Religion plays an integral role in shaping history and society, and is therefore an essential consideration when it comes to world-building for a fantasy novel. In this Playing God post, I explore the key types of belief system, some interesting religious themes, and give a sneak peak at the religion in my own WIP! →
👍 Introduction | 💡 Creation | 🌟 Cosmology | ☯ Religion | 🔮 Magic | 🌍 Geography | 🌦 Climate & Weather | ⏳ History | 🎭 Race & Culture | 💬 Language | 🎵 Music, Art & Writing | 🏠 Infrastructure | 🤴 Government | 📜 Laws | 💰 Economy
I hesitate to say that you don’t have to incorporate religion into the world of your fantasy WIP. Whether you are a believer or not, you cannot deny that religion plays a massive part in shaping societies, and for that reason religion—even the lack thereof—should at least be considered when developing your world. Some of the key arguments for building religious understanding include:
Religion is one of—and possibly the most—contributing factor to the culture of a given society. It has a way of shaping art, music and literature, developing a variety of customs, practices and rituals, and setting out rules for morals and behaviour. Thus, in order to enrich your fantasy world’s culture, it is definitely worth considering the role of religion in society. Perhaps you’ll decide there is no religion, and come up with a variety of secular traditions!
One doesn’t need to spend a long time studying the past to realise that religion has played an enormous role in shaping history. It has done a lot of good in bringing people together, and also a lot of evil in sparking wars and oppressing those with different religious beliefs. Incorporating religion into your WIP’s world—especially if you develop multiple religions—will have an impact on the world’s history and make it more interesting, realistic and relatable!
Often you don’t realise how many specific religious phrases litter common vernacular until you start writing about a world in which none of them apply. For example, you can’t have your characters exclaiming “Oh my god!” if there is no god, or writing phrases such as “all hell broke loose” if there is no concept of hell in your world. To shore up your WIP’s vernacular and to add depth and realism, have an idea of what phrases are consistent with your world’s religion (and what might be offensive when it comes to developing profanity!).
If magic exists in your world, there is a good chance it is tied to religion in some way. Is magic considered a force for good, its practitioners blessed by whatever deity the world worships? Or is the existence and use of magic considered blasphemous? Depending on the nature of your magic system, it may be connected to various religious rituals, or the power come from a deity itself. Even if you decide not to incorporate an explicit religious organisation into your world, considering society’s beliefs about magic and magic users is an important step in constructing your magic system!
If the plot of your story involves a religious organisation in any way, then obviously you will need to carefully develop that religion, its beliefs and practices. Tension between different religions, between religion and science, between the church and crown etc. can be a very interesting plot device when done well. To do so, the religion needs to be fleshed out and its ties to culture, history and magic (if relevant) determined!
Religion encompass a variety of beliefs and practices that relate humanity to spiritual or supernatural elements, but what, exactly, constitutes a religion is a subject of much debate. For brevity, this section will focus on theism, which is related to the existence of deities or a supreme being. The main types of theistic beliefs include the following:
Monotheism is the belief in the existence of only one god. This god or deity usually created the world, is all-powerful, and may or may not intervene in the world. Modern monotheistic religions include Christianity, Judaism and Islam, amongst others.
Polytheism is the belief in the existence of more than one god, which are often assembled into a pantheon. The deities may be considered as separate beings (hard polytheism), subsumed into a greater whole (soft polytheism), or it may be that while several deities exist, only one is worshipped (henotheism). Many ancient religions are polytheistic in nature (e.g. Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Norse), as are several schools of modern Hinduism.
🌍 Pantheism & panentheism
Pantheism is the belief that the universe is equivalent to god, and that there is no division between a creator and the substance of its creation (i.e. reality is identical to divinity). Many traditional and folk religions are seen as pantheistic. Panentheism is the belief that the divine pervades and every part of the universe and also extends beyond time and space. While pantheism asserts that “all is God”, panentheism claims that God is greater than the universe, or that the universe is contained within God.
Deism is the belief that one god exists and created the world, but does not interfere with the created world or alter the original plan for the universe. Deism rejects supernatural events such as prophecies, miracles and divine revelations, which are common in organised religion, and instead holds that religious beliefs must be founded on human reason and observation of the natural world. This school of thought gained prominence in the Age of Enlightenment, with many deists being Christians who have become disillusioned with orthodox teachings.
Autotheism is the belief that divinity is inherently “within oneself”, and that anyone has the ability to achieve godhood. It can also refer to the belief that oneself is a deity. Several ancient religions and societies adhered to this school of thought when considering various kings and leaders as divinities.
