Worldbuilding

Creating Religions & Belief Systems

cathedral-altar-beatrice-murch-flickr

Cathedral Altar by Beatrice Murch used under CC BY 2.0 (cropped)

The culture of your kingdom, moon, or giant soap bucket isn’t fully developed until you’ve given it one or more belief systems. But that doesn’t mean you should rename the Catholic Church and stick it in there. Religions and other belief systems come in a huge variety of flavors, and whatever you choose should feel like a natural fit for the cultures you’ve already established. Start by contemplating these questions:

What Is the Belief?

Go beyond choosing which gods are worshiped or how many. Some belief systems, like Confucianism, don’t involve divine or mystical beings at all. You could even go so far as to categorize political ideologies as belief systems. Generally though, beliefs will include one or more of the following:

  • Explanations for existence: Many religions describe how the world began, and how it will end. In low-tech societies, they may also explain natural events like storms, tides, or sickness.
  • Powerful beings: Many beliefs include gods, spirits, or great beasts. They don’t have to be personified as a single entity – the Force in Star Wars is more like a collective consciousness. The belief system may explain what these great powers want from people, and what they can do for people.
  • Ethical standards: Most systems include cultural values and standards for how people should behave. Followers might be asked to turn the other cheek, or kneel before a particular ruler. In many belief systems, specific roles and duties are assigned to different members of a family or larger social group.
  • Rituals: Many religions are intertwined closely with lifestyles, and have special ceremonies for important life moments – such as weddings, funerals, or coming of age. However, rituals could also be designed to curry favor from the gods, protect from evil spirits, or to seek information from the divine.

What’s the reason for it?

Let your imagination go wild when deciding on beliefs, but remember it should fit the culture and their history. If you want some “primitive tribe” to worship one of your characters as a god, then he’d better heal all their sick and wounded, defeat large monsters, and provide them with an endless supply of clean water first. Then they’ll actually have a reason for their belief.

Belief systems arise from the circumstances people find themselves in, so they generally include guidelines that:

  • Justify existing social systems: If this is the dominant religion in a culture with a strong hierarchy, it will offer reasons for why some people have more power than others. The king was chosen by the gods, or the lowest caste is descended from traitors.
  • Encourage health and survival: Many religions include rules that are just plain old good ideas – or were at one time. It may forbid people from drinking from a specific lake, because its water makes people sick. Even if they later learn how to make the water safe, it could remain taboo.
  • Reinforce the belief system itself: If the belief system has survived for a while, it almost certainly has components to help keep people from straying. It will promise some kind of reward to devoted followers – enlightenment, special powers, life after death – and punishment for those who undermine it or join a competing belief system. Sometimes the rewards and punishments are merely social – acceptance or rejection by other followers.

Is it true?

The best part about creating a belief system in a speculative fiction setting is that you can choose the accuracy of the belief. If the people of a village believe their mountains are the great ridges of a beast slumbering within the earth, you have a variety of choices regarding its truth:

  • Literally true: There is actually a giant dinosaur that is asleep underground, and the mountains are part of the dinosaur.
  • Metaphorically true: The beast represents all the magma beneath the surface. The villagers watch for signs that the beast is restless, because that means the volcanoes are active.
  • Partly true: There is a giant beast in the ground, but it’s long dead and only the skeleton remains. However, the structure of that skeleton is responsible for the hills of the area.
  • Completely false: The story of the beast in the ground was planted by someone powerful. That way, no one will question the rumbles caused by the science experiments she’s conducting on the other side of the mountains.

Then ask yourself how well this reality is known. If it’s literally true, can the culture prove to skeptics that there is a big animal under there, or must they take it on faith? On the other hand, everyone could mistakenly believe their stories are metaphorical reminders to treat the land well, when there’s an actual subterranean monster that could rise and devour them at any time.

Who Are the Believers?

How widespread is the belief? If it’s shared by an entire society, it will blend in with the culture. But it doesn’t have to be common. Membership can be restricted to the elite, held by people of a specific ethnicity, or kept by a secret society. It can also be the centerpiece of a new, rebellious counterculture. Whatever you choose, take into account the strong effect its member population will have on how outsiders see it. A religion held by struggling immigrants will probably be more reviled than one held by the wealthiest and most powerful individuals.

