Creating a Fictional Religion

This article is by J. W. Barlament.

Religion plays a major part in many of our lives, and for some of us, is a crucial part of our identities. It finds itself in the center of ideologies and controversies, and so it makes sense that many authors avoid writing about it in their fiction.

Some fantasy authors are hesitant to put religion into their word-building process, as religions are too complicated to conjure out of thin air. However, creating a fictional religion is by no means an impossible endeavor. For those who are willing to try, there are great rewards.

Complexity and Believability

The first thing to remember when creating a fantasy religion is to have it make sense within the world you create. If the religion is true within its world, such as in the works of Tolkien, then the entirety of that world should be a product of the religious events that occurred at its creation. To have a world barely changed from our world, but as a product of events far different than those that birthed our planet, is something that would make very little sense. The world must feel as if it was created in the way that you, as the author, say it was created.

This usually entails leaving many of the details of creation out of the story, as they may prove to weaken the believability of your world. To have more specifics in your creation story is to have more logical fallacies open up for you to unwittingly make in your writing. Building a consistent world is hard, and for first-timers, it shouldn’t be made too complex to handle.

Origins and Fluidity of Religions

It is imperative for writers that the religions they create are molded by those who practice them. Religions change over time, as the needs and standards of societies also tend to change. They are not aspects of our cultures that remain in one shape or form throughout all of time. They are fluid things, and for writers creating religions that last over many ages, their religions should change to reflect the times in which they exist. To have a culture worship the exact same god or gods in the exact same ways over great lengths of time just doesn’t make sense unless the explicit purpose is to show a culture in stagnation and without growth or change.

Inconsistency’s Merits

Consistency is by no means a necessity for fictional religions. Even religions that are true within their fictional worlds do not have to be consistent in their stories. Religion has always been intertwined with mystery throughout its history, and there is little reason for authors to eliminate that in their fiction.

Rather, subtle or great differences in the same religious stories can aid literature in many ways, such as contributing to humor, mystique, or other general impressions from the reader. Thus, it is a beneficial thing to sprinkle subtle inconsistencies into religious stories, but it is also important to make evident the source of these inconsistencies.

A Sense of Belonging

To create a religion for one’s fiction is not simply to create gods and goddesses and the stories behind them. It is to create a critical part of the culture in which the story takes place. Whatever role religions may play, only one thing is truly imperative: religions must be consistent with the rest of the world in which they reside.

Above all else, fictional religions must enhance the illusion that the reader has been whisked away into a living world that is not their own. They must instill into the reader’s heart a sense of belonging, just like the religions of our own world.

Further Discussion

Have you created a fictional religion for your stories?  How does it differ from real-world religions?

When worldbuilding, how much time do you spend on belief systems?

How would a religion based off of fact differ from one based off of falsehoods?

About the Author:

J. W. Barlament is the author of The Plight of a People, a literary fantasy epic now available on Amazon. You can check out his website at jwbarlament.wixsite.com/anindividualmind.

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Miles Lacey
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Miles Lacey

When I created a religion for my fantasy story I decided that a particular ritual that takes place on a person’s 16th birthday proves the gods exist.

When a person turns 16 they take part in a transition to adult ceremony where part of the ceremony involves the 16 year old lying down naked on an altar in a temple for fourteen minutes. Each of the fourteen minutes is dedicated to one of the gods. If nothing happens the gods are basically saying “Meh….”. However, about 0.5% are gifted with the Spark (i.e the gift of magic). It manifests itself in the form of a lightning bolt striking the person on the altar. (That’s why the person is presented naked. If they wear clothes and receive the Spark they’d be burned alive.) The person becomes a mage and is sent to a mages college to train in how to tame and use the Spark.

Every mage gets a unique mage mark which only the mage can see which the gods have revealed to them. The mage will make a stamp with their mage mark which will be their identification mark. Once every so often a person has a mage mark physically burned on their body. This is called “being touched by the gods” but often no one knows what this actually means except that they are “blessed above all others”.

The faith operates on the basis that the gods never give without taking something in return. A person gifted with the Spark is also rendered sterile and, therefore, they cannot enter the institution of marriage because marriage is reserved exclusively for those who intend to have children. When a farmer has a bountiful harvest or a train driver reaches his destination safely they will see it as the gods blessing them but if the farmer loses his crops the following year and the train crashes a few weeks later it’s viewed as the gods collecting their dues.