As a contrast to theism, atheism is an absence or rejection of the belief in the existence of god(s). Some atheists adopt secular philosophies (i.e. seek to interpret life and morality on principles taken solely from the material world and without relying on religion), but there is no one ideology or set of behaviours to which all atheists adhere.
Nontheism refers to a range of religious and nonreligious attitudes which are characterised by an absence of explicit belief in the existence of god(s). It differs from atheism in that it encompasses apathy or silence on the subject of god(s), and can be used as an umbrella term to summarise atheism, agnosticism, apatheism, skepticism and other belief systems.
Once you have decided whether to incorporate religion(s) into the world of your fantasy WIP, and what the nature of those religions may be, there are a whole slew of other themes and considerations you might wish to explore! Some of my favourite things to think about are as follows:
Value-judgement theism takes into account the nature of a deity or deities. Eutheism is the belief that a god is wholly good or benevolent, as is the norm for monotheistic religions such as Christianity. Dystheism, however, is the belief that a god is not wholly good, and is possibly evil. Trickster gods in polytheistic systems are often considered dystheistic in nature. Finally, maltheism is an ad-hoc term referring to the belief that a god exists, but is wholly malicious. What is the nature of your religion’s god(s)?
☘ Transcendence vs immanence
Transcendence and immanence are two contrasting perspectives on how a deity’s power relates to the physical world. The theory of immanence holds that the divine is fully manifested or present in the material world, and is thus accessible to creatures in various ways. In the theory of transcendence, the divine is wholly independent of the material universe and beyond all physical laws. Note, however, that these two concepts are not mutually exclusive; for example, the Abrahamic religions often cast immanence as a characteristic of an ultimately transcendent god. Which school of thought does your world’s religion support?
🕊 Free will vs determinism
Free will is the ability to choose between different courses of action unimpeded, and without the outcome having been determined by previous events. Determinism is the idea that all events and choices are determined by previously existing causes. This latter term is closely related to predeterminism or predestination, where all events past, present and future have already been decided, known or willed by a god. These two schools of thought form something of a paradox, and questions have been raised as to their compatibility. It is a very interesting idea to explore in the religion and plot of your story!!
⛪ Religious organisation
It is possible to develop a religion for your WIP’s world without it necessarily being an organised religion. For example, in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, everyone seems to believe in the Creator without there being an explicit organisation that pervades society (unless you count the Whitecloaks, I suppose). However, if you do go down the organised religion route, there are a number of things to consider. How is it structured and governed? Do priests and/or priestesses have unique names and what are their roles? What is a house of worship called? There are so many opportunities to get creative!
🙏 Rituals, celebrations & practices
In my opinion (so feel free to disagree!), the most immediately relevant effect of developing a religion for your fantasy world is what it means for rituals, celebrations and other practices your characters may partake in. How are births, deaths and marriages handled? Are there particular days or occasions that are celebrated, and why? How does meditation and prayer work? What practices are forbidden and which are encouraged? The questions could go on forever!
Strangely enough, religion in the world of my WIP fantasy series Graceborn was the very last thing I developed during my world-building phase. I considered the organised religion to be less important than the “magic system”, the world’s history, and the true nature of the cosmos and its creator. Thus, I fleshed out all of these aspects first, and then put together a belief system which made sense after everything else had been accounted for.
The key features and characteristics of the religion in the world of Graceborn are:
Overview: Organised religion throughout the human nations is known simply as the Faith, which was formalised ~1300 years ago though its origins are far older. Several centuries before the beginning of the story, a civil war in the east led to a schism in the Faith. Most people now follow what is referred to as the First Faith, while residents of Maribor and Tarnow subscribe to the New Faith.
Key concepts: The Faith centres around worship of a creator deity known as the Maker (called Shemok in the Ancient Tongue). She is considered mostly transcendent, and can only direct the world through specific events known as Manifestations. Her influence over people’s destiny is referred to as the Hand of Fate.
Organisation: Houses of worship are called temples, which are home to several priests, priestesses and acolytes. Each temple is run by a High Priest or Priestess, and each nation has a First High Priest or Priestess elected to their position. These form a council known as the Synod, which is the governing body of the Faith.
Religious figures: The Faith honours a number of people known as Exemplars, who have performed exceptional deeds and are considered human Manifestations (i.e. comparative to a saint). Elevated above these are the Heroes, who were specifically chosen by the Maker to save the world from the Shadow (i.e. comparative to a saviour figure).
Rituals: The Faith administers the First Rite upon birth, the Last Rite upon death, and also presides over marriages. Annual celebrations include Midsummer (a.k.a. Zamkhulis), Midwinter (a.k.a. Zamtaris, or the Long Night) and All Heroes Day, which is a day for remembering and honouring the Heroes and Exemplars.