A Guide to Creating Religion

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Introduction



I've recently met a wonderful worldbuilder and redditor over on /r/worldbuilding, known simply as FaerFoxx. He's produced (and continues to produce) extremely high quality guides on several worldbuilding topics, including exospheric life, taxonomic hierarchies, blood chemistry, and our subject today, religion.
Religion has always been one of my favorite subjects to write about, since there's so much potential for depth in beliefs, that can branch off and touch on all subjects and regions of a constructed universe. FaerFoxx describes the ins and outs of religion and its nature, usage, and most of all, its importance.

FaerFoxx's Overview on Creating Religions


A Religion is a belief system concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when they have a commitment to a superhuman agency based upon faith, have common practices or rituals, and have a moral code or set of values that advises on how people should or should not act. Everyone has a belief system, even if not necessarily a religion; while it is silly to call atheism a religion, it is a belief system with a commitment to 'science' and a strong faith in the objectivity and constancy of the outside world and (hopefully) moral values. Religion and belief systems are more than just groups of like-minded individuals gathering to exchange ideas, but a source of strength, hope, comfort, and the basis for a person's way of life.

The most important thing to determine about a belief system are what beliefs are real, what are myths, and what are combinations of both within it. An important thing to consider is that after a long period of time passes, many may consider true beliefs to be mythical in nature simply because of the length of time since the event and the lack of living eyewitnesses.

Purpose of Religion



Belief systems serve a number of important functions within society:
The Wizard's Tower by Afarifteh
The Wizard's Tower by
Afarifteh

  • Framework for thought and action: Belief systems provide a model of the universe, attempts to answer where the universe and specifically people originated, what the afterlife will be like, and what laws govern the universe, how people should best follow those laws, and what affect the universe has upon people and vice versa.
  • Support for the social system: Belief systems provide a justification for the prevailing social system of a society, explaining why certain things should or should not be done and why. For example, if a society believes something or practices some action like oppressing women or keeping slaves, the belief system will be able to explain why that is a just and proper action.
  • Call for change: Belief systems can and do justify change. They can try and bring back a society that has drifted from its ideals, completely change society as new beliefs appear, and belief systems themselves can change as societies change even if slower or against their own previous beliefs.
  • Difficult social values: Belief systems can provide support for unnatural, difficult social values that some may otherwise desire to ignore. For example, preserving livestock during famine rather than eating them to maintain way of life after food returns, banning certain goods or foods for health reasons, restricting sex to avoid sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy, or discouraging over-hunting.
  • Practical help: Belief systems can provide practical help for a number of things that the population needs, such as healing and medicines, how to find love, fertility, to grow good crops, to provide protection...
  • Personal growth: Belief systems provide ways to achieve mental peace, or to improve one's will. They provide ways for one to feel good about themselves and their worldview, and how to best achieve happiness.


On the Differences Between Religion and Cult



Religion


Religions develop frequently around a philosophical or metaphysical revelation, or an unexplained phenomenon. While revelations may only be revealed to followers, it is not generally exclusive and instead the existence of a revelation is announced but the religion must be joined to find out what it is. Frequently revelations are delivered in public (to be either shunned or accepted, depending on the people and society), or delivered in private to an assembled group of followers. Religious leaders usually represent a higher power, rather than themselves - they may claim to be an incarnate version of a deity, or a prophet, but the defining difference between a cult leader and a person of authority within a religion is how they treat questions and doubt from their followers: normally questions and doubt are treated with care and thoughtful answers, rather than punishment. Obedience and loyalty to the faith are expected, but not without question, and followers are also more likely to be encouraged to spend time with their families, and to share the faith with those outside of it, rather than locking themselves away with only like-minded people. Religions recognize individually and the unique talents that each has, and exists for the good of the community as a whole rather than only the believers. There are likely codes or laws for those who are a part of the faith, but mistakes are expected, and while there may be a system of reward and punishment it is not used for control and is more for helping to gain control of one's life and impulses. Non-believers still have value as a person or to society.


Forest of the Faded Ones by HeribertoMartinez

Cult


Cults develop around a leader or leaders, who may or may not claim to be divine, who receives a 'revelation'. This revelation may only be shared with followers, and they make a point of excluding others from their revelation, especially in public. Leaders are perfect and infallible, and represent themselves rather than a higher power - they are deserving of worship, even when their actions contradict the standards of a society or even their own teachings. Questions or doubt are severely punished. Blind obedience and loyalty to the faith and leaders is demanded, and often followers are required to leave their family and friends so they can devote all of their time to the faith. Individuality is not allowed, everyone must preform the same way for their own good or for the good of the faith/leader. There is a system of reward and punishment in place designed to control behaviour, usually one which favours those who have been in the faith longer than new converts. Followers are allowed very few/no personal belongings or income, and anything they do have is often confiscated by the cult. Gender roles are often exaggerated and strictly adhered to. Non-believers are suspect, cannot be trusted, and interaction with them is to be kept to a minimum.

Creating a Religion or Cult



Below are the four major categories to consider when discussing a religion, and some example questions to consider for each category.

Theology


What do people worship, and who are the deities of the religion? What are they depicted as, their personalities, personal histories? Some examples of worship include: a single god (monotheism), a pair of gods (ditheism), or a pantheon of gods, spirit animals, their own ancestors or certain ancestors (such as saints), or perhaps some indeterminate life force. What other supernatural or metaphysical beings might there be? There may be nothing else besides the worshiped beings or forces, but perhaps there are spirits, demons, angels, genies, etc.

