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Author Topic: Creating a Religion  (Read 6755 times)

Offline AshKB

Creating a Religion
« on: June 14, 2014, 02:59:49 AM »
This month's writing contest topic reminded me I never got around to posting this (and that I need to get back to work at worldbuilding...)

I was curious as to how you guys worldbuild the religions for your stories. Religion is obviously a highly important aspect of culture and characters within that culture - even the lack of it has implications. But when I went to look up articles and posts to help generate some ideas, I ended up not finding much that was actually helpful. A lot of posts on how to create pantheons - with the assumptions that  a) the world is polytheistic and b) that the gods are real/characters in their own right - and not a lot on how to think about creating a religion as an actual belief-system.

So! What do you guys do? How do you start? Do you think it's important to work out if the god or gods actually exist? Any books or posts to recommend to help generate thoughts and ideas, or novels that pull off a believably organic and complicated religious aspect?
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Offline Justan Henner

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Re: Creating a Religion
« Reply #1 on: June 14, 2014, 07:54:24 AM »
Hmm... This is usually the thought process I go through. Unfortunately it's one of those series of question posts...

I would start by determining what the religion offers to the story aside from background details. Are any of you're characters religious? Are any of them priests? How important is the religion to the respective characters? How about the society? Could the religion or religious institution be used as an important plot device? Is there a magic system in your book, and is the religion tied to it in some way?

From there, I would look at what you want the religion to say about the society you're creating. Is the society multicultural? Xenophobic? Are there multiple religions in the same culture? How powerful is the religion? How closely tied is the religion to the day to day of your society and its people? Is your society oppressive, accepting, etc. ? Has your religion helped to shape those characteristics, does it work to oppose them, or is it largely neutral?

Next, I would move onto the type of myths that religion might have. Are the famous figures of that faith based on real people? Are those people immortal (perhaps really gods), or are they just important people that lived a long time ago? How do those myths reflect on the type of society you've created? Do they clash with your society's values (perhaps the current faith comes from a foreign land)? Are those beliefs outdated or does the populace largely accept them?

Look at your myths again. Do they reflect the geological limitations/abundances of the nation? What resources does your nation have? Are they important enough to the culture that they might be revered as gifts from their god(s)?

I'm sure there are a lot more places to go to from there, but I've hit a wall. As for the other questions... I think the importance of gods is largely dependent on the culture you're trying to create. As you said, their existence or nonexistence says a lot about the culture, but the level of importance in the novel should depend on how important it is to the characters and/or the plot.

Malazan has a fairly believable religion, based on a pantheon dependent on the magic system.

Personally, I like the religion in Wheel of Time also, because the religion is so closely tied to the resultant organizations and to the magic. On one end there's the Whitecloaks, and on the other the Aes Sedai, both with fairly similar ideas of what the Creator teaches (as in their myths are pretty much universal between the two groups), but the two groups hate each other because of how those myths have been interpreted.

Another good place to start might be to determine what traits you want your culture to have, look for a culture in our world which shares some of those traits, and then research the myths of that culture and ask how the two might have grown together (As in, did the religion influence the culture, or did the culture influence the religion. Or possibly both.)
« Last Edit: June 14, 2014, 07:57:05 AM by Justan Henner »

Offline Nyki Blatchley

Re: Creating a Religion
« Reply #2 on: June 14, 2014, 06:51:44 PM »
A few general thoughts.  One things is that gods and religion aren't necessarily the same thing, especially if the gods are real people in your world. Religion doesn't even have to have gods - I have one character who belongs to an agnostic religion, more analagous to Buddhism. Whether any gods are real or pure fiction, religion is a human (or equivalent) institution that deals with managing a shared understanding of the world and our place in it through rituals, beliefs, meditation, prayer etc.  From a purely human point of view, the religion is exactly the same whether or not there's anyone on the other end of those prayers.

If you have a pantheon, try to avoid making it too neat and tidy.  We're used to highly rationalised versions of Greek, Norse and other pantheons, but those were mainly late versions created by poets.  In Greek mythology, Aphrodite was the goddess of love, but she also had affinities to the sea. Poseidon was god of the sea, but he also caused earthquakes.  Artemis was the virgin huntress, but also the goddess of childbirth.  Mostly, the pantheon assembles haphazardly, and functions are anything but clear cut.

