New worlds will have new systems of religion and these systems can really help show a lot about the world, the people, the differences between cultures, etc.
Gods and religion are a great fantasy tool, so let’s dive in.
Culture predates religion.
Full disclosure: I’m not a religion scholar, but from what I’ve seen and looked at in history, culture always comes first and then the religion is introduced or developed over time.
Before people could worry about gods and deities, they had to survive. They had to do things that ensured survival as well settle in to their environments, develop social systems, find out what they valued as a culture, entertain themselves, etc. Religion came later.
Religion will also adapt to cultures often times. Anglo-Saxon England was a Pagan, even warrior, culture before Christianity was introduced. Christianity was bent and molded to fit in with their culture once they adopted it. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that it’s part of what led to things like the Crusades or other forms of religious violence in early European Christianity. If a religion is introduced into a warrior culture, it’s going to be bent and shaped. It’s not always a bad thing, but it’s interesting and possibly helpful to you as a writer.
That’s why I encourage you to shape and flesh out the culture(s) of your world before defining the religion. Let the culture(s) guide the faith and not the other way around.
What is important to this culture?
Religion reflects culture. Culture comes from things like language, the environment, social structure, how people live in general, etc.
Many old religions have a “sun” god or treated the sun as a deity itself. That makes the sun as the sun gives off light, helps crops grow, helped people keep time, and was a big unexplained ball of light in the sky.
There were ocean/sea gods (think Poseidon), there are fertility gods/goddesses, nature ones, warrior ones, wisdom ones, and so on.
So think of your culture’s location. What is important to them to survive (animals, trees/plants, oceans, water, etc.)? It’s entirely possible that a maritime culture would have some sort of ocean/sea deity. One that values horsemanship might worship horses or some variant of.
So base your religion on what the people who live there know and interact with in their daily lives.
Different cultures value different things. It can be a huge difference or it can be really subtle ones. Some cultures have almost a holy respect for their elders or other superiors. Some value wisdom and peace, while others value strength and power. Warrior cultures of the past respected strength and ferociousness in battle and it meant you’d have a great afterlife if you died in battle.
Think of your culture’s history, what they do, and where they live. What do they value as a result? What historical or legendary figures do they admire? What stories do they tell? What characteristics are seen as “good”? How is a person treated if they don’t fall in line with the culture’s values?
The beauty of this is that you can get as wild and creative as you want. You can absolutely have a culture that admires ambition and doing anything to get what you want over what is noble or honorable. Just make sure you justify that kind of thing in your world and show the reader how and why these things are valued.
Monotheism vs. Polytheism
Monotheism was actually once kind of rare, historically. The Ancient Hebrews were sometimes viewed by other cultures as “boring party-poopers” because their god wasn’t as “exciting” or “fun” like their own (polytheism) gods.
So decide if your religion (or one of them) is going to be monotheistic or polytheistic. Do the gods all do different things or does one just kind of take of everything?
How does that choice reflect the culture and shape the social system?
Where did the gods come from?
How did they originate? Were they always there and did they create the world? Were they “born”/created later on? Can regular folks ascend to godliness after death?
It doesn’t even have to be true in your world, but you should decide what people believe went on. What stories and texts do people have about the gods? What do people believe to be true?
Villains and scapegoats.
A lot of religions have a “bad” counterpart, like Satan in some Christian beliefs (a lot of Christians don’t believe in Satan/the Devil, but that’s another story). In Ancient Greek faiths, the gods fought amongst themselves.
Does your religion have an “evil” force or forces? Are there “demon” like figures? Are there different classifications of gods? How do they differ (power, motivation, values, etc.)? Are humans themselves the “evil” beings? Why? What impact does it have on the belief system and the people that believe it?
What are the gods?
A lot of religions personify their deities from the Greeks all the way to Christianity. Jesus was god made man, and Ancient Greeks had temples and statues of their gods.
So what are your gods? Are they actual “beings” with names, faces, personalities, characteristics, etc.? Are they more mysterious forces? Is nature itself a deity?
This will have an impact on how the deities are worshipped and how people feel about them in the belief system.
Are the gods real?
This is my favorite part, because you can take this any direction to any degree you want. It’s also necessary. You need to figure out if the gods (from an objective standpoint) if the gods are real and how involved they are in the lives of the people/characters.
You can make it as clear or unclear as you want, but you should make a choice either way. How do the gods influence life in your world? How involved are they? Do they communicate with people? Is it mysterious and subtle? Are the gods the source of the magic system? Are the deities of every culture real or just one? Can they come down to the human realm and be with people? Can they breed with regular people even?
Figure out who the gods are, why they’re there, and what they do.
Gods as characters.
This is trickier. If you have a character that interacts with the gods in some way, then you turn the gods into characters and with that, they need development.
Yes, they’re gods, but if they’re characters they need goals, motivations, personalities, preferences, obstacles, etc. just as regular non-deity characters.
Think of Greek gods. They were all over the place and it’s fantastic. They all had different wants, goals, personalities, got pissed off, bred with each other, etc.
I won’t ramble on, but there are so many options you have with this and it’s wonderful.
This kind of ties in with whether to not they’re real. They need to have power and abilities in order to be differentiated from legendary figures and regular folks.
Are they omniscient? Do they predestine people? Can they kill people, create natural disasters, influence decisions, manipulate people, etc? Can people channel the power of the gods? Are the gods the basis of magic? Do the gods “choose” people?
Personally, I’m a fan of limiting ultimate power because otherwise it feels too easy.
Again, there’s almost an infinite amount of options and you can do whatever does or does not work for you. But you should decide how much power the gods actually have.
