One large question I’ve had lately is that of how to handle the question of religion in a secondary world. The setting I’m working with at the moment doesn’t have the most obvious approach, that of having a religion based on magic or supernatural elements that are true within the world. In my world, there really aren’t any directly supernatural or magic sources of power to draw upon as inspiration for the religion.
The other somewhat obvious approach would be to directly base things on an existing religion. The problem there is that this sort of defeats the whole point of my reason for using a secondary world setting in the first place, which is that it avoids using (and thus vilifying) real nations.
The final option, just not having religion at all, is almost my preference mostly for the sake of simplicity, but that runs into the problem that it just doesn’t feel real, even in a more modern and secular world.
Are there any other good sources of inspiration for a secondary world religion? Would it really be reasonable to just not have any?
Hey Adam, great to hear from you again!
The good news is that I think you’ll be fine either making up a religion from scratch or just not having one, whichever makes more sense to you.
If you want to make one from scratch, it’s fairly easy to use real religions as inspiration without importing them wholesale. For example, many different religions have gods associated with various aspects of human society: child rearing, war, farming, knowledge, etc. So long as your god of war isn’t the son of a thunder god and a hearth goddess, with a sister who’s the goddess of wisdom but also war somehow (thanks Ancient Greeks), you should be good.
That’s just one option, of course.
- You can also have an animalistic religion based on the creatures commonly found in the area. Wolf god, boar god, etc.
- Or a religion where the divine figures represent natural forces. Storm god, fire god, ocean god, etc.
- You can also have a fairly generic monotheistic god if you want one. Just call them “the Creator” or “the Redeemer” and readers will generally accept it.
So long as the things your gods represent feel roughly equivalent, you won’t have to go into too much detail. You can of course also have different ranks of gods but that’s getting more complex.
It’ll also help if you mention that not everyone follows the same religion, but readers won’t expect a comparative theology course unless that’s part of the plot. This approach will work just fine whether you want religion to play a part in the story or just be a background part of the world. Unless you intentionally create religious conflict, readers will usually accept it as part of the background.
Alternatively, you’ll probably also be fine with no religion, even if it is less realistic. A lot of fantasy worlds completely lack any form of organized church, and most readers didn’t notice. Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, The Name of the Wind, Star Wars, none of them have commonly observed religion the way we think of them.
- Star Wars has the Jedi, which are sometimes described as a religion, but it’s pretty clear most people aren’t adherents. Even the Jedi mostly meditate for super powers.
- Lord of the Rings just doesn’t have religion at all, despite the presence of a literal creator god.
- The Name of the Wind has a creator figure but he’s just around. No one seems to worship him in any meaningful way. Or have religious institutions built around him.
- Just don’t do what Wheel of Time does, which is try to have its cake and eat it too.
- In WoT, there’s no church or any other kind of religious organization, except the Children of the Light. Who act like the militant arm of a church which doesn’t exist. Where do they get their recruits from???
- Everyone in WoT knows that the “creator” is a thing but no one practices particularly religious acts.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!
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Comments on Do I Need Religion in My Fantasy World?
I feel like yes, a fantasy world should have some form of religion – questions like “where did we come from”, “what happens after the end”, and “how does this seemingly impossible natural phenomenon work” are just too big and widespread to think that nobody would have them. However, you certainly don’t need to put any focus on it. You can always just keep it as background flavour – have a character utter an oath to their god when they see something shocking, include a temple or church in the description of a city, that kind of small thing.
Well, in a world where magic exists and is known, the answer to ‘how does this seemingly impossible natural phenomenon work’ is probably ‘magic.’
Apart from that, though, I agree that people will believe in a higher power of some sorts. Especially ‘what happens after the end’ is a powerful part of social development and a reason for people to believe there’s some kind of deity. ‘Where did we come from’ could be scientifically explained, but we have no way of knowing if there’s something to us which survives death. I agree you don’t need to get too detailed with it, though, unless it’s part of the plot.
Interestingly, the Lord Darcy stories have both a very well-developed magic system and still the same Christian religion (in broad terms at least) as a world without magic would. Mages need a licence from the church to practice, on the other hand, the church makes use of healing magic itself and has an order of healers. It also was a monk who codified magic during the middle ages, making its teaching and any kind of magical theory possible.
“Well, in a world where magic exists and is known, the answer to ‘how does this seemingly impossible natural phenomenon work’ is probably ‘magic.’”
It’s also interesting to note that science and magic often go hand in hand, since science is just a method of study and thinking, then an Enlightenment and revolution in thinking also factors in.
For example, if gods grant magic, then religion would be a factor, but you would also have clerics and priests analyzing the magic and in this way religion would be a great aid to science like it was IRL.
It’s rare for humans to learn things through direct experimentation or reasoning things out from first principles. Usually you learn things from other people, who learned them from someone else, and so on until you reach the ones who originally figured the things out, often through trial and error.
And humans are very good at finding patterns, even where they may not exist. You know your village burns some of last year’s wheat for the harvest god each spring. You know you usually get a good harvest in the fall. Who’s to say the two aren’t connected? Better keep doing it, just in case.
