Way With Worlds: Creating Religion Is Hard
This was originally posted by Steven Savage on his blog, but has allowed me to republish it here as I think it’s useful for roleplayers! This is part of Steven’s Way With Worlds series of articles. -David
So let’s talk about creating and writing religions in your world. You may now start panicking.
Creating religions is challenging,as we all know. That sense of challenge, the burden, the awareness of all the effort it takes can bring us down in our world building efforts. Chances are even mention this is giving you flashbacks.
So before we explore writing religions and creating religions, I want to cover the challenges we world builders face – and discuss overcoming them. Will I cover all possible cases? No theres only so much I can do or remember, swear to . . .
. . . er anyway, lets’ go on and look a some of the challenges facing writing religion and common traps.
But First . . .
As a note, I am covering religions in the somewhat more narrow theological sense, where there’s at least a suggestion of metaphysics, the supernatural, etc.
In general I find the term “religion” in English has come to cover so much it almost gets useless. I would argue many forms of Confucianism wouldn’t count as religion (though could function as an adjunct to it), several past and current manifestations of Buddhism are more forms of psychology, and even some forms of theistic mysticism may involve occult forces, but not one ultimately with identifiable personality (some forms of Cabbalism).
So for the sake of this and some columns to come, I am assuming there’s some metaphysical/spiritual/deific elements to your world-building.
Now, onward and upward. Or downward, depending on your celestial or infernal inclinations.
Here’s the challenges I usually see in world building and religions.
Seen It Before
Sometimes I want to blame early Dungeons and Dragons for giving people the idea to port entire pantheons into unrelated fantasy settings, but it seems many attempts at building original religions seem awful familiar. It may be understandable in the case of fantasy (Terry Pratchett‘s hilarious Discworld pantheon comes to mind), but in too many cases a world’s deities are just familiar gods and religions having a cosplay outing.
For whatever the reasons – past inspiration, laziness, whatever – one of the dangers of building original religions in a setting is that they start looking damned (or blessedly) familiar.
When a religion is just some previous set of gods given a free makeover, it’s a big problem for worldbuilding:
- It’s jarring to any informed reader who, when they realize your theological unoriginality, then just starts seeing the actual religion you based your work on. It take them out of the sense of a world.
- It shoehorns ideas and concepts into your setting that don’t fit it. Importing something whole cloth (or whole Golden Fleece) warps your setting and that means parts of it don’t match up and work together.
- It looks lazy, and can make people not appreciate the world. Even a well-crafted world grates when there’s that glaring unoriginality.
SUGGESTED SOLUTIONS: Honestly? Build a religion that fits the world, even if you have to get theological and metaphysical.
People Hating You
Much like real life, it seems people get pretty worked up about imaginary religions. Leaving aside those that may be offended by unoriginality, once you start diving into ethics, divinities, and so forth it just seems people will get annoyed.
It’s a lot like real life, even if you can decide on the gods people hate each other over.
Also, this is unavoidable.
People get attached to fiction and they get attached to religion, and they will find something to get pissed off over. You will not avoid it.
SUGGESTED SOLUTION: Build a good religion that is well-written and fits your world. People may get annoyed over whatever issue they decide to freak out about that day, but at least your world will make sense. It sort of “gives chink in your armor” when the world is consistent leaving critics essentially railing against a well-made fictional construct that works. It’s sort of like deciding you don’t like a name of a car and forget the damn thing runs, so let them look foolish.
Writing a story focused on religious elements, as far as I’m concerned, the amount of good role models we have on the subject is not a significant percentage of the population trying to do it. For every C.S. Lewis who could do it decently there’s a lot of . . . non-C.S. Lewises.
People know when you’re preaching, People know when you’re trying to sell them a theological bill of goods. They just know.
Preachy worldbuilding is annoying – religious or not – because unless your audience wants that (and they may) it’s contrived and manipulative. People don’t like to be manipulated, and they balk a contrived ideas.
SUGGESTED SOLUTION: Explore, don’t preach. Explore ideas, ask about repercussions, and really ask yourself questions as you build your world. People should be alongf or the ride – and so should you. A good piece of advice is that if your world and stories in it shock you with Their conclusions at least once, you’re exploring your world – and others will enjoy it.
A good story on an issue like religion should change you at the end. Good worldbuilding even moreso.
The flipside of being preachy is wimping out with your theological worldbuilding.
It’s too easy to make religions generic, or inoffensive, or barely present. Now if that’s part of your setting, fine, but in a lot of our own lives we’ve probably seen religion and related components as prominent parts of people’s lives, even if we’re avoiding them. So when you wimp out on your religious world building, there’s almost a gap in people’s sense of your world.
Don’t wimp out.
SUGGESTED SOLUTION: Remember religion is part of your world and build along with it, and keep faith (ha!) with the world you’re making. Make it work,make it hang together, religion and all. If people get annoyed . . . well, see above.
Also, try to have fun with it. It makes it easier and frankly provides better results.
Half (Golden)-Assing It
A strange part of religion-building is doing it almost all the way. You’ve got some really promising things there, some believable rituals, some ethics but . . . it’s not quite all there.
This is a constant problem in any form of worldbuilding – not taking things far enough. When it comes to religion, then it actually stands out quite a bit as religion and philosophy is often a big part of people’s lives. When yours is half baked, people reading or gaming in your world will notice.
I think things get half-done because of many reasons:
- The above fears.
- A lack of interest in religious worldbuilding and a desire to get it over with. Not everyone enjoys this.
- A lack of knowledge about religion that means one doesn’t know how far to go in their creations.
People will notice unfinished religious world building, no matter the reasons. So you’ll need to follow through.
SUGGESTED SOLUTION: Don’t do it half-baked. A great idea in doing religious worldbuilding is to do what you do in other areas – start asking yourself questions until you get answers about the religions you’re building.
Oh Look, It’s Not
Gods save us from stories where the gods are not gods. Except for Lord of Light and the other exceptions.
In writing religion there’s a temptation to try and explain it as something else – which is great if it’s part of your wold. If not, it gets awful lame to decide to shoehorn in an alien computer playing god, or that the religion was really something more mundane, etc. It gets awful tiring after awhile, and it takes some good writing chops to make it work even if it is part of your theme.
When it’s not . . .
I find this happens when people want to explain their world certain ways or prevent complications or put in “realism” that seems unrealistic in the setting of the world. Don’t fall for that.
SUGGESTION: Just write the damn religion as it fits your setting.
Is It “Religion” When It’s “Real”?
Be it a setting where the gods visit and put their feet up on the coffee table to a “religion” that borders more into poetic philosophy, sometimes one of the problems in writing religion is it’s so “real” it’s . . . well, reality.
We get used to the idea that religions have an ineffable about them, but in some settings that goes right out the window – and Carlefon, God of Windows is holding it open for you. It’s a bit of a poser.
Once we start dealing with religions as “all too real” it opens up a huge amount of writing challenges. Just like the reality of Faster Than Light travel changes things in an SF setting, all-too-real gods change a lot of assumptions in their setting. A lot of rules and concepts suddenly go out the window.
SUGGESTION: In this case, it’s important to remember, that as always, religion is part of your setting. What “really” goes on in your setting, is, well, your setting, gods and true religions included. Don’t let it overwhelm you.
Hopefully this has addressed some of the challenges and pitfalls of religious worldbuilding. Are we done yet? Nope, we’ve got more.
Steven’s other articles about worldbuilding with religion:
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers and community at www.musehack.com, publishes books on career and culture at www.informotron.com, and does a site of creative tools at www.seventhsanctum.com. He can be reached at www.stevensavage.com.
Art by Thursar from DeviantArt.