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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Ski Patroller, and Pasta-Eater Extraordinaire

World Building: Religion and Morality

Now let's jump into the other most controversial topic, religion!

So this installment is going to cover made up religions, usually found in science fiction or fantasy. If your story involves in any significant measure any religion in use on Earth today (or even not in use, but still one that can be found in history) it behooves you to the nth degree to do your research. If possible, talk to a practicing member or ex-member of said religion. If that is not feasible, then do extensive research and find out everything you can.

Before we get too far into this, I want to quickly draw a distinction between religion, spiritualism, philosophy. I know that there are official dictionary definitions, and there are probably thinkers out there who have their own definitions, and you probably have your own ideas on what they are and the difference between them.

For the purposes of our discussion today, I am going to use my own understanding of these. Religion will be understood as a cosmic problem having a cosmic solution that is carried out through institutional practices. For example, Christianity has the cosmic problem of sin and separation from God, cosmic solution of Jesus dying on the cross, and this is implemented through a personal relationship with Jesus the risen Messiah. Judaism, sin, separation, sacrifice.

Spiritualism will be considered for cosmic understanding that may require some ritual applications, but the goal is geared more toward balance rather than good and evil conquest. So while Animism may have particular rituals that must be performed, it is done for balance and appeasement rather than salvation of one's soul. Similarly, spiritualism may not distinguish between a “heaven” or “hell” per se, but all souls are treated equally at death.

Philosophy will be understood as man-made rules to be personally implemented in order to achieve peace with one's fellows with no cosmic entity required. Most philosophies are based on certain religious or spiritual facets, but philosophical people don't give credit to those. Philosophy can vary from person to person.

It's hard to consider any of these elements in a vacuum, because they do get interchanged quite frequently. I'm probably going to use the term “religion” throughout this installment just for sake of coherence, but when crafting your world, refer back to my little definitions and consider which way you really want to take your particular craft. And you may have more than one in your world.

But how do you create new religions for your fictional people without looking like a rubber stamped copycat? How do you have a pantheon without sounding Greek or Roman? How do you have nature spirits without copying basic paganism from around the world? And if your religion involves resurrection of some form, everyone knows you're just ripping on Jesus.

It's not wrong to look to existing religions to draw inspiration. But it may be beneficial to look, not only at what those religions are or were, but how they are still in use today. Calendar months are named for Roman gods and emperors, among other things. Janus was the goddess of new beginnings which was why her month came first. September is based on septa for seven, October is octo or eight, November is nova, nine, December is deca, or ten. And then Julius and Augustus Caesars came along and decided they they needed to be memorialized in some way, so they became July and August. Days of the week also have religious origins; in Germanic languages, they have Nordic origins. And let's not forget that the commonly used Western calendar utilizes years that date back to Jesus. That is pretty darn significant if you ask me.

Other cultures and religions use a lunar calendar and even have names for these lunar cycles, the same as months. These names may be based on seasons or gods and goddesses.

Your people don't have to be terribly religious themselves, but that doesn't mean that their current or past religions don't have some bearing on modern life. In addition to calendar months, expressions and idioms may also have religious origins. An eye for an eye, for example. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. A time to live and a time to die, and so on.

When considering religion, you have to look at the people. When and how did they discover their gods? What do they consider their origin story? You don't need a forty-page thesis, and I would refrain from getting too elaborate the first go round, but just consider it. How did your people meet their gods? Were they created? Did someone have a vision? Were there texts given to the people? Maybe it's as simple as someone told their children a fanciful story about nature, something that, over generations, became a god. Maybe your people believe that death frees their souls from their bodies so that the ancestors are gods.

In the Timekeeper Chronicles, the Krydik are rather unique in this regard. Wolf Clan knows that they are descendants of Native Americans from Earth, and yet the rest of the Krydik are drifting away. Eagle Clan itself was designated as the clan of inheritance, charged with forging a new mythos for the future generations of Krydik who would likely never again return to Earth, to their ancestral stars and spirits. When does invention become religion?

So once you've got your ruling force, what are the limits of the gods, if any? Is the god of fire helpless to stop a tsunami? Is the god of war powerless against a mother's miscarriage? Or are the gods completely omnipotent? If there is more than one god or goddess, do they get along, or do they hate each other? How do their wars affect humans?

By this point, you might be yawning and saying, “But that's so Greek! A pantheon of specific gods who are always at war.”