One of the key teachings from the Scriptures states “There is no such thing as destiny. Every person is dealt the same number of cards but no two hands are the same. What they choose to do with them shall determine whether they drink the wine of victory or the poison of defeat.” (The Book of Ziosa 4:32)

Only during festivals dedicated to a particular god are the religious rituals elaborate and often involve a lot of feasting, drinking and raucous behaviour. Most of the time religious services at the local temples are seen as a time of reverence, prayer and reflection. Scriptures are read and hymns are sung. The books are called the Fourteen Books because it is believed that each god wrote a book each. (As an aside there are eight male and six female gods.)

Every shrine has a shrine priest or priestess and shrine workers made up of mages who are deemed to be too stupid or dangerous to train as full (i.e ranked) mages. They also get relegated to blessing roadside shrines, enchanting icons like home shrines in the factories that make them and other mundane chores which is seen as utterly degrading work among the mages. Temple priests and priestesses and temple workers are mostly composed of mages who prove to have an aptitude in the magic of spiritual and physical healing. They are revered but must uphold the highest standards.

The origins of the world are mysteriously not mentioned but there is a strong hint from the Book of Hiphaalsasa that the first humanoids (humans, elves and neanderthals) may have been brought originally from worlds unknown as slaves but were abandoned with literally nothing but the resources of the planet to rely on.

In this faith science and magic are not always seen as mutually exclusive. Traditionalists believe magic is essential but science is largely a novelty. Rationalists believe that magic is something best used as a last resort when modern medicine and science is not available. Egalitarians believe that science and magic compliment one another. The technology level of the world I’ve created is the 1930s.

after.eternity
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after.eternity

I love to make fake mythologies in my stories that are inspired by actually based on real ones

Story Seed Enthusiast
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Story Seed Enthusiast

Great article! Your article prompted me to pull out and reread the ideas from Mark Rosenfelder’s The Planet Construction Kit. His chapter on religion has interesting ideas on how to incorporate a religion into your writing. He brings up similar ideas that you’ve written on narrative consistency. He also has ideas on the evolution of a religion such as an immune system (where a religion has built in mechanisms to protect itself against skepticism) and the structure around faith. Good food for thought.

Thanks again for the article.

Mythical Traveller
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Mythical Traveller

Religion is at the very heart of my story, and also my struggles with it.

My main antagonists are a very religious people who live highly ritualized lives, whereas my protagonists are upon a spiritual quest.

A large part of my difficulty is the problems I’m having deciding on precisely what the ‘gods’ (working designation) in this world are. We tend to think of gods as omnipotent, incorporeal conciousnesses with their owns agendas, but my take on them isn’t so neat. Many of my ‘gods’ are weaker than a mortal peasant and they don’t have a conciousness in the traditional sense. Except in some places, for storytelling reasons, I feel like I need them to be concious beings who can communicate with my mortal characters. It’s a dillema…

Magic exists in my world, but it is independant from the ‘gods’. Many ‘gods’ have little if any capacity to exert a notable effect on the mortal world, and many nigh-omnipotent beings are not ‘gods’. In the same vein, there are shrines in my world that are imbued with much power and that are also sacred sites for the ‘gods’, but these attributes are independant of one another; a powerful, holy shrine can be rendered powerless and holy, or powerful and unholy, or powerless and unholy. And to top it all off, many denizens of my world don’t realize the 2 dimensional nature of the power/godliness dynamic.

A creation theology conflict plays a significant role in the story, but I suspect I won’t need to worry too much about fleshing out the *true* origins of the world. My characters’ adventures will be based upon what’s current in their world and what they know about history. The mysteries of prehistory and creation itself won’t have much bearing on them.

Inconsistency is a huge factor in my story. My antagonists’ religion is a massive corruption from its origins and much of my current difficulties lie around discerning precisely what it was to begin with, and what was the weak element of this original religion that allowed it to get so corrupted. Some of my characters seek to resurrect the original version of the religion and the question, “how can we make sure [that corruption] never happens again?” will be a major concern in shaping their strategies.

Facts and falsehoods are also (later in the story) a major religious factor for my characters. Falsehoods will be shown to be quite useful in solving problems that, in truth, have no actual solution. However, I find myself wondering whether or not I can build a stable architecture of falsehoods for my society, in a storytelling sense. I suspect that, beneath the architecture of falsehood, there may need to be a caste of upholders who carry the burden of the facts, which they need to know in order to maintain their society and religion.

