Episode 26: Learn How to Create Religions
Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a religion, including its all-important history, beliefs, worship practices, and traits of those who belong to a religion.
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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- Why you should start by creating its history
- How to determine a religion’s beliefs
- What a religion’s followers might be like and what they need to do to join, exit, or remain a member
- What the clergy might need to do to join and their roles
- Considerations for how people worship and the impact on story
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Episode 26 Transcript
Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-six. Today’s topic concludes our discussion about how to create religions. This includes its all-important history, beliefs, worship practices, and traits of those who belong to a religion. This material and more is discussed in a chapter from Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series.
Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.
The Religion’s History
First, I want to mention that you can buy the transcripts of these podcast episodes by going into artofworldbuilding.com.
When we do world building, we are often focused on the present and we only need to do a certain amount of work on the past, but this is different with religions because so much of what is happening within a religion is based on the founding of that religion. So, we really need to focus on this first. More often than not, when we’re inventing our religion, we want one that is relatively old. It’s only rarely that we’re going to have one that has just formed in the last 10 or 20 years. The reason for this, as you’ll see as we go along here, is that so much of what’s going on in religion is about the past. So, unless our story is really focusing on a new religion being created, how that happens and the things that cause it to spread, we probably want to default to our religions being several hundred, if not a thousand years old.
The longer that history, the more artifacts and scriptures and other things that exist. These are the things that our characters are going to think about and that we are going to use as a creator. So, if the history is very short, we don’t have nearly as much material to use. Every religion has to start somewhere, and the usual culprit is a prophet of some kind. This is someone who’s either speaking on behalf of a god or is believed to be doing so. This perceived authority is what gives their words weight. And, of course, that is part of why people will follow them. Although, in many cases, people will also follow because they liked the ideas that this person is saying. But generally religions attribute everything to a deity; that all of these ideas are coming from that god. Otherwise, you’re worshiping a man or a woman or whoever that prophet was instead of the god.
If you’ve already created gods, as we talked about in a previous episode, and in the Creating Life book, then you have a lot of your work already done for you, and this is going to help you figure out what religions might exist on your world. An important consideration there is whether your god is real or not. If the god is not real, then your characters can pretty much make things up as they desire. If the gods are real and there are multiple gods, that means you’re going to have multiple religions. And because each god is going to have a different personality or things that they care about, then that’s going to control what their religion is like as well.
Just because the gods might be real, that doesn’t mean that they’re actually going to interact with people or tell people to go ahead and create this or that religion. This could mean that even though the god is real, that god hasn’t communicated to a prophet, and someone who is claiming to be a prophet is not really a prophet. They’re just someone who is espousing the beliefs of that god even though they have not directly received any communication.
This is another option that we have when we are inventing a religion, and we can look at this person as a kind of false prophet because they are not the actual prophet from that god because the god hasn’t told them anything. This, of course, means that they might be getting it wrong and they might be creating a religion that is not officially sanctioned, and maybe things don’t happen as they would like, such as trying to call on that god, but the god just doesn’t answer because that’s what that god is like.
The predictable result is going to be something more along the religions that we have today because, generally, most of us accept that god does not show up and say, “Hey, everybody. Do this or do that.” People are interpreting the supposed word of god from one prophet or another from thousands of years ago. We have to go on faith that these people actually were speaking the word of god. Your characters will pretty much have the same situation if the gods are non-communicative. But if the gods do communicate and they are in control of what happens in this religion or giving direction, then this gives us a certain definitiveness to what is happening in that religion, and we can leverage this to make creating it easier for us.
Of course, if the god actually does answer prayers, that’s going to eliminate the need for faith because we know that the god is real, the god is doing things and we’re not just telling ourselves something that we want to hear. My personal opinion is that when there is no evidence and that people are just telling themselves what they want to believe, that belief can often be extremely strong. For example, you might have a really strong belief in god and the message of god, and therefore that’s very important to you. On the other hand, the existence of the sun is not something we need to believe in. That is a fact. So, therefore, none of us are really investing ourselves in the idea of the sun because it’s real. It’s always there. So, a god that is real is going to be the same thing. It’s actually there. It actually does things. So, people may not be as heavily invested in a god simply because it actually is real and they’re not having to tell themselves what they want to believe about it. That’s my personal opinion about that and you’re certainly free to disagree.
