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Inventing a Religion

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Greybeard, May 10, 2011.

  1. Greybeard

    Greybeard Minstrel

    Have you tried creating a new religion for your stories? Where do you recommend beginning?

    Religions invented for fantasy novels typically gravitate towards two ends of a spectrum. They are obviously patterned after a real religion, which can be unsettling. Or they are oversimplified caricatures of good or evil.

    How can an invented religion transcend the tendency to go in either direction?
  2. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

    The religion I created for one of my stories, The General's Secret, was originally created to give me an excuse for my main character keeping a secret about his identity - he's immortal, and he's invaded another city. I wanted the people to hate him, forcing him to pretend to be mortal. So I decided a religion that believes in reincarnation would work nicely, as he bucks their expectations. One that dispises deception would be fun too, so discovery that he was keeping a secret at all makes them hate him. So I went with a twin gods scenario - the god of truth, honesty, justice, virtue. That's Reth. Sune, his brother, is the god of deception, dishonesty, secrecy etc.

    I tied this into the reincarnation thing by having the gods lead dead people's souls to their next life, with the belief that Reth leads honest souls to good (high born) lives, and Sune leads dishonest souls to bad (low born) lives. This also means I've got a sort of hierarchy built into the mindset of these people. Kings and princes are automatically the best people to follow because they are honest. Slaves and the poor are dishonest, or they'd have been born rich. So if you're not particularly well born, and you tell people you're a prince from some distant city they've barely heard of, and you have at least some evidence to back it up, or a very good story, or swear an oath on the steps of the temple of Reth, they'll put you in charge of stuff even if you're not a citizen.

    I also made it that they believe that immortals were so deceptive that even Sune refused to walk them to the next life when they died, so they remained almost as ghosts - they don't really know much about immortals, and think they could spot one if they saw one, which works in my character's favour because he doesn't particularly stand out.

    I've used this both as a positive force for my characters and a negative one. Admittedly they suffer from people's beliefs more than they benefit, but there is a key moment where an oath made at the temple of Reth is believed even though the people see the person who made it as a follower of Sune and thus deceptive, because to them it isn't possible to make an oath there without the honest intention of keeping it.
    Last edited: May 10, 2011
  3. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

    I don't make religion an emphasis in any of my stories because, frankly, I'm an antitheist. I don't like religion, neither any proposed religion nor the idea of religion. But I don't want to turn my novel into a soapbox for that - at least not THIS novel, anyway - so mentions of religion are mostly delegated to naming conventions and festivals. And all of my major characters are atheists, save a couple of Earthlings who are unspecified (but given their respective time lines, I would say two are Christian and one is Buddhist). Still, given the fact that the major antagonistic force created their world and those who inhabit it, it is hard not to at least toy around with a religion, even if it is mostly background fluff. All of the week days (there are six) are different words for immortality, and the Charnel (a "god" according to the religious) briefly talks about it with my protagonist. I have a little about it, but I don't develop it very heavily.

    As with everything else, my major concern with religion in a novel is simply its relevance to the story. How does it play a part, and why do we need to know about it? Beyond that, I don't really care if a religion resembles an Earth one (though some cross the line between 'resembling' and 'Hasus = Jesus, come on, it's really obvious'), though as someone who has studied religions (particularly Judeo-Christian and Norse), I will get annoyed if it is basically identical to an Earth religion, save for some arbitrary changes for the sake of convenience. I've read a few stories where the religion was basically Greco-Roman - down to the names of the gods - but all the gods save Aphrodite were monogamous, for no reason but what was clearly the author's own morality.

    I think religion can be interesting in fantasy stories, particularly since certain elements of it aren't things we could discuss in regards to Earth stories. For instance, in many fantasy stories, the existence of the gods is undeniable - or, at least, far more plausible than any alternative (as many stories explain magic away as a gift from the gods). That's something that could be interesting to explore, though most just use it as a good backing for some deus (literally) ex machina and polarized good and evil. I would still like to read more about religion, worship, and faith in a world where the gods are unquestionable, though. What sort of people wouldn't follow the gods, and what punishments would there be for unfaithfulness? And would rituals involve the god/dess directly, in some fashion? A feast in their honor, a dance (or mating ritual, eh?) between a priestess and her god, something involving direct contact, you know?
  4. JBryden88

    JBryden88 Troubadour

    I think it's hard to -not- draw a parallel to real world religions at times, even if you avoid it. The reason isn't necessarily the writer's fault. The moment the reader reads "and he launched a crusade" or something about priests, or whatever, they will draw parallels.