Nils Ödlund
Member
Nils Ödlund

I've sort of done what it's suggested in the article not to do. I created the world, and then I added in a bunch of gods afterwards. What makes me think I'm getting away with this is that I'm also doing it in-world. There's an entry in the world's main timeline for when the gods appear. By this time humans and dwarves had already evolved on the plant, and the elves had recently arrived from a different plane of existence.

The only race that didn't exist at the time is the anfylk race and they were created by one of the gods some 10,000 years later. In the stories I've written, their goddess is a much more important part of their identity than any other god is for any given member of any of the other races. She plays a much bigger part in their everyday lives, and they pay more attention to her.

For the humans the gods are more of an optional feature in life. You can devote yourself to a god completely if you want to, or you can opt out and just do your thing and perhaps make an offering at some shrine at some point.

There's also room within the setting for cults and religions devoted to gods that don't exist within the setting. Just because there are gods that are known to exist doesn't mean that gods that haven't been confirmed to exist, don't exist.

Overall, I try and treat it more as a lifestyle choice than anything else. You can involve yourself with worship, and you may benefit from it, but you may also refrain from doing so and it may not have any significant negative impact on you.

E.L. Skip Knox
Member
E.L. Skip Knox

Exactly. There is far more to religion than theology or a pantheon. In fact, for many fantasy settings I'd argue "religion" is too narrow a word. "Beliefs" comes closer to how I picture it.

WooHooMan
Member
WooHooMan
skip.knox

Oddly enough, one of the best treatments of religion I've seen comes from the original Conan movie. Conan's discussion of gods with Subotai is perfect in its literal-mindedness, and Conan's prayer to Crom not only illuminates his "religion" but also shows us his character. Which is exactly what a scene ought to do.

I would argue that "religion" in the Conan movie isn't restricted to the gods of the setting. Conan's attitude towards the wind as a symbol or embodiment of freedom and what the concept of freedom means to his personal beliefs can be seen as kind of religious when you consider the fact that Conan acknowledges the existence of a sky god who is, in some way, in conflict with Conan's "mountain" (read: earthly and materialistic) god Crom. Also, the Riddle of Steel (and Thulsa Doom's "flesh" alternative) veers into the religious.
Conan seems to pick elements of these four belief systems (Sky god worship, mountain god worship, Riddle of Steel, Doom's philosophy) and synthesis them into his own personal Crom-revering religion/philosophy. And while that sounds complicated, the religion is as dumb and unrefined as Conan himself.

E.L. Skip Knox
Member
E.L. Skip Knox

When I consider the variety of beliefs that pass under the heading of Christianity–not merely the multitude of organized denominations but the whole panoply of customs, rituals, and beliefs that historians lump under the heading of "popular religion"–then observe that this is only one monotheistic faith and so add in Islam and Judaism, which both have their own cornucopia of practices and convictions, the notion of coming up with "a religion" seems quixotic at best. (do I get a prize for today's longest sentence?)

I know we often simplify for the sake of story-telling. That's fine; we all do it, of a necessity. With religion, though, the activity seems more arbitrary and contrived, at least in most books I read. Whether it's practice or prayer, prophecies or divine meddling, it's too often a literal deus ex machina. Oddly enough, one of the best treatments of religion I've seen comes from the original Conan movie. Conan's discussion of gods with Subotai is perfect in its literal-mindedness, and Conan's prayer to Crom not only illuminates his "religion" but also shows us his character. Which is exactly what a scene ought to do.

Sheilawisz
Member
Sheilawisz

Excellent article!

I have never tried to imagine an entire religion for any of my Fantasy worlds, but I know that the concept is powerful and intriguing. In my work as a storyteller I concentrate a lot on telling the story itself, and even though there are often world-altering events taking place in the narrative my worlds are never described in great detail.

However, religion has been shown to be very important in some of my Fantasy settings and a few prayers have been part of the narrative. This is true especially in the cases of Violet Riding Hood and also more recently Alice into Darkness. I can post some of the prayers in this thread, in case anybody is interested.

Watz Eyll has a religion comparable to a combination of Catholic faith with witchcraft-like traditions, while the religion of Wander's Land is far more similar to the Catholic church even though there are also important differences. Wandellian funerals in particular have been well described, since they take place in the story twice, and they have special prayers for that.

Wandellians are very religious people. Everybody in that country attends Mass at least once a week, while some families go to church every single day. They have prayers and blessings for almost everything, the monasteries are very prestigious places and all Priests are extremely respected and valued by everyone as important spiritual leaders.

