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World Building: Building a Religion

May 8, 2012

Yesterday, today, and probably tomorrow, I’ve been building religions.

Here’s the thing: I’m obsessed with religion, with mythology. I love them. I love ancient gods. But, more importantly, I like thinking about religions coming into contact with one another. It’s much of the reason I’m writing a “modern” fantasy world: I want to be able to focus on issues more relevant to the modern reader than the nature of heroism, monarchy, et cetera.

Religion is important to me. I’m a lapsed Catholic, which has made me think about the topic for years and years. For over a dozen years I thought some man in Rome had authority over me. I look around my country and I see people who believe they’ve accepted an invisible, silent god into their lives. They follow this god’s opinions on matters political, personal, and social, and they do horrible things in this god’s name. Good things, too.

As a human being, I am an agnostic. I believe there’s probably some sort of higher power. Or, rather, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one. But, by the same token, I’ve never not been me. I’ve never seen beyond myself, into an afterlife. I don’t know what to expect.

So, in a lot of ways, making religions isn’t about making gods: it’s about making governments. It’s about looking at religions and asking, “Why do they exist?” They exist to help people sleep at night. They exist to explain natural phenomena. They exist to exert control over the lives of people, good and bad. They exist to tell people that they should be living their lives a certain way, and that they should be listening to certain people and ignoring others.

In my world, I’m creating three major religions. They correspond, roughly, to the Greco-Roman tradition, the Christian tradition, and the Muslim tradition. Obviously, things are different. The difference is the Greco-Roman springs directly from actual, existent magic. There’s magic in the world, and these gods are the gods behind these magics. They physically exist, not as divine beings but instead as powers someone can see. More important to me is seeing how these gods, who are the oldest, influence the lives of individuals: how their hopes and dreams are crafted by these seventeen divines. The order in which this cosmology was created, around campfires and in homes. How they interact with other religions.

The other two religions, meanwhile, grew out of other traditions. One of them is keeping the traditions of modern monotheism while also having multiple gods (though far fewer). The question becomes: why would someone throw aside the Old Gods in favor of new ones? The third religion is different, still: it sprung up far away, on a different continent, and has emerged less as a religion than as a natural order of things. I’m taking cues from Buddhism, from Islam. This religion emerged naturally, but why would people prefer this way of thinking, especially in a world where the supernatural is visible and obvious?

More complicatedly, how would they react in the modern day? Religion is difficult because this world features a fairly recent (last 400 years) catastrophe, which severed the world. I know world-altering events have a tendency to shake people’s faith; how would this change how people viewed the Gods, real or imagined?

It’s an interesting challenge. It’s taking me quite a bit of time to build this cosmology, and I’m hoping it pays off.

  1. Hey Tom,

    Quite an interesting article. I agree with you that religions are quite a fascinating thing to look at through the use of fictional worlds. In many cases they can effect the whole sociollogy of a civilization.

    It’s great to see that you’ve settled on your major religions. I’m still running the ones for one of my worlds through my head. I think part of it for me is that I haven’t settled on a magic system as of yet. What are you using for your world? I see you mentioned a divine power but will the Gods directly empower magicians or do they simply control the “mana” present in your world?

    I wish you all the best with your world,

    The World Building School

    • Well, I’m a cynic at heart, so there’s a couple varieties. The oldest religion is pretty much, “Okay, we’re in a world with magic, how do we explain there’s magic,” and they settle on deifying the various branches of magic (which involves manipulating various elements in hopefully a not boring way). The second religion (the third one is TBA. They believe in TBA.) is another, similar religion. Effectively, it’s become more dominant because it’s followers were willing to accept the world’s other branch of magic (a runic concept) as something human beings could do, and used that knowledge to develop guns far ahead of pace. Their god is a monotheistic, vaguely Christian sort who might exist but is a classical “watchmaker” god if it does.

      The “old gods” definitely don’t exist. Everyone knows that. The stories are old-fashioned Greek myths, with deities eating the sun and another god helping it out of them. That said, I imagine any true religion would stem from them: if something built the world, it’s surely the world itself.

      Basically, there’s a lot of my own personal philosophy in it.

      • I have always been a big fan of the Greco-Roman mythos and the idea of man merely being a pawn for these gods who grant their avatar’s/champions special powers. So I’ll possibly bring that into my world some how.

        I’ve also been looking at the runic path too as a way to advance technology. However, I also like Brandon Sanderson’s take on magic in his Mist Born series. So many options hehe.

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