    One of the faiths of the main characters in my novel in progress is that of the horse-lord. They believe in a god who was once a man, the founder of their people, who in life was a breeder and tamer of horses, a mighty warrior, and an overall good man. Thus, they worship him based on those things: horses are highly revered, thus are those who raise them. Those who ride horses -into- battle are highly respected, and the religion emphasizes priests who double as soldiers rather then sitting in an organized temple preaching.
  5. sashamerideth

    sashamerideth Maester

    I have so far two primary religions, one a matriarichal deity for my travelling people, who receive instruction and revelations from her via stones. They worship her and travel so when they die they can continue on her path, forever travelling the infinite universe.

    The other is more Buddhist in style with a person discovering something about my people and building a system of meditation to enhance abilities and approach to life. No soul, spirit or continued existence after death, just living life as best they can. This group also reveres technological advancement and scientific learning and progress more than any other group.

    The rest are superstitious with beliefs of fairies, witches, etc. but primarily atheistic.
  6. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

    This was addressed some time ago, so I'll be (comparatively) succinct here.…

    I consider the first, and by far the most important, question to be: are the gods real? If they are, and if they care at all about the ways in which they are worshipped, this will create extremely strong constraints on the forms of religion–these will actually have to conform to the deities' wishes.

    If the gods are not real, or if for whatever reason the gods don't care about the practices of their followers, then anything goes. And, yes, it becomes difficult not to echo historical examples, if for no other reason than because there's such a bewildering variety of them.

    I have routinely created religions under all the above circumstances. It's certainly a more interesting exercise when you start from the assumption that the gods respond to their followers, and in direct proportion to the extent to which they're pleased. Try it and see what happens.

    Keep in mind that religious difference doesn't need to be a "good vs. evil" struggle: it can simply be an "us vs. them" struggle… assuming there's any conflict at all. Most of what we think of today as "pantheons" arose from the gradual accommodation of the gods of neighboring cities/regions into one's own structure of beliefs. Your neighbor's god might be regarded as "evil"… or the god might just be regarded as your neighbor's, and not yours. You might even propitiate such deities from time to time, particularly if you happen to be away from home: "When in Rome," etc. Who knows? Some day your priests might decide that your deity is married to a neighbor's; don't want to burn any theological bridges in advance of such an eventuality, now do ya?
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  7. Fnord

    Fnord Troubadour

    As much as I enjoy the "human-like" god qualities of Greek and Norse mythology, I tend to keep the gods "distant and obscure". The gods are "real" but largely unknown, represented by rather vague terms based on their influence; the elements, the cardinal directions, the seasons, etc. In this way, religion is not constrained by the real edicts of gods, much like religion works in our world. After all, we have people who--worshipping the same god--can commit acts of love or commit acts of terrible violence. One religious group in a temperate area worships the sun god as a bringer of life, warmth, and light but a religious group in a harsh desert climate treats their worship of the same god as a vengeful god who punishes with fire and little mercy. The gods are the same but the worshippers' interpretations of that god all vary.

    I'm an atheist too but I'm extremely fascinated with mythology and theology and, well, fantasy allows you to write in a fashion contrary with your beliefs about the real world, just as I don't try to apply physics to magic.
  8. ade625

    ade625 Scribe

    Instead of giving my own examples (which I admit, I'm still tempted to do) I'll try and answer your questions outright, since there's already quite a lot of examples floating round.

    First off, as it's been said, you need to decide how much influence the gods have on the denziens of your world. A walking, intefering god will be handled differently to one that exists only in the imagination of its worshippers, as you might imagine. If the gods are unequivocally real, then you can give them traits with little or no reason. If the opposite is the case, you'll want to start thinking about how they came about in the first place.

    One way of coming up with a god is just to give them a theme or area of expertise, and then extrapolate from there. My advice would be to treat gods as characters, but characters that may be misunderstood by the general populace. And then you can craft interactions between the gods, with a little exaggeration given for the celestial measure.