Aetherland (the nearest and hostile neighbor of Wander's Land) has a much darker religion, and I know that everything there is pretty dark and miserable even if I do not know much about that place.

Winter Hollow reflects many parts of my personal spirituality, but that story is not quite Fantasy.

WooHooMan
Member
WooHooMan
TheKillerBs

Thing is, the line between religion, science, and philosophy get blurry at times.

All the more reason why you can't rely on just one field when building a character or setting.

TheKillerBs

If the subject of your scientific enquiry is a deity or magic, it is still science. And if you have real gods and real magic, then religious and magical science would be quite valid.

I guess I'll go ahead and point-out that inquiry (scientific or otherwise) into the nature of the divine is not religion. That's theology, which I would put under the category of philosophy.
Man, that line is just getting blurrier and blurrier.

TheKillerBs
Member
TheKillerBs

Thing is, the line between religion, science, and philosophy get blurry at times. In the past, there was no divide, at least not in the sense of it that we have today.

Also, ranting a bit here, but knowledge of the natural world is not science. Science is knowledge derived from a specific systematic process of planting a question, making a hypothesis, formulating a repeatable experiment, gathering data and drawing conclusions, which we call the scientific method. The scientific method did not exist (that we know of) prior to the 17th century and knowledge that predates it is not science. If the subject of your scientific enquiry is a deity or magic, it is still science. And if you have real gods and real magic, then religious and magical science would be quite valid.

Now, whether science is the best method to find out questions about the natural world. As a scientist, if applied scientist, myself, I would say yes, absolutely. In the real world, yes. Ask a scientist. In a fantasy world, where gods or godlike beings can bend reality to their whims and make scientific enquiry into the necessary phenomena to understand the natural world? Maybe not.

WooHooMan
Member
WooHooMan
Viorp

Yup I spent a crazy amount of time thinking of Religion in my current setting.
You see a lot of people seem to miss one signifficant thing about rellgions and magic in a fantasy setting.
In a world where Gods are real… religion is science
In a world where magic is real… magic is science

So I took this approach and while I created a proper mythology I won't reveal it in the book.
Instead I'll have all religions (except one) be correct in some regard while wrong in others.

I think this is the biggest blunder people make when doing anything with religion. Be they writing about it, inventing fictional religions or whatever. Even assuming gods/God/the Other/divinity are/is real, religion is religion and science is science. And presumably magic would still be magic.

If a character asks "how was the world created", then science would probably be the best place to get an answer. If they want to know "what is the difference between good and evil", then maybe they want to turn to religion or philosophy. And then magic has its own applications and limitations.

These are all just tools for the characters to use when trying to fulfill their goals or reach their ends and you limit a character by saying "this guy does magic and only magic" or "this lady is all about science and nothing but science". Giving your character a wide range of beliefs from the rational/scientific to the personal/philosophical to the emotional and spiritual can do wonders for giving your character depth.
In my works (and honestly, in my life), I think every viewpoint has some validity. A lot of the time, it's not even a case of being correct or incorrect.

Viorp
Member
Viorp
Devor

To me, handling religion has some big risks. Since there are real-world religions, some kind of parallel or comparison with them can break immersion (of course, in some cases that's the point). Since D&D and its fanatic cults and strict deity-domains have shaped our perception of fantasy religions, many writers fall into the trap of doing likewise and following the stereotypes. Finally, it's a lot of info to dump on readers, so there better be a good payoff from it.

But gods can be a terrific way to customize your world and set it apart. Do they walk the earth? Do they still create life or change the landscape? Have they created the magic or the races? Do they get involved in human affairs? Do they want something from the nations in their world?

There are so many awesome possibilities if we could rethink the way we approach the subject.

Yup I spent a crazy amount of time thinking of Religion in my current setting.
You see a lot of people seem to miss one signifficant thing about rellgions and magic in a fantasy setting.
In a world where Gods are real… religion is science
In a world where magic is real… magic is science

So I took this approach and while I created a proper mythology I won't reveal it in the book.
Instead I'll have all religions (except one) be correct in some regard while wrong in others.

Brian DeLeonard
Member
Brian DeLeonard

To me, handling religion has some big risks. Since there are real-world religions, some kind of parallel or comparison with them can break immersion (of course, in some cases that's the point). Since D&D and its fanatic cults and strict deity-domains have shaped our perception of fantasy religions, many writers fall into the trap of doing likewise and following the stereotypes. Finally, it's a lot of info to dump on readers, so there better be a good payoff from it.