What are the benefits and costs to them?

Every belief system will have something to offer its members, but there will be some costs attached. Common benefits are a supportive community, hope for a better future, and methods of self-improvement. But don’t restrict yourself; perhaps participation in the belief system opens up financial opportunities or makes people more physically attractive.

Your belief system may have great benefits, but remember Sanderson’s Second Law: limitations are greater than powers. Any kind of storytelling thrives on conflict, so the costs will be more interesting than the benefits. Do members of the religion have to break all ties to their families? Refrain from speaking? Give up pleasure or wealth? Perhaps they are gifted with great powers, but they must return to the temple to renew their strength every night, or else die forsaken.

Think about all the rules the belief system has, and consider how common it is for members to actually follow them. There wouldn’t be rules at all if people never disobeyed them. If a rule is frequently violated, is this commonly acknowledged among everyone, or are they in denial about their inability to abide by it? When they are caught, is the punishment a slow public death or a private slap on the wrist?

What are the differences between them?

The followers of your belief system won’t be an undifferentiated mass. There will be many differences between them. Those differences might include:

  • Level of devotion: Some communities might lean toward a more fanatical or casual approach to their belief system, but they are unlikely to be all fanatics or all moderates.
  • Reasons for participating: Some members might cherish their belief system as a tradition that’s been in their family for five generations, another might be looking for salvation, and a third might find themselves without a choice at all.
  • Philosophical interpretation: Scholars might debate how literal or metaphorical the tenets of the belief are. When new scientific knowledge is introduced that affects the religion, followers are unlikely to agree about what it means or what actions they should take.
  • Benefits and burdens: Most social systems don’t spread their benefits and burdens evenly. Some people could become wealthier by being part of the system, others poorer. While burdens often fall on those who are already less privileged, not all religions are that way. Maybe the belief system was developed during the last revolutionary period, and its rules restrict the nobility from taking advantage of the commoners.

How Are They Organized?

There are big differences between belief systems that are large and organized, and those that are small and decentralized:

  • Hierarchy: If the organization is large and tightly organized, it’s going to have multiple levels of leadership. In turn, you can expect its values to include honoring those authority figures. What’s more, they might become threatening to outside leaders, such as the secular government.
  • Specialization: As organizations get larger, they can support members that specialize. Think about what specialties your belief system could support, such as: priests, scholars, monks/nuns, paladins, matchmakers, healers, or seers.
  • Variation: If your belief system is decentralized, with families or other small groups following it independently, there will be a lot of variation from one group to another. One community might have the same rituals as the next, but perform them differently.

Is there an established canon?

If the belief system is organized at all, it will have some central piece of communication that standardizes what the beliefs are. That’s its canon. While nothing beats the convenience of a written document for literate societies, the canon doesn’t have to be a book. Oral stories, songs, art, or dance could be part of it.

The canon can be a living work – one that is continually revised and updated, instead of staying static. If your belief system is decentralized or the canon is transmitted orally, it will naturally change over time. On the other hand, a static canon only changes when a new faction forms and breaks away from the rest of the system’s members. Many religions have a combination of the two – a sacred portion that is static, and fluctuating interpretations of it that help followers adapt the beliefs to their lifestyle.

Ask yourself how accessible the canon is to the system’s members at large. If the canon is a sacred document and most of the population isn’t literate, they will rely on priests or other authority figures to tell them what their beliefs are. That will significantly change the power dynamics in the society.

How does it spread to new members?

Just as belief systems will usually have self-reinforcing beliefs to keep the faith going, their organization will include a way to spread the belief system to new followers. At the least, it will pass from parents to children. Belief systems that rely only on familial ties are generally either decentralized or closely tied to a specific lineage.

Organized systems may also engage in active recruiting, either by the followers in general, or by missionary specialists. The beliefs could encourage this by offering rewards to those who convert others into the fold.

In a large enough system, participation could also be mandatory. This is the case in a theocracy: a kingdom or nation that is run by the authority figures of the religion itself, or by an absolute power that supports it.

How Has It Changed Over Time?