Is your religion based on morals or taboos?  We tend to take for granted that religions are moralistic, but that's a relatively modern idea.  Classical Greek religion (the polytheistic religion we know most about, though not always as much as we think) was very much taboo based. Oedipus, for instance, was punished for committing crimes he had no way of knowing he was committing, not because it was "sinful", but because he'd broken taboos and was therefore automatically unclean.  Which you go for will affect a lot about your religion.

In my world, gods exist and often appear, but they tend to be fairly parochial.  I've left it as a conundrum which not even the gods really understand whether they created their worshippers or the worshippers created the gods - though they do rely for sustenance on being worshipped.

Offline Kim ten Tusscher

Re: Creating a Religion
« Reply #3 on: June 14, 2014, 08:48:41 PM »
Religion plays a big role in my trilogy and the story I'm now writing. But I'm not sure my answer will be very helpful.

I don't plan to much before writing, so when the story evolves, the religion evolves. Maybe that's a good thing, because I don't explain to much about the religion, but put rituals and stuff in in a natural way. Religion is everywhere in the lives of the people who are very religious, so I try to achieve that instead of describing big ceremonies.
For example: The main character in my latest story is afraid of the dark, because the devil is blind and lives in the dark. So somebody has to come every night and light candles in his room. I think this tells you more about a religion than praying a lot.

You might want to ask yourself how the world and mankind were created. I think that’s the most important aspect of any religion. Rituals, ceremonies and believes come from this beginning. When your story is a war-story you want to think more about the gods of war and rituals relating to winning the war. It depends on the needs of your characters, what aspect of the religion you’re need to highlight.
In the Lilith-trilogy, the world was created with water and will end with water. So many rituals, visions and dreams have something to do with water. The believers live very clean as a sign of respect to their God and the high priest who is also a wizard uses water-magic.

Or is this too obvious?
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Offline Saraband

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Re: Creating a Religion
« Reply #4 on: June 14, 2014, 10:11:48 PM »
I can only talk from my own experience.

In the world I conceived for my books, religion has an important role. For one, it is linked to humankind's own understanding of where magic comes from, and different religions either see magic as something beneficial or morally corrupt and, therefore, evil.

It also is an important tool for me to show my characters' different sensibilities in regards to similar situations. They can all see it in the same way, but come up with entirely different interpretations - of course, this can occur with people following the same religion, but different religions may justify these differences.

I opted to create systems very close to existing ones in our world, because it suited the tone of my story, and my intention of trying to be thought-provoking in regards to real-world questions. Of course, it is a field open to complete creativity, and I don't think there are any major restrictions, as long as it all blends together in the story and is believable - not the religion itself, but the fact that people are willing to believe it.

Don't know if this was helpful, but I doubt it  :P
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Offline AshKB

Re: Creating a Religion
« Reply #5 on: June 15, 2014, 10:49:57 AM »
Hmm... This is usually the thought process I go through. Unfortunately it's one of those series of question posts...

No 'unfortunately' about it! :D Question posts like this are amazingly helpful and thought-provoking, thank you!

A few general thoughts.  One things is that gods and religion aren't necessarily the same thing, especially if the gods are real people in your world. Religion doesn't even have to have gods - I have one character who belongs to an agnostic religion, more analagous to Buddhism. Whether any gods are real or pure fiction, religion is a human (or equivalent) institution that deals with managing a shared understanding of the world and our place in it through rituals, beliefs, meditation, prayer etc.  From a purely human point of view, the religion is exactly the same whether or not there's anyone on the other end of those prayers.

Exactly this, which is why so many of the articles were so frustrating. Leaving off the fact that I am deliberately aiming for ambiguity in my world as to if there really is a deity or not, the question of the actual religion as a thing of its ownself wasn't really addressed or pondered about. And your comments on taboo vs moralistic were really interesting, thank you!

