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Religion in a fantasy setting.

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Ž.J., Jul 30, 2021.

  1. Ž.J.

    Ž.J. Dreamer

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    Greetings to all you good folks!

    I took a long break from this forum, but yet i am back and i want to ask thee several question about religion in worldbuilding (medieval fantasy setting).

    In my own setting i struggle a bit with inventing a properly functioning religion for one of my civilizations. The idea i currently have is called "Adh Tiliath" or translated as "The Faith" and the main aspect of it is how humanity was lifted from misery and darkness (this is how this particular cavitation views the times before the rise of settlements, when men were simple hunter-gatherers) by a man who decided to fight his inner demons and lift himself from the dark, thus civilization was born. I struggle a bit with inventing a proper theology for this religion, like: how do people visualize this man, who saved them? what is the main symbol of this religion? what is the continuation of the mythos? and so on....

    I want to have something, that is different from Christianity and any other main monotheistic religions from our world and in the same time different from any fantasy religions, who are popular enough to be immediately recognized . I already have created two religions in this world, one for elves and one for dwarves, but in the same time they are more like Confucianism and Shintoism, more "ways of live", rather then fully fledged religions. For the other civilizations of man i still haven't though of a religion, but i guess i will start when i am finished with this one. Since magic in my setting is in a more "soft form", and it doesn't play a major role in current events, i don't want to really involve magic in this religion, thus i don't want it to have it's origins in magic.

    I ask for your help here. How do you build fantasy religions and do you have any advice of how i can further develop the theology of "The Faith". How to invent a mythos for a fantasy religion?

    .................................................................................................................................

    A bit of a background for those more curious ones. This civilization, or in other words "ethnic family", is made of, what was previously many tribes, but now simply ethnics groups, covering roughly 1/3 of a continent named Elerand. They speak a number of different, but related languages, however when they meet together they communicate in Ereim "language of the people", which is often used as a lingua franca. My main inspiration for them comes from Welsh and Anglo-Saxon peoples. They are one of the first (known) human civilizations to form petty realms and later kingdoms and thus in time their civilization grew so strong, that one of their kingdoms managed to conquer the whole continent, thus forming the Empire. Now it has been around 123 years after the fall of the Empire, an event which now chronologically helps to describe time, as the abbreviations BIF (before imperial fall) and AIF (after imperial fall) are often used.
     
  2. Karlin

    Karlin Dreamer

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    Hi. This is a fascinating subject.

    I'm not quite sure what you are looking for. You say "the main aspect of it is how humanity was lifted from misery and darkness" and mention "this man, who saved them"- but you don't want it to be similar to Christianity. In my mind, you've already defined the religion as similar to Christianity.

    Many real religions are "ways of life" and not "faiths". In fact, historically, I think it was true of most 'religions'. I'd look to lesser known religions for inspiration. Like Sumerian, Egyptian, Mayan or Ugarit religions, or maybe Chinese folk religion (but watch out for readers with a Chinese background!).
     
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  3. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

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    I think I'd be a bit rude and answer your question with another question. Do you need to develop the mythos for this religion? I created a fantasy religion for my own setting, but didn't do much more than define the deities, their names and the basic outlines of how they are worshipped. The reason for that was that religion isn't a major plot driver - I need it as a background and to add depth, but it doesn't need to be detailed. Hence my question to you - do you really need the details?

    I sometimes think we as writers overthink our settings, we try to do a Tolkien or a GRR Martin, forgetting that the sort of level of detail they've created isn't always necessary for our stories. All you need is sufficient detail for the setting to function, so that the plot can move forward.
     
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  4. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I kind of got a similar thing going with my settings religion but I’ve already got through the theology, schisms, organization, symbology and so forth.

    I’m thinking, based on my experience, the big question with your thing would be “from what is the authority/legitimacy/validity derived?”

    Like, Islam is considered legit because its basis is the Quran which is legit because it was written by Allah (through Gabriel through Muhammad).
    Then Christianity is considered legit because it was more or less invented by God through the persona of Christ.
    Obviously, these are reductive examples but the point is that all religion derives its legitimacy from a higher power even if that higher power is Truth or objective reality or nature or what have you.
     
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  5. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

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    No matter what you're gonna make, it's going to be similar to other things in some way or another. It's also pretty difficult to make a religion without any "magic," since what makes gods gods is their ability to do things normal people cannot, whether that be creating the world or knowing things they shouldn't. Even talking animals is "magic" in some way so.

