Religion is a huge part of the world we live in (whether we like it or not). So, when it comes to building your own fantasy world, the chances are religion is going to feature.
But doesn’t creating a whole religious system from scratch seem a bit daunting?
Yeah it was for me too, especially considering I wanted to feature religion heavily in my world. So, if you’re unsure where to start, I’m going to share some tips and thinking points that helped me to get you started.
First of all, I think if you want to create religion in your world that is realistic and believable, you need to understand a bit about it in this world.
I’m a big fan of using history as guidance for fantasy world building. It can inspire new ideas and also allow you to test out ideas in terms of believability – if it makes sense in this world, the chances are it will in yours.
With that in mind, my first piece of advice would be to read about religions in this world to get clued up on the different aspects you’ll need to consider and also to get a bit of inspiration. And don’t just limit this to the Abrahamic religions – there are plenty of religions out there to diversify your research.
What is the purpose of religion?
In this world, religion is a way of understanding the world and giving meaning to life. Religion might mean something completely different in your world but this is a good starting point.
Religion usually has an origin story, that explains how the world came into existence – answering one of humanity’s biggest, most trickiest questions.
Religion also serves a purpose to keep people’s behaviour in check. It provides guidelines that people believe they should live by – usually with the promise of paradise or heaven if these guidelines are strictly adhered to.
So, what’s the purpose in your world?
Maybe it’s a way of explaining how the world came into existence – there’s nothing wrong with robbing a bit of inspiration from this world.
Or perhaps it’s a story told to keep the masses quiet and compliant.
Perhaps it’s a story that ensures maximum love and devotion for the gods.
Maybe it answers the biggest fear your people have (e.g. mortality).
Deciding on a purpose for your religion first will help you begin to build on what’s important to your people.
The origins of life
It might be a tad controversial to say, but we don’t have 100% of the answers to the mysteries in the world. Some people are happy with what the holy texts say, others prefer science but neither option has all the answers, that please everyone at least.
Is there a truth in your world – I.e have you decided how the world came into existence, whether there are gods…etc?
You may want to keep things mysterious and remain neutral on who in your world knows the truth.
Or, if you decide on the truths of the world you can then decide whether:
- a) no one knows the truth
- b) only some know it
- c) everyone knows it
Some more questions to ask yourself:
Does the mainstream religion in your world have all the answers? Are they true? Are they just fantasy? Is the truth only known to a small cult? Does anyone believe them?
These are big questions really and no one’s expecting you to have all the answers right now. I personally started with a simple idea and built it from there – the gods are real but the stories surrounding them are false.
Morals to live by
Religion is possibly one of the single biggest influences on morals that we can pinpoint.
Although, it does irritate me when people attribute all morals to religion – some people just know that killing is wrong.
What morals are outlined in your religion?
Are there written rules to live by e.g. the Ten Commandments? Or is it more about achieving a greater form of existence like Buddhism?
You can be as in depth as you want here. You can write out strict rules or just apply general ideas to your society. How do people interact with these rules, discuss them and put them into practice (or not)?
You can give a new world a spin by creating ideals that may seem weird to the world we live in to highlight how different your fantasy world is from our own. We can tell a lot from people based on the morals and ideals they live by. E.g. if you have a society/religion that worships death – is murder immoral?
Where there are rules there are rule keepers. Do you have people who represent the interests of your religion/gods, to keep everyone in line?
Depending on how religious your society is, determines how powerful these people are. Religion is a big part of my story and the priests in it are very powerful. However, for a world that’s more secular, these religious authority figures may be more about ceremony than laws.
You may choose to have religion that’s more egalitarian with everyone on the same level or you could create a religious hierarchy like in the Catholic church.
Religion and law (church and state)
That age old debate – the separation of church and state.
Whatever side you come on this issue may influence your choices in your world building – or if you want to do something different you could create a world that is the total opposite of what you’d like to see in this world – it’s fantasy after all.
Either way, try to decide early on how much influence and power religion has over your state/kingdom/democracy/republic. Religion may affect laws but is it written into law? For example, do you have blasphemy laws? Or is religion more about general guidance?
Or, if you have an anti-religious or secular society, how does this affect laws? What influences laws in your world if not religion?
Most religions have special places to go and worship and speak with their god or gods and you may want to do the same. Ask yourself – where do your people go to worship? Do you have temples, churches, holy sites? For your world it could be a building, a forest or cave or another location important to your religion.
For holy sites, you can come up with a whole history behind it and why it’s important to your people e.g. a holy person might have visited/died there or a natural disaster or miracle occurred there.
This is where you’re thrown into the deep end a bit – no real inspiration to take from this world, unless you believe in miracles of course.
If magic is present in your world, the chances are it will tie into religion in some way. If magic is a force of nature, it only makes sense that your religion (which explains life/existence) features magic in its narrative.
Unless magic is a relatively new appearance in your world – in which case, will it influence new religions in the future?
Some questions to ask yourself:
Do the gods have powers, do the priests? Is everyone magical? How does that fit into the origin story of the world? Are religious rituals shaped by magical ones? Is using magic blasphemy?
Unless you are going for a religion which views it as blasphemous to depict the gods (e.g. Islam), then you’re going to have to think about how religion looks for your people.
A good starting point is to take a look at different types of religious art in this world. Are you going to go for the powerful, epic pieces showing the vast powers of the gods? Are you going to go for something more low-key and humble?
Think about what your god(s) look like – are they in human form? Animal form? Are they abstract ideas unable to personify or are they represented through nature?
For some ideas, take a look at the ancient Egyptians’ gods because they had a variety of different depictions. Many of the gods were represented in mostly human form e.g. Osiris, Isis. Others were almost entirely in animal form e.g. Sobek.
The Aten – a relatively lesser known version of the sun god was mostly represented by a solar disk image.
I love the variety of Egyptian religion but I bet it got confusing at the time, especially as many gods had different depictions – human and animal version, or just multiple animals – e.g. Thoth as an Ibis man/baboon for some reason.
If you do go down the animal/human gods things – I’ve done a bit of both – then I think it’s important to choose animals which are appropriate for your religion.
It’s not as simple as picking random animals that look cool. The animals your people will associate with the gods will likely be animals that are in the surrounding area (unless they’ve somehow conquered the world before creating religion). You may have to look at climate and terrain of your world to pick animals that would realistically be known to the people worshipping that religion.
So, maybe don’t pick a woodland deer in a desert country unless there’s a weird reason for it to be there that you can explain.
I went for animals based on our own ones (maybe I’m just boring) but you could create your own animals of course and make your own rules up. Although, I imagine that’s a lot of work.
There is a lot of room for creativity here. You can go as weird as you want really. But if you want the religion to feel real and believable, I think you need to work out how it ties in with the rest of your world.
Religion is influential and may affect everything you build. Think about how it affects our world – it has influenced law, morals, war, diet, clothing, days of the week, planet names, death and burial customs and a whole lot more I can’t think of right now.
So, I really hope some of this has been of some use to you. These are the main points I considered when I was building religion into my world – but then religion is a big feature in my story. It might not be for you, but it’s a huge subject that’s definitely worth considering.
Next week I will be talking specifically about religious conflict and how you can use it in your story.
Thanks for reading!
Did I miss anything out? Got any unique ideas about the purpose of religion or the beliefs that you’d like to share? Pop a comment below to let us know!