To be clear, this world building series is in no particular order. Except you may want to read World Building Part 1: Basics before moving on to any other category.
I also want to say in a teeny tiny disclaimer that I’m not reflecting my own beliefs, but possibilities and examples only for the sake of world building. It’s very common for fictional worlds to be of different beliefs from their creators. I’m also not a theologian nor hold any degree on religious works, and whilst I honestly do some googling to make sure that I’m correct in the use of my examples, feel free to (respectfully) correct me if I’m mistaken and I’ll change accordingly.
Today’s topic is religion! Whether your character believes in it or not, something you need to determine is the religion around them. In our own history religion has seriously shaped the world we live in. The crusades, genocides, and many civil wars have been due to a conflict of religious beliefs. You can, as in real life, have several branches of religion worshiping the same god in different ways. Here’s a bullet list of things to consider. Below are clarifications of each with suggestions. And yes, this is ridiculously fleshed out. As I mentioned (I think?) in WBP1 I’ll eventually make a printable PDF of each section to fill out. Worksheets are fun! Right? Right!? Of course they are. Shh.
- How Many Gods?
- Names & Responsibilities
- Living/Dead or Present/Absent?
- Faith or Scientific/Physical Based?
- Hierarchy of Deities
- Hierarchy of Worshipers
- Religious Houses/Temples/Shrines
How many gods?
You have varying degrees to choose from: Atheism, Monotheism, & Polytheism. Respectively they mean: no god, one god, and multiple gods. There are of course many definitions of religion, but these are the main three. If you feel like focusing on something more specific, feel free! This is your world! You need to decide if there is religion at all, and after that how many deities you plan to have in your world.
If you choose Atheism, there is still work to be done. A world without religion would be missing many of these items, and what rituals your populace has should be based in science as opposed to a higher power. There is also a possibility of hero worship with Atheism, paragons of your society who have achieved something great. Not worship in the sense of a deity, but possibly what the hero says is law or other repercussions (like the Dwarves in Dragon Age). It’s of course always an option to ignore it completely. However, I will point out that Buddhism is an example of a religion without a divine being.
If you choose Monotheism I think it’s best to go overboard with the details. Be very careful in choosing a name as well. It needs to be strong and usually capitalized. The pronoun of said god (he/she/they) is usually prevalent as well, but hey, you could always have fun and switch around based on the beliefs of different sects! Odds are a patriarchal society will use “He” and a matriarchal will use “She” and a society of equality might use “They”.
If you choose Polytheism you best get a binder. I’m serious. Unless you choose to have less than five gods, then a folder should suffice. If you have thirty gods or three gods, be sure to fill out the details. If you’re not using them now, you might later. Planting the seed for future stories is never a bad thing. You could briefly mention in chapter 3 of book 1 a god’s fury decimated an entire city, and new characters could discover the city’s remains in book 4. You can of course always have major gods, then minor gods. To be honest though, I still fill out details on minor gods as well. If you don’t want to go too in depth for minor gods, feel free to leave things blank and fill them out as you go or its convenient to your story.
Names & Responsibilities
What I mean by responsibilities is the god’s domain. You could have one god, who’s burdened with all things, or several gods burdened with different tasks. A goddess of death. A god of love. A goddess of war or a god for each element. Determine what aspects your world worships. If you have more than one culture, remember to have your deities reflected in that. Even if the entire planet has the same religion, there will be different views on what the god does. In some cultures a goddess of fertility, is the goddess of love in another, and so on. I suggest first, if you’re doing Polytheism, to make a list of tasks you feel a god would have direct control over like the examples listed above. Then you can move on to naming.
For names there are many things to consider when picking one out. What culture is your deity associated with? Those will reflect in the name. If you’re making an elven god, you’ll want that name to sound the same as your elves. Are they like LOTR elves? If so, it should be a consonant heavy name that is soft on the lips. Do you have gruff dwarves worshiping this god? Make it vowel heavy and guttural to reflect common dwarven society. Similar to picking out your world name, you’ll want something unique but easy to pronounce. If you go with Monotheism, spend a lot of time on your name. Create a name bank, you don’t have to settle on one and stick with it from the beginning. Use real world languages for inspiration. Want a god of pancakes? Try using Google translate and go down the language list. You can always tweak what you come up with later. You can also use baby name websites and books for some inspiration, especially if you want a name to mean something specific. Once you have your name bank, say them all out loud. Determine the pronunciation of your names in advance and spell it out phonetically for your own reference.
Living/Dead or Present/Absent?
Is your deity living or dead? Are they an interactive deity or do they simply watch from above (or below!)? An important decision is to determine how involved your god(s) is in your new world and their interactions with those who live there. More detail about said interactions are fleshed out below.
Faith or Scientific/Physical based?