The final piece that will really make your belief system come alive is thinking through its history. How did it begin? Who founded it? There’s a good chance it caused, or was caused by, a great social upheaval. Even if it’s widespread in the time period you’re developing, it could have started as the deviant religion of outcasts or conquering foreigners.

It’s important to think about its history in the context of its followers, and the other belief systems they encountered. Did it grow as its members migrated to new locations and taught it to others? Has it shrunk as waves of conquest by neighbors imposed different beliefs on the population?

It’s also good to keep in mind that belief systems don’t have to be at odds with one another. In ancient China, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shenism coexisted peacefully. In this case, it probably helped that they were very different in nature, and therefore non-threatening to one another. In your world, they could even merge together over time.

On the other hand, your belief system might split into different traditions or denominations. If the religion has a fixed canon that has fallen behind current cultural values, it could cause followers of a revised version to leave and form their own organization. Once split, two factions of the same belief system are more likely to be in conflict than belief systems that are completely different.

How have the beliefs themselves changed? What’s different between now and the time the system was originally founded? Think about the cultural and survival factors that were behind those changes.

 

Belief systems have a large influence on any society, from the power structures that govern, to the personal actions of individuals. Thinking through them, and the way they interact with other elements of your world, will add a lot realism and depth to your setting.

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Comments

  1. Candace Haskell

    Nice job delineating the necessities and particulars of developing one’s own belief system for a novel. Simple, concise and thorough. Thank you.

  2. J

    This is the best analysis of religions I have ever come across – it may have been created in the context of storytelling, but it goes far beyond that to reevaluate religions & even governments – it reminds me of the first time I read the philisophical question ‘if a tree falls in a forest & no humans are around does it still make a sound’….

  3. Hunter_Wolf

    This was a really interesting read, i lurked around here for few days reading numerous articles on the site (specially yours Chris) and learned a lot from them, but this the first time i felt compelled to comment, probably because i personally struggled with religion a lot before deciding to become agnostic, and that in turn affected me as a hobbyist writer interested in writing Fantasy and Sci-Fi stories, let me briefly explain.

    It began as i gave up on organized religion first, then examined many spiritual concepts and ideas but none of them ticked with me, this made me really skeptical about the idea of a higher force/god creating everything, either they don’t exist or they are doing a really lousy job, i mean for an entity of such supposed limitless power and knowledge to hide itself and decide to play riddles, hide & seek and send overly cryptic messages to its creations while demanding absolute unflinching faith makes no sense to me whatsoever now, or maybe that entity just doesn’t really care at all like Dr.Manhatten from Watchmen.

    Long story short that personal struggle inspired me to write a fantasy story about what kind of a religion/god i’d wholeheartedly follow (sadly no equevilant of those exists so far in real life), your detailed analysis about religion helped me flesh out some elements of the central religion in the story (called Sonahana, meaning “Those Pure of Spirit” in the main language of the denizens of Quin, the world where the story takes place).

    But the part you wrote about Sanderson’s Second Law and that limitations are greater than powers caught my attention, that’s because my idea is focused on making that religion all about positive spiritual reinforcement not fear mongering, torture or severe physical or eternal punishments, there is still conflict between the disciples of this religion and others mostly due to external factors, i.e … violent fanatics from other religions like the followers of the gods of chaos and destruction hunting the Sonahana disciples down or threatning to kill anyone who joins the Sonahan faith, also those who are too absorbed into their urges or desires don’t bother joining Sonahana cause they gain nothing from this religion to satisfy their excessive bodily urges, as well as those who are brainwashed from childhood to follow a specific religion without questioning it or are just too afraid to leave their comfort zone and try something different (like the followers of the Mother of Creation who revere her without ever seeing her or knowing for sure she exists, or the sub-sect that worships her to the point of refusing to create anything at all, cause they believe creation is a godly act no lowly creature or human should do, so they make no clothes, no tools, no houses, they just live naked in nature and eat from trees and bath in rivers, ..etc etc).

    Obviously there is a catch for joining Sonahana, not sure it counts as a limitation or not but it is kind of controversial for some who value privacy over all else, by accepting Sonahana one has to also accept the fact that all their ideas and emotions will be shared with all the other Sonahana disciples, that’s due to a ritual central to this religion where all the Sonahana disciples in existance regardless of distance commune in the spiritual realm connecting with each other and their gods at the same time (there are multiple ones), there are no secrets or hidden personal agendas or bent up emotions here, they all open up to each other and share every thought, emotion and dream to reach a state of total harmony and unison.

