According to Wikipedia, “a religion is a set of beliefs that is passionately held by a group of people that is reflected in a world view and in expected beliefs and actions.” I don’t often quote definitions directly, but I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Religions in stories give way for some really great plot points and twists (especially if they turn into cults, but that’s a whole other post!). Perhaps your MC is looking to find themself through religion, or maybe your MC is part of a religion they want out of. Is your MC ‘chosen’ to be the next messiah, or are they tasked with abolishing a false prophet? Religions can also impact smaller details, such as ostracised communities, times and places of worship, laws and restrictions.
Religions can vary hugely, giving you complete creative control over the reality you want to mould (a reality that doesn’t even have to match your story’s reality!), but with that in mind, there’s a lot to consider! So this post will delve into the nitty gritty of creating a thought-provoking, impactful religion to enhance your world and disturb your story.
In a Sentence
What is the most important belief of your religion in the world you’ve created? Sum it up in a sentence and give it a name. Try not to think in terms of positives or negatives, simply facts. Let’s look at some real-life examples:
Christianity: Follow the Lord’s teachings in preparation for His second coming when only the faithful will be saved.
Buddhism: Live selflessly, according to the Noble Eightfold Path, until you are liberated from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Earthseed: Change and grow with the world around you until humanity can live among the stars.
Jediism (Yes, really): Be mindful of negative emotions and always strive for peace and justice.
With the basis of your religion formed, you can start adding details that will affect your character and your world. These are the rules and expectations of its followers. When world-building, you should always be creating details around your plot - start in the present. This stops you from writing in any unnecessary, confusing details, and/or forcing yourself into a corner. Work backwards and outwards from the circumstance where you want your plot to begin, designing a story that leads to that circumstance.
The rules you put in place here will contribute, positively or negatively, to the obstacles that your character has to overcome. They will either ‘be’ the obstacles, or they will help them overcome the obstacles. But remember: You should be able to justify each rule according to your religion, characters, or world.
Also consider what the punishments are if rules are broken. Do they simply receive a slap on the wrist in private, followed by counselling to set them on the right track, or are they imprisoned, banished, or publicly humiliated?
Some examples are:
Anyone caught associating with other races will be exiled.
Citizens must donate 50% of their earnings to the prophet.
Anyone caught with forbidden texts will be imprisoned.
Any strangers must be reported immediately.
Citizens must not leave the city/village.
All citizens must take part in the lottery. If they are chosen, they will be sacrificed to the volcano.
Daughters must abide by their fathers and brothers, and then their husbands.
New members must leave their old life behind in its entirety.
Here is where we start going into the foundations, beliefs, and philosophies of your religion. Look at what the followers of your religion are doing now according to the rules, and take a look at the sentence you wrote down originally. Deduce from those what the end goal of your religion is.
Why are those rules in place? Look into the future; what are they hoping to achieve or maintain before or after they die?
For example; if your religion is sacrificing citizens by chucking them into a volcano, they may be doing this out of fear of the gods growing hungry and bursting forth to consume the city.
Following this, you now know the desired ‘end result’ of your religion, you know what its followers or its leaders are working towards. From this, you can deduce the origin story of your religion.
An easy way to do this is to think about what the exact opposite of their goal is. For example; If they want world peace, the opposite of this is world war. From this, we can presume that the religion cropped up during a time of war. What do people need during a time of war? Hope, comfort, community; these are reasons people may initially band together. On top of this, the leaders may have a theory behind what started the war. In which case, some of their laws and teachings may be specifically to prevent that thing from happening again.
No matter the good intentions, the measures put in place to achieve those intentions can easily lead to conflict.
Now that you’ve come up with your religion’s goals, motivations and origins, you can start to build up a more detailed belief system. Answer these questions:
Who do followers look up to and who leads them? Are they living, dead, or eternal? Who is the decision maker? How are they organised?
Do they have a scripture or a specific artefact that is important to them? If so, what is it and why is it important? Where did it come from? Is there one, or many?
Do they pray? If so, how and to who? Does this include offerings or sacrifices?
Where do the believers congregate? Do they come together on a particular day or time?
And finally, where does your religion sit in your wider world? Answer these questions:
How many members are there? Is it a common religion, or uncommon one?
How powerful is the leader? Are they an ordinary person, or an aristocrat?
Who is allowed to join? Can anyone, or is it limited to an elite group?
Does the religion actively look to recruit more members, or are they closed off, invite only? Do they force or kidnap people to join?
Has the religion changed over time from what it used to be? Has that been for better or for worse?
Your answers to these questions will affect how outsiders see your religion, and the amount of difficulty your MC will have entering or leaving it for whatever reason. A religion filled with only the wealthy will be much harder to topple, and a religion followed by every member of the city will be much harder to escape. A religion that kidnaps its members will be much more guarded, and a religion that has changed over time may hold more secrets.
Congrats! You’ve created a religion! If you would like a major conflict centred around your religion, keep reading! Otherwise, allow your religion to rumble along as an influential presence in your plot that will either support your MC on their journey, or become a bit of nuisance.
To keep things simple, you have two options when it comes to writing in a substantial conflict directly associated with your religion. Those are through anomalies and through interpretations. Anomalies are externally sourced changes affecting your religion and its people, and Interpretations are changes inside your religion or its structure that cause internal conflict.
