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How to Build your World: Religion

Yes, it’s time for another World Builder article.  Today’s post is all about Religion in your world.

If you missed any of my earlier World Builder articles you can find them here – World Builder series.

Disclaimer: Okay since I’m discussing religions, one of those topics they say never to discuss, I just want to add that nothing I right here is done so to offend.  This article is just about creating religions in fantasy worlds.

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Why is Religion Important?

If you ask people what religion is, many will state that it’s a “belief system.”  However, religion is not simply the concept of a deity/deities and the worship/belief of them.

Religion has wide-reaching implications, it can affect laws, define cultures, create traditions etc.  For example, religion affects how people treat others, how they deal with their dead, what foods should and should not be consumed to name just a few.

Taking our own world as an example, there are dozens upon dozens of religions, spanning across the world.

Religion is often taken with people, so when people emigrated, colonised, or were forcefully taken from one country to another, their religious beliefs and doctrines went with them.

Over time many religions have changed, been interpreted differently, morphed with others to become something new or became offshoots etc.

Religion has continued for thousands of years, it may change but it persists to this day.  So if you are creating a world with sentient beings, there will likely be a place for including religion and its effects.

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Types of Religion

Most religions in our world can be categories in the following ways.  I am using more simplified definitions and many of these may be somewhat more complex.

Monotheism

The belief in a singular creator deity.

Dualism

The belief in two deities of equal or almost equal power.  These deities could be simply two beings such as a male and a female god or even a good and an evil god.

Polytheism

The belief in multiple deities.

Deism

The belief in a single creator deity but who is not personal and doesn’t have human emotions or interaction with the world.

Atheism

The lack of belief in a deity/deities.*

Please note, some religions are considered Atheist.  Religion does not automatically mean belief in some form of god.   For example, Buddhism is considered a religion but would be a type of atheism as Buddhists do not believe in a god.  

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The above gives you some thought on how you can start to create religions within your world.  Remember, I said “religions”.  It would be highly unlikely for there to just be a singular religion.  There may be a dominate one.

If you have multiple races/cultures in your world – which should be likely – then you have to accept that people will have different belief systems.

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Why should you consider adding Religion?

As I mentioned earlier, religion can affect things beyond an individual.

Most religions have some form of laws or rules that have been passed down.  Some of these may have been changed or discarded over time, for whatever reason.

As an example, there is the “King James Bible”.  Called this because King James I made changes to the Bible.  I believe he was one of three Monarchs to do so.  So even holy texts and laws can be/have been changed.

Religion lays down foundations of how to treat others, what is (according to the religion) a sin or a virtue, what is illegal and what isn’t.  It can be used to define punishments, marital requirements, hierarchies etc.

Religion is not simply what’s right and what’s wrong.  Often religions can even conflict with laws of the land.

When you start to include religions in your world, you add a level of complexity that adds a wonderful flavour to the story.

Even if it is just added as a backdrop and that the main characters or plot don’t require it, having some details of religion, whether it’s special festivals, rituals for the dead, laws or dress codes or symbols… it all adds depth to your world.

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Building your Novel’s Religions

First, spend some time reading about different religions.  Especially if you have never done so or rarely do so.

Expose yourself to the different cultures and beliefs behind the many religions.  Especially read up on ones that are very different from each other.

So if you know more about monotheistic religions, take some time to study polytheist religions or dualist religions.

Make sure you read reputable sources and not other religions’ take on their fellow religions as these can often be often biased and incorrect.

This Wiki page will give you details on different religions.  It’s a great place to start as there are bound to be some religions you haven’t heard of.

Definitely check out some of the oldest religions such as:

  • Buddhism
  • Hinduism
  • Shintoism
  • Zoroastrianism
  • Judaism
  • Jainism
  • Confucianism
  • Taoism

Things to consider

Okay, now let’s get down to creating your religions.  A quick point, you don’t need to go crazy and create dozens of religions, though I do recommend at least two, even if they are only referred to.

