Over the past parts of this series, we’ve mostly remained focused on the theoretical and the general aspects of fictional societies: which is to say, I’ve been discussing the broad outlines of a society, the parts it’s made of, and how they roughly fit together. However, while these fundamentals are important to grasp before moving onto more specific aspects of a society, it is just as important to tackle those specifics. So, over the next section of this series, I’m going to be going through the basics of worldbuilding these systems one by one.
Of course, it would rather defeat the purpose if I just went through the process I would use simply to provide a ready-made fictional system for others to use, so instead I’ll be dissecting the creative process I fall back on, so that you can copy its stages for your own use. That means in practise, this is mostly going to be me outlining a series of questions which any worldbuilder should ask themselves when designing their own iteration of that system for their own setting.
Let me start by giving an example with what may well be one of the most complex, and perhaps one of the most contentious aspects of worldbuilding a society: creating a religion.
There is an easy way and a hard way of worldbuilding a religion. The easy way is for a creator to take a religious tradition they already understand (or think they understand), shuffle a few names and concepts around, and call it a day. We see this in a lot of high fantasy, with a pantheon of gods modelled closely on the Classical Greco-Roman model (or at least, a basic understanding of that model), with deities effectively being very powerful humans with set and specific portfolios, who not only verifiably exist, but also regularly interfere with the affairs of mortals etc. Likewise with the proliferation of pseudo-Christian (especially pseudo-Catholic) faiths with their familiar hierarchies, iconography, and philosophies – some creators even slip up and throw in a ‘Godspeed’ or a ‘Goddammit’ into their dialogue, even when it really shouldn’t be there.
This ‘easy way’ is not something I’m necessarily about to condemn as universally bad. It serves the purpose of filling a gap in a fictional society quickly and easily, and if a creator does not intend on examining the theology or cosmology of their setting in particular great detail, then that’s fine. However, that doesn’t mean it’s ideal either. While the ‘easy way’ of creating a fictional religion is simple and quick, it also ensures that the fictional religion itself will never really be anything more than set dressing, since any closer scrutiny of its dynamics will quickly lead astute members of the audience to realise that it is exactly what it was made as: a copy of an existing system of worship from our own world, with the serial numbers filed off. After that, the magic – so to speak – is gone. The intrigues of religious officials, or the Gods themselves may continue to hold the audience’s interest, but the religion itself won’t.
So that leaves us with the ‘hard way’, that of building a fictional religion from fundamentals. This is naturally a more time-consuming process, but one which may prove more rewarding. As in almost all aspects of worldbuilding, building a fictional religion from fundamentals is the most reliable way to create something new and intriguing to the audience of a fictional settings, and perhaps the best way to achieve the goal of having a fictional setting be described with those much coveted adjectives: ‘unique’, ‘original’, and ‘richly detailed’.
The most fundamental of these fundamentals when it comes to religion is a single basic statement: religion is meant to explain things which could not be explained otherwise. Historically, in our world, gods and spirits have been used to explain the workings of natural phenomena, and the dynamics of societal change. It has been at times biology, zoology, sociology, and psychology (and many other disciplines) all at once. It explained lightning before we understood static electricity, volcanoes before we understood plate tectonics, and how societies collapse long before the first formal understanding of political philosophy. This is not to say that religion and science (or secular philosophy) are necessarily opposed. In our own world, there are many, many examples of religious belief serving as an impetus for empirical research: believers looking not to disprove the divine or the spiritual, but to understand its workings and give it due respect. The supposed conflict between science and religion has been, primarily, a construct of the past few decades in the west, a result of the alignment between political conservatism and evangelical protestantism. It is more aberration than constant, and worldbuilders absolutely should not assume that it would apply to their own settings.
Of course, that conflict also rests on an assumption which many of us (myself included) are capable of possessing in our world which might not necessarily apply in a fictional setting: the assumption that the divine is more polite fiction than fact – that because there is no verifiable proof of supernatural forces, they do not exist. This is a relatively easy assumption to make in our world, but in a setting where magic is real and the wilderness is overrun with creatures whose existence violates the laws of thermodynamics, that assumption becomes a lot shakier. In a setting where Gods not only exist, but actively intervene as personified actors in the material world, that assumption becomes absurd. So, it becomes important for a worldbuilder to determine whether the cosmology their fictional religion presents is fact or merely a best guess – and whether the people who adhere to that cosmology have an accurate picture of what their cosmology looks like. Much of our world’s attitudes and relationships with religion are fundamentally based on the idea that no religion or system of belief has proven to universal satisfaction that the powers they believe in actually exist: our ideas of interfaith tolerance, theology, and institutionalised religion all rely on the basis of the understanding that we are not sure – not sure of the intentions of the divine, of its nature, or even of its existence.
