In the real world religion comes in so many different variates that it quite simply boggles the mind. Every little area has its own spirits, gods, myths and beliefs. And even the largest of religions will have its own dialects, large and small. In this post, I will use the word divine to refer to the god(s) and mythology of religions.
This post will focus on the effect of the divine on the world, and not so much on the mythology. For the mythology itself, I recommend reading up on real world religions that are similar to the religion you want to create. As with my other posts on fantasy worldbuilding, these thoughts are intended for roleplayers first and everyone else second.
Knowledge vs. Faith
Is the existence of the divine a known and verifiable fact, or is it based in faith? In the real world, there are no proofs for the existence of the divine. Thus, real world religion is based on faith, not knowledge.
Faith is the crucial strength of real world religion. Faith can help the individual to find strength in times of need, but it can also be used by religions organizations to manipulate the masses, e.g. into accepting that a ruler has a divine right to rule or that a certain group of people is the cause of the plague. Often this faith does not need to be logically consistent or even make sense. An example could be the Christian notion of Trinity, where God is one, but also three. In fact, this will often be the case, because if you can make someone believe something that contradicts itself, you can make them believe anything.
Most (if not all) real world religions hold to the notion that their religion was inspired by the divine, and that the divine wants us to act in a certain fashion. But even almighty gods do not tell humans how they want us to act. Instead they inspire a prophet to inform those around him, instead of letting all of us know in our hearts. Priests will tell you all sorts of reasons that their god does not work like that. Strangely, their explanations are similar to the ones you could expect to hear from someone trying to convince you into believing in a god that does not exist.
As religions are not based in knowledge, divine intervention is not required for religions to spawn, spread and evolve. Indeed, one could speculate as to how religions came about in the first place. Are they creations of humanity, or inspired by the divine? One could argue that for the faithful, the divine does exist, even if it is only inside their minds.
In a magical world, one could take the notion of religions created by humanity further. What if there was a magical power in faith and worship? That gods draw power from faith and worship, or even materialize into existence, created by worship? What if that god could only really interact with the faithful?
Good and Evil
The notion of good and evil is both interesting and complex. Not only is it likely to vary by religion and sect, it is also likely to take very different shapes.
In many polytheistic religions, gods are representations of the forces of nature. These are sometimes benign, e.g. Zeus sending good weather, at other times they can be a scourge, e.g. Zeus sending a hurricane. It is, however, important to note that the god is neither good nor evil; the god has benign aspects and harmful aspects. In such religions, the notions of good or evil are seldom important, as it is understood that gods and humans contain both. Worship is often used to try to get on the benign side of the god being worshiped.This is an important point as many of us come from monotheistic cultures, and have a tendency to divide our divine pantheons into good and evil gods.
On the flip side, the notion of good and evil are a central part of monotheistic and dualistic religions. There is one truth – the truth of God. Anyone following that are good, all others are evil. This gives the ability to define a foe, an adversary, who can be a powerful entity, group of entities or even a part of the population.
When gods act directly in a fashion that changes the world, it is called divine intervention. Divine intervention can be more or less visible, but if gods act directly in your world, they are the main characters. Humans and, crucially, players are not really important. So you need some way of limiting direct divine intervention. Examples:
- Divine intervention requires a lot of power.
- Divine intervention requires physical presence, making the god vulnerable.
- Gods really do not care what happens.
- Gods don’t really exist.
- Gods only act through mortals.
An alternative could be to go into the other extreme: Gods are behind everything, pulling the strings, like powerful rulers, playing an elaborate game of chess. A game with rules that could bar direct intervention, or allow it in some circumstances. Humanity would simply be the playthings of the gods, used for their pleasure. This idea is quite prominent in Homers stories and some of the Discworld novels.
Are they real?
The divine may or may not be real. The religions may or may not have got it right. And it may not be as clear cut as a yes/no reply. Truths, partial truths, misconceptions and outright lies can very well exist side by side in religious mythology. It really is up to the worldbuilder to decide. However, these choices can have a lot of consequences.