But I'm not sure my answer will be very helpful... Religion is everywhere in the lives of the people who are very religious, so I try to achieve that instead of describing big ceremonies.

...Or is this too obvious?

Not too obvious at all, and as helpful as everyone else is being :-) That organic quality of a religion, and the everyday elements, are actually things I think fantasy as a whole fall down on a lot, so leaving off my post question, it's really great as a reader to hear that you're focused on it. And it's something I'm trying to aim for with my religious characters (one of whom is a POV character and co-protagonist; my other protagonist is atheist, but she'd notice/accept a lot of the background culture religion has.)

Don't know if this was helpful, but I doubt it  :P

Nah, it's helpful! I'm trying to avoid basing my religion on any one real world one, although I am looking at existing systems. It's a pretty good idea in general - and to bring it up for anyone lurking about reading, or who might stumble across this later. And YES, exactly, to your note about it being believable that people would believe in it. That's a good thing to remember (and something that honestly trips me up with a lot of 'evil gods' - I can't believe in it).


And for my own part, I did wind up finding an article/blog-post with some useful questions, too:  Worldbuilding: Components of a Religion http://whitneycarter.wordpress.com/2012/02/25/worldbuilding-components-of-a-religion/
The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted - Plutarch

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Offline AshKB

Re: Creating a Religion
« Reply #7 on: June 15, 2014, 12:06:49 PM »
I read those articles ages back, actually! While pretty useful as a series of broad overviews (and way more balanced than a lot of other articles), they weren't quite what I was after. Hence posting this ;)

But thanks for going and finding those links anyway :)
The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted - Plutarch

I not only use all the brains I have, but all that I can borrow - Woodrow Wilson

Offline Nyki Blatchley

Re: Creating a Religion
« Reply #8 on: June 15, 2014, 06:26:07 PM »
I did a blog article a while back on Fantasy and Religion, which gives my thoughts at more length, if this is useful to you.  Some of the comments are interesting.

http://nyki-blatchley.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/fantasy-and-religion.html

Offline jefGoelz

Re: Creating a Religion
« Reply #9 on: June 16, 2014, 12:15:17 AM »
I'm not sure what "creating a religion" means.  I think religions are all attempts at defining "a good life" and how to live it.  So there are shared values, based on that definition.  Then, there are the rituals and practices: prayer, sacrifices, blessing of food. . .  There might be laws that describe punishment for failure to obey those values and practices.  There might be a professional clergy (who are either hereditary positions, or have entered it like any profession), or the believers might be self-directed or have elected officials.  They might provide a wide range of typically governmental services (military, welfare, police). Of course, Church and Government could be one entity.

The "purpose" of the faithful might vary - - personal enlightenment and salvation, doing good works, or promoting the cause of the god.  The god might increase in power, depending on how many followers he has. The god might want his followers to fight against the followers of another god, or fulfill some scheme he has for the mortal world.  (I think that polytheistic cultures generally worshiped all gods to varying degrees, but there could be more conflict in your world).

The trick is how to figure out what to include and what not to include.  I like to follow Elmore Leonard's precept to leave out the boring parts. If I wrote a contemporary story, I'd seldom have to mention a character's religious practices, unless that was a source of conflict.

Offline Roxxsmom

Re: Creating a Religion
« Reply #10 on: June 17, 2014, 04:45:11 AM »
This sort of thing is fascinating, and I think it's attention to these sorts of things that can bring a world to life and make it real to the reader. Thanks for linking those older blogs.

One thing that comes up in fantasy a lot is the overarching concept of an evil religion or god, or people who are simply bad because of their religions or because they worship bad gods. This tends to bug me a bit, depending on the premise and how it's handled. I'm not an expert on comparative religion by any means, but it's my understanding that people tend to have reasons for believing the things that they believe and doing the things that they do, though the tradition can outlive the purpose (and of course, we get into that whole thing about whether the world's gods are real and active entities that insist on things that are in fact irrational to begin with). It can be hard, though, to present something we consider abhorrent (like human sacrifice) as a reasonable thing to do from the pov of the person doing it. It can also be hard to make taboos or rules that seem unfair or simply ludicrous by our standards seem reasonable in the context of a story.

