Worldbuilding 2: Religion --- Is That You, God?
(aka My Staring Contest With Jesus)
Yesterday, I went with a friend of mine to the local Catholic church on campus because she did no want to attend service alone. I almost said no to her because, what she did not know at the time, I am agnostic and the idea of going to a service made me uncomfortable. I had not been agnostic for a too long; in fact, I was raised Episcopalian, even more reason not to go to a Catholic church. In the church's narthex was a statue of the crucified Jesus, and curiosity getting the better of me I looked on it. As I continued to have my staring contest with Jesus, one of the toughest questions I've ever had to ask myself ran through my mind: Can I ever truly separate myself from all the things I once believed in? After all, it was in everything I did, my morals, my actions, my own home.
Even if you have no religion at all, religion exists everywhere, in art, politics, and pop culture. When constructing a world, be it for fantasy or science fiction or fantasy, the world's religions should be highly considered. I planned to write an essay focusing on how to use religion in fiction. Then I figured it would benefit you all better to see how one is constructed before figuring out how and where to put it in your work. Be prepared for the longest essay yet!
The Big Question: Why?
The Big Question: Why?
Before trying to create a religion, an important question to ask is why faiths exist. People have their personal reasons. Most often people just want explanations, be it for miraculous events or unfortunate circumstances. In the case of us humans, we strive to understand how we got here, why we are here and if we will always be here. We fear the unknown and the seemingly inexplicable. Religion steps in to save the day to help answer questions, from the tough ones to the little ones.
What Constitutes a Religion?
We might all be asking to same questions about life, but there are many different answers. What do we get? An assortment of religions, but here's a little known fact: Not all religions were formed the same way. Yes, shocking, I know. Most assume that when creating a religion one must include a single or pantheon of gods, rites, an afterlife and some holy place of worship. Not so. Let's take a look at Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Shinto, and tell me if you can spot some differences and similarities. (Note that I'm not exactly an expert on all these religions, so if I'm wrong, let me know):
Christianity – has one, omniscient God, creator of the universe; a savior figure, a source of forgiveness, love and kindness; faith in Jesus, the Son of God, saves one from sin and eternal death; await the Second Coming of Jesus and Judgment Day; spirits go to Heaven or Hell; place of worship called a church
Judaism – single omniscient, omnipotent, transcendent God; Israelites made a covenant with God; follow the teachings of the Patriarchs and Moses; little dogma on the afterlife; await the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead; place of worship called temple
Islam – belief in tawhid, or that there is only one God; Allah revealed his final message to humankind to Muhammad, God's final prophet, via the angel Gabriel; prophets are human, not divine; every occurrence is preordained by God but man has freewill to choose between right and wrong; also await Judgment Day; place of worship called mosque
Buddhism – no Absolute Creator God; followers show reverence for Gautama Buddha and the other Buddhas; goal is liberation from ignorance or suffering from an unawakened, worldly life by living up to moral codes; belief in a non-self, that a person is not a separate entity
Hinduism – belief in Brahman (Ishvara), the supreme spirit; multiple Devas or celestial entities; can be monotheistic, polytheistic, pantheistic, etc depending on the sect; strong emphasis on samsara, karma and moshka; visit temples but is not obligatory, worship can be done at home
Shinto – animistic, holding a high reverence to nature and its processes; Although divine, kami, or spirits, are close to people in that they think and act human-like and also exist among us, everywhere; emphasis not on the afterlife but on fitting into the world; no binding dogma, set prayers or holiest place of worship
See? Not every religion has to have only one god, a set of rules or even the belief in an afterlife. Technically, 'religion' is a just a set of beliefs and practices agreed upon by a group of peoples or sects. This does not mean that religion should not be constructed carelessly. So, what should one consider when creating a religion? A lot of detail goes into it, but I have built a little questionnaire help you get started. Pull out a pencil and paper because you have got some questions to answer!
Have you ever wanted to say "In the name of Some God, I'm about to f-ck your sh-t up!"? Do people yell at you for constantly having Deus Ex Machinas? Have a mother goddess, priestesses and some fancy robes and no clue what to do with it all? Confused about where religion could fit in your society? Well, I cannot necessarily help you with the second one, but if you are baffled on how to organize your newly created religion, here is a little questionnaire to help get you started.
