not impossible. There will likely be rituals in place for coaxing the weather to do what they need. If they can work magic, they will likely be able to ‘coax’ many things into doing what they need.

How Religion Can Shape Culture

Little Buddha by rikeleeThe dominate religions will affect a culture as it is developing. Think of little things – such as when we often say ‘Bless you!’ after someone sneezes. Or why many people who aren’t Catholic are still familiar with the Sign of the Cross. There are many more examples, but those are two predominant ones I’ve witnessed.

Think of a few different types of ways a religion affects culture, and vice versa, within your world. Some religions dictate a manner of dress, or a specific lifestyle, or both. It’s instinctual for people to take those things and make them personal, a way to bring a community together and also to stand apart from other communities.

A hunting society may have a ritual to express gratitude for the animals they kill for food. There may be times (whether it is a specific time of day, or a specific day of the week, month, or year) set aside for religious obligations, whether it is a time of memorial, or a time of worship. Are there rituals or sacrifices? How can someone make a profit off of the religious practices of the people around them? Do they sell idols, or premium goods for sacrifices?

Keep It Simple, Even If It’s Complicated

M'Weru by henningMost of your characters are not going to know the entire history of their religion and/or culture. There are going to be many things that they do simply because that’s what they’ve been taught to do – like saying ‘Bless you!’ when someone sneezes. The more complicated the rules of a religion are (these are the rules you establish in your worldbuilding), the more oppressed your characters will seem to be – even if that isn’t what you intended. There can be a lot of rules if you want, but you don’t have to share all of them with your readers. Don’t overburden your characters too many odd rituals, rules, and greetings. It will become annoying to read. Put enough in to get the setting and atmosphere across, but there’s no need to drown the story.

Title image by thegryph.

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Worldbuilding A Religion - Part Two: How Religion Shapes Culture, 8.8 out of 10 based on 13 ratings
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5 Comments

  1. […] Part Two, we learned how religion can affect society and culture as a whole. But you can’t have either of […]

  2. Elise says:

    I was wondering if you could possibly write an article about creating and writing a realistic “rebel group/army”? Your writing has helped me greatly already and I would find it extremely beneficial if someone could help clarify the important points to focus on when creating a rogue yet sophisticated group within a kingdom or the like. If you have already written something like this please let me know, and you have my apologies for wasting your time, but I have been looking on this site and I have not found anything so far. Thanks!

  3. Emily says:

    I know this is kind of late, but I think the essence of culture is a kind of ‘groupthink’ in how people understand the world and interact with it. Forms of art are just expressions of how people think.

    A person’s belief system, or religion, governs the large part of how they understand the world and (sometimes) how they interact with it. Of course, greed gets the better of people in many circumstances.

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