Beliefs


What are the major beliefs of your religion? For example, what things are considered sacred or unclean, what symbols or items have religious significance? What is the cosmology like, the structure of the universe, what the stars in the sky really are, what other planes exist, etc.? What is the nature of the soul, and what happens to it upon death? What is the afterlife like? What was the origin of the universe and of people? What is ethical and moral and what is sinful? Ask yourself what they do, and why they do it, especially in regards to their morals, ethics, and superstitions. If you had one rule to concisely portray the purpose of your religion and how its followers should behave, what would it be?

Structure


How are your worshipers organized? Temples, shrines, monasteries, personal idols or symbols, worship is personal, there is no organization? What are the holy sites of the religion? Who are the leaders of the religion, who conducts rights, teaches of the religion, and so on? Are there sages, shamans, preachers, a priesthood or priestesshood? Are there mixed gender leaders, only priests, or only priestesses, or one in authority over the other? Is there a strong central authority, or does each church or temple have independence? Families often have built in religious roles so that practices and rights can be done at home; does your religion, and if so who and what are their responsibilities? Are there worship activities at certain times or days?

Religions must have some consistent record of its laws, belief explanations, and stories which followers can use for answers, explanations, and guidance. Perhaps sacred texts, liturgical songs, oral tradition, or special chants or prayers which are commonplace?

Practices


What do people do following this belief system? Below are listed some possible ideas.
  • Worship Services: Worshippers gather together for an organized group service led by a leader. They may include song, chants, prayer, or scripture teachings.
  • Festivals: These are much more independent than worship services. They may be organized around a feast, or games, or a performance. The mood may be festive, or religious, or erotic.
  • Sacrifice/Offerings: These may be public or private events, or provided as a service by a priest.
  • Prophecy: Oracles or prophets may tell the future or the will of what they worship, either to direct national scale things or just aid on an individual level.
  • Healing: Clerics or priests, either through their knowledge of medicine or through divine powers may heal the injured or sick.
  • Discussion: Meeting together to discuss and argue their beliefs.
  • Prayer: Individually, in groups, or with religious leaders; privately, in public, in temples; and may be about worship, thanks, confession, or assistance from the divine.
  • Ritual Cleaning: Some things might need to be avoided, or parts of the body must be kept clean. Washing in blessed water might be needed to make one pure.
  • Spiritual Training: Training the body and mind, martial arts, meditation, etc. might be a necessary activity in order to please the deities or become closer to them.
  • Education: Beliefs and practices must be taught to the young, and while this occurs it might be in the interest of the church to teach them other important things like math or writing.
  • Evangelism: Their religion is not only the right one, everyone must be made to see this and converted.
  • Surrendering some or all worldly possessions: In order to show your purity you might need to give up some things; this may range from some minor inconveniences, to living a simple but comfortable life, to living one of poverty.
  • Pilgrimage: Travelling to a sacred site or structure; regularly, at certain points in one's life, or when desired; this may be for guidance, enlightenment, or something else.


Life Transition Ceremonies play an important part in most religions, with celebrations or rituals which may mark birth, puberty, marriage, or death. What is done upon birth? What happens on birthdays (Are gifts given to the child, or does the child give gifts to someone else; is there a celebratory event, or just recognition of the day)? Is there a coming of age ceremony, or right of passage? What about marriage ceremonies? Funeral services and rights for the dead? What are the major holidays?

Societal Interaction



Consider how your religion interacts with the society as a whole. Frequently religions provide the basis for a society's behaviour and law, or a separate one from a government which can cause conflicts. The dominant religions will affect a culture as it is developing, creating sayings or actions or styles of dress for example which become pervasive within society independent of religion. It is important to remember that people have certain expectations and needs which are fulfilled by religion, and that if you do not use religion to meet those you require something else. Interaction between religion and society exists on a spectrum, of which can be considered four major divisions:
  • Theocracy: Where the religion, either directly, through influence, or a puppet government, controls the leaders of society as a whole.
  • Active Religion: A government exists alongside one or more very active religions, and both must be taken into account in balance.
  • Nominal Religion: The religion is pervasive but inactive, everyone just 'is' a religion whether or not the faith is practiced or believed on an individual level. Many people will be rather unconcerned with religion at all, but still call themselves members of that religion without really understanding the faith, instead having the idea of 'everyone is insert-religion-here, therefore I must also be'. This type is very stagnant, preforming the practices of the religion without growth or change.
  • Dying Religion: Another faith, or the government becomes more powerful, sees the religion as a threat or redundancy, and either actively suppresses it or lets it die on its own.

Religion, while bringing people together in many ways, is frequently very divisive. Everything that makes a specific religion unique, and what draws certain people to it, can also be used by outsiders to persecute it. Standards for religious people may be higher or lower than the non-religious, and this can also have a divisive effect between them. For example, if a religion supports charity, honesty to a fault, and equality for all, then people outside of that religion will be keeping watch for any fault they might possibly perceive, while those within it are put under great pressure to perform more than they are capable of, and a balance must be reached to avoid conflict.



I hope you guys enjoyed this guide as much as I did. We'll have more helpful articles and overviews coming out soon, so stay tuned!

And, on a side note, we apologize for the silence in the past year or so. Everyday life has a habit of taking over.  So, I suppose you could say, we're back from the dead for now. :D

Credit Where Credit is Due



Guide by FaerFoxx

The Wizard's Tower by Afarifteh
See more of his work at amundfarifteh.com

Forest of the Faded Ones by HeribertoMartinez
Follow him on Facebook or Instagram




Skin by CypherVisor
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