Collective guilt is an especially tough one for me, because it runs so counter to what I and many other people in the modern world believe--namely that one can do what one likes so long as it doesn't directly hurt or hamper someone else. If it turns out to be against what the gods or God wants, then it's on that person's head alone. But there are still people who believe in collective guilt, and this viewpoint was much more common historically, which is why some people are so concerned about what others do even when it doesn't hurt anyone. But whatever the reason for its existence as a concept, it seems to me that collective guilt makes more sense as a concept for people living in small, close-knit communities where everyone sinks or swims together.

Yet there's that point where a point of view character can become so alien to the reader that they have trouble relating, or even find the person abhorrent. And of course, not all readers are the same there.

When it's done well it can make for a fascinating read.
« Last Edit: June 17, 2014, 05:05:43 AM by Roxxsmom »

Offline AshKB

Re: Creating a Religion
« Reply #11 on: June 19, 2014, 02:12:59 AM »
I did a blog article a while back on Fantasy and Religion, which gives my thoughts at more length, if this is useful to you.  Some of the comments are interesting.

http://nyki-blatchley.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/fantasy-and-religion.html

Ooh, thank you muchly! I'll go and have a look.

I'm not sure what "creating a religion" means.  I think religions are all attempts at defining "a good life" and how to live it. 

What it says on the tin! ;) Secondary fantasy world, am developing some religions and belief-systems for it, and trying to make them feel organic. But that note on 'good life' is a useful one, thank you.

The trick is how to figure out what to include and what not to include.  I like to follow Elmore Leonard's precept to leave out the boring parts. If I wrote a contemporary story, I'd seldom have to mention a character's religious practices, unless that was a source of conflict.

Mmmm, I'd disagree there. Perhaps this is just me speaking as an atheist, but if there's no mention of any religious practices or thought, I'd assume a character is atheist. A brief mention, it'd depend on the mention, but if I'm in a character's head and they are devout, I'd expect this to come up and be one of the ways in which the world is viewed. Particularly in the contemporary era, where being atheist and agnostic is increasingly wide spread.

One thing that comes up in fantasy a lot is the overarching concept of an evil religion or god, or people who are simply bad because of their religions or because they worship bad gods. This tends to bug me a bit, depending on the premise and how it's handled.

I really dislike evil gods and religions in fantasy; I used to accept it, but now it strikes me as being lazy and offensive. I'll roll with it in some of my old favourite books, but with new things, not so much. I can never believe in it. Believe that other people characterize things as evil? Yes. Believe in the people in themselves doing this enough to make an entire religion? Not so much.

And yes, exactly, to everything else you have written. Different acceptable practices, different definitions of honour, different taboos - all part and parcel of a different belief-structure and society, and yet, hard to pull off. Then again, no one ever promised us that writing SFF would be easy ;)
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Offline Kim ten Tusscher

Re: Creating a Religion
« Reply #12 on: June 19, 2014, 08:00:07 AM »
I'm not an expert on comparative religion by any means, but it's my understanding that people tend to have reasons for believing the things that they believe and doing the things that they do...

I don't think many people choose to believe. Your religion depends on where you were born and what your parents believe. I think that even in todays world not many people choose their religion. When you live in a small village near my hometown, you're likely to be catholic. Even if you doubt that religion, it's unlikely you'll choose to be a muslim.
So I think the reason for individuals for believing something are not always very well defined.

I totally agree on what you say about evil religions.
Fantasy is distant from the real world. Because that’s the only way to oversee reality.

Excerpts for Hydrhaga and Bound in Darkness at: http://kimtentusscher.com/duisteren.html

Offline jefGoelz

Re: Creating a Religion
« Reply #13 on: June 20, 2014, 05:07:50 AM »


The trick is how to figure out what to include and what not to include.  I like to follow Elmore Leonard's precept to leave out the boring parts. If I wrote a contemporary story, I'd seldom have to mention a character's religious practices, unless that was a source of conflict.