As I mentioned earlier, if you’re focusing on Atheism there is still room for hero worship if you chose. There could even be a worship of science. As far as Monotheism and Polytheism goes, you could still have hero worship and science worship included, just in a different application. For faith based religions might be a religion where it has been millennium since the last physical evidence, if any, of a deity’s presence. If you’re opting for Polytheism, this, or none of the other issues, must apply across the board. You can place any number of your deities in any category. Perhaps a new god has risen because they are present in the flesh as opposed to the gods of old who haven’t been heard from in centuries.
So has your deity, or deities, been directly heard from recently? No? To put it into the most generic terms possible, it would be faith based. If your god(s) has been heard from directly, you could say physical or scientific in that there is tangible proof of their recent existence. Also, keep in mind that new religions will pop up as time goes on. What drives the creation, or revealing, of a new religion is entirely up to you.
Usually there is a balance. For every God, there is the Devil. For every Rama, there is a Ravana. Not always, but usually, an opposition. If you have a god of death, there could be a god of life. Even if you’re leaning toward Atheism and Monotheism, there is room for opposition of the positive forces that drive your society. It’s not a necessary requirement, but it makes for interesting mythology in establishing the beginnings of a culture’s movement, enlightening, and so on.
Hierarchy of Deities
If you have only one deity, this isn’t much of an issue. You just have the one. With Atheism, this is based entirely off of the current structure you have in place. In the event you have a hero worship structure, it’s time to determine if there is a hierarchy to those heroes. Are some more dominant than others? If so, why? Same with Polytheism. Who are the most prominent gods? Who are major gods? Minor gods? I think in this you would include demi-gods, and in a paragon worshiping society you could include the direct line of descendants from those heroes.
Of existence, is what I mean. Is there a Heaven? A Hell? Where do these gods live? Do people get to spend eternity with them? Or are they shipped off somewhere else upon death? Are there palaces and gardens? Huts? Space? Can you get there physically? Do you have to die to reach these places?
For each prominent god, it doesn’t hurt to have a symbol representing them. If you have a paragon, it could be a symbol representing their last name or a coat of arms. Real life examples are the Lancaster red rose and the York white rose, or even the red and white rose of the Tudors to represent the joining of the two prominent houses. In religion, you have the eye of Ra and the cross for Christianity. Look at what your god(s) represents and try to fit the symbol with it. You can always choose something at random and have fun building an origin story from there. You could have a red alligator represent the goddess of travel and fill in a mythology to go with it later (actually, that sounds fun I might steal that…from myself).
First, avatars. They are essentially the physical embodiment or representation of a deity. Usually and for the most. Or at least, the way I understand it. There is no limit to how many avatars a deity has. For example, Vishnu has two avatars: Rama and Krishna. An avatar can be exactly as the deity, or completely opposite to meet their playful spirit. I think as far as avatars are concerned, it is one of the few topics I think Atheism is exempt from, but don’t skip ahead just yet, I have ideas about prophets on that. Just skip to the next paragraph. Anyway, think of the reasons your deity would use an avatar. Avatars can be recognizable by the majority of the populace, or a disguise for the deity to use to go out on the town and have some fun without worry. It depends on the level of interaction your god has with society. If they don’t interact at all, odds are they don’t have many avatars. If they’re one who helps (or hinders) with everyday life, they might have dozens.
Prophets and avatars can, at times, be viewed as one in the same. When I’m talking prophets, in this particular case, I mean regular born women and men of society who rise to the needs of their deity. Or vice versa! A prophet could be someone whose deeds awaken an old goddess and she does good for the world again. A prophet could give a god purpose and be responsible for the reawakening of an entire religion. I think this same line of thought could be used for the paragon system of Atheism as well. A person could bring to light the deeds of a hero that went unnoticed and raise that hero (living or dead) to a paragon status.
This is pretty straightforward. How was your world created? How did it come to be? Is the reality of creation in tune with what religion says? How do they differ? Each religion will have a variation of how the world and its inhabitants came to be. Some may be similar, and realistically some new religions may steal from older religions.
Hierarchy of Worshipers
Once you have all of the goodies of your gods down, time to determine the culture of those who worship them! Or of those who don’t. There is always a why. There is always a why as to why someone does, and doesn’t worship a deity. Something to remember.
By hierarchy, I mean the structuring of the human or non-deity followers of your religion. If there is none, then have none! Otherwise, you have priests, head priestesses, monks, acolytes, initiates, and so on. What positions does your religion have? Elders? Pastors and flocks? Determine what titles are in your religion, and you have these varying with your different gods, and then determine their place. Who’s in charge? Who has the final say? Is there a different position for decision making and spiritual guidance? Is it a council or one person? Does the highest position claim a direct line with the deity? Determine the roles, for each and every one.