If you do agree, then you have a world with real gods, people might not be quite as passionate about those gods and their choice of religion. On the other hand, because the god is real and actually answers prayer, they might be really grateful that they know they can call upon this god. And if that god has actually answered their prayers, that can cause devotion in a different kind of way. From a practical standpoint, I don’t know that there’s really much difference, but I just wanted to mention this idea.
Let’s talk about prophets. There are some basic details that we’re going to want to invent regarding this person. One of them is obviously their name. They may have a new name now that they are a prophet. We want to know their occupation before becoming a prophet, and whether they are transformed by the experience. We also want to know when it happened.
When a prophet became one is actually very important because this is going to determine things like holidays. Calendars can actually be based on the existence of this prophet, the same way that today we have everything based on the life of Jesus Christ. We also want to know where they became a prophet because this can result in holy sites, and sometimes those are contested. We also want to know how they became a prophet because this can generate relics, symbols, and rituals that are prevalent in this religion. We can keep these pretty simple, and I’m going to read an example of this from the book.
“In the year 12 AK, the horseman Vinson rode into the Dark Peaks in what is the modern day Empire of Amarysh. He emerged as the Prophet Kier, chosen voice of the God of War, Arion, whose golden sword he pulled from a petrified lluvien tree, whereupon he heard Arion’s voice commanding him to return and form the Blades of Arion, an elite force of mounted religious warriors.”
It only took me a couple of minutes to write this, and what we have here are several potential symbols, like the sword and a specific tree type, plus a generally holy area, as in those mountains. And then there may be a specific location there as well, and of course there could be a petrified tree there. Details like this can result in people doing pilgrimages to go to this location at certain intervals of our choosing. The type of tree can be associated with this religion as a symbol or as one that is actually planted at holy sites like a church. If you’re a practitioner, maybe you have one planted in your front yard. When our prophet became one, perhaps he was eating a specific type of fruit, and that has been seen as a harbinger of good news. So, this fruit is also associated with this religion.
All we have to do is make up a story with a little bit of details and then people assign meaning to those details. We’re also going to want to decide how long this prophet lived and when he died because this can also give us dates that we use in our religion. Did he die naturally or not? If he was killed, who did it? Why, how and when? How did the religion react to this and what did the dod do? The reason we want to invent these details is, once again, to create aspects of our religion that are going to come up in the course of our story.
We should also consider how our religion comes to an end, if it does. The world does not have to end for the religion to go away, and we have seen this on Earth many times. It’s important to note that, as we mentioned earlier, maybe the gods are not real and people have invented these religions. This makes it easier for the religion to go away. This is also true if the god does exist but has no part in the religion because he’s non-communicative. Why does that matter? Because, in both cases, people can lose faith in the gods, stop believing in them, stop talking about them and, essentially, the gods go away. Of course, if the god is real, he doesn’t actually cease to exist, but if we have invented the gods, they do effectively stop existing.
There are various reasons why people can lose faith in religion, and one of these is if there was some sort of foretold event that does not actually occur. Smarter religions don’t choose specific dates for something for exactly that reason. Some of the reasons people can lose faith include that other practitioners are hard to live with, the religion may be too hard to practice if it’s really strict, the teachings may be too hard to understand, the individual might resist submitting to an authority like that, and they may crave an experience that they are denied because they are part of this religion. In the end, all we need is for people to abandon a religion and it effectively dies.
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A Religion’s Followers
Let’s talk about the people who become followers of this religion. Many religions have no particular requirement for becoming a follower. If we’re looking to speed up our work creating a religion, this is one way to do that. We can just skip that altogether. People can also be a practitioner without ever going to church, praying or giving any outward sign of their faith. Although, this is going to depend on your religion. You might have a god who demands some show. If we do want there to be requirements, there are some options such as donations of money, food or possessions. We could make visible adherence to any requirements for the way they dress, how they prepare, whether they eat or drink (or avoid eating or drinking) certain kinds of food and alcohol, and then maybe we require them to do missionary work to spread the gospel of that religion.
