Religion within your world
Rebecca Mikkelson, Editor-in-Chief Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Religion can be the foundation of society, or it can be the downfall of a society. When creating your world, you’ll need to decide how religion is going to affect the people of your world.
Religions and the Gods
To my knowledge—and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong—there has yet to be a society that doesn’t have some sort of organized religion or god that they worship; it can be an actual god, or it can be nature and the sanctity of life itself. In this section, I want to cover how many religions there are, what kinds of religions, if there are any sorts of tension between religions, if there’s a social hierarchy in a specific religion and even your country, and how religion and magic work together.
What kind of religions
This is such a diverse subject that I really only want to cover three things because everything can fall into at least one of these categories.
First, there’s polytheism: this is when you have multiple gods in your religion like Hinduism or the majority of the ancient pantheon-centric religions you’d find in Greece, Rome, or Egypt. This specific type of religion lends itself well to fantasy novels to create a rich and diverse culture that your characters can live in. Each god has certain attributes attached to their names that can influence your character. Take Ares, for example; he’s the Greek god of war. The citizens who enjoy his patronage will naturally be more inclined toward aggressive personality traits and perhaps be skilled tacticians. With hundreds of gods readily available—and hundreds more you could create—there are limitless possibilities in developing your characters and culture.
Next, we have monotheism. These are your religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, where there’s only one god followers worship. These religions, while not as diverse as polytheistic ones, can still bring a richness to your culture. Take Christianity; there are so many denominations that you can go down the information rabbit hole and come out months later and still not know all the differences in theology in each denomination.
Finally, we have a two-for-one. Agnosticism and Atheism. The reason why I’m covering both of these at the same time is because they’re only one thought away from each other: “There are no gods,” and, “I suppose there could be; we don’t know everything.” In general, agnosticism acknowledges that there could be a god or gods of some sort while Atheism doesn’t believe that there are any. This religion—or rather the absence of a religion—is a very practical option for dystopian novels and futuristic sci-fi novels.
How many religions?
After you decide what kind of religion you want, you get to do it again and again…and again. There’s nothing to say that you can’t have only one religion in your story for your country, but the likelihood of that being realistic is low. In the United States alone, there are 313 religions. In the world, around 4,200. For your world and country, you can have as many or as few religions as you want. Either way, you’re bound to have some tensions between people and their religions.
Tensions between religions
No doubt you’ve heard of the Crusades, whether it’s in history class, the comment section on a religious post on Facebook, or watching period piece movies. The tension between Christianity and Islam is an easy example of what kind of tensions can arise between the religions of your world. Whose god is the one true god? Are any other religions acceptable? These are questions that your people are going to have to deal with in your world.
If you want a fantasy example of this, you can look at George R. R. Martin’s religions in A Song of Ice and Fire. He based his Faith Militant off the medieval Catholic Church, which waged war against the Muslims of the middle east.
The social hierarchy of a religion
Each religion has its own hierarchy, but the question I want to post to you is, does that hierarchy remain in the church, or does it extend out into society as well? Would a person with the equivalency of a cardinal in your world’s religion get the same amount of clout and social well-to-do? Does more responsibility come with more love from the public? Is being a ranking member of a church something to aspire to in order to gain wealth and power as it was in the days of the Borgias? Or, would their hierarchy stay within the church and they just be an ordinary person doing ordinary things when they aren’t wearing the mantle of their church?
Religion and culture
I talked briefly in our post about cultures that religion will take a large part in the shaping of a culture. This is likely where you’ll see polytheistic religions shine. I want to give an example from Game of Thrones where they worship the old gods and the new. I want to talk about the new, the Seven. While worshiping the Seven, mothers will make intricates weaves of these seven gods on a wreath, in order to appeal to the gods to protect their children if they’re ill or have been hurt. Things like this shape the way other cultures who don’t share the religion will view them, or lend support if they do.
I also want to touch on the fading of religious traditions with a single question: As society grows and advances, will cultural religious traditions fade to make way for new technology, new stories, and new traditions? You’ll have to decide this for your own world.
Religion and magic
Lastly, before we move on to ethics and values, I want to talk about how magic and religion work together. There are plenty of religions, like Wicca, that embrace and celebrate the use of magic in their religion. And there are also religions that don’t tolerate magic in the slightest, condemning to death—at least historically before it was cool for people to have rights—any magic user it could get its hands on.
So the question, my fellow writers, is are you going to have peace for one and all, the Salem Witch Trials, or something in between for the people of your world?
I will be the first to admit, ethics and values are not contingent on being a religious person, because there are plenty of people in the world who are religious and just as corrupt or, conversely, as ethical as someone who is not. But, there can be no denying that religion often plays a heavy hand in what is dictated as ethical.
What are they?
First of all, what are ethics? Ethics are the moral principles that govern a person's behavior or the conducting of an activity. What we want to figure out is what these moral principles will be for the world created in your writing. They could be as simple as mimicking the morals that you grew up with as a child, or you could create a whole new world of moral code for your people.
A few questions you’ll want to ask is what is normal and acceptable in your society, but wouldn’t be acceptable elsewhere? Will there be an abhorrence to slavery, or is it widely used across the whole world as a means of disposable labor? Is swearing considered uncouth, or the more you swear, the more respectable you are? Is it a society of every man for himself, and what he steals is his, no matter what? Your morals can be whatever you want them to be.
Let’s talk about Sex
Now, Timmy, when a mommy and daddy love each other very much…
Well, I’m sure you’ve heard this talk if you’re old enough to be on the internet. Sexual morality is historically tied hand-in-hand with religion. There are plenty of examples in history of what would be socially acceptable for displays of sexuality would be: Can your women show their ankles without being called a hussy? Can women sleep with whomever they like without being stoned in the streets or forced into a life in the convent or, conversely, into a life of prostitution? Is there free love for everyone, without any stigma of homosexualy, or on the opposite side of the spectrum, homosexuality a crime punishable by death?
Only you can decide what the morality of you people are going to be, but make sure that it fits within the culture that you’ve created.
What are the consequences for being unethical?
Lastly, I want to talk about the consequences the come with wrongdoing. If someone steals something, will they have a harsh punishment of losing a hand or, more humanely, some jail time? Are there any consequences at all for unethical behavior? Who gets to decide what the punishment is? Who gets to decide what is ethical and what is not? These are all questions that you’ll want to have answered for your people and for your readers.
Join me next week when I talk about government and legal systems.
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