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Fleshing Out a Religion

Discussion in 'World Building' started by D. Gray Warrior, Dec 2, 2018.

  1. D. Gray Warrior

    D. Gray Warrior Troubadour

    I'm working on a couple of fictional religions. One of them centers around the worship of one god, though the religion itself is vague on the existence of other gods, so it's not truly monotheist, and individuals have their own thoughts on whether other gods exist. Either way, they believe only their god is worthy of worship and the existence of other gods is irrelevant to their religion. My goal with this religion is to create a monotheistic religion that isn't based on the Abrahamic faiths. I'm trying to figure out how evil, monsters and all sorts of suffering came into this world as they might not have their own Satan figure. The god is portrayed as having "relative" omnipotence. The deity itself isn't actually omnipotent, but it seems that way from the perspective of mortals, so he is omnipotent as far as they are concerned, if that makes sense.

    I've looked into some other monotheistic religions, though monotheism can be debatable for many non-Abrahamic religions, it seems to me. For example, I have seen Zoroastrianism considered monotheistic, but you could argue that it is actually dualistic, as I think their religion has two different gods opposing each other, though only one of them is actually worshiped, to my knowledge.

    Hinduism is pretty interesting in that you could make a case that it is both polytheistic and monotheistic. The religion has many gods, but I think some Hindus consider them to be different aspects of the Supreme Being rather than entirely separate beings.

    Then there's panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism) which the universe and all that is in it consists of God, but God also transcends the universe, and I have seen it called "monistic monotheism" as you could argue that there is one God, but it is just present everywhere, and impersonal.

    I'm sorry if I'm not understanding any of these religions right.

    How would you go about creating a monotheistic/monolatrist religion while still having myths and explanations for things other than just "God did it?"
    Night Gardener likes this.
  2. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Inkling

    Well, you can make up whatever details you want.

    If it were me, I would say that myths would arise independently from religion, and focus on folklore as the source. The best way I can explain is this example.

    Fairies. There's so many creation and origin stories for them that it would be exhausting to elaborate. Certain populations and demographics believe in them more than others. If your grandparent told you a story that their grandparent's grandparents' grandparents' and their children were abducted by fae folk after trampling a sacred berry shrub, and the townspeople had to go into the deep dark woods to find them... and one person was maybe particularly brave and became the hero to confront the fairies, you'd have a legendary figure. And, well, you might grow up cautious of that stretch of woods, and not offend the faries the same ways your ancestors accidentally did. It wouldn't necessarily matter if your ancestors were Catholics or Buddhists, etc. and you're not, it's a story (myth) independent of your own religious affiliation. Now, different religions might offer different interpretations of your family's story, but it doesn't change the core of the myth. Even if the towns church going affiliations and habits change over time, the narrative doesn't change. Its more likely The moral interpretation changes over time.

    What's a mythic event, vs. an act of divine intervention or a miracle? That's tricky. It would depend on how interactive your god(s) are with your population.
    TheCrystallineEntity likes this.
  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I would get specific. What myths do you want? What things need explaining? I also wouldn't try to invent the whole religion in the abstract. Come up with a story. It doesn't even need to be one you expect to see to publication. If there's a merchant going to another town and he receives some omen or warning, but he goes anyway and something happens to show the omen was right after all ... where in there is a need for an origin myth?

    Or go right into the heart of it. Maybe your protagonist is a priest in this religion. Does this religion have priests? Shamans? Monks? How is the religion experienced, practiced? You can have a whole shrine complete with rituals without really needing to know all the theology. To paint a picture you don't need to have every color on your palette.

    To put it another way, just as a writer does not have to outline every single beat in the story, but can proceed with only general ideas of tone and direction, so it is with world building (and religion building).
    TheCrystallineEntity likes this.
  4. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Just me, but I tend to start with the religion’s creation myth. Piles of details tend to jump out at me when I get into the creation myth, and it forms a foundation for more of the belief system.