‘Just in case’ is a very good reason for humans to continue doing something. I mean, if you got bad harvests several times in a row after the sacrifice of last year’s wheat, you might question it, but as long as it works? Better burn that wheat…
Alternatively, even if there are religions in the world, they could very well not be mentioned in the story at all. If they are not plot relevant, the only ways you’d hear about them would be things like: a scene happening in a place of worship, or people discussing their beliefs around a campfire, a public religious ceremony etc…
All things easily replaceable will non-religious alternatives.
So even if having religions is more probable than not, you could have your whole book(s) without any mention of it and not come off as unrealistic
Absolutely, when I say “you can keep it as background flavour”, I mean that more as a suggestion than a necessity. A possible way of making the world feel bigger without bogging down the story in extraneous detail.
One of the things that really distinguished Dune from other mid-20th century science fiction was that it had religion in it. Most science fiction at the time was of the humans will outgrow these superstitions because that reflected what the authors believed and wanted. Frank Herbert decided that religion has been such a strong source in human society that not having religion would be the more unlikely thing, so his future humans had religion.
When all else fails I usually default to animism. There are animists all over the world from different places and times so you have a lot you can compare and contrast so none of them are too similar to your fictional world.
The belief that things are personified, and can imbue some luck to their use seems pretty pervasive even in non animistic societies and can feel natural while not requiring any organized religion except when dealing with giant entities such as a volcano or an ocean.
Add in perhaps a formal ancestor worship and a religious character can be very identifiable, because many of us talk to the beloved dead even if we don’t expect an answer. Common examples are found all over secular media and are not difficult to make religious while still being relatable outside animistic cultures.
I find my players have an easier time suspending belief with an animist setting than a poly or monotheistic one. And it is easier to enact, strangely enough, as it requires almost no myths or background to implement.
I only recommend to not make it too nature oriented as to avoid most stereotypes of real world cultures. (Even when those cultures are not themselves animistic)
I recommend reading Dr. Bret C. Devereaux’s “Practical Polytheism” essay series to better understand the role religion played in ancient polytheistic societies. Here’s entry #1 of 4: https://acoup.blog/2019/10/25/collections-practical-polytheism-part-i-knowledge/
One detail worth pointing out: unlike in many fantasy settings, where people pick one god to devote their lives to and forsake all others, ancient polytheists tried to appease all the gods in their pantheon. After all, these were powerful beings who could help or hurt you, so you didn’t want to make them angry!
Oops, meant that as a general reply, not a response to Gwen.
To do cruel things people need fanaticism and it comes in several forms. Religion is one of them, as well as Patriotism and Entitlement.
If you don’t get any of these you can’t justify wars and other acts of horror. So divine or mundane, you need a “religion”.
… or Realpolitik. Sometimes wars are waged for cold calculation.
But to make people actually go to war, you need them to believe in “something” usually false. Otherwise noone would risk their life to destroy the lives of people they don’t know.
I would argue entitlement more than a belief in anything is what encourages people to war. First comes entitlement, then comes the justification, patriotism/religion/pseudoscience comes after, usually as that excuse.
Although there is merit in talking about more complicated reasons and rationale behind war and conflict, sometimes there are very physical needs/reasons that don’t just spring from belief in some greater abstract ideal. If there is a drought in Nation A, where they decide to start taking water from Nation B, there might be friction and an eventual conflict over the resources in question. The actions of either side could be played up by some ideology, but ultimately it’s a conflict over material resources. Nation A doesn’t need to believe in something greater than wanting water to be willing to fight, because dying of dehydration and being unable to maintain your basic way of life sucks. Meanwhile, Nation B can worry about their resources and how their land might be being occupied as well.
When was the last time you heard of a war about access to water (Nestle took for themselves the San Bernardino National Forest springs and there weren’t any war)? There have been centuries since the last war for purelly material needs.
Not even Roman Empire keep expanding because they needed actual land, but because if they feared that if they stop expanding they would lost territory (which eventually happened when they were too big to mantain their borders).
All wars i can think of source from someone thinking that other people should be subdued to them, and to achieve it they use people already subdued to them.
Kings, Popes, Prophets or “Leaders” all have used beliefs as means of control, but it is the entlitement of the individual “tuned” to that beliefs that allow them to be at ease with the idea of enslaving, maining or killing another person.
In the end, in your example both Nation A and Nation B think they are entitled to that water source, they can learn how to live in peace, fight for it or someone can leave. Thinking that war is the best solution (when logically isn’t) is an act of Faith.
I would argue it doesn’t require Faith at all, at least no more than any other wrong idea needs Faith to fuel it.
It just needs entitlement. Nestle took the water because it could and made them richer. There absolutely would have been a war if nestle was a town of equal capability, and eventually people lie to themselves about the real reasons they do things.
People take land because it makes them richer and they don’t wish to lose traction (or because your whole system is about making your soldiers happy with new plunder, ie Rome). Behind almost every war of Faith, pull back the curtain and you will find cold pragmatic reasons.
The most common reason is because they could.
Eventually people lie to themselves on Why they are doing this, but underneath it all it is Because they want stuff and they can. Most populaces don’t even need to be lied to initially. Either you are defending yourself vs the enemy, or you want the enemy’s stuff.
