Start Inventing a Religion - The Art of World Building
Nov 092020
 
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To create organized religions, we’ll need our god(s) worked out in some detail (refer to Chapter 1 of Creating Life, The Art of World Building, #1)). Many religions focus on a single god, even if others exist, but some will worship several gods together. The techniques and considerations in this chapter apply to both. It also helps to have our species created so we can decide which ones tend to be part of which religions and even if those religions exclude one or more species, for example.

History

Major religions on Earth are thousands of years old, but minor ones are sometimes new. In either case, we don’t need a detailed history, but some significant events are worth inventing. Many aspects of a religion originate from its inception. It’s therefore recommended that we begin creating one at its source.

Creation

The story of a religion’s founding is crucial to how it is viewed and often what is expected of converts. A prophetic figure is an expected source. This person speaks in (or receives) the words of a god and brings those messages to people. To create this, some basic ideas are helpful:

  1. Their name (previous and potentially new)
  2. Their occupation before becoming a prophet – they are typically transformed by the experience
  3. When it happened – a calendar may use this as a starting point
  4. Where it happened – this can result in a holy site
  5. How it happened – this can generate relics, symbols, and rituals

We can keep this brief, like this example: “In the year 12 A. K., the horseman Vicen rode into the Dark Peaks in what is the modern day Empire of Amarysh, emerging as the prophet Kier, Chosen Voice of the God of War, Arian, whose golden sword he pulled from a petrified Lluvien tree, whereupon he heard Arian’s voice commanding him to return and form the Blades of Arian, an elite force of mounted, religious warriors.” In a sentence, we have two potential symbols (the sword and a specific tree type), plus a generally holy area (the mountains) and possibly a specific location, assuming anyone can find the petrified tree.

This can result in pilgrimages at an interval of our choosing. While that can be a literal returning to a site, it can also be figurative when being literal is too challenging for many (due to distance, cost, etc.) or even impossible (the site is lost or destroyed). Religions make use of symbolic gestures. Instead of traveling 5,000 miles to Kier’s petrified tree, perhaps someone would travel to and pray at a replica that is only 100 miles away, and which is said to have grown from seeds of the same tree or grove as the original. We’ve all heard of “guilt by association.” Religions practice a kind of holiness by association.

That tree type is probably planted at other holy sites like churches or even the front yards of converts; sighting it while on missions might be seen as a sign from the deity. Maybe furniture is made from it, or a wooden practice sword. Priests might wear a wooden talisman of a sword around their neck. While on his journey into the Dark Peaks, perhaps our prophet survived on a kind of fruit found there. Eating this then becomes part of rituals. The juice from it can be a drink consumed only at holy times. The spilling of that juice can be seen as an offense.

What these ideas have in common is the finding of ordinary details and assigning them significance because they’re part of our prophet’s experience and story, either at the moment he became a prophet or in a subsequent moment from his life. Or death.

Decide how long this prophet lived and when he died. To create these, invent these details:

  1. Did he die naturally?
  2. If killed, who did it, why, how, and when?
  3. How did the religion react to this?
  4. What did the god do?

New religions are seldom met with affection by rulers, who want the hearts and minds of the population to be theirs rather than with a religion, which is often seen as competition. It is easy, natural, and believable that a prophet meets an untimely demise. Martyrdom also raises the prophets’ importance, as dying for your beliefs is considered by many to be the ultimate sacrifice and proof that those beliefs are valid. A wise world builder kills their prophets. This can also result in holy sites (where they died), artifacts (based on what killed them), and rituals to commemorate the occasion. It can also create enemies, at the time or in the future, where the people who killed the prophet are long considered enemies of the religion and its followers, leading to tensions.

Destruction

A religion can cease to exist without the end of the world happening, too. In a world without real gods that interact, all we really need is people to stop believing. This is arguably one of the reasons that religions insist people believe in the god and the religion’s practices. Why would they stop believing? A foretold event not happening is one reason; smart religions avoid specific dates for future events for a reason. According to Church Times (UK), individuals can lose faith at any time for a number of reasons, such as when several of the following traits are found in the person:

  • If other practitioners are hard to live with
  • If the religion is too hard to practice
  • If the teachings are too hard to understand
  • If they resist submitting to authority
  • If they’re above average intelligence
  • If they crave experience

These can happen to someone even if the gods are real, though it begs the question of whether one gets smitten for leaving the religion.

For a religion to die, we may need nothing more than a sufficient number of people abandoning it. This can happen en masse if major life events cause inner turmoil in enough people, and the religion cannot offer comfort. Rather than having an epiphany of belief, a revelation of perceived false promises occurs instead. If the religion was a state religion, meaning a sovereign power made it official, and the state collapses, the religion can vanish, too. This might be easy for world builders to implement because destroying a sovereign power is simple; see Creating Places (The Art of World Building, #2). One religion can also supplant another.

In “Creating Gods” from Creating Life (The Art of World Building, #1), we discussed creating end-of-world myths. Every religion will have one. That demise may not be inevitable, which could mean that worshippers can prevent this with their conduct. Or the righteous can be saved while everyone else is damned. If we’ve already created that myth, what we want to decide now is how this end of world scenario makes practitioners act because this can motivate devotion to religious practices, some of which might exist to bring about a positive end for adherents. If the myth comes true, that’s the end of the religion, but if a specific date was given and nothing happens, that can also end the religion due to lost credibility.

Are people expected to pray at given intervals specifically for this myth? Do they avoid certain foods or behaviors thought to bring an untimely end to themselves or the world? Religions focus on daily life and its morality much more than the end of the world, so this tends to be a background idea or connotation that is only occasionally mentioned. Or the avoidance or destruction can be part of prayers and, when recited every day or week, become familiar enough that people don’t worry about it much as a practical matter.

Since destruction hasn’t happened yet, we don’t have the advantages that creating a religion offers. There are no artifacts, for example, or holy sites. It is therefore wise to keep the behaviors inspired by the potential end of the world simple. Incorporate them into prayers and expressions. “May Armageddon never be,” characters could say, to use a name from Earth.

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