    Ah, I'll give my example here at the end, feel free to skip if you're all exampled out. In one world I'm working on, the gods are sort of essences of nature and humanity, but given power and personification through reverance and belief. However, long in the past a long and violent war between these near immortals resulted in them being trapped on another plane, still able to influence humans by giving select followers a small fraction of their power. Hence, as mentioned in this thread, all magic in the world comes from the gods, but is usually quite specific in use, and limited by nature. The gods have their own conflicts and rivalries in this upper plane, but there is no real consequence that can diminish them except for lack of worship, so they rely on humans to act out their grievances. And of course some gods left devices behind that could potentially bring one or all of them back, which becomes a major plot point in a not too obvious way.
  9. Chase Simba

    Chase Simba Dreamer

    The idea with a religion is to provide a motive or effect on the world you have. You might have, for example, the House of Flastin, a religion following the acts of Flastin the Monk, who was devoted to helping those in need and giving to those with less. Now everybody loves and donates to them, thus making them more likely to do good. Another aspect of this is the Dorian Quartet, a pantheon with each god aspect being a different aspect of life. One aspect just happens to be heavily dependant on pride, and that leads to it's priest becoming involved with each government, slowly being corrupted by power and ending up murdering the priests of the other three aspects and turning the entire world into a theocracy (note: another reason for religion). The religion in and of itself doesn't matter, it's the effect on the world it has that's important.
  10. Chase Simba

    Chase Simba Dreamer

    But, of course, if the gods actually have influence on the world via more physical means, as ade625 noted, the effect religion has is extreme. Given your post is about how to keep your religion from becoming good/evil, I believe that the post above this is what you're looking for. The examples above show good and evil, but you just have to keep the effects minimal. It will still change the morality of the population, but, if the population is in a good economic/lifestyle position, then the religion won't have much effect, as they won't have to rely on faith to fix too many problems.
    Just remember that it's all about how religion affects your world.
  11. Derin

    Derin Troubadour

    If you want to avoid that, just... don't pattern your religion after a real-world religion, and don't give it absolute good and absolute evil. Most human gods behave a lot more like humans than gods. Good and evil are a matter of perspective.
  12. Hans

    Hans Sage

    When creating a religion I normally first look at terranian ones. There are lots of them and a lot different ones.
    Many antique religions have no concept of good and evil at all. AFAIK Zoroaster was the first to come up with a bipolar monotheism. Some of his ideas found their way into the bible during the time of babylonian captivity. And from there, well you know it.
    As said in this thread before many of the old religions were a conglomerate of different tribe and city gods. The pantheon of ancient greece was a temple to all goods. Not just the big greek ones but all of them. The romans had a temple to the unknown god. They also had some very strange cults with only a few followers. They all were accepted. In the later years as long as they accepted the emperor as primal big god. Until christianity took over and other cults faded away.
    Today we often see the egyptian Set as an evil god. The egyptians did not look at him in that way. He was an ambitious god of the underworld that wanted to become god of darkness. (Or was it the other way round? I have to look this up.) That was accepted. Killing his brother Osiris (twice) was malicious but not outright evil. The egyptians prayed to him for a very pragmatic reason: He was the one to decide what happens when you are dead. And after all, that's a very long time.
    Hinduism still has that embrace every god concept. Heck, even Jesus and Buddha are accepted as gods in the hinduistic pantheon. (Not the greek temple. I just don't know a better word.) The hinduists had some cults that could be seen as evil (google the history of Kali) but hinduists did not see these that way.

    I could give other examples. But the wall of text would be too big then.

    For my own religions I mainly work from that non exclusive concept and look where it leads me.
  13. Imperialis

    Imperialis Acolyte

    In my world, a sci-fan affair with a heavy roman imperial/ renaissance feel to it, there is a religion known as the Emotoria, a completely madeup word that should give you some clue as to it's nature. The Emotoria is an anonymous religion, no one knows anyone in it thanks to masks, large enveloping robes, and voice modulation. In this world a prophet named Varro taught the people how detrimental emotion was, and how crippling it was on cultural evolution. Suffice to say people could not give up all emotion, but they wanted to follow Varro's teachings. Thus Varro came up with the Emotoria, a place where one worshipped the emotion that characterized them most, whether Apathy or Anger, Lust or Love you met with the emotion of your choice and celebrated it with likeminded individuals. For instance, in the worship of Pride, the members sit in a circle and boast all their accomplishments and all the others congradulate them. With their emotions worked out the people act like robots most of the time, very efficient. While not true gods, certain individuals, known as Emobites, use emotions in every day life, and this can have a profound effect on people. Imagine a soldier, who lives a totally emotionless life 48 weeks of the year, it's an Earth-emigrated universe so same calendar, suddenly comes into conflict with a very Angry man who has just stolen something out of Greed and is Scared to be captured. He shouts at you, no one has ever shouted at you before, he scurries away because he's scared, no one has ever run from you before, your not trained for the chase, it could really confuse you. And you've never been confused before.