Or, of course, one of our favorites is sacrifice. Whether that’s a lifestyle and prohibiting something and following that, or actually killing something or someone. You’ll know if you have a god who requires the last one. When people perform these acts, that tends to make them invest more heavily in their religion and become more devoted. If you want really passionate members of a religion, then have them be required to do more. If you want them to be less interested and less passionate, then you can make the requirements be less.
When it comes to leaving a religion or no longer practicing it, those religions that don’t have a formal admission process will probably also not have a formal way of abandoning their religion. But we could reasonably assume if it’s required that they do a lot to get into their religion, that they also have to do something to get out of it. Or there may be some sort of price, like being banned from entry into any holy sites thereafter. If the afterlife is real, well, then maybe they’re going to be denied it. The most severe price is, of course, being killed so that you’re not actually allowed to leave the religion. Instead of leaving voluntarily, you might also be expelled from it due to certain offenses, or you could be killed for those same offenses.
A stricter religion might forbid you from knowing people from other religions, or having friends like that, or lovers, or certainly having children among them. Why would we want to do this sort of thing? Well, because it adds a good tension to our characters if we have two people fall in love, but one of them is from this religion where they’re not allowed to do these things, and they try to live in secret, but then they get found out. It causes all sorts of problems, tensions, and they’re just living their life in fear of this and living their life around being discovered. And then, of course, if something happens, if they get found out, now they have to find a way to rectify the situation and deal with a religion that might be coming after them to punish them in some way.
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The followers of religion are not the only ones involved in it, of course, because we have the clergy, and that’s what we’re going to talk about next. Just as with the followers, some religions will accept anyone as potential priests while others might have strict requirements. Maybe they need to be a virgin or maybe they need to have killed someone. It really could be anything, and that’s going to depend on the god. Some professions might be desired while others are actually forbidden. The ability to read and write is going to be desired, if not required, because these people need the ability to interpret scrolls and other written word. Unless, of course, those don’t exist.
Perhaps the ability to communicate with the god is required, or the ability to be a vessel of godly power in the sense of healing the living because the god has worked through you. This might be a requirement before you become a member of the clergy. It could also be an ability that happens after you become a member. Religions most often accept someone into it on a formal basis. You can’t just walk in off the street, walk up to the altar and start preaching to people, right? Once someone becomes a member of the clergy, they are often trained in more than one position. Not necessarily at once, of course, but in time.
Part of what I’m getting at is that there is a hierarchy and they will have to work their way up through the ranks. It is a good idea to decide what sort of hierarchy exists and do something about codifying that so that when you have a character who was a member of their priesthood, we have an understanding of how high or low they are in the food chain. I recommend borrowing some ideas from Earth, such as the pope, and then there are bishops, archbishops and then there are the priests who are more in charge of a local church or a shrine. And then, within each building, there are going to be people who are just kind of lower level where they just deal with more basic functions of church life. This could be something like a secretary or someone in charge of the paperwork.
We don’t necessarily have to come up with everything that allows someone to move from one rank to another because we may not need it. That said, there are some basic ideas such as someone above them in the food chain dying or being transferred to another position, so the position has been opened up, or that person could have been promoted and now this person is also promoted. There might also be service requirements, like you’re in a certain role for two years, for example. Or they may have performed a really good deed, whether that was on purpose or not, and this warrants recognition with the promotion. We should keep these simple.
An area not to overlook is whether there are saints, prophets or other religious leaders. Each of these people will have ideas similar to our original prophet that we were talking about earlier, meaning they may have a story to their life and what they did regarding this religion. That story could have produced more artifacts, more holidays, occasions and the other stuff that we can leverage in our storytelling. All we really need is for them to have exemplified some virtue of our religion by performing a deed in the past, and we can just quickly make these up.
Another issue is that a religion could have different sects that disagree with each other about interpretation of religious texts. This always reminds me of an idea in world building that sometimes we can’t make a decision between two different ideas, and I think we don’t have to. We can actually use both ideas. In this case, we would end up with two different sects of a religion. All we really need is for them to have a significant disagreement about important aspects of the religion. This is slightly more believable and easier to achieve if the gods are not real because that means people are making things up, and one a group of people will find it easier to disagree with another. But if the god is real and is actually directing the religion, I don’t know that we’re really going to have different sects unless each of them is sanctioned by the god.