Name

You may want to name your religions and their followers.  You don’t have to come up with this immediately, but it’s something you will need to think about.

It might be best to create the details of your religions first and then see if a name fits after you have everything created.

Deities

Decide if your religion is theistic and if so, start to create the deity/deities that your religions believe in.

  • Are there deities and if so, how many?
  • What are their names?
    • Do they have more than one?
    • Do people know them by different names?
  • What are their genders?
  • What do they look like?
    • Are their depictions of them?
    • Are they accurate or merely artistic renditions?
    • Are they merely symbols rather than “beings”?
  • What are the legends that surround them?
    • Do the legends change depending on the people?
    • What is their “origin” story?
  • Are there symbols, sayings or locations that are sacred to them?
    • Sacred temples or places connected to them
    • Specific prayers or blessings
    • Symbols carved into stone or worn in jewellery
  • How are they worshipped?
    • Prayers
    • Offering
    • Sacrifices

These are just a few things to consider when creating your deities.

Holy Texts

  • Do your religions have holy texts or scriptures or are things passed via word of mouth?
  • Do you have prophets or oracles that are the conduit to your deities?
    • Do they write down decrees and communications from them?
  • Are there books or scrolls or tablets from ancient times?
    • Are they in an ancient language and translated?
    • Or are only a few chosen people taught the language and are allowed to read the text?
  • What does the text include?
    • Laws
    • Origins
    • Stories
    • Teachings

Rules / Laws

Most religions have some form of laws, these can include ones for individuals to communities to marital laws to laws of the land.

Decide if there are any specific laws or rules your religion will have.

  • How do they affect different people?
  • Do they negatively or positivity affect certain people?
  • Do they limit or grant rights?
  • Do they protect the vulnerable?
  • Are any in conflict with the laws of the land or societal changes?
    • Or is the religious law, the law of the land?
  • Have the laws been changed to help or harm others?

Rituals

Religions can often have rituals for specific things such as marriages, funerals etc.

Are there any specific rituals that take place?  A few things to consider that may be ritualistically in your religions:

  • Marriages
  • Births
  • Preparing the dead
  • Funerals
  • Holy festivals
  • Coming of Age
  • Birthdays
  • Separations
  • Entering the religious hierarchy
  • Ascending the throne (or another level of power/rule/governance)

Decide if any of the above, or any other type of ritual may occur and write out the steps or requirements for those rituals. Decide if there will be differences for things like age or gender.

Festivals / Celebrations

Most religions usually have some special days that are marked.  Consider making a quick list of the days that your religions consider sacred, special or celebratory.

Think about what other religions celebrate, special dates connected to their deities, days special to the changing seasons, feasts, anniversaries etc.

You don’t need to create lots of them, but have a few and include their dates for your notes.  Whether it’s a specific date like Christmas is, or isn’t something more malleable like “third full moon of the year”.

Include any details or requirements that are observed on these special days.

After Life

There are two things most religions have, an origin of creation and a concept of what happens after death.

  • Do your religions have Afterlives and if so, what awaits those who pass over?
  • Is there more than one location in the Afterlife?
  • Do different people go to different ones?
  • Do different species go to different ones?
  • What do people in the religion believe these places are like?
  • Does something affect you reaching the Afterlife?

Hierarchy

If you have official religions in your world, then you may want to decide if there is a hierarchy within the religions and what they are.

  • Who is the head of the religion? (we are talking earthly now, not the deities)
  • Who reports to that person?
  • Are their local religious figures?
  • What level of power or control any do they hold in their communities?
  • What are the duties of each person within the hierarchy?
  • Is anyone disqualified from being within the religious hierarchy for whatever reason?
  • Are there any concessions given to those in the hierarchy?
  • Are there any limitations or sacrifices that those in the hierarchy must live by/give up?
  • Are people called to the religions’ hierarchy or are they chosen to serve by someone already within the religion?

Buildings 

Are there special buildings or structures that are specific to the religions, for example, churches, temples, shrines, altars or the like?