But gods can be a terrific way to customize your world and set it apart. Do they walk the earth? Do they still create life or change the landscape? Have they created the magic or the races? Do they get involved in human affairs? Do they want something from the nations in their world?

There are so many awesome possibilities if we could rethink the way we approach the subject.

E.L. Skip Knox
Member
E.L. Skip Knox
WooHooMan

So, when writing religion, that's the thing that I tend to focus on: how does the religion fit into the character rather than how does the religion fit into the setting.

I like to believe I'm doing this with Altearth. Most humans, and a good many dwarves as well, have continued with the state religion of Rome. That religion was itself heavily formal and external, so I have retained that. Elves are essentially atheist; they regard every religion as a kind of anthropological curiosity. So far, I have not had a story in which religious beliefs play a large part, so what I have is mainly backstory; which is to say, it's that outsider looking in. I know my orcs are monotheists. That gnomes believe in spirits though not in gods. That ogres are sort of pantheists; each individual chooses from the smorgasbord, but once they "convert" it's permanent. Old-timey dwarf religion derives from their relationship with the earth itself, but I've not got any further than that. And I realize that I've now assigned one religion per race, a standard RPG faux pas. I'll have to work on that. Somebody needs to do ancestor worship. Maybe I'll just have types of religion and not tie them to specific peoples.

So, it's difficult, at least once you get beyond the superficial. I fully agree with WooHooMan: weave the religion from the threads of the story.

Antonio del Drago
Admin
Antonio del Drago
WooHooMan

So, when writing religion, that's the thing that I tend to focus on: how does the religion fit into the character rather than how does the religion fit into the setting.

Terrific advice. I'm bookmarking this.

Viorp
Member
Viorp
WooHooMan

My big thing with fictional religions is that it's mostly just metaphysics mixed with some anthropology. I very rarely feel like any character has any kind of personal connection with their gods/God/the divine/the spiritual. Like, I don't really feel like they're getting anything substantial from their faith/belief. And as a result, it always feels like these religions are being described by someone on the outside looking in rather than someone who genuinely believes that stuff. It always comes across as weirdly cold.
So, when writing religion, that's the thing that I tend to focus on: how does the religion fit into the character rather than how does the religion fit into the setting.

Holy shit mate. You are a genious. I have to completelly rework how I use religions. It should not just be a visual backdrop but an integral part of characterisation.

WooHooMan
Member
WooHooMan

My big thing with fictional religions is that it's mostly just metaphysics mixed with some anthropology. I very rarely feel like any character has any kind of personal connection with their gods/God/the divine/the spiritual. Like, I don't really feel like they're getting anything substantial from their faith/belief. And as a result, it always feels like these religions are being described by someone on the outside looking in rather than someone who genuinely believes that stuff. It always comes across as weirdly cold.
So, when writing religion, that's the thing that I tend to focus on: how does the religion fit into the character rather than how does the religion fit into the setting.

Viorp
Member
Viorp

In my world I use existing religions and twist them around. Judaism, Christianity, Buddism and Shintoism have their equivalents and there is also the Church of the Eternal Fire.

Antonio del Drago
Admin
Antonio del Drago

I tried a different approach in my novel (which is in the editing stage, by the way). Rather than creating a new religion, I took existing religions (Eastern Christianity and Judaism) and transported them to a different realm.

I considered this question: how would these religions evolve in a fantasy world with different rules? This opened a lot of new possibilities, and I'm pretty happy with how it turned out.

Gabriella L. Garlock
Guest
Gabriella L. Garlock

Because my kingdom is modern–secular–I’m asking many familiar questions about how religion and ethics fit into people’s lives. It’s alt-earth with a tradition of cathedrals and monasteries, temples and vestals. Two very different styles of religion which centuries ago the nation somehow decided worshipped basically the same thing, so they continue side by side as one “state” religion–but barely one.

Because of the modern setting (near contemporary social and technological stages as our own) the creation stories haven’t come up, just some historic figures and some comparison with neighboring kingdom religions. And yet because a monk is one of my MCs it IS important to my story. It just focuses more on questions of ethics in the modern day than on deities.

Perhaps for the revision I should have other details about their religion hashed out…just in case.

J. W. Barlament
Guest
J. W. Barlament

I think you definitely should. Even if they aren’t directly mentioned in your story, it’s always a good idea to know what ideas and traditions the religion is based on. That way, it’s easier to see how the ethics of that religion could develop, and you could further develop them by knowing their origins.

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