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Who Do Your Characters Answer To? Creating Religion for Secondary Worlds

“The Glorious [Lion] bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of Thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me… I take to me the services which thou hast done to him, for I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.” — From C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, Book 7 of the Narnia series

How should religion(s) look in the world of your story? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as I’m reaching the part of my draft where my character joins the religion that will play a central role in his story for the rest of the series, and I’m realizing that although there are religions all over the place in secondary-world fantasy, I haven’t seen many critical discussions of how to develop religion for secondary worlds, and especially how secondary-world religion might look different from the religion(s) (and interactions between religions) that modern writers might be most familiar with. So, without further ado, I present a loosely-connected collection of my musings on the subject.

When I was developing the religions for my setting, the biggest thing I tried to remember was that at most times and places throughout human history, religion (or the lack thereof) hasn’t been viewed as separate from culture. Most people who’ve lived in the real world have been born into a belief system, and that belief system’s usually been shared by everyone they know. In small and/or homogeneous communities, the idea of “shopping around” for religions the way people sometimes do in the modern West wouldn’t make any sense at all. Historically, if you were a Hebrew, you worshiped the god of the Hebrews; if you were an Egyptian, you worshiped the gods of the Egyptians; if you were Japanese, you worshiped the gods of Japan. Throughout most of human history, religion and ethnicity have been overlapping concepts, and there are several major modern religions (Hinduism and Judaism come to mind) where many practitioners still see this as the case. One of the big ways Christianity and Islam are different from other major religions is that they seek out converts and preach that your ethnic background doesn’t matter, that their god is the god for everyone. Relatively speaking, this is a new and different idea.

So if you’ve got more than one major ethnic group in your world, especially people who don’t have much contact with each other, you’ll almost certainly want to develop more than one religion (and that’s before you consider opening the sects-and-heretics can of worms). And as you’re developing those religions, it might be useful to think outside the modern Western philosophical point that all religions are different paths to the same goal. This concept is particularly common among religious liberals (or slightly-patronizing monotheists; see the quote from CS Lewis’s The Last Battle that I included up above), but I don’t think it works very well for developing distinct religious groups. And here’s why.

For most common people, religion is first and foremost a problem-solver: you pray to your god(s) because you want or need things. And not all cultures have the same problems. An agricultural religion is going to look different than a hunter-gatherer religion, which will look different from a religion that developed in a spacefaring culture. That’s something to think about when you consider converts, too: I had a conversation with a medieval historian friend a few months ago where he pointed out that one of the main reasons Christianity caught on with the masses when the Roman Empire was sweeping across Europe was because the Christian god had clearly outfitted his people with better, fancier weapons and armor than the local gods. For all my talk about how different ethnic groups tended on a large scale to worship their own ethnic gods, religious conversion has been around for as long as different groups of people have been bumping into each other: remember, the first request YHWH makes of his people through Moses is to “have no other gods before me.” And although people convert for all sorts of reasons, one of the biggest is that the new religion speaks to something that the old one didn’t.

Which brings me to my second big point. In the real world, there’s no way to conclusively prove that any of the gods humans have ever worshipped are cultural constructions or real forces. When building your fantasy world, you’d better know the status of your gods. Whether they’re real may or may not be important… but whether they listen, that matters. If one god really does reward her people’s prayers with better stuff, she’s likely to start stacking up followers fast. If some gods listen/exist and others don’t, you have to ask yourself why the quiet ones continue to gather followers. Are there mundane patrons of the faith that make it worth people’s while to keep up the worship? Tricks by the clergy to make it look like their gods manifest in the temple the way the others do? People behave logically, and they behave in self-interested ways; what you have to decide is what logic and self-interest look like in your world.

Something else that’s likely different in a world with active gods is that there’s less focus on where the world came from. In most real-world historical religions, someone gets credit for creating the world; that belief’s probably harder to sustain in a world where your god(s) aren’t the only powerful force shaping the universe. If you feel like delving that deep into your history, you could sit down and decide whether any of the figures worshipped as gods in your contemporary setting actually had anything to do with the physical creation of the world (Brandon Sanderson’s books do some interesting things with this, and NK Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy presents a single belief system that does include active, acting creator gods), but if you want multiple belief systems, it can be difficult to have your rational religious folk buy the idea of a single grand creator.

In the world of my series, there are (very roughly) three main religious pantheons, whose worshippers all rub elbows in the capital. All of these religions are connected to beings with real power; all of the forces called “gods” have the ability to effect significant change on some part of existence. But none of them is all-powerful. So when their worshippers pray, they focus on specific things. My protagonist’s god draws worshippers by giving them a promise of strength and safety in a dangerous world; he doesn’t answer prayers about a good harvest or a warm body to share your bed in the inn. If those are your concerns, you’d best seek aid from someone else, whether mundane, magical or divine.

Traditional Greek-style polytheism, where Hera handles requests that touch on marriage, Athena handles war, and Apollo handles illness, seems pretty common in secondary-world fiction; I suspect in part that’s because it reads as “exotic” to many Western audiences, but it’s also a good way to get around the problem of none of your gods actually being all-powerful. However, it’s not the only way. In many parts of East Asia, people see Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism as harmonious traditions that specialize in different parts of the human existence. As Stephen Prothero puts it in his book God is Not One, “According to a popular Chinese saying, ‘Every Chinese wears a Confucian cap, a Daoist robe and Buddhist sandals.” Or, according to another, Chinese are Confucians at work, Daoists at leisure, and Buddhists at death.” Remember what I said up above, about sects and heretics? Just because religions didn’t develop to be part of a polytheistic system doesn’t mean that’s not how they’ll end up.

And, of course, there are monotheistic religions in fantasy worlds, too, the worship of R’hllor the Lord of Light from GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire being one highly-visible contemporary example. If you want this sort of god to have real power in your world, you probably want to think of them less as a bureaucratic entity with different departments’ having different specialties and more as a monarch (maybe a magic-using monarch). This individual asks for devotion from her people, and in exchange, she promises to take care of whatever they need. But she doesn’t hear similar appeals from people in the next country over… unless, that is, they want to give up their previous citizenship and swear loyalty to her instead.

Basically, what I’ve realized after pondering this for far too long is that when you’re developing fantasy religions, you need to start by thinking about the worshippers – why are they following this faith and not a different one? What need is it serving for them? (and before you ask, yes, the need to avoid being killed by powerful priests or the wrathful god himself definitely counts.) If there’s only one religion in your setting, how does it connect with the rest of the culture? If there are multiple religions, what do they think of each other? Do they coexist in non-overlapping ways (many tribal/ethnic gods), do they demonize each other (Christianity’s view of pre-Christian Europe), or do their worshippers decide over time that the two gods are part of the same pantheon, or even different faces of the same being (Hinduism)? And what do the gods themselves (if applicable) make of all this?

And that’s my spiel. Some actual reference books I can recommend for trying to get a handle on all this:

  • Smith, The World’s Religions: the classic comparative religion textbook, which argues that the point of all religion is to help people be nicer to one another.
  • Prothero, God Is Not One: runs through the major world religions (by population/influence) and talks about the “problem” that each one sees as its central challenge, and the “solution” that it offers.
  • Armstrong, The Great Transformation, about the rise of modern religion/philosophy (Hinduism, Confucianism, Judaism, and Greek thought) as a response to great conflict all around the world — an interesting book to read to make you realize that not all religions throughout history have had a moral message at their heart.
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