    Religion can take a lot of different forms. It can dictate everything you do (you must carry a sword on you, you must wear this underwear, you must pray x times a day in that direction, you must cook your food in this particular way and set some aside for god) or it can change pretty much nothing, or only during certain parts of the year (the "twice a year Christians" or people who only keep kosher during passover). Depending on the history of your country, it's going to affect everyone, regardless of their own beliefs. America, legally, is not a Christian nation, but culturally it 100% is. There's still places in America where you can't buy liquor on Sundays! And you can only have a max (very low) ABV for beer in Utah because Mormons...even though they don't drink alcohol, everyone else can't have stronger beer.

    But also how much is religion a part of your story? Does it limit what characters do? Or is it more just to make the world feel "real" and lived in? In my story it's there a little but isn't a primary focus, but important for world building: Fate gives members of the royal family visions of the future, which lead to the creation of writing. The visions used to be public knowledge until a huge disaster that destroyed half the kingdom, so now they're kept secret so such an incident won't happen again. The main character is pulled into the plot because there's a vision about her, but there's someone else who interprets it differently and wants her to carry out their version of events. And she, you know, isn't very happy about being a pawn for other people to decide what she should do. There's a lot of other stuff going on, and, theoretically, this is all because of religion, but it's everyone's different interpretations of things that cause the conflict.

    What Fate looks like or how the world was created hasn't really come up. There's mention of humans worshipping dragons, who are pretty "meh" about the whole thing. The world is really big with a long history but most of it doesn't affect the plot or what the characters are doing. There's a moment where we're told about the disaster from a priestess' perspective and a character's past priest(ess) training is mentioned when he gives the MC advice about what to do, but since he's got a unique situation, he's got a pretty non-standard view on everything. It's mostly window dressing, so the fact that I still got big holes is fine. If there's ever things I need to figure out, it'll come up when I'm writing and I'll sort it out then.
     
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  6. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I think you might be throwing too many specific questions too soon, Chasejxyz. ZJ is clearly still on the foundation of this fantasy religion so it’s kind of jumping the gun to start asking about how different groups or cultures (or even specific characters) would interpret or apply the religion.

    As far as story relevancy, I’m not really sure how that matters at this point in the process. Any part of the setting could play some part in the story to some degree even if indirectly or unintended.
    Like, I mentioned having a big multi-denominational religion in my setting but it’s very rarely addressed in the actual novel. The story doesn’t have much to do with the religion but it does have a lot to do with metaphysics. It became necessary for the characters’ sake to know how the people of the setting understood and interacted with the metaphysical aspects of the setting and creating a religion was a useful tool to help flesh of the culture (and more specifically, the characters) view on things like the soul, the afterlife, divinity, fate, morality and so forth.
    I think it’s limiting to suggest that the prime purpose of religion in a setting is to set or justify social rules when it could be used to build or define a culture or people’s view on reality.
     
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  7. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    So, one thing to consider; if we're talking about a similar timeline as in real life then going from hunter/gathers to pseudo-Medieval then it's some 3,000 to 4,000 years. That is a long time for a religion to exist and certainly wouldn't stay the same throughout that entire time period.
     
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  8. Malise

    Malise Scribe

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    KarlinKarlin Lol, I'm the Chinese folk religion practitioner that you're warning about. I always die a little inside whenever someone suggests that Buddhism is "atheistic" when there's a jade statue of Guanyin, the Bhoddishiva of Mercy, chilling in my living room.

    I world-build Eastern religions as if it were a religion so I've got a pointer.

    Religions are primarily used to explain things that people are afraid to deal with. 90% of the time the scary thing is death, the other 9% is things that might cause death specifically in the geographic location of the worshiper. Figure out what that 9% is, then make an afterlife that makes possibly dying from that thing not terrible, then you've got the seed of a religion.

    ex. The people of Rahama have a dinosaur problem, which prevents them from building permanent settlements. So the local priests claim that these dinosaurs have the souls of "hungry ghosts" who need to be vanquished after a certain age before they get "corrupted" into a ravenous form. The priests give some people the title of "warrior exorcists" to deal with the "hungry ghosts" and claim that if these warriors die in combat, they'll reincarnate into an awesome nature spirit that will continue the "Eternal Hunt". Thus, this creates a religion based on the purification of land and righteous warfare.

    I'll post more of these at another time.
     