1. What does your religion believe in?
This sounds like such a dumb question but few people really think about this. The easy way out would be to say that it believes in either a Christian ideology (brotherly love, devotion to one god, forgiveness, brotherly love) or pagan principles (honoring nature, agricultural life, loving the earth, mother goddess). In some worlds, however, this would not make much sense.
If your people live in a harsh landscape, like a desert or mountainside, do you truly think they would show respect to a nature so harsh to them? Would a religion that honors animals and tress really thrive in a highly industrialized region? Do you think tree hugging people would be keen on conforming to a religion dedicated to technology? No every part of the world will have the same ideals, things needed for survival and certainly not the same history. Religion is truly an adaptable thing. Think what is most important, rare and mysterious to the people and try working off of that.
2. Does your religion have a doctrine or dogma? If so, what does it include?
Dogma or doctrine is essentially the core beliefs relating to matters such as morality and faith, set forth in an authoritative manner by a church. These beliefs are said to be unchanging and considered true without physical proof. It could include holy days, the calendar and the religion's history. So what's the difference in the religion's principles/beliefs and it's doctrine, you ask? The principles are said to be dictated from the deity or deities themselves, as opposed to dogma, which is created by followers and disciples.
Think about who gets to make the descisions. After all, it would change the course of your entire religion if one priest decides, "Hey wait a minute, why is that in there? That makes us look bad! Take it out!". The Bible as we know it is missing a few books and some in there have been argued to be taken out. Keeping the heretics who did not accept the canon was not too pretty.
3. If polytheistic, what are the gods like? How do the gods interact with each other and with mortals? If monotheistic, is your god omniscient or not?
Most will go on their merry way and model their pantheon after the Greeks, the only problem being that they give their gods and goddesses such bland personalities. Part of the problem with people creating gods (even for a monotheistic religion) is they do not see gods as people. Yes, even an omnipotent god in the clouds can have a personality.
Let us for a minute say we have a religion that bears a moon goddess. For some reason, moon goddesses associate with grace and virginity, so they always have a loving and caring personality. Think about the crap that goes on at night, wolves howling, deep shadows forming and a shroud of mystery covering it all. If your moon goddess also manages the night time (meaning Nyx and Selene together), then she might have the most friendly personality. Water gods do not always have to have a calm, collective behavior, either. A place that floods constantly might see the rain or water god as someone fickle and to never anger.
As far as interaction with mortals goes—rarely do we see this in fiction, unless it's to save someone's life… yet again. The whatever-being has its superpowers and immortality and then runs off to live in isolation, appearing only to save the day. Let me ask this: If a god hides itself away, not physically interacting with people, who would want to believe in them?
4. If there are priests, what are they like?
It is entirely possible that your religion does not call for priests, but if you catch any religions that do not have any, let me know. For those that do, note that your priests become the lens through which everyone sees your created religion.
I think priests can sometimes be the hardest characters to write because you really have to look deep into their personal beliefs and a life outside of the religion. Writers normally do not place priests and priestesses as main characters, so they get the backseat of the Writing Mobile as the kind, loving, unworldly yet still devoted Priest Guy.
"Now wait a minute," you interrupt, "I don't want to waste my time on a character that only appears once in the story." Yes, I realize that developing a character can take much of one's energy, yet people seem more interested in developing those fifty other mages in their story that act as secondary characters. Priests can lead some of the most interesting and complex lives, fighting with their morals and keeping faithful. Do not forget that priests are people, too. A saying goes that a job defines what you do, not who you are. That goes for any character you create.
More questions come along with this section: What are their duties? How are they selected? What laws or ethics do they have to follow? If they commit sin, can they be forgiven or redeemed?
5. How does your religion relate to the government?
Essentially to what extent are church and state separated, if they are at all? Sometimes a government will refuse to fund anything a church needs; other times, the religion is the government. You decide how close the religion and government relate to each other. The US government uses the Lemon Test to see whether legislation violates the Establishment Clause, limiting government interference with religion. Japan used Shinto beliefs to justify Emperor Hirohito's rule, making him a descendent of Amaterasu and therefore a living god.
Mixing religion and government could make for great conflict. Assume one country has multiple religions, and yet to government chooses to only sponsor one of them. You bet there is going to be some tension. Riots might break out. Government or religious officials could become targets of assassinations. Another country, where one of the 'minor' religions is centered, could decide to declare war. Exciting, no?
