Religion is extremely important on a personal level to many people, and it affects everyone indirectly if not directly. Conflicts over differing opinions on the essential qualities of deity, creation, and human society as it relates to mystical importance abound in the real world.
Fantasy worlds can be equally convoluted. Even a fantasy world in which everyone is atheist or agnostic is still a world with a designed religion, but it can be elevated to a world with designed intent.
5. Know What Beliefs Real Religions Espouse
People can be led to believe in almost anything (just research QAnon), so it doesn’t really matter how mad you make the premise of your religion. What does matter, however, is how your religion makes adherents feel. How does it encourage your characters to act?
Successful religions have all encourages some form of morality and altruism tied into their beliefs. Do good things for the poor, don’t steal things, and respect your elders are common traits. At its core, a fantasy religion should include elements of good. Why?
Well, I’m glad you asked. See, remember that horrible set of books I read last month? Remember The Tombs of Atuan? In it, the gods only take, harm, and maim, and the king uses the reality of their existence to enhance his power. The gods in Tombs of Atuan don’t do anything good – so what was the use of worshipping them? Solely to prevent evil from happening? That lack of benefit – even lack of a theoretical benefit – to the gods in Tombs of Atuan made the entire religion a bit less believable.
People prefer to believe:
- The deity will bring peace and health in return for faith and worship
- The deity will support their people group, even at the cost of other people groups
- The deity will bring prosperity to the faithful
- The deity will enforce a social order, especially one beneficial to the adherents
Read up on how a religion uses these promises in order to attract followers. If you don’t know much about the Abrahamic religions, I encourage boning up on that because of their importance in English language literature. If you’re interested in polytheistic beliefs, study Hinduism, currently the polytheistic religion with the most followers. Strangely enough, I also strongly suggest watching Leah Remini’s Scientology and the Aftermath – if nothing else, it shows you how religions can successfully draw people in (though Scientology is a bit crazier than others) by using good acts as a sort of bait.
4. Define Your Society’s and Characters’ Goals
In that last section, we defined what a religion can give an individual. Individuals, though, don’t enforce religious rules and standards: communities do, and communities need reasons to keep the religion going. Society as a whole has goals, just like characters in a book. People often imagine countries as characters, and any group of people can be seen similarly. What does this group want?
Some societies struggle for survival. The Pentateuch (the Torah or first five books of the Old Testament) tell the story of a people fleeing persecution and establishing themselves with the safety God provides. Safety for yourself, even if it means the destruction of others, is a very interesting societal goal. I love that sort of thing because it can be easily twisted to develop a genuinely evil society while still giving the relief of moral goodness. Whether or not God physically did much to help them, the faith at least allowed the Jewish people to band together for their survival.
Remember, society tends to be out for itself. The word “genocide” wasn’t even invented until the 1940’s; even Winston Churchill called the Holocaust a “crime without a name” because nothing had been invented yet. That’s right – people didn’t care about wholesale slaughter of a people group enough to make a word for it until less than 80 years ago. Your society will want to survive and win.
3. Make a Creation Myth
There’s elements to every religion that go beyond creation myths, but almost unilaterally there needs to be a creation story in order for it to work. Part of what has empowered atheism in recent decades is the extremely plausible creation story* that didn’t exist prior to the increased pace of discovery in the Industrial Age. Atheism has always been around, but a “creation myth” was necessary to give it a boost and make it palatable to masses.
The order in which things are created is important in all myths. In Cherokee myths, there is the heavens and there is an expanse of water below. Animals came down from the heavens and dug up the mud from beneath the ocean, then tied the land to the heavens with cords so it wouldn’t sink.
Now, what does that say about the power of animals? How do you think a believer of that story would feel about animals vs. someone who believes animals a passive creation of a human-like god? They’d probably think the animals are much more important!
So what is important in your mythology? Start them early, give them a job, and give them power. Consider when “evil” is created, because that will determine much about the morality of your world.
Your myth can be as crazy as you want.
2. Create a Power Hierarchy
Your religion starts with one prophet, for whatever reason, but then the prophet leaves or dies. What next?
All groups, from companies to unions to religions, must have a hierarchy dedicated to protecting itself. Just like any society, as mentioned in number 4 above, church hierarchy will organize itself to carry out its goals of 1) spread religion and 2) get power for the religion. The Catholic church has a very complex and well-defined heirarchy, and honestly you really can’t get a better example when it comes to religious hierarchy and how it works. They have everything planned out, and it just gets deeper the further you look into it. Though the church hierarchy has done a lot to spread goodness and charity, it has also been used to cover up heinous abuses as well as entrench heinous beliefs. Whether or not the deity of your fantasy religion is good, the believers of the religion are still people, still flawed.
I grew up Baptist, and I didn’t realize there was a church hierarchy beyond just your deacons and a pastor until I got into high school and took history classes. Believe it or not, Baptists have no creed, no real external leadership structure beyond each individual congregation (there are “conventions”, but honestly churches leave those and get kicked out or join all the time, and no one really cares). There’s probably a looser-structured religious group out there, but believe it or not, Baptists have very little structure to their church despite the outsized political power they enjoy.
1. Entrench Your Hierarchy
After you’ve created an organization (or a lack of one, in the case of Baptists and the like), it’s time to look at the part that will really make your religion pop: how does it interact with politics?
There are two main ways you can entrench your hierarchy politically: an outright state with a theocracy (think Iran), or a sort of shadow state that influences government leaders and enforces itself through the power of a deity. A religious hierarchy with sufficient elaboration and order will be able to organize itself effectively and perform both its moral duties and lobby governments of any kind to do its will. Hold souls hostage, get what you want.
If you don’t have a great hierarchy, you’ll probably need to have extremely charismatic individuals that carry a lot of power. As a Baptist, I immediately think Billy Graham. He was crazy influential in politics, and it was probably him who made Baptists so much more powerful. He was able to move masses with a word and cause voting blocs to shift. Following his death, there is no single voice to fill the void, and that is also a risk for a less-organized religion: lack of continuity and lack of singular goal. It’s way harder to entrench loose confederacies for long periods of time.
Do you include a fantasy religion in your works? I’d love to hear about your deities and myths! Let me know more in the comments!
*These creation stories can be entirely right and still don’t disprove most mythos. However, they can be taken alone, which makes them both interesting and powerful.