How to Build a Fictional Religion for Your Novel
Post written by Andrew Wall.
Whether you are writing an epic fantasy series, a dystopian science fiction, or basically anything else under the “speculative fiction” umbrella, crafting compelling societies is a big part of the task. And most (if not all) societies in human history have at least one religion that they interact with. This makes the job of building fictional religions incredibly important to the process of world-building for many fictional worlds. But how do we do it?
In this article I’ll walk you through the three core steps of creating a fictional religion: choosing the object of worship, constructing a belief system, and developing rituals, worship practices, and ethics.
The Object of Worship
Your first step is to pick an object of worship, be that a single goddess, several gods, ancestors, natural spirits, or a literal object. You need to decide whatever or whomever is worshiped by the adherents of your religion before you can shape any of the other aspects of the religion. Religions largely reflect their object of worship, or at least they reflect the adherents' perceptions of them.
If you have decided to have your object of worship be a person or persons (divine or otherwise), then you will want to think through their basic personality traits, what powers they have (in actuality and ones they are merely believed to possess), and whether or not they are real. That last point matters most for your world-building in general, not necessarily for the creation of the religion that has developed around the object(s) of worship.
Remember, as a world-builder you should be considering two different lines of thought when constructing a fictional religion: 1) what is reality? (i.e. the true nature of the object of worship and its relationships); and 2) what is belief? (i.e. what adherents of the religion believe to be true).
Constructing a Belief System
After choosing the object of worship for your fictional religion, you will need to construct a belief system around it. There are three primary questions to answer when creating your belief system. These questions represent the core of any belief system with all other beliefs finding their root in your answer to one of these.
Question 1: What is the relationship between the object of worship and the world? You can flesh this out by asking yourself the following:
- Did they create the world?
- Are they a transcendent aspect of the world?
- Are they ambivalent towards the world?
- Do they seek to preserve the world? To destroy it? To make it anew?
- What is the relationship between the object of worship and the world as a whole?
Question 2: What is the relationship between the object of worship and society? Think through the following:
- Do they endorse society? Desire to reform it? Champion it?
- Is there one society that the divine is concerned with to the detriment of others?
- Is the object of worship unconcerned with how humans and other sentient beings organize themselves?
Question 3: What is the relationship between the object of worship and those who worship them? Answer the following:
- Do they grant those who worship them powers and abilities?
- Do they actively speak with their worshipers and give them commands?
- Are their worshipers viewed as children? As slaves? As partners? What are the dynamics of this relationship?
Your answers to these questions represent the core of the belief system of your religion. Yet beliefs are not static things that are held in a vacuum. Beliefs are made manifest in physical and tangible form as they are embraced by a larger community. This leads us to our next section.
Ritual, Worship, and Ethics
Ritual, worship, and ethics are the visible fruits of belief systems. So what are each of these aspects of religion and how are they different from each other?
Rituals tend to embody particular beliefs, exemplifying them in physical analogy or acted-out significance. This is why rituals are not simple actions such as the offering of a sacrifice, but involve a web of particular words of invocation, symbolic implements, and usually a statement of the importance of the ritual itself (i.e., why one is even doing it).
If we were to take the example of a simple blood sacrifice and make it a ritual, it becomes a much more involved affair. There must be a ritual stone knife which signifies the power of earth, a series of candles made from a special wax that signify the power of fire, a certain chant said by participants throughout the ceremony that echoes the whisper of the wind, and a leader who reminds everyone of the benefit of such an action as the spilling of a living creature’s life water (i.e., blood). Ritual is belief made visible in symbolic setting and action.
Worship often includes ritual, but is not strictly limited to ritual. Overall, worship describes how a community believes they are to respond to their object of worship. Say they view themselves as servants of a particular divine being. How do they say “thank you” to this divine being? How do they show their appreciation, their love (or maybe their fear)? Prayer, songs, and chants fall into this category, yes, but also the donation of money, time, and possessions, as well as adopting notions such as “obedience.” Study of sacred texts, meditation, and the practice of certain mannerisms are also examples.
Which leads, of course, to ethics and how one structures one’s very life in response to what one believes. A religion’s ethics will reflect the posture its adherents believe their object of worship takes towards the world and towards society. If they worship a being that is ambivalent towards society, they will be aloof from it as well. For example, if they believe that their deity seeks to remake all things by overthrowing the current world order, then how they live will reflect that.
After you’ve come up with your religion’s belief system, you can then think through how your religion will embody those beliefs through ritual, worship, and ethics.
A Note On Regionality
The final thing to consider in regards to your religion is “regionality.” The best way to describe this is how a religion with the same core beliefs and primary rituals/worship/ethics manifests differently in different areas of your world. Language, culture, and geography are all things that can create “regionalisms” in a religion. These regionalisms can manifest in a variety of ways: in something physical/aesthetic like a difference in architecture and decoration of places of worship; in slight (or vast) differences in interpretation of the core beliefs and their application in ritual, worship, and ethics; etc. The larger a religion is (especially in terms of geographical spread), the greater the case for developing “regional flavors” within your religion.
Once you have determined your object of worship, teased out the core of your religion’s belief system, thought through how it works out in application, and given consideration to regionality, you have a solid foundation to build off of for your fictional religion. If you need a second pair of eyes, I offer World-Building Coaching and have developed our Society-Building Toolkit specifically to help people tease stuff like this out. Happy world-building!
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