    It also should be noted that the sharing only happens during the Harmony ritual not all the time but i still know a lot of people in real life could have serious issues with something like this regardless of the other benefits of this religion (and therefor some people in the story should too), and there are many benefits for joining Sonahana even tangible ones not just spiritual ones, the disciples of Sonahana gain magically enhanced strength/speed/durability, and the more they stay true to the tenets of this faith the bigger the effect, it’s non-lethal power (mostly involves manipulating the effect of gravity on their own bodies) and mostly used for defense but it allows them to defend themselves and others from all sorts of danger, if a disciple uses that power puerly for selfish gain they simply lose it gradually until they stop using it like that, as for the tenets of this faith, i haven’t finished fleshing them out but they are mostly quite like the basics of many known religions (like the Ten Commandments, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t rape .. etc etc) except the difference here is in how they are applicated and what happens to those who break them, another important factor is that anyone (from any race, age, sex or rank) wanting to meet any god/s of Sonahana can do so simply by relaxing, closing their eyes and calling out for them (specially those who truly need their help), their spirit is then immediately taken to the spiritual realm where they can talk to those gods directly, their bodies are left behind encased in a crystal-like barrier until they return, but if the one seeking them wants to do so for selfish gain that will harm others or wants their help doing something that breaks the tenets of the religion they usually fail to reach them.

    The core tenet though at the heart of Sonahana is that those who harm others in any way shape or form have to be stopped, for example if a devoted disciple of Sonahan sees a raider attacking a peaceful villager he is required to intervene and save him, but then if is too late and the man dies he still has to deal with the killer, and while i said there are no typical punishments in Sonahana there is still a ritual that the disciples perform on anyone who breaks the core tenet of not harming others for selfish reasons (kills, rapes, steals without need … Etc), aside from the increase in physical prowess the Sonahana disciples also gain the ability to crystalize anyone who is impure of heart (they have to be really impure of heart otherwise the crytal won’t even work and will dissolve instantly), those who revel in their destructive selfish desires and urges and bring harm to others are locked within a crystal that fully encases them, the crystal keeps them alive, awake and aware of everything outside it for as long as it takes, the only way to break free is to truly regret the crimes they did and to want to seek redempition, only then the crystal breaks by itself and lets them free, basically when they are no longer a danger to themselves or others, if they become too fixated on their negative emotions and think of nothing else but dark twisted thoughts they are simply keeping themselves locked in (indefinitely in some cases), the gods who gave this power to the disciples put that innate ability into it.

    That’s the gist of it, the whole thing starts with one of the side chatacters in the story called Roo who is the most devoted disciple of Sonahana (having reached the title of Jahan, or Pure of Heart, the highest honorary rank in Sonahana that requires a very high degree of selflessness and gives no special privileges to her) facing a new creation by the goddess called Mother of Creation (who really exists but never actually asked anyone to worship her or told any of her worshippers to do anything of the things they are doing, and at times fighting over it, she just enjoys creating things and could care less what happens to them later), this confrontation will test her faith and make her question everything she believed in and will eventually lead her to uncover a threat to her world and existance as a whole.

    Any criticisms and/or opinions are welcome, any sorry if this rant annoyed anyone.

    • Chris Winkle

      Thank you for sharing all that, it’s really nice to see how people use speculative fiction to think over and react to real life. The creation of Sonahana sounds like a great exercise for you. Because of its purpose as a religion you’d actually want to follow, it may not be as flawed as you might normally make an organized religion – that’s okay. Everyone has their own reasons for storytelling. In stories that focus on utopian societies that don’t have enough flaws to drive conflict in the story on their own, the conflict is either introduced by flawed protagonist on their way to enlightenment, or an external threat. It sounds like you’re doing the latter. The one advice I would have for your story is to introduce something to prevent Roo from talking to the Sonahana gods through most of it. While you might be able to make these conversations work, it will be hard to explain why they don’t solve her problems for her. She’ll question her faith a lot more if she’s on her own.