It’s important to remember that, in order to create a well-thought-out and believable world, things will exist outside of your religion, and things won’t always stay the same.
If your conflict involves an anomaly - a conflict with external forces - you’ll need to be considering whether there are any people or groups against the religion you have created, whether they actively or secretly oppose them, and why? The conflict could also be rooted in your MC, where a change in their life suddenly has them choosing between their community and a personal matter. Maybe the prophet or leader has been assassinated.
Your anomaly will be an event that sends your religion out of whack and causes conflict with the wider world. A problem arises that needs to be solved.
The Balance, The Chronicles of The Balance
In my series, The Chronicles of The Balance, a belief system exists revolving around The Balance. Using the process above, I’m going to talk you through how I designed it.
In a Sentence: Reapers take life, and Angels give it; this is The Balance, and it must be maintained.
The Rules: Reapers and Angels are to keep their existence a secret from humans, and this is their most stressed rule. This is because the last time humans were aware of The Balance and its powers, they destroyed an entire city. Rules also include only reaping souls that are ready and never reaping another reaper; this is known as the Ultimate Sin.
The Goals: The community seeks to maintain The Balance of life and death because if it was to be ignored and tip, the world - Kana - would be plunged into chaos and suffering for both the living and the dying - but never the dead.
The Origins: Prior to the creation of Kana, another world existed. However, negligence in how it was run and maintained drew it to a terrifying end. The Mother of the Balance, an ordinary woman born again from the previous world, created The Balance as a way to prevent the same disaster from happening in this new world.
The Beliefs: Reapers and Angels look up to The Mother. Maintaining The Balance is a daily chore, a part of everyday life. For this reason, they do not take time to pray. Doing their job is respect enough. Three artefacts exist which all contain a third of The Mother’s power. A scripture does not exist, but the story of the world’s creation can be found engraved on the walls of a lost city. To begin with, the Reapers and Angels do not know of either the artefacts or the city, as they were forgotten over time.
The World: Humans were once privy to this religion, but are no longer. As Reapers and Angels live in their own dimensions, only travelling to the human world for work, new followers only appear when new generations of Reapers and Angels hatch. Their influence covers the entire world and all three dimensions, but nobody knows.
The Anomaly: Some are not happy letting The Balance decide on what happens and who rules - specifically the villain. He goes out and breaks every rule in order to regain what he believes was unfairly stolen from him.
A New Interpretation
As we all know, most religions are open to interpretation. With that being said, once you have the basis of your religion, you can start looking into where it could be twisted. There are a number of reasons why there might be inconsistencies in beliefs. For example, the scripture might have been lost, and so stories are told through word of mouth - like a game of Chinese Whispers. Perhaps the leader is manipulating the followers to do his bidding in the name of God for their own personal gain. Scriptures may have been translated poorly, or even just the meaning misinterpreted if written vaguely enough.
With this in mind, you have the ability to send your story off on a tangent. Your MC may be a devout follower of a religion, but find they are being misled, which sends them on a path towards a truth that is rejected by others. They may discover the false intentions of the leader and hope to cast them out. Or perhaps the beliefs of the religion are sending the followers towards disaster simply due to misinterpretation or falsities, and it is up to the MC to convince them otherwise. Maybe your MC is chosen by the gods to be the next messiah, but a power hungry priest won't allow it.
Martha's Vineyard, The Insularity Series
Here’s another example for you to consider, drawn from Stephanie Mylchreest’s Insularity series:
In a Sentence: The followers devoutly follow the scripture to prevent the second apocalypse.
The Rules: Do not leave the island. Do as the leaders say without question. Any disobedience will be met with punishment. Do not accept any information that comes from the outside; it is heresy and goes against the gods. The elders will go out of their way to destroy or hide any items or information that go against their narrative and imprison those that speak out. Anyone not willing to contribute to the community is cast into the pit.
The Goals: Appease the gods in order to prevent them from sending another flood to destroy the Earth.
The Origins: The world was ravaged by floods many years before. The 'original elders' escaped to Martha's Vineyard with their small community, heralding that the Great Floods and rampaging fires were a punishing act of the gods. In actuality, they were caused by the melting of the polar ice caps and global warming. They wrote the Book and set up a new way of life under the gods, designed to appease them and prevent another apocalypse.
The Beliefs: The elders read from the Book; they follow it as Priests would follow The Bible. The people congregate often, but have a large feast once a year in the spring to sacrifice a lamb for God.
The World: The community is tied to Martha’s Vineyard. They do not and are not allowed to leave except for fishing. No new members come from the outside; they can only be born. Any that approach from the outside are treated as the enemy. The Elders of each village oversee all religion, infrastructure, and politics.
A New Interpretation: One woman realises the true cause behind the Great Floods and knows they will happen again. She recruits a friend to help her gather evidence to show the elders in order to convince them to move from the island and save their people.
So clearly there's a lot to consider above, but the number one thing you need to ensure is that you're creating a religion with purpose. Having full creative freedom when designing new worlds can be exciting, but don't be tempted to include details in your story that don't make a difference. As with every scene you include in your novel, every detail should be equally influential and relevant.