  • What do they look like?
  • Who tends them?
  • Who can use them?
  • What are they for?
    • Are some for specific rituals/preparations only?
  • Are they sanctuaries protected beyond the law?
  • Do they have their own laws connected to them?

Clothing

  • Do your religions have any specific clothing requirements?  Including for any special occasions or ceremonies?
  • Who wears these outfits?
  • What is the purpose?
  • Are there different ones for different requirements?
  • Are they cleaned/stored differently to normal clothing?
  • Or instead, are there ceremonies when clothing is removed?

Something to think about

Religions are often drawn through the ages and as such their teachings could become obsolete or in conflict with societal changes.

This can also mean that people’s opinions and thoughts on religions can change.  As I mentioned earlier, people interpret religious teachings differently sometimes creating offshoot religions from a root.

How people are raised, their personal experiences and what information they are given access to can shape their thoughts on religious tenets.

Put five people from one religion in a room and they will likely have very different thoughts on some of the teachings, texts or theories about that religion.

So don’t make all your characters think and believe the exact same thing in the same way when it comes to religions.

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Effects from Religions

If we take our world as an example, different religions around the world have huge effects on people.

Let’s take some negatives…

Now, whether or not religious teachings themselves actually stipulate any of this, there is no denying that some religious people can often interpret and even enforce certain things that can have a detriment effect.

Such as limiting someone’s rights, death penalities for things the religion views as criminal even if the laws of the land say otherwise, arranged marriages, underage marriage, withholding medical treatment etc.

Let’s take some positives…

Creating a sense of community, giving a sense of peace, creating sanctuaries for people in need, removing the fear of death by the idea of an afterlife etc.

Does your world have a religious government? Does it instil laws upon its people based on ancient teachings?  Do your religions give people a voice in their community?  Do they support the poor and hungry?

Decide on the effects your religions have for different people because again everyone is different and something that is positive for someone may be negative for another.

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Creating Myths

Mythology is borne from ancient religions and have been discarded and relegated to the concept of myths.

So, what old religions are you going to turn into myths?  Do any of them have their root in truth?  Are there still those who believe the old myths?

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Be Aware

When it comes to religion in novels people can get offended.  Who can forget the protests following The Golden Compass movie, as some religious people saw it as “selling atheism to kids”.

Depending on what you write, how you portray religion, especially if it is similar or an”alternative history” type religion to one we already have, people may get offended.

Am I saying not to write/create religions in your novel?  No, I am just making sure you’re aware that it can and does happen.

Extra Resources

Check out Playing God: Incorporating religion into your fantasy world by writer Rebecca Alasdair

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19 comments

  1. I’ve based my latest WIP on past, present and future fates, but you’ve highlighted so much more that I could build upon. I’ll keep this post to hand when I make my next round of edits. Thanks Ari, brilliant post.

  2. Fantastic post Ari! I myself wrote a post earlier this year regarding religion in fantasy fiction, and found it a great way to get my head around the key considerations for my own WIP. One thing we often underestimate is how much religion also influences common phrases in everyday language. The number of times I’ve had to alter curse words, or eliminate references to “hell” and “damnation”, for example, to maintain consistency with my world building, is actually quite astounding!!

  3. In my science fiction world of Meniscus, I started simple, with the observations of my characters about the local mythology. Your lists provide a great way to expand on simple ideas.

  4. “…don’t make all your characters think and believe the exact same thing.”

    An excellent note. Churches are full of rifts and schisms – just look at how Christianity has splintered over the past 500 years!

    1. Thanks for reading, David. Exactly. I’ve read books were religion was added to a fantasy world and it was a single religion and everyone just agreed with every tenant. It was very unbelievable.

    1. Thanks for reading. Yes, I’ve read a few books where they had religion as a large part of the backdrop and there was just a single religion and it was very noticeably jarring. Not even a few people questioning the idea of some of the beliefs. It didn’t help to draw me in.

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