Now to determine the physical aspect of your religion. Are there specific times of worship? Sunrise and sunset? Is it an individual ritual in their home? If so, is there a small shrine in the home? Is there a temple or church? Does a specific figurehead lead the ritual, or is it put upon a different person each time? How often does it occur? Is it the same thing over and over, or is it a different thing each day? A lot of questions I know, but these details can affect your character’s day to day life. It can affect your character’s love/hate for religion which can affect their decisions. For example, if they were raised happily in a temple, an affinity for religious houses could hinder their progress for development later on.
As in the real world, it’s realistic to think there are varying sects of religion. Even in the Atheist paragon society, there could be variation in hero worship. One group could claim the paragon meant to cleanse water only for the wealthy, and the others claim the paragon wanted clean drinking water for the whole of society. One branch of a fertility deity could claim that if you eat an all egg diet while trying to conceive is the only way to go while the other claims you mustn’t eat any eggs. The conflict between branches of religion can make for enriched cultural rifts. An example, is Protestants Vs Catholics during the reign of Henry VIII. Both worshiped Christ and believed in the same God, but burned each other for conflicting beliefs of baptism, communion, and reading of the bible (a few examples).
This is where you go into ritual detail. How do your worshipers pray? Do they pray at all? Are there pendants, or other physical depictions of your god’s symbols they keep on their person to draw strength from? This is largely influenced by the environment of the holy houses, or lack thereof, but not entirely. Are there holidays? How does this affect marriage? Births? Rights? In patriarchal religions, men have all the rights from birth. As men also lead in most rituals. In a matriarchal it would be the other way around. Really look at your paragons and gods to determine this process. Some gods may prefer to be worshiped or on the minds of their followers at all times. Some may only want to be called upon in dire circumstances, or not at all. With that line of thought, how much do your deities interact with worshipers during said rituals if at all? What do your worshipers wear? Do they speak in their native language? Or a specific language (for example, Latin for Catholicism)?
Religious books! I mean, long story short, that’s what I mean. Are there any texts that have inspired religion? For example, the Quran or the Holy Bible. If there is a text, is it truly accurate or has it been manipulated to serve the purposes of those who wield it? How did it come to be? Is there more than one? Is it condensed into one large book like the examples above? If so, are there any apocrypha? If there are, why were those excluded and why were the others included? Also, the text is where the rules are commonly laid out. If these rules are broken, well, you know how that goes.
Whilst I touched briefly on this in worship, I have language listed separately because it can affect more than praying. The text could only be in a particular language (such as pre-protestant England all religious texts were in Latin) and even a source of conflict as the example given. Is there one preferred language? Are there purists who will only worship in that language? Do those in charge speak and preach in only that language, thereby discouraging outsiders?
All of these aspects can affect religion in any way you could think of. It’s a little difficult to go into detail because there is just, so much depth to all three of these topics. So, what I’ll say is to keep these in mind when structuring your religion. I’ll offer instead a couple of examples. If you have a secluded group of villages who have no interaction with the rest of the world, they won’t worship the same deities as those in a metropolis. In a region where the main commerce is wine, the group of farmers who produce it may not have conflicts with the use of alcohol, even if there is traces of conflict in their religion.
Last but not least; your extremists, and pretty much crazy people who make your religion look bad. These are the small, and yes, to be extremist it is a small, group of people who stand out for their erratic behavior. These are the followers of your deities who generally don’t understand the basic concepts of their religion and take what they want from it and twist it to their own needs and desires. This doesn’t have to be serious, by the way. You could have an evil god and there is a sect of extremists who run around helping people instead, but do it in the name of said god so they can be left alone. So, in all religions there are the outsiders. In some cases, a person who isn’t a heretic will be labeled as such for going against the flow, which makes for good conflict in a story.
Heretics and heathens are disbelievers. Apostates have left the religion in pursuit of another belief system. Any of these can be antagonist/protagonists for your story.
Until Next Time!
I hope that long (sorry!) read was in depth and by the end you have a moderately fleshed out religion planned out for your new world. Even if you haven’t written a thing down, mull it over in your head and think about it.
This is all I could think of off the top of my head, but if I have more to add I will do so at a later date. I probably won’t get a PDF out until I’ve finished the world building series, but when I do I’ll do a blog post with all the goodies linked. :3
Added 3/1/2016 World Building Part 3: Nation Creation
Added 3/14/2016 World Building Part 4: Government
Added 3/22/2016 World Building Part 5: Calendar
Added 4/4/2016 World Building Part 6: Map Making
Added 4/18/2016 World Building Part 7: Culture
Added 06/13/2016 World Building Part 8: Floor Plans & Architecture
Added 10/24/2016 World Building Part 9: Creatures
Added 11/21/2016 World Building Part 10: Science!
Added 12/12/2016 World Building Part 11: Medicine
Added 01/09/2016 World Building Part 12: Names
*Edit*: I would like to recommend you read Robert’s comment below for even more ideas on fleshing out religious interaction with government and other variables that affect culture.