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2021
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  9. Datar

    Datar Acolyte

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    Absolutely agree with MaliseMalise there! Geography plays a much bigger role than usually thought! Also, centering your religion on one man who lifted the people out of darkness does invite comparisons to Christianity, as KarlinKarlin has mentioned.

    I think, if you want to make the religion in question a monotheistic one, it will be hard not to base it off of any other monotheistic religions. Also think it's quite hard to have religion go without any aspect of magic, because the two are pretty much intertwined.
    Some more information as to what you want the religion to do within the story might be helpful. Merely defining it in opposition to real-life religions to make it different most likely won't produce the best result.
     
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  10. Ž.J.

    Ž.J. Dreamer

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    I absolutely agree with you on this one, it may be my fault here, since i suffer from "completionism syndrome" :D

    I just want to see every part of my setting to be fully developed, at least each known part. I don't plan to introduce all of that into the story itself, but i simply do it for my own sake. My main excuse i guess, is that i started a worldbuilding project, and after that i decided to create a story around/in it, so i treat it more as a project, rather than a story.
     
  11. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    Instead of looking at it from top down what does it look like someone with their feet on the ground?

    What does it look like for your protagonists? For kings? For commoners? How does it differ between them?

    My setting has numerous gods. I know that means that in the average family home there will be a main altar featuring something like a dozen larger icons representing a mix of top tier national gods (think Zeus), major regional gods and gods individually important to the residents with a couple dozen more smaller icons for further gods like the local city gods.

    Depending on the wealth of the family other rooms will have shelves for icons of gods specific to the function of that room like kitchen gods, hearth gods in the family room or gods of health and protection in a child's room.

    Among nobles it's slightly different. They can travel to temples to major gods and are wealthy enough to afford the proper rituals to say, task the lesser god in charge of their particular house with keeping an eye out for intruders.
     
  12. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    Does it though? When you talk about “religious figure who lifted people from darkness and misery”, are you talking about Jesus or Prometheus or Buddha or Muhammad or Zoroaster?
    Nearly every religion has a character who fills that role - hell, even a lot of political movements have figures who fill that kind of role - but what really defines those religions are more the specifics about those characters and how they relate to the divine/spiritual elements of the world.

    I think a lot of people in this thread are focusing too much on the “on the ground” perspective of this religion but I think it would be a lot more useful to figure-out the big picture metaphysical kind of stuff about this religion before you get to the founding of the religion before delving into the day-to-day business of how people interact with this system.
     
  13. I get this.

    Over the years I've found what sometimes informs the world/religion/mythos for me is discovery through a bit of loose writing.

    I'm suggesting a small exercise. Take a character, doesn't have to thought of as your MC or anyone vital to the story, just someone ordinary from the world, and put them in a room/temple/hermitage/town square with someone who is the equivalent of a holy person. Or make it a believer and non believer. Or a proselytizer on a stump and a heckler. What you are after is an exchange which informs some aspects of the world for you without too much forethought. You are letting characters who live in the world reveal it to you, working backwards from the simplest levels instead of bearing the brunt of being the all powerful deity of creation by yourself. :)

    I did this recently using only one character. An elder who was about to be cast out of her order in a remote, unyielding location. Instead, she leaves the remote temple in the middle of the night by choice. In the six pages of that solo character scene, I discovered a half dozen things about the beliefs of her people based on the way her exit took place. The things she chose to take with her as she left, the acts of desecration she committed on her way out and, through the narrator, the rumors spread of her through the inhabitants afterwards.

    Nothing in the scene brought major reveals of the greater religious beliefs of the world by themselves, but they led to some of that sort of development shortly after.

    Fantasy religions fall flat for me when they fail to drill down to the smallest, most common aspects of their following. The symbolic, so ingrained into day to day lives, and the way those things manifest. When the story focus is on the all powerful or the eternal darkness, I'll need to see how the villager, the indentured, the marginalized are affected to make it real. How faith translates in the world of the sick, the dying and those who have lose hope. How does the commoner access the divine. Big picture religion, for me, often ends up as a yawner in print unless I am given access to it on relatable levels.

    The exercise might allow you to create something like the concept of the sacrament. Or coins placed over the eyes of the dead. Or a mourner leaving a stone on the top of a tombstone. Afterward, those simple rituals or symbolisms you've jotted down, (hopefully without too much forethought or angst) may lead you to decide what the symbolism represents in the much larger mythos. So many of our world's simplest rituals can be traced back to the largest constructions of our beliefs. It's those small touches we ultimately get drawn in by. It also may leave you with a character or two for later use. Anyway, just a thought. . .