      • Hunter_Wolf

        Thanks for the reply, your advice is by the way spot-on, that’s one of the main aspects of the story i have been struggling with for a while.

        I thought of a reason why the gods of Sonohana won’t/can’t interfere directly even when they wanted to, but i’m afraid it might not hold up for long.

        Then i read the articles by Sanderson you referenced here, the ones about his writing laws regarding magic systems, it made me think of a way or two to limit access to both the powers given to those who follow Sonohana and also to the gods themselves, but without any of those limitations being prohibitive or permenant (like i said it’s a religion supposed to be about positive reinforcment and self-improvement), i have a couple of ways to do it some related to Roo like the one you suggested (i.e Roo facing an unexpected situation forcing her to act in a way she never thought she would) and other reasons related to the gods themselves, what’s important to me is that whatever the reason is it has to fit with the main themes i’m trying to present in the story.

        Not only that but i also modified a certain character to make her more of an obestacle to our main characters than she was before, i’m talking about the “Mother of Creation” here, specially since she ties directly into one of the reasons the gods can’t intervene directly.

        Let me eloberate about her and the other gods first, the gods in this universe were born from a fluctuation in the primordial matter from which that universe was born, they were energy based beings who gained consciousness over thouands of years and were born to find the universe pretty much empty except for the primordial matter they came from, looking at the vast dark empty universe some of the gods felt something was missing, they felt an urge to do something about it, so when of them tried manipulating the primrodial matter and from those urges their power to create was born, and one of them ended up creating the first star which brought light and a sliver of warmth to the cold vast universe, they moved on to creating all sorts of things from there, the most talented one was the Mother of Creation who was the first to create a star and also first to create life, the problem was that not all of them could use the primordial matter in the same way, those who counldn’t use it grew envious of those who could, from their envy and hatred was born the power to destroy and ravage, it drove them to deface and destroy everything the creator gods made and eventually attack them directly, and from that the gods of destruction and chaos were born, a third group of gods also couldn’t create things but instead of envy and hate they felt fascinated by the creations made by their brothers and sisters who could create (the gods here obviously don’t have sexes or reproduce sexually but over time they created gender identities to refer to themselves, some chose to be masculine, some chose to be feminine and some stayed gender neutral), and like with the gods of destruction from those feelings of love and fascination the ability to preserve and protect those creations was born within them (should be noted that the gods of creation here didn’t care much for their creations but were rather only ever concerned with the act of creation itself which brings them fullfillment), they dubbed themselves the preserver gods and directly intervened to stop the gods of destruction from annihilating everything.

        From there the Preserver gods assigned themselves guardians of creation and each one was to protect a part of the known universe (they can communicate with each other telepathically), gods of creation created a parallel pocket dimension and went there to continue creating stuff away from the hounding of those who wanted to destroy everything, leaving creation in the hands of the Perserver gods, who during that time came in touch with many of the living beings in the universe and thaught them many things, they fascinated the most by the humans which were the last creation by the creator gods before they all left for their pocket dimension, they felt that their war of attrition with the gods of destruction wasn’t going anywhere so they thought they needed a permanent solution to stop them in order to protect the universe and all life in it (which they adore) from being destroyed.

        Right near the start of the story they send an envoy to seek the Mother of Creation and make a plea for her to create a dimension to trap the gods of destruction inside, which she does, but with the condition that once that happens they too should exile themselves to a dimension of her making and leave the universe to grow on its own, but she was really envious of the bond they shared with her creations which she lacked and couldn’t express for fear that the other still apathetic gods of creation will look down on her for mingling with her creations and stooping down to their level, the gods of Perservance agreed to her terms and the plan worked as she intended, with the gods of Destruction and Chaos banished the Perserver Gods went into volunatary exile, but eventually they managed to find a way to contact all the living things from within their pocket dimension, they can’t interfere directly but they can talk to, commune and give indirect help for any living beings in need of help, eventually they created the teachings of Sonohana when they noticed that the influence of the destruction and chaos gods seeps out from their pocket dimension -probably even unintentionally- and affects the lives of everyone so negatively.

