Worldbuilding: Designing a Religion

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.

The Rules

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.