    Best of luck!
     
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  14. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    I mean, the fact that you put Prometheus along with those others rather demonstrates the flaw in focusing on big picture metaphysical kind of stuff if you ask me.
     
  15. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I put Prometheus in there because I’m not focusing on the bigger picture metaphysical stuff. I’m only focusing on the archetype in those examples. Like, the expression but not the meaning, if that makes sense.
    Jesus, for example, differs from Prometheus not in their role of “elevating humanity” but in their nature (Son of God vs. one of many gods).

    And I think the mistake that many in this thread are making is asking how the religion is expressed before asking what the religion actual is. It feels like skipping a step to me.
     
  16. Malise

    Malise Scribe

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    Pointer no.2

    Nations and states are not the same things. So naturally, national religion and state religion aren't either. This is important in determining whether or not your primitive, polytheistic "seed" religion will develop into a prophet religion or stay a polytheistic religion.

    Polytheism

    If an ethnicity's nation and state have been the same from its bronze age to its early modern age, it'll most likely be a polytheistic country. This is because these ethnicities never needed to "start over" to build a civilization, meaning they keep their seed religion from start to finish. However, a pre-requisite for renaissance-level tech is secularization, so the seed religion will get pushed to the sidelines as a "way of life" to not interfere with science and the arts. In the seed religion's place, philosophy will become the state "religion".

    Irl ex: This is why Taoism and Shintoism are still a thing, along with Confucianism. The same thing applies to Hinduism, although Mughal Conquest and the British Raj sorta prevented Hinduism-inspired philosophies such as Nyaya from being state "religions".

    Prophetism

    If an ethnicity's nation and state don't have a long continuous history, then a quasi-monotheistic prophet religion is all but a given. This applies to both Abrahamic and Theravada (Higher Vehicle) Buddhist-inspired fantasy religions. The quickest way to unify a group of people that don't want to be together but have to fight together is a charismatic leader that allegedly has the sponsorship of the most powerful being in the world. Once a people are united under one state, the single god kinda sticks around, overshadowing all the other gods, until that one divine being is the only one worth wholly investing into. However, it doesn't mean the "seed religion" completely goes away, they just stay in the new religion in a very watered-down form.

    Irl ex: Contrary to popular belief, Buddha is treated as a supernatural being in mainstream Buddhism, on the basis that he vanquished asuras as a part-time job according to some very, very, old books. Like Catholic countries, Theravada countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand, worship Buddha as a central higher being while Hindu-inspired native deities such as Kinnaras and Apsaras operate very much like Catholic saints in the lore. Likewise, while Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand do have long national histories, they don't have a long continuous nation-state history. The gap between the current Khmer Kingdom and the previous Ankhor empire is 400 years, the gap between the end of Myanmar's Bagan Dynasty and the start of the Toungoo Dynasty is 200 years, and the Thai recorded history started around 1200 AD (for context, the Byzantine Empire was still a thing at that time)

    Putting these Guidelines in Practice in a Fantasy Setting

    Rahama in my previous example was a religion built around killing dinosaurs to clear out living spaces, under the justification of the "Eternal Hunt". However, the Gods of the Eternal Hunt, aren't going to be Eternal. Why? They're disunified, illiterate nomadic tribesmen inconveniently next to two land empires and one naval empire. Using the Guidelines that I posted above, this is what would most likely happen to the Rahaman seed religion in a medieval setting.

    The polytheistic empire (Luen) runs a trading route into the Rahaman's land to get goods from the monotheistic empire's land (Chandra), which facilitates the spread of foreign religious books within Rahama. Not surprisingly, some Rahaman's convert to the Chandran's religion, because talking about this "Mertriyeta" guy to Chandran traders seems to earn them better deals. Other Rahaman's pick up books from splinter sects of the Chandran's religion and decide that they might have the right ideas about life. However, the Rahaman on the route doesn't convert to Luen's religion because the required reading for their religion starts at a 10 volume textbook set about a heavily fictionalized civil war and ends with a guide on how to not spiritually disappoint your ancestors.

    Meanwhile, Chandra conquered the southern half of Rahama and did convert the populace into its religion. A single Rahaman is salty about this and decides to be Rahama's "Mertriyeta" to fight against the Chandran's, also dragging some salty non-Rahamans to fight with him. He keeps the edict of the "Eternal Hunt" but instead of using it to convince people to kill dinosaurs, the "New Eternal Hunt" used against all enemies of the freshly unified Rahaman nation-state. What you have here is a brand new monotheistic religion.

