Image 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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