    Similarly, what huge events (natural or otherwise) occured in the world and how does the religion explain them? Good fun.
  5. Yurinii Gallon

    Yurinii Gallon New Member

    So. Is this like the religion has many gods and one of them is the one who created both the other gods and the world? It fits in on the 'not truly omnipotent' part, but then it's a common concept, I think. It's something similar to the Pokemon creation myth and the Hindu beliefs.

    Religions have their own sets of laws and whatnot. So base on that, I think, you should draft a doctrine of the religion your making. Some thing like a statement that says one should do this 'thing' in order to ascend.

    You could also add in something like 'helpers of god', angels, spirits, or furies, or even daemons. And a sacred object is a must have, 'holy water that flowed from between the legs of the goddess' or something like that.
  6. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

    I had a similar dilemma when facing religion in my story. Fantasy world, so I tried not to think too much about religions that exist here on Earth. I went with the “One deity with many faces” angle. In essence, those cultures that believe in one god have exactly that, whatever they call him/her. Those that believe in a pantheon, get the different faces of the god, each called by a different name, but still extensions of the one god.
  7. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Another thing to consider is: is the god real, and if so are they actively influencing the world? Is the influence subtle or in your face? In the Sister Continents atheism wouldn’t really be a thing... the gods are real, your enemy’s gods are real... oh sure, yours might be a version of the “true god(s)”. This fact changes the dynamic of religion. I’ve seen plenty of fantasy where the gods and religion are given short shrift, with very modern points of view and attitudes towards religion.
  8. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    There's a pretty substantial difference between religion and mythology. And all I'm reading here is mythology.
    Religion is a personal kind of thing. People follow it because it offers them something, something very meaningful. I would suggest thinking about how individual characters would have a relationship with their god rather than just focusing on folk stories or cosmology surrounding this god.
    If you don't do that, your religion will likely come across as cold and possibly shallow.

    With the Abrahamic religions, I've always looked at them by how they define the relationship between God and followers.
    In Judaism, God is king and Jews are his people. In Christianity (for the most part), God is a father and Christians are his children (or shepherd and flock, whatever, in either case there's an emphasis on unconditional love and guidance). In Islam, Allah is the master and Muslims are his servants (in a very benevolent, mutually beneficial way) with an emphasis on graciousness, mercy and earned favor.

    My rule of thumb is to always think about religion in the context of characters rather than in the context of a setting.
    TheKillerBs likes this.
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I've developed dwarven religion to some extent in my WIP. The story goes to where at least some dwarves believe they originated, so I had to sort out some details. I continue to resist trying to map out everything, but here are a few details that feel like they're firm.

    First an aside. A religion is not about personal relationships or a priesthood or any of that. The word means to be bound, a binding. In medieval documents you see references to "the religious" which can be really confusing until you realize they mean monks. Because monks are bound by oath. It's not that other people didn't believe in god, it's just they weren't religious. Our understanding of the word is highly colored by the Protestant Reformation and ensuing centuries (e.g., Methodists, etc). That's why the phrase "organized religion" actually has meaning.

    Anyways, dwarves. They don't have gods, a priesthood, or a liturgy. What they do have is reverence toward their ancestors. It is not ancestor worship--there's no praying for ghostly favors or suchlike. Instead, dwarves--who are deeply traditional--try to align their personal lives and their society with what they believe about their ancestors. The memory of each ancestor is carefully preserved. Dwarf genealogies would put hobbit genealogies to shame. Dwarves have a wide variety of rituals of reverence, ranging from individual to familial to clan and canton. All this is preserved and bequeathed by Keepers.

    My understanding of dwarf "religion" stems from the base assumption that they did not have gods and they did not worship. The rest was working through the well-ok-then-what logic. That's on one side.

    On the other is the writing of this story (Into the Second World). A dwarf comes along, and his beliefs and knowledge play a key role in the plot. As I developed Bessarion as a character, and as I developed the plot, I had to flesh out a good deal of dwarven belief. One major development was that Bessarion belongs to the Old Reverence, a minor sect within dwarf society. That let me have him hold information (in the form of beliefs) not generally known to other dwarves, or dismissed as nonsense by other dwarves.