    Lastly, the naval land empire (Aulora) is ancient, polytheistic and is currently under an isolationist dynasty. So, the only contact it has with Rahama is some cultural exchange, where the concept of the "Eternal Hunt" makes its way into the Aulor Emperor's court. He likes it and decides to culturally appropriate its aesthetic onto a lot of things while ignoring the parts of it that don't make sense to him. This means that the Rahaman seed religion gets syncretized with the Aulora living religion, despite the two countries' vastly different beliefs and values. In the future, this will cause several contradictions in the still alive Aulora faith, but by then Aulora would have become a secular state.

    In conclusion, that leaves Rahama as basically a monotheistic country, with a localized version of the Chandran religion as its dominant religion, and fringe Chandran sects as its minority religion. Thus, it displays how much geopolitics affects the spread of religion, and how soft-power is equally as important as hard power in civilizations.
     
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2021
  17. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Inkling

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    Religions that arose 2,000 years ago, give or take a few centuries, have that kind of central figure. That's most of the world religions we know: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and pretty much anything spun off of those (Bahai'ism and Mormonism have central figures of their own, for instance, although those religions are under 200 years old).

    But there's no such central figure in Hinduism. Neither is there in any in Judaism. Sure, there's Moses, there's Abraham, but they aren't as central as Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed. Nor do any of the myriad religions we call paganism have anything like that. There may be gods and heroes central to particular parts of the religion--arguably, Prometheus is one--but the whole religion doesn't revolve around them. There may be gods who go to the underworld and return, who die and rise (Inanna, Odin, Tammuz, to name a few), but they aren't portrayed as saviors.

    So, to go back to the original post, if your fictional religion has a savior figure at the center of it, there's no way you can divorce it from Christianity. You can give it a different spin, change the name and details of the savior so he isn't Jesus, alter the religious structure a bit, but at the end of the day, its Christian roots still show.
     
  18. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I think you might be getting a little bogged-down in my use of Prometheus as an example. I’m trying to say that a religion can have a “grantor of divine wisdom” without it being defaulted to a Christianity stand-in. If this “savior” guy is explicitly characterized as a mortal sage with mystic insight, I think most readers would see him as more of a Buddha stand-in than a Christ stand-in as he would lack the elements that make Christ unique among these “savior” types. Likewise, if he is characterized as a mortal prophet who elevated civilization by recognizing and enforcing divine laws - that would make him more of a Muhammad than a Jesus. And if he were categorized as a god who granted humanity stuff than that puts him more in the Prometheus camp (specifically as it relates to Greek mystery cults rather than classical mythology as we modern people understand it) although it seems like ZJ isn’t keen on going in that direction. On the Hinduism front, there are variations of Hinduism that put Krishna in that role. In fact, in those branches of Hinduism, he illustrates my point better than Prometheus.

    In any case, my central point is that the first steps of setting a fantasy religion is to actually define the religion and its philosophy/worldview before trying to apply it to the day-to-day life of people in that setting.
     
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2021
  19. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

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    Most religions have a figure who acts as a bridge between their god(s) and humanity. Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Maui and others all serve that function. This figure doesn't have to be divine. For example, it is considered blasphemy in Islam to assume that Muhammad was anything but human. Followers of Islam have it drilled into them that Allah is the only God and Muhammad is his Prophet.

    Most religions have three basic features:

    1. A set of rules that govern conduct. This is usually driven by environmental factors. Many of the rules of Islam make little sense in the 21st Century - until you remember that it was founded in a desert environment. Those rules start to make sense when you consider how harsh the deserts of the Middle East and north Africa are.

    2. A figure that links the divine with the mortal. They might be mortals (like Muhammad or Joseph Smith, Jnr), divine (like Maui) or a combination of both (like Jesus).

    3. They explain why things are the way they are in ways that the ordinary person can understand. For example, in some Maori legends things like earthquakes were explained as being the result of taniwha who live underground being disturbed or expressing their anger or annoyance.

    As long as you keep these things in mind when creating a religion you'll do fine.
     
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  20. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    Good post, Miles, but to elaborate on your third point: the explanation of how the world works isn’t limited to physical phenomena. It also extends to explaining how the spiritual plane operates with things like the afterlife, divine intervention, karma and so forth.
    And that stuff usually informs the first point. A lot of the seemingly strange rules of Islam, for example, makes more sense when you understand how Muslims understand spiritualism and divinity and so forth.
     
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