Mmmm, I'd disagree there. Perhaps this is just me speaking as an atheist, but if there's no mention of any religious practices or thought, I'd assume a character is atheist. A brief mention, it'd depend on the mention, but if I'm in a character's head and they are devout, I'd expect this to come up and be one of the ways in which the world is viewed. Particularly in the contemporary era, where being atheist and agnostic is increasingly wide spread.


You only need to describe characteristics that relate to the plot, to relationships that are important to the plot, or that are something that distinguishes the character from "typical".  If I'm writing a character from the U.S., I don't need to describe their religious life unless it differs considerably from the nominally Christian beliefs that predominate (and really, it should probably affect plot to some extent).  I don't need to show a character exercising, unless that has some impact on plot, or if they do it to extreme.  I don't need to show a teenaged boy masturbating, if it happens away from plot points and he's not obsessive about it.  We can assume a teenaged boy masturbates, and we can assume a character exhibits normal behavior regarding religion - - unless he doesn't. The reader doesn't need to know every bloody thing about the character.

Offline Roxxsmom

Re: Creating a Religion
« Reply #14 on: June 20, 2014, 10:09:15 AM »
I'm not an expert on comparative religion by any means, but it's my understanding that people tend to have reasons for believing the things that they believe and doing the things that they do...

I don't think many people choose to believe. Your religion depends on where you were born and what your parents believe.

I think this is definitely true in many pre-industrial societies, and in religiously homogeneous societies in general, but maybe not so much in a heterogeneous society like the modern US. I know lots of people who are different religions from their family of origin, including people who have chosen to become religious when their families aren't and vice versa. Though there's the question whether a converted to belief is truly chosen or not. Often people say it chooses them, or at least it feels that way.

But I think you're right that most people in a typical pre-industrial fantasy society would follow the beliefs that are most common in their culture, unless it's very diverse and pluralistic, or it's a time of cultural change or upheaval. Of course, fantasy stories often take place during times of change or upheaval, so...  :D



The trick is how to figure out what to include and what not to include.  I like to follow Elmore Leonard's precept to leave out the boring parts. If I wrote a contemporary story, I'd seldom have to mention a character's religious practices, unless that was a source of conflict.

Mmmm, I'd disagree there. Perhaps this is just me speaking as an atheist, but if there's no mention of any religious practices or thought, I'd assume a character is atheist. A brief mention, it'd depend on the mention, but if I'm in a character's head and they are devout, I'd expect this to come up and be one of the ways in which the world is viewed. Particularly in the contemporary era, where being atheist and agnostic is increasingly wide spread.


You only need to describe characteristics that relate to the plot, to relationships that are important to the plot, or that are something that distinguishes the character from "typical".  If I'm writing a character from the U.S., I don't need to describe their religious life unless it differs considerably from the nominally Christian beliefs that predominate (and really, it should probably affect plot to some extent).  I don't need to show a character exercising, unless that has some impact on plot, or if they do it to extreme.  I don't need to show a teenaged boy masturbating, if it happens away from plot points and he's not obsessive about it.  We can assume a teenaged boy masturbates, and we can assume a character exhibits normal behavior regarding religion - - unless he doesn't. The reader doesn't need to know every bloody thing about the character.

I'm not sure I understand what you're trying to say here. A lot of the time dialog, reflection or other plot advancing things happen when a character's doing something ordinary, yes, maybe even taking a whiz. And I think religious beliefs (or the lack thereof) can be important. If a character is having a problem with something plot or character development relevant, and she goes and discusses it with her clergyperson, that says something different about her than if she mulls it over on her own, prays on or over it, consults her astrologer, or goes he her therapist, or talks to her best friend, or simply pushes it out of her mind until she can't ignore it anymore. Stories aren't just about delineating the plot--they're about immersing your reader in a character whose actions make sense to them, or at least evoke strong emotions.

And I think these little details are doubly important in a secondary world fantasy setting where there isn't any kind of baseline assumption about the world or its beliefs. The point of setting a story in a made-up culture in some other time and place is to immerse the reader in a different world where things are different but feel like they have a life of their own. The secret lies in telling the reader enough to get them to fill in the blanks themselves, I think.
« Last Edit: June 20, 2014, 10:24:22 AM by Roxxsmom »