If the gods of the religions exist, they may want to intervene. Or they may actively push misconceptions and outright lies to further their own power. On the other hand, some more or less powerful entity could be manipulating the followers of said religion for its own end, or even claim to be the worshiped entity. Either way, the agenda of these entities will be important when shaping the world. On the one end of the spectrum, one could look at the very fallible and human gods in the Greek pantheon, on the other the inhumanly strange entities of H.P. Lovecraft. Gods may be so powerful that they neither notice nor care about worship or humanity.
Another interesting question is if these gods can die. And what happens to their power if this happens? Will it be up for grabs? Disappear? Come back at some later time, like Demeter or Jesus? Some worlds let mortals gain divinity, sometimes by taking a vacant spot.
Gods and Worship
The relationship between the gods and worship is also of some importance. What do the gods get from worship? Do they get anything? Or is worship merely the way that the religion keeps itself together?
In some worlds gods gain strength and power through worship. Does this power come from the sacrifice, time usage or even by draining the worshipers? Does it follow that worship created the gods, and not the other way around?
And what does the worshipers get in return for their worship and sacrifice? A bountiful harvest is a classic, but does it actually come true? After all, doing stuff like making the land more fertile is likely to take a lot of power. And if the god does not get the same power influx from somewhere, the god will drain its power over time. An alternative is to make such effects more subjective, e.g. that the peasants believe that they have been blessed and work better due to being more confident. Or the god could simply rain ails down on those that do not worship the god.
The relationship could also be symbolic. Worshiping a fertility god could be a symbolic action linked to respect for the land and cattle being worked on. The bountiful harvest follows from taking care to do sustainable agriculture.
In the real world, priests can get away with not being able to perform miracles. In a world where wizards can heal wounds or build castles, not being able to perform miracles will make it really difficult for priests to argue that their religion is true.
However, the powers of priests does not need to be divine in nature. Some alternatives are:
- Priests are magic users
- Priests are witches/shamans
- Willpower can bend the fabric of reality
- Humans in large numbers hold magical power that priests harness
- Priests get their ability from some other source
The source of power does not need to be the same between religions, or even inside the same religion. There could be all sorts of power struggles and theological controversy between different branches over using different powers that may have different sources. Priests may also not know the actual source of their power, accepting on faith that it comes from the object of their worship.
Discovery of the actual source of this power could also be very controversial, sparking accusations of heresy and blasphemy, or even religious wars.
It should also be considered that faith in itself holds significant power. The placebo effect is well established in the real world, so a magical placebo effect could give some interesting dynamics. Indeed, sermons or blessings could have real, in-game effect on the receivers without actually being supernatural in nature.
All too often, worldbuilders use a lot of time describing things like gods, interactions between gods, creation myths and similar, but very little time considering the religious practices. But from the point of view of the population of your world, the mythology and theological arguments are of little consequence; they get their culture by ritualized interaction with the priests of the religion.
- How often do the worshipers meet to worship?
- How does this worship happen?
- Where does it happen – in a dedicated temple or in the
homes of the worshipers?
Often worship is communal, and its functions can include binding the worshipers together, enforcing social norms, introducing children to the religion and so on.
Many religions will have special holy days that are related to the mythology of that religion. Often these days will also be related to astrological events and carry significant symbolism, e.g. Christmas is placed just after the winter solstice, celebrating both the birth of Jesus and the rebirth of the Sun (and has become a consumerist orgy on top of that). Rituals for holy days may also differ from the regular worship in some way.
Another important question is the intensity of worship of the commoner. Is it expected to come to all sessions of worship? Or is it more common only to go to the special holy days, or not at all? How about religious taboos and shame?
