#WBW – A Religious Intermission!

Hello World Building frens!

Allow me to start today by thanking the beautiful and talented Daarka for the lovely new header image for our world building segments! Thank you Daarka! ❤

Now, On to business… I know that I had originally said we’d have a delicious double up of podcast fun, but alas, I came down with pneumonia shortly after my last post and so in an effort to rest, I laid off of the recording and editing. Please accept both my humble apologies and this intermission post on religions in its stead!

Following on from our month long myth extravaganza, today’s installment is going to tackle the ritual side of things and get stuck into talking about creating our own fictional religions!

What’s in a religion?

First off, it’s important to have a clear understanding of just what’s involved in a religion before you start trying to make your own! So, what are the key components we can find in any religion we encounter in the real world?

According to the very smart Bruce Lincoln,  Professor Emeritus of the History of Religions in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, there are 4 distinctive qualities which all religions on our planet share.

  1. A discourse that makes authoritative, transcendental claims
  2. Practices shaped by this discourse
  3. Community
  4. Institutions that regulate community membership and provide expertise on practices and discourse

So, let’s break that down a little. All religions are grounded in written or spoken communication, that relates to some sort of spiritualism (1). They need to possess some sort of authoritative body, that governs membership (4). They must have people who agree with that spiritual communication (3). And lastly, and perhaps most importantly for our purposes, they need to have a series of rituals and actions based around that spirituality which members participate in (2).

So, incorporating these 4 broad elements into our creation process will help us make a relatable and functional region for our world building purposes.


The big questions!

There are of course some things which you’ll need to be certain you know about your religion, before you can get into the nitty gritty of creating rituals and institutions! It’s time to ask yourself the big questions!

Is there one God or a pantheon in your world? If there’s a pantheon, does each God have its own portfolio to look after? By portfolio we mean an area of focus,for example in the Ancient Greek religion, Ares was the God of War, Aphrodite the Goddess of Love etc.
Knowing as much as you can about your God/s is probably the first step in creating a structured religion.

Are there distinctly good and evil Gods within your religious framework? Do you have a dichotomy similar to Christianity which keeps things black and white?
In my fantasy trilogy, I purposely wanted to avoid the idea of a black vs. white, good vs. evil religious system and instead focus on shades of grey.

What about the relationship between the Gods and their petitioners? Are your Gods like Zeus? Coming down from Mount Olympus to mess with mortals? Or do your Gods function more like distant and abstract concepts? Once again, when creating the religious system for my fantasy trilogy, I didn’t want to have Gods which could act on the world in the Greek sense. I leaned more towards drawing on elements of Taoism, incorporating the idea of two forces that must be kept in balance with one another.  Understanding how you want your God/s to relate to the world you’ve built is a key aspect in constructing the right religion for your world.

Is there more than one religion in your world? Is it like our modern day where different subcultures have formed around ideas or events within a religion? For example look at the varying different forms of Christianity that have sprung up over the years! From Gnosticism way back in the time of Rome, to Mormonism in the colonial U.S.
Religions in our world tend to change and evolve with time, is it the same in your fictional creation? Have your religions undergone development as the society of your story has developed?

Are there non-believers in your world? That is, are their atheists? This is a great question to ask yourself, especially if you’re running a tabletop game where there are clear mechanics for casting magical spells tied to religions! How does disbelief in the divine affect your players in this instance?

Once you’ve started to get a picture of how the Gods relate to the world you’ve built, creating rituals and traditions surrounding everyday occurrences like deaths, births, marriages and seasonal changes becomes less of a daunting task!

Constructing rituals and traditions

Religions need to have rituals and traditions, otherwise they’re not religions!

Once you’ve got a sense of how the Gods fit in to your world, you can turn your attention to how people worship them.

Generally speaking I divide my rituals up into three categories to help me determine the type of worship involved.

  1. Festivals
  2. Celebrations
  3. Sermons

Festivals are usually large-scale celebrations which the whole religious community partakes in. Some easy examples include, Easter festivals for Christian religions, or Ramadan for those of the Islamic faith.
Celebrations on the other hand are more personal traditions which are performed by a family unit. Something like a birthday celebration, or a wedding.
Sermons are of course, the regular traditions which members of a faith would uphold regularly. Such as the tradition of Hindu practitioners on the Indonesian island of Bali leaving out daily offerings of fragrant rice and flowers to honour the Gods, and their ancestors.

By dividing up the rituals into these three broad categories, it enables me to observe how they fit together and see the overall structure of the religion and it’s traditions within the world I’ve built.

Adapting it from the real world

There are of course, lots of modern and ancient religions, and religious traditions, which we can draw from in our creative process.
Drawing from real world religions is a great way to help keep some elements of realism in your creation, if that’s what you’re going for, however it can also be problematic too. No one wants to see their firmly held spiritual beliefs chopped up and cobbled together again without any consideration or sensitivity towards practitioners.
Just like borrowing elements from other cultures, borrowing elements from religion requires tact and respect. Personally, I believe it’s impossible not to offend someone when you’re dealing with hot button issues like culture and religion, but if you have approached the subject with reverence, done your research and been certain to engage with those who practice to ensure you’re not being offensive, then you’ve taken all the right steps.

I’m not going to tell people they can’t draw on the world they live in, and the interesting things they find in it, to create their fictional worlds. I believe that fictional settings have been, and should be, used to help bridge gaps in people’s knowledge and understanding about other communities and cultures around the globe. (But that’s just my two cents.)

Further Resources

One of the greatest resources I’ve ever come across for developing religions is an excellent little article called ‘Down to Earth Divinity’ by Ed Greenwood in Dragon Magazine.  It’s pretty hard to get a hold of of old copies of Dragon these days, but luckily for my readers, I’ve got a digital copy of every issue! So I’ve extracted the relevant pages into a PDF for anyone interested in checking it out!

Ed Greenwood Down to Earth Divinity

You can also find lots of great resources and ideas in this post over at Inkwell Ideas, where this super smart and creative dude, Joe Wetzel, has been blogging about world building  for a lot longer than me!

Hopefully, you’ll find these resources as helpful as I have in your creative endeavors! But as Wendell told us last week, don’t be afraid to use what you know! Draw on your own experiences and interactions with religions in our real world to help inform your creations! Just make sure to approach any cultural material with a healthy amount of respect!

Until next fortnight my dudes, happy world building!