In a setting where ‘Gods’ are verifiably real, the nature of religion chances dramatically. A setting where there is a verifiably correct cosmology means a setting where there is an objectively correct interpretation of that cosmology. A setting where ‘Gods’ can be communicated with and otherwise interacted with through human means and human frameworks is one where anything aspect of reality controlled by those powers becomes negotiable. By creating a cosmology where the fundamental forces of the universe are – and are known to be – controlled by intelligent, self-aware powers, much of the rest of the setting changes. This doesn’t just mean subjects directly associated with religion like theology (though those will naturally show the most obvious effect) but the rest of a given society as well.
This, primarily, is because by offering an interpretation of how the world works, religion also prescribes the way that human beings are supposed to behave. In our world, this can be seen in the overt religious moral codes of a great number of major religions, but even when a cosmology doesn’t include an explicit moral code, a given understanding of how the world works still determines human behaviour.
For example, a society heavily dependent on sea trade and fishing may have religious beliefs centred around a god of the sea, or the spirit of the ocean near where they live – especially if they have no scientific basis of understanding things like meteorology. They may have rituals and practises intended to appease or curry the favour of those spirits, and if they believe in other powers, they may relegate those powers to secondary status, because it is the sea they rely upon the most. This may lead to conflict with other societies, for whom the sea carries less importance. Those other societies may place worship of the powers supposedly behind other aspects of the world at a higher priority, and their own rituals and practises in support of those aspects they hold most important may lead to disagreement and conflict with the practises and cultural codes of conduct which the first culture possesses: if the first culture believes the second culture is angering the spirit of the sea, and the second culture doesn’t even believe such a spirit to exist, then some sort of friction is likely to follow. When the existence of ‘Gods’ remains ambiguous, societies can maintain conflicting and perhaps even opposed views on how the world works, and the potential viability of all of these interpretations serves as an important backdrop when those cultures interact.
Now, say that there is verifiable proof that such a spirit of the sea exists – and that the rituals which the first culture performs actively serve to mollify or win favour from it. That means the first culture’s interpretation of their place in the world has gone from an unambiguous one to one which is objectively correct. The sea spirit exists, they live at its mercy, and ‘heresy’, in the sense of dissention or abstention from the rituals known to please it is more than just a matter of different opinions, but concrete actions which directly harm the society as a whole. Even if the spirit itself is amoral or malevolent, that power continues to enforce a code of practises and conduct which that society must follow – and any who attempt to disrupt those codes becomes the enemy, not of the ambiguous concept of a godhead, but in the sense that they are someone actively trying to destroy that society’s ability to survive.
This isn’t to say that there are no societies in our history who absolutely did believe that the divinity of a being they can communicate and interact with – but in our case, such a belief has always been directed towards a mortal, fallible human being, whose aura of power and divinity was more show than substance. Needless to say, such beliefs are usually not bourne out by reality, and when such supposedly divine (or divinely-appointed) leaders prove themselves to be themselves incapable of acting as the explanations they were supposed to be, they often find themselves forced to renounce pretensions to godhood (as the Showa Emperor of Japan did in 1945) or be removed from such a post in a terminal manner (as Charles I of England and Louis XVI of France were).
Of course, these codes of conduct and rituals don’t promulgate themselves of their own free will. Regardless of how a religion is structured or organised, its tenets serve as an institution, either formally, in a particular class of people who alone are allowed the right to interpret proper and improper modes of behaviour in accordance to their beliefs – or informally, as individual adherents are able to interpret their beliefs how they wish. In either case, it means that a person or a group of people possess the ability to determine what it means to live correctly and incorrectly, a powerful ability to say the least.
These institutions, whether a group or an individual, would naturally want to extend that power over others, whether that be a cynical use of religion to gain political power, or out of an earnest belief to make the world a safer, better, happier place by convincing others to live ‘properly’. As a result, these institutions will often change in a way which allows them to perpetuate and expand their hold. Sometimes, these methods may be relatively benign: religious education, charity, teachings of universal love and tolerance, or simple voluntary isolation from the outside world of dissenting and opposed belief systems. In others, they are more forceful – our own history offers enough examples of that: conversion at the point of a sword, harsh punishments for doctrinal disagreement, close alliances with military and political leaders – or the adoption of those roles themselves. And all of this does not include the possibilities that might be in play if the gods or spirits being worshipped are themselves self-aware actors, with their own idea of correct doctrine.
Hopefully, all of these thoughts will offer a few useful pointers on how to proceed in building a religion for a fictional society. As usual, this isn’t so much a comprehensive step-by-step guide as a series of questions which might let a worldbuilder set up a basic outline for their setting. How that worldbuilder proceeds to fill in the details still relies on them. There’s only so much any kind of advice can do in helping that process along – and it certainly can’t replace it entirely.
Next time, we’ll move on to a part of society just as complicated, and just as important: if religion serves to help fill a society’s hunger for answers, agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, and shipping all help it fill its actual hunger – which is what I’ll be talking about next.