6. For fantasy writers, how does your religion view magic?
Some religions see it as witchcraft, the work of devil; others use it as the center of the beliefs. Fantasy worlds usually treat magic as something divine or inexplicable, people oohing and awing over it every second someone shoots a fireball. Rarely do I see magical realism on FictionPress nowadays. For those who do not know, magical realism is a type of fantasy in which magic and the supernatural are an accepted part of society.
7. What does your religion do when faced with heretics, members of other religions or atheists/agnostics?
Yes, believe it or not, some religions have problems with other religions, those that question the doctrine or people that hold no belief in the gods. Who would have thought that? Perhaps your religion does not tolerate these people at all and feels they must be destroyed. Then again, there are religions that are okay with believing in another 'god'.
Take a look at Buddhism. Often practicing Buddhists will also believe in another religion, such as Christianity. However, Buddhists attest that "all such notions as causation, succession, atoms, primary elements, that make up personality, personal soul, Supreme Spirit, Sovereign God, Creator, are all figments of the imagination and manifestations of mind". Buddhists focus more on the psychological rather than the metaphysical and hold no concept of a Supreme Creator God. What Buddhism would require a Christian to do is not see God as a separate entity.
What Not To Do!
Honestly, I cannot say that one form of religion is better than another. All I can do is advise on ways religion should not be treated in fiction:
- Quit making everything black and white: Everything has a good and bad side to it. No matter its practices, a religion should be neither innately good nor evil. It comes down to how people use it.
More often than not, the nature loving, goddess worshiping, pagan religion will be deemed 'good' and the science loving, god worshiping, organized religion as 'bad'. What if the goddess religion has a hierarchy? That could cause class issues and certainly poverty. If they use child sacrifice, outsiders might not be very happy about that. What if the god religion has found cures for diseases and shares it with other people? Being able to arm its citizen for protection purposes does not seem like such a bad thing.
Think about this, though. If the so called 'good' religion is such, then why would not everyone practice it? Please, do not say "It's because they're blind to the goodness". Why would a person willingly practice a religion that serves evil for evil's sake? Someone has to at least believe in what they are doing.
- The way one person practices a religion does not necessarily represent the whole religion: "But, wait!" they cry. "You said that priests are representative of their religion." Yes, and thank you for mentioning that. Priests do represent their religion—their particular sect of the religion.
Even if others around the globe practice the religion, do you honestly suggest that the doctrine will remain the same every place in the world, with no slight changes or additions, no differing views and not subject to change because of impending conditions, like climate? Look at our world's religions. Christianity obviously does not share the same doctrine everywhere. Why, then, would Episcopalians, Protestants, Fundamentalists and Baptists exist and not just make everyone Catholic? People interpreted the Bible differently and formed new sects based on their views. Shi'a Muslims believe that Muhammad appointed his cousin (and son-in-law) as his successor, making all his descendents Muhammad's true successors. Sunnis, however, hold that all caliphs should be chosen by general vote, supposedly a method endorsed by the Qur'an. We all know to what mess that has lead.
- Try not to make another world's religion exactly like ours: Modeling one's religion completely after another human one could lead to so many stereotypes. If you model one after Christianity and another Islam, making Islam seem like the 'evil' religion, I bet you your life insurance that someone will neither pick up that book again nor anymore of your work. No, I don't count.
One thing I've always wondered is why, in a world where Christianity never evolved, is there God, Satan/Prince of Darkness, crosses, pentagrams and churches? Unless your world parallels ours or is an alternate history, I will not stand the symbols and rites distinct to this one appearing.
Essay in a Nutshell: Do I think I'm an expert on theology? Hardly, I barely understand my own, let alone the rest of the world's. All I've attempted to do was to help create a small outline of what a religion in a work of fiction might include.
After all those questions, I'm feeling like Socrates. I know, this was not exactly the funniest essay, but unless you have Jesus, Buddha and Moses in a three way UFC cage match, you can hardly make religion funny or entertaining. Again, if I've said anything incorrect or you have anything to add, tell me! Your opinions matter!
Next time on "That Essay" --- Hm, an essay on Magic or Law next do you think? Any other suggestions? Thanks again for stopping by!