    Kind of a weird concept, but these emotions aren't gods, Varro isn't a god, he taught them about the gods. The gods were stars, cold (you know what I mean), quiet, sterile. Machinery is the essence of gods, and the android is the perfect representation of gods. So worshiping gods is pointless, if they want to help,'they will, and if they don't, no amount of reason can change a mind so perfectly logical.
  14. SeverinR

    SeverinR Vala

    I have only created Elven gods. Six I think, with various spheres of control and good-evil.

    I take the good of religion for the good religions, mix good and bad with the neutril religions and the evil for the evil religions.

    But good or evil, mankind can corrupt the meaning.
    I have yet to make a cleric that worships them, so general information is all I need right now.

    I started out writing using the D&D elven god, but didn't like working with someone elses creation and the legal issues if I ever get published.
  15. AParker

    AParker Acolyte

    I'd suggest looking at general religious themes. For example, the death and rebirth motif is quite common- from Christ to Adonis, Baldr to the Hero Twins, Orpheus to Blue Jay. Whether it's literal physical death or a descent into the Underworld, it comes up a lot. Other common themes include cyclical displacement of earlier deity figures (most of the Greek cosmology, the Norse Gods to the Frost Giants, and by their own descendants/reborn selves come Ragnarok) or a great flood (a huge number of cultures have this, although I tend more towards the theory that this is because floods happen in a lot of places, rather than an actual worldwide flood having occurred), and, I'm sure any student of theology could point you towards a great many more.

    So rather than copy specific beliefs, take some of these common themes that appeal to you, and create your own versions and interpretations of them to form the basis of your religion.
  16. J. Rosemary Moss

    J. Rosemary Moss Scribe

    I don't think it's a bad thing to borrow from existing religions in world building. I've borrowed quite a bit from both my own religion (Judaism) and from others.

    Sometimes it's simple stuff, like having a culture recite the main grace come after a meal, instead of before, as in Jewish tradition (think of the Birkat haMazon). Sometimes it's more far-reaching, like using the Jewish calendar (which is a pretty decent calendar, as the ancient ones go) as the basis for reckoning time, even if I give different names to the days and months. Sometimes it's in a cultural attitude--for example, I'll have a prevalent opinion that deed matters more than creed, which is also common in Judaism.

    Then I might turn to ancient Roman culture for ideas for holidays, or to the Roman take on Isis for ideas about another culture's deity, or to the Roman version of Stoicism for ideas about a predominant philosophy. Then maybe I'll look at the Hindu concept of puja for ideas about daily, personal devotions.

    At any event, our world is filled with fascinating religions--yes, I love religious studies and I'm very much a religious pluralist! So I like to use the religions we have as springboards in world-building.
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2011
  17. Max Roe

    Max Roe Acolyte

    The monks in the monastery at the top of Mount Blackwyn are the most prominent point of religion in Bloodlines. They somewhat resemble Buddhism in that they strive for knowledge and inner peace more than following the will of their God. They do believe in a supreme creator, though they feel that it does not control what happens to the people of the world, and that it does not enforce any consequences. These monks believe that when you die, your physical body is left as a shell, and that your spirit moves on to a separate plane of existence. Where you go depends not necessarily upon your actions in relevance to others, but the level of peace you attained before you died.
  18. Jester

    Jester Dreamer

    I think you need to consider the amount of integration with the state your faith has, if any. Where in the general power scheme does it fall? To transcend the idea of good and evil you can align your gods on more complex concepts like emotions or ideals.

    That's part of one of my first attempts at religion-building. It was a global religion based around a pantheon of deities. It got to be a little complicated blending the different cultures, traditions, and worship-systems into an integrated mythology. The core concept was that each god was basically a manifestation of an ideal or trait (knowledge, bravery, etc) and lent its patronage to certain nations or churches.

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