Worship and rituals
This is an awesome one too because again, so many options.
This can be anything you want really, so instead of paragraphs, here’s a list to get the gears turning:
- Are there temples or churches? Is this an organized religion?
- Is there prayer? How is prayer done?
- Are their hierarchies within the faith? (clergy figures, fortune tellers, wise people, oracles, etc.)
- Do the gods demand sacrifices?
- Are there holidays and rituals surrounding the gods?
Get as detailed as you like, justify it in the story, and make it awesome.
Another common religion aspect is the afterlife. Is there life after death in this system? What does it look like? How does it reflect the culture? Do only certain people get to go? Is there a “bad” afterlife/hell?
Again, this can be anything, but it should reflect the culture. It should also have an impact on how people conduct their lives and stick to their values. In the Old Norse faith, if a warrior died in battle, they went to Valhalla and feasted with the gods and fought again with them in Ragnarok.
So what would your culture(s) do or believe about an afterlife, if they believe in one at all?
Another powerful tool, but this one should be used with discretion. It’s a lot like prophecy in my opinion in that it should be vague, twisty, and hard to figure out.
Do the gods decide destiny? Does it have to do with an afterlife? Is every person’s fate carefully crafted by the gods? Do regular people have knowledge of this? Can people predict the future?
Again, use it well and carefully. It’s a powerful tool, but not always the most beneficial because it can lead to the reader already knowing the end of the story. “The hero is destined to save the day”, well now I know the ending.
Make it convoluted, unexpected (in the view of the characters), and turn the concept on its head.
Different people will believe different things.
Just as in our world if different cultures developed independently, they will have different faiths, but both believe their own with the same fervor.
Figure out how these different religions interact, if they do at all. They don’t have to have conflict, or at least not one that’s based in “you don’t believe in what I believe in, screw you.”
This will be trickier if your gods in one culture have actual power and influence in the world. Do all the gods of all faiths have power? Are they all connected in some way but “claimed” different groups of people or territories in the real world? Are they kind of worshipping the same things/deities, just in different ways?
If you’re going to explore multiple cultures, you should develop their spiritual and religious aspects as well.
Religion by conquest.
There’s lots of reasons people adopt faiths. The Anglo-Saxons adopted Christianity because the church said they’d give the kings money and power. Other times it was forced on people by way of conquest or other messed up ways (i.e. Manifest Destiny).
It can get really nasty and if one culture conquers another, remember that with their conquest they bring their culture (language, values, and faith).
Don’t be preachy.
No pun intended.
What I mean by this is that don’t use the faith(s) in your world to make a point about religion in our world. You can show the bad and the good of organized religion, or religion in general, but don’t make it “SEE ALL RELIGION IS BAD/GOOD!”
This is fantasy. If you want to write satire about real world faiths, then write about real world faiths. Not that these issues don’t have a place in fantasy, but getting preachy or having such a beat-you-over-the-head message will bore or annoy the reader. It’s also not as simple as that, in my mind. Religion has a long and complicated history and ignoring that feels stale. You have a lot more interesting options in this regard.
Instead show how the faith(s) are good or bad for the characters in the world from their perspectives with their own opinions.
The Faith of the Seven in A Song of Ice and Fire is likely based on the Catholic church, and later in the books some messed up stuff happens with the religion becoming militant and aggressive. This isn’t there to just make a point (“religion is bad!”), it’s a direct result of other characters’ actions that bite them in the butt. It’s a result of years of war and despair. The religion isn’t necessarily what is bad, it’s the people involved that are doing messed up stuff. It’s a solution to a problem that just creates more problems.
It’s perfectly fine for an author not to like or believe in any faith or religion, of course (and vice versa), but that opinion shouldn’t be shoved into a narrative because it’s the author’s opinion. Let the story and the characters guide this, and don’t try to shove a message in there where it’s not useful or if you have stronger options.
Avoid the easy and overdone.
A lot of personal opinion here, so take it with a grain of salt.
Personally, I like religions in fantasy that may hark back to a real world faith, but not overtly and not in the same way. There’s nothing wrong with drawing from those places, but remember this is a different world full of different people so the faiths aren’t going to be the same or develop in the same way. I like getting to know new faith systems, how they work, what’s real, what’s not etc.
So I don’t like seeing things that the “family”, “domestic”, or “fertility” goddess is always a female or maternal figure. Yeah, it makes sense and if it works fine, but at the same time are there any other choices? Again, it will depend on the culture you are writing, but still think of other ways too.
I’m also not a big fan of religious empires oppressing everyone in narratives. Yes, it can work, but if you have cooler options, why not go for it? There usually isn’t a good reason for this empire to oppress everyone other than “power” and that’s a vague goal. Power over what or whom? Give it more than just “power”.
A character that was faithful their whole life shouldn’t just turn faithless at the drop of a hat. A spiritual struggle for a believer is usually a big deal, happens over time, and there’s a lot of back and forth. Becoming disillusioned with a faith is fine for a character, but don’t make it quick and don’t make it because “religion sucks”.
Religions with lots of rules are often written as boring, heartless, militant, and evil. So why not have a faith or a god within the faith that is focused on fun, merriment, and revelry? Why can’t people enjoy what they believe instead of just fear or duty?
Those are just a few things, but really anything that you feel is too easy or doesn’t work well is a good thing to rework.
In conclusion: Go big or go home. Have fun with this. There is almost no limit on creativity and outlandishness because it’s fantasy and it’s fun. Read other stuff, research stuff, and wrought what works for your narrative.