And then there is the question of which ceremonies are carried out by the religions. Are rituals surrounding birth, marriage, or death controlled by the local religions or are they carried out by the relatives and friends? Today we may be used to the idea that they are religious, but it wasn’t until the 12th century that Christian priests became part of the wedding ceremony (and only much later that their attendance became required).
Indeed, the push to get all the important parts of life (and death) into the hands of a religious organization, is very much a sign of one dominant religious organization, e.g. the Christian church. And history shows us that these things are not as permanent as some may like; the push to change a certain custom could very well be a part of a campaign, possibly as a backdrop.
Most of us are used to religion and worship being organized. However, this is not necessarily so. Worship could also be carried out by the leader of the household, town or country.
Assuming a religious organization, there can be some head organization for a given religion with one or more sub-organizations with a relationship that can range from close to distanced. Usually, the main organization will require sub-organizations to mirror the basic truths of the main organization, but can give some leniency to different ideas.
Priests are the people met by the common worshipers at temples. They carry out the day-to-day affairs, live in the communities. Being a priest may impose restrictions on what lifestyle a priest can live, even though the real restrictions often are more dependent on the income of the priest.
Some religions also have people who seclude themselves to dedicate their lives to the worship of their chosen deity or philosophy. These people are often called monks or nuns, depending on gender, and can have all sorts of limits on their life style. They may or may not honor those limitations, and it may be more or less acceptable that they do.
Theology and Practice
Many religions have rules that the adherents have to live up to. However, over time some of these rules can be modified, bent or even broken into something entirely different. This may spark anger or resentment among the pious who could break out and make a new order or even start a new sect.
One example could be the Jewish/Christian commandment of Thou shalt not kill. It sounds pretty clear, doesn’t it? However, if a powerful baron was not allowed to kill, how could he take the land of his neighbor? How could a king wage war on another country? Or a judge convict someone to death? So, the rules were bent and broken into something else with all sorts of exceptions. Most of which were likely already intended by the original authors of said commandments.
When the Normans invaded Britain, the commandment was understood to be literal: Any killing was a sin and would cause the murderer to go to Hell. There were, however, a loop hole: If the killer prayed for 40 days, the killing would be forgiven in the eyes of God. For the generals this could be quite a long time, so instead they hired monks to do the praying for them.
Indeed, this sort of divine forgiveness became a large industry that made the monks very, very wealthy, causing monks to bend the rules of their orders until they were unrecognizable and the monks could live very lavish lives. Sometimes monks even resorted to thievery, robbery and even murder in order to get what they wanted. This made monks both hated and ridiculed by many contemporaries, as some of the early ballads of Robin Hood show.
Naturally, some monks got fed up with this lack of piousness and went off to found their own monasteries, only to discover that the more pious the order, the more sponsorships would they get from people terrified of an eternity of torture. And with more money coming in, they would attract the type of people that tried to bend the rules.
Relationship with rulers
Like any other organization wielding power, religious organizations will attract people who will try to grab more power, both for themselves and for their organization. It follows that religious organizations will have agendas that do not necessarily have anything to do with their religion. They may even be incompatible with the tenants of the religion itself.
When building or expanding a power base, the religious organization will need to interact with the rulers of the society they live in.
The rulers can provide protection, advantages in law or taxation, even integrate the religious organization into the public life or state, e.g. by letting the religious organization handle marriages, births (and, thereby, population records) and coronations.
The religious organizations can give the rulers legitimacy or even divinity, by claiming that the organization of society has divine backing (or inspiration), and that the rulers are appointed (or sired) by the gods themselves. In a magical world, priests may be able to provide more tangible benefits to rulers, e.g. alternatives to wizards as a source of spell casters, supernatural equipment, and better morale.
The political power wielded by the religious organizations can be used to push for some of the tenants of the religion. Some of the most ruthless power grabbing priests can very well also be religious zealots, telling themselves that their power grabbing is not to satisfy their own lust for power, but in service of the divine. They may believe it. Naturally, a priest may also just act the part of a zealot in order to further his or her grab for power.