Well then change it up. I'm not your mother and I'm not your English teacher. Go do some research, write down the things you want to include and avoid and come up with something along those lines.

How do your god or gods interact with your people? Are they aloof and disinterested? Do they see people as mere pawns to play with, sheep to move here and there to entertain themselves? Do they love their people? Do different gods claim different peoples? Do they care for their people? Do they give them specific rules, rituals to carry out, tasks to fulfill? Would your gods forgive their people for making a mistake or strike them down at first misstep?

What kinds of rituals must be performed, and why? Is it to effect a literal, physical change, or is it more symbolic? Are these rituals more like lively festivals, or is it a more solemn affair? How would either situation affect the view your people have of their gods?

Do your people love their gods? Are they eager to please or fearful of making a mistake? Do they go out of their way to show reverence, or perhaps go out of their way to blaspheme the gods? Do they even care?

How do the gods view heretics, those who follow other gods or those who are atheist? How do your religious people view heretics? How do the heretics view religious people? What are these views based on? Are fearful views based on instinctive fear of those who are different? Are they commanded to shun those who do not conform? Do your gods order the torture or beheading of any who do not convert? Is it different if the heretic is otherwise peaceful and quiet? What if they're belligerent?

How does your religion spread, if at all? Through war and conquest? Forced conversion? Does someone have to be born into it? Is it spread peacefully, through honest dialogue and debate?

Does one religion have factions? How did these factions come about? What was the original disagreement, and how is it viewed today? Why hasn't this disagreement been reconciled? Can it be reconciled? If it can't be reconciled, why are they still considered under the umbrella of the same religion? How do the factions view each other? How do outsiders view these factions?

Who are the leaders of your religion? How did they get to be leaders? Why are they leaders? How are leaders succeeded?

What is the role of politics in religion? Is there any difference between the head of your government and the head of your religion? If not, how did this come to be? Why? What do the common people think about this? If they are separate leaders, how do those leaders get along?

Is there any corruption in your religion, or in the leaders? What is it, and how did it come to establish itself? Do the common people know about it? Why hasn't anything been done about it? Is this kind of corruption a bug or a feature or your particular religion?

What kind of secrets does your religion hold? Are there any secret orders or factions that truly exist though they are summarily dismissed or denounced in front of the public? Why do these factions exist? How did they arise?

Let's also talk a bit about prophecies. How are prophecies communicated to the people? Sand casting? Dreams and visions? Reading bones or entrails? Crystals? Are there designated shamans or priests, or can anyone receive a vision? How clear are these visions? Who is qualified to interpret them? Are there hard and fast rules that anyone can learn, or is it by special training only?

What prophecies have already been fulfilled? Which ones have yet to be fulfilled? Why do people continue to hope for them, or how do they hope to avoid them? What do the people make of a prophecy not coming to pass? How fixed are these prophecies and can they be avoided? Who controls the prophecies?

Do the people believe in destiny or fate? Is it fixed or can someone change their destiny? How are destinies divined? What if someone is divined to have a bad destiny?

How do people view the concept of a soul? Could there be multiple souls? How is their soul tied to the world around them? How is the soul tied to the gods?

What happens to people when they die? Is it simply a snuffing out? Is there a concept of Heaven or Hell? Is there a way to come back from the dead, whether literally or through some sort of reincarnation? Are people afraid of death, or do they welcome it?

And now let's consider general morality. What do your people view as right and wrong, good and evil? Why? Who decided that something is right or wrong? Why isn't it the opposite? Is it a strict dichotomy or more of a multi-faceted approach? How do opinions vary, and how do differing opinions reconcile? Can an opinion of right and wrong change? Can good and evil actions become less good or less evil, or perhaps more good or more evil?

Is there some sort of religious, moral, or social punishment for doing something wrong? What must be done to correct an error? Is it different for different degrees of error? What if someone is unable to atone?

What happens when your religion faces persecution, whether it is widespread such as a hostile takeover, or on a more personal level when family members disagree? How strong are your people in their beliefs? Are they willing to die for their religion or are they more of a windsock, going wherever the wind blows?

There are a lot of aspects of religion that you may need to cover, depending on how in-depth you want to go. Maybe all you need is the name of a few gods, a few rules, a ritual or two, and call it good. Or maybe your religion is a critical part of your story. Whatever the case, whether real or fictitious, I would encourage you to map it out, do some research or some building, and make sure you know where you're going with it. If you don't, I'm sure someone on the Internet will be happy to correct you.

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