This might be problematic, but the most likely idea that I can see is that one sect is specializing in certain aspects of this religion while another is focusing on different aspects. This would suggest that instead of being opposed to each other, they are working in conjunction to fulfill the overall god’s vision.
A related idea is what this religion’s relationship is like with other people. This includes various species, both genders and other religions. These are, once again, areas that we could invent or we could try to keep this pretty simple. I do think the one area you really should work out is how the religion views each species in your world and how those species have used the religion. The easy way to go about this is simply to compare the values of that species with the values of the religion. Are they in conflict or do they seem to match? Do they sort of match, but maybe the species has problems with some of the behaviors of the people in this religion? Maybe they sort of view the religion favorably, but have problems with some of those actions.
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Let’s talk about the all important beliefs of this religion. There are some basic ideas that we probably want to decide on, and many of these will have something to do with the god. For example, where did the god originate and what does the god represent? What does the god want of the world, his followers and maybe even their enemies? How does the god want to be worshiped, or at least how do people believe that god wants to be worshiped? How does the god reward or punish people, and for what? How, and under what circumstances, does the god’s power manifest in the world? All of these ideas can help shape the behavior of practitioners. Generally, belief leads to behavior, so if we’re trying to decide how our followers act, we first start with the god’s virtues, then these beliefs, and then the behaviors of our religious people.
Beliefs are often centered on spiritual, mythological and supernatural elements of the god or the religion itself. The good part of this is that we get to use our imagination and make up little stories about things that have happened. We are basically talking about inventing myths. For each myth, we really just need a point that we are trying to create; a moral of the story. If it’s a god of love, we might want a story where we show the good things that happened to someone because they followed their heart. If it’s a god of greed, we might want a story where someone becomes a rich because they apply certain principles and they ended up with the result that the people who followed this religion hope to achieve for themselves one day.
Keep these stories simple and summed up in maybe a paragraph. The details that we add to this would be just like when we’re talking about prophets earlier. They could have artifacts that become associated with this religion. All we really need is a half dozen of these — not the artifacts, but these prophets and these myths — and we end up with a pretty detailed religion.
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How They Worship
Let’s finish up by talking a little bit about how people worship. A more demanding god or religion might require people to show their faith more often, and that could result in something like daily prayers. A more relaxed religion and deity might have less frequent devotion. Choose whatever seems appropriate. One question to answer is about the location. Do they need to go to a church, a mosque or other religious site in order to worship or are they allowed to do it anywhere? When people pray, do they need to get into any specific position, such as kneeling, or can they do so standing? One way to decide these is how much deference needs to be shown. A demanding or insecure god might insist that people go out of their way to show that they love the deity, whereas one that is maybe more secure might not really care so much about how they go about doing it.
People might also be expected to stand or kneel on some sort of mat, and that might be required to be made out of a certain kind of cloth. What kind of cloth? Well, if our original prophet was wearing some sort of cloth or type of material, or using it in some significant way when they became a prophet, then that, in turn, becomes the kind of cloth you use when you are showing your devotion. Does the religion require anyone to observe fasting where they don’t eat for a certain number of days or weeks, or just give up certain amount of food — well, not the amount, but certain specific foods?
There may be specific prayers that are said on a daily basis, a yearly basis, or somewhere in between. If we want to keep this simple, we can just give them a name, like “the Lord’s Prayer,” and not even specify what is actually said. If we want to build it out more, then we go ahead and we write down the actual words that they say. How far to go is, once again, going to depend on what you need to do in your story.
It’s about time to wrap up this episode, and I do want to mention that in Cultures and Beyond I talk about a few things that I’m not covering here today. One of those is the name of our religion. It’s important to come up with a cool one. We’re also not going to talk about locations and identifiers, the afterlife and the combat style, if any, of the members of this religion. If you’d like to know more, I suggest picking up a copy at artofworldbuilding.com.
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