Because we are people, lies follow to make us feel better about our actions. Usually the longer the war the more entrenched the ideas because rarely do these lies happen before the fighting starts, but after to justify the actions war, by its nature, demands.
We still do it. We just need to feel like we are righteous while we do it. The ends justify the means kind of thing.
There are lots of fantasy works where many of the characters are basically late 20th/early 21st century secular people just running about not caring about religion. The incongruity comes when these works also show God or more usually Gods usually exist. It’s kind of unbelievable that actual deities would be sufficiently cool with people ignoring their religious duties. In real world mythologies even the most level headed gods and goddesses didn’t deal with such slackness well.
So I think it depends on what type of fantasy world you want to create. Something that roughly resembles Medieval Europe or the Middle East, i.e. the bog-standard fantasy setting, doesn’t really work if the characters are too secular. This is especially true if there are real actual beings close enough to Gods around. At the same time, overly religious characters can be a real drag for people to read. This is especially true if their religion has one of those strict codes of conduct that puts a lot of fun activities in the sin category. It’s a difficult balancing act.
It’s usually safe to assume that premodern people believed in their religion. Atheists and secular types should be the odd ones out, not the norm, even in societies without obvious miracles. In societies *with* obvious miracles, there would be no reason for atheists to exist.
That’s not to say that all religious people believed and followed everything their religion said, though. For example, educated Greeks and Romans tended not to treat their mythology as literally true, even if they considered those myths culturally and/or allegorically significant (though at least one Greek philosopher, I think maybe Plato, viewed some myths as sacrilegious because they depict the gods as decadent, petty, and cruel). Modern faiths and their various sects also vary in how literalistic they are, and in how much they emphasize belief as compared to practice.
Plus, practitioners vary in how devout they are: not just in how and to what extent they believe their faith’s tenets, but in how involved they are in their religion’s practices and how connected they are to their coreligionists.
It’s also worth pointing out that polytheists don’t necessarily see their gods as moral exemplars like Jews, Christians, and Muslims see the god of Abraham. Gods are more reflections of what is true than what is good. You worship them not necessarily because you admire them or feel that following their teachings would make you a better person, but because you believe you need their help for crops to grow, babies to get born, ships to reach their destinations safely, sick people to be healed. If you’re an Ancient Greek about to go off to war, you may not like or respect Ares, but you pray and sacrifice to him anyway because he can help you win the battle without dying.
That really depends on the pantheon. Not every ancient pantheon contained deities as morally ambiguous as the Greco-Roman gods. The pre-Christian Egyptians tended to view most of their gods as moral paragons. There is some circumstantial evidence that the stories told about the Greco-Roman gods were very different from how they. were actively worshipped. So lots of cognitive dissonance.
Ancient religions generally treat their stories as not literally true. I think many people when they approach them from a modern mindset miss that the wheres and whys were far less important to “how do I make the Gods work for me”/us.
Education isnt what it is about, it is why almost all ancient religions have multiple stories depending on city or even who you are. In fact, some religions seem incomprehensible if you dont understand that good vs bad is much less important. Who and what a god is depends largely on cultural context which can change rapidly.
If I give flowers to a god and I have a nice day, that god might become associated with flowers, at least to me and my family. Even gods who cared about morality had a particular behavior you gave them to get something back. Did you have a bad day? Maybe your sister’s cousin did something bad. And the gods don’t like that and they punished you and your whole family. Why didn’t they punish your brother? Well that day he wore a particular metal in a particular shape.
It’s not about being good in the same way we understand today, and even then, we regularly see gods of morality concerned ancient religions (Aztec and Egyptian for example) acting against those religions and general morality. Almost none of them are true paragons, and when they are, often become pure concept with few stories about them specifically.
People are intelligent and recognize patterns and without science they find patterns that connect to each other and make rituals to protect from bad outcomes and ensure good ones. The gods are rarely treated super literally, because everyone knows that the gods can mean many different things in different contexts. It is why they have so many names and conflicting stories.
Ancient people weren’t dumb, they realized different views existed within their own religion. Even when formalized, their own priesthood had to make allowances for their many contexts because that would explain when their rituals didn’t work. It was central to their religions.
Probably the best option is to just not have religion and never bring it up
Or perhaps just in a swear or two. “By the Great Badger!” “Sacred Goat Udders!” w/ no further explanation
In my current story, people just swear on “Mother Nature” or on random objects in space, and it’s great.
In the Larry Niven’s Stories of Known Space the main swear word is Tanj (There are no justice)
If it’s not important to the plot or establishing some important part of the setting, you really don’t NEED religion. The fact that it is so easy to name fantasy works that don’t goes to show that (and I say this as a religious person). I intentionally avoid putting religion in my books because I don’t want to have to worry and think about the ramifications that it would have. It’s not something I’m interested in exploring unless it naturally comes up and feeling pressured to would have a negative impact on my work.
To paraphrase David Foster Wallace, it’s really impossible to *not* have religion. Not just gods, but ideals. And if people can actually gain powers from their ideals (ie supercorp clerics, etc.), then there you go.