        That’s because while the Destruction and Chaos gods lie within their dimentional prison their aura expands far beyond that into the universe outside, and from it the Soldiers of Veda were born (Veda meaning “to destroy” and is also the name of the major god of destruction and chaos, who haunts the dreams of all living things with terrible visions from which nightmares were born), The Hands of Veda are those who totally give in to their urges to hate, destroy, rape, burn and pillage and from those overwhelming urges they gain immense physical power, and then there are also the Eyes of Veda or the Chaos Mages who instead of destroying they deface, mutate and mess up the living things creating many hideous beasts and even hybrid races of creatures.

        That’s the origin of creation in my story (as you said any belief will try explaining the origin of the world one way or the other), i think that partially solves the problem of why the Guardian gods can’t intervene directly to help anyone in need and need to do so through someone else, hence giving much more meaning to Sonohana as a faith born out of love and necessity not hubris, fear or othrewise.

        Lastly i have to say that your articles and observation did help me a lot with improving the core of the story, even having to write everything down like this results in constant minor changes and improvments, so thanks again and keep up the awesome work.

        • Chris Winkle

          I like that explanation, I don’t know the themes you want to reinforce but it sounds well thought out. If the gods of preservation can talk to people through their pocket dimension, can the gods of destruction do it too?

          Even if Roo can only talk to her gods, you might still run into trouble if she has constant access to perfect advice. There’s an easy fix for that though. As the tension in your story climbs, the gods of destruction can grow powerful enough to block (or even distort) communication between the Sonahana gods and their followers. Not sure if that fits your story, but something to consider if you have a plot element that depends on Roo not knowing the right choice or perfect answer.

          I’m glad my articles have helped!

          • Hunter_Wolf

            To answer your questions, no the Gods of Destruction can’t directly communicate with living things, but their aura of negative emotions and impulses spreads out of their prison dimension (like a stench) affecting pretty much everything outside and causing terrible disturbing nightmares/visions to normal people while also powering up people who completely give into their darkest urges and commit horrendous vile acts of evil by their own volition, this corrupting aura is also what powers the magic of the Chaos Mages (or The Eyes of Veda as they are called in Quin).

            It’s also a good suggestion to make this aura affect the spiritual link between the Sonohana disciples (like Roo) and the Perserver gods, i’ll consider this, but i also think that letting Roo have access to such insightful godly advice from time to time will force me to create more eloberate challenges and enemies who can still give her and her allies a real challenge (both combat and moral/philosophical challenges), same with sticking to core themes of the story.

            1-Only gods/religions worth following/embracing are those which are built upon love, thoughtfulness and positive reinforcement not fear, hubris and torture.

            2-Gender, race, age and social status should never be used to judge people, only ones own actions should be what’s used to judge them (some of the characters come from non-human races, some are even born from chaos mages failed magic experiments)

            3-One needs to balance both individuality and conformity, embracing one and not the other could lead to hubris or mindlessness.

            These are the core themes that i want to build the story around, so i try to avoid any solutions or elements that might compromise those themes.

            So keep it up Chris and thanks for this fruitful discussion, i’m now fired up to work on this story more than any time before.

  4. José

    Hello!

    For my story, I would like to create an animistic religion, but i’m a bit baseless about it. It doesnt have to be strictly animistic, i was thinking more in the lines of animistic monotheism, but i have some questions i couldn’t figure out for myself. Do the nature spirits have names? or is it just the concept? I couldn’t find any in african animism, while in Shinto there are several… but then, what is the difference between the Kami (Shinto’s nature spirits) and gods? Are there more advices you could give me?

    Thank you! (and sorry if my english isn’t very correct)

    • Chris Winkle

      Well nature spirits certainly can have names. The Ancient Egyptian gods were represented by animals and they had names. Give them names if you want to, just make it consistent. How are you planning on combining animism with monotheism? One all-powerful god and a group of less powerful spirits?

      I’m not an expert in the Kami so I can’t tell you much about them. “God” implies that the spirit is more powerful and perhaps has responsibilities over the world, but in general there isn’t a clear cut line between gods and spirits.

      • José

        Hello Chris, thank you for the answer!

        Yes, it would have a supreme God who creates both the world and the spirits, then oversees overthing without interfering. The spirits would interact with the world and the characters, a bit like in Vodoun/Voodoo. That interaction would be different from spirit to spirit, with some really helping, some demanding a big price for the help and some tricking the characters

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