    In storytelling terms, there's much to be gained by having the characters themselves hold varying beliefs, even contradictory beliefs. It opens up the narrative. Also, it's always mystified me how (typically) all elves believe one way. All dwarves believe one way. I know of no religion where there's consistency among the believers. Introducing variation does, however, make the world-builder's work even greater. Waah. Poor, poor, pitiful me.
    Demesnedenoir likes this.
  10. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Yeah, that’s kind of why the priests and monks in Eve of Snows call them themselves adherents, and other folk call them holies. You can be holy without being an adherent, but you can’t be an adherent without being holy. While I don’t have the plot revolving around differing opinions on canon, I make mention of such debates and how they could lead to violence and assassination. In books 2 & 3, this sort of debate could become more specific and plot relevant. But, I’m not sure how much so until I get there, heh heh.
  11. T B Carter

    T B Carter Dreamer

    There's a famous saying that if you want to study God, you study science. If you want to study man, you study religion.

    A religion may start out with one goal or outlook in mind but over time culture changes, the priests have to maintain their grip on a fickle audience ("Thou shalt not subject thy God to market forces.") so the message becomes corrupted, there are disagreements between priests so the message changes.

    I've had each of my religious figure give a slightly different world view from the saintly, the funny, the cynical and the downright manipulative bordering on evil. Religion is just people being people and when an actual Goddess turns up in their midst she isn't treated very well.
  12. ZLMeinecke

    ZLMeinecke Acolyte

    What I'm attempting to create is very similar to the spread of Christianity in our world, where the religion of the victorious takes over the united lands, but adherents of the old ways are still in pockets among the different lands. There is little conflict at most times, but when things go wrong, people always want a scapegoat so...
  13. MrBrightsider

    MrBrightsider Scribe

    Bro, worry not, I've got your back.

    Lets assume your humans have an evolutionary history. Lets assume there once was a Cambrian Explosion, and from there hundreds of thousands of animals developed. Lets assume, over the course of millions of years, one of these animals eventually developed into hominids.

    Now, over the course of the time it takes for your first hominid to develop into modern day homo-sapien (lets assume 5 million years, because arbitrary big numbers that reflect reality to a degree), they experience things. All sorts of things: predators, a lack of food, fire, flood, lightning, storms. And their dumb little monkey brains register these things as much as they're able to. And as they progress in their evolution, they're able to get more of a grasp on what exactly these things are. They start to notice that things want to literally eat them, and that they're safe in trees, because they're monkeys. They start to realize, when they go to drink from a nearby lake, that there are horrible giant creatures in there that will drag them down into the abyss. It's dangerous as hell out there.

    More time passes. They realize that they can't just stay in trees forever, because the food there is limited. They have to embark--they have to venture into the unknown despite the danger. Some of them are too afraid, and they stay in the trees. So they starve. Others accept the danger, and venture out to find food, with their dumb, developing monkey brains.

    Time goes on.

    Millions of years into the future, with this backstory and knowledge burned into them, the ancestors of the hominids that survived live in groups, taking care of each other. It's civilization, in a sense, or at least tribal culture if you want to phrase it that way. They're safe, sort of. The group looks after each other. And they know a story: terrible, horrible things lurk out in the world. But they can be dealt with and overcome, with bravery--with movement, with careful inspection, and by discovery. Eventually these hominids are modern day homo sapiens, and they're trying to figure out what the hell life is all about. They want to know how to act, they want to know how to behave. So they make up a story--the best story they can, with the highest values they can think of. And they make it God.

    Once upon a time, an ancient diety existed in a place. That place was known to him, but it wasn't as good as it could be. So he gave up the known world, summoned bravery, became aware, and set out into the unknown. There, he encountered a terrible beast that almost killed him. But he won, and he chopped that evil thing up and made the known world out of it. Then he gave other things the opportunity to be more than they were, like he was--to set out into the unknown, and forge order from chaos. But that story isn't good enough, so you give the God qualities that humans can strive to emulate. Now he's all good, now he's all powerful, because he can create something from nothing. Now he has a benevolent goal: help humans do the same, overcome their weakness. How does he do that? He puts obstacles in their way. He gives them trials to overcome.

    This is long enough already, so I'll leave it here, but I hope the idea comes across.

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