Building a Religion
In Part One, I had an overview of different elements that go into creating a rich, round culture. Now, I’m going to break down those elements and talk about implementing each one in a more detailed way, starting with religion.
Religion is important in creating a culture because it’s a fairly universal concept. Most cultures on earth have some sort of worship of a higher power. Whether it’s a deity or an element of nature or a prophet or some combination of those, almost everyone on earth has some concept of religion and worship. Even avowed atheists often associate themselves with the religion they used to be, like, “I’m an atheist, but I was raised Catholic,” and so on.
The other reason religion is so important is because it fundamentally shapes human behavior. What a person believes will impact how they view the world and how they act in a given situation.
For example, suppose you have an elf who worships nature and a dwarf who believes it is the destiny of dwarvenkind to conquer the earth, and they both come across a tree that is blocking their path to wherever they’re going to go, how each approaches the situation will be impacted by their religious views.
So, when you’re building your world, think about what kind of religion(s) impact the race(s) you’re writing about. Once you know what type of religion it is and what you want to accomplish in your world through your religion, you can start implementing things that will flesh that out.
What kind of deity do your people worship? Monotheistic and representative of a Judeo-Christian religion? Is there a savior-type character or is that element yet to come? Or is there a pluralistic religion with many gods and goddesses? Or is it a nature-worship type of society?
Is the deity benevolent and loving? Indifferent? Demanding? Vindictive? Or is organized religion used to either pacify or control the masses?
Or, are there both? Is there a popular religion that is politically run that is overpowering a peaceful religion based on following one true deity?
Most religions have some sort of religious text that they use as the basis for their practices. From the Bible to the Koran to the Book of Mormon to the Hare Krishna and so on, these writings shape the religion. And quotes from them are commonly known. Consider the Golden Rule. Almost everyone in the Western world has some idea what it is, and it’s originally from the Bible. If you can incorporate some sort of quote from your holy writings that is commonly known and repeated by your people, you add another layer of depth to your religion.
Are the sacred texts open to everyone? Or are they reserved only for the priesthood while the populace just has to trust in the priests’ interpretations?
It is these texts that also form the basis for the worldview. Like in my elf vs. dwarf example earlier, the religion is based on the sacred texts, so what those texts record will inform what the religion teaches as well as how that is played out in the daily lives of the participants.
What types of ceremonies are used in the practice of the religion? A once-a-week church service? Is it in a home or a temple or cathedral? Or outside? What is involved in the service? A sacrifice? A ritual of prayers and chants? A dance or other movement of the body? Singing songs? Lighting candles or incense? Reading the sacred texts?
What holy days are celebrated? Are they associated with the time of year, such as harvest or solstice? Why? Is the deity someone who blesses the crops? Or is it the worship of the sun or the rain or the moon or other natural element, and so the holy day corresponds to the cycle of the sun or moon?
Or are the holy days in remembrance of a significant event? If so, what happened? Was a prophet born? Was a battle won? Was a prophecy fulfilled? What occurred that causes your people to celebrate the day in the religion’s history?
I mentioned that in The Wheel of Time, there are distinctive clothes for each people group. But in addition to cultures, clothes play an important role in religious ceremony. Priests have ornate and formal robes, nuns have habits, gurus or mystics may have flowing robes. Headpieces and jewelry might also play a role in ceremonial dress or rituals. What do the priests or ministers of the religions you’ve created wear? Do they hold a scepter or have tassels on their clothes or wear a specific color for specific holy days?
Do followers of the religion have to wear certain things to services or on holidays, or is ceremonial dress only for the priesthood? Do they wear hats or shawls for prayer, or do they pray with specific totems or icons, like a rosary?
Think about all the dress elements you know of in religions that are familiar to you, like Catholicism, Hinduism, Judaism, and so on, and incorporate elements of those into your religions.
Finally, adding small details like symbols used by your religion can add another layer of depth. A cross, a fish, or a dove can all be symbols of Christianity. In the picture above are some examples of symbols used in various religious practices around the world. Having something that is a well-known symbol of your religion can be a simple yet powerful way to identify that religion from one character to another.
Using religion in your culture creates a rich and developed world. How people worship is deeply personal and shapes who they are, so if you can create a deep and vibrant religion, it will give your characters a whole new level of depth.
The more detail you can add to your religion, the more realistic it will become. Your characters have to have a reason why they follow that religion. Is it because it’s so deeply ingrained in the culture that they don’t know anything else? Are they zealous for their faith? Religion can also serve as a vehicle for teaching truths without being overt or preachy, as in an allegory or the reflection of reality. It can also deepen your character’s journey. For instance, he or she can discover that the religion they were taught is false, but there is a true religion that makes more sense or is more personal and so on.
Religion can also be used to shape plot. Having a religious and political climate that is at odds with your character’s journey or quest can lead to conflict and tension that makes your storyworld and plot arc that much more engaging.
Consider these details when shaping religions in your world.