Religions are organized systems of belief. Fictional religions may be dedicated to doctrines, forces or fictional gods important to a setting. They may have rituals and methods of prayer unique to them. There may be churches, temples and holy sites in use by the religion. Entire theocracies may have been established to promote the religion or utilize it as a means to secure power. Fictional religions are practiced by holy clerics, paladins, and corrupt bishops.
Designing Fictional Religions
Creating an entire fictional religion can be a daunting task, but many worldbuilders love to include belief systems or mythologies in their worlds. Religions can be an opportunity to explore some of humankind’s deepest questions about the universe and our place within it. Beyond just being an expansive element that can be used to create nuance in a created world, religions also provide narrative opportunities to explore all sorts of different topics and themes.
Fact or Fiction
First, determine if the beliefs held by the people of your fictional world have merit. Are gods, or forces that are worshipped, real? Perhaps the people don’t get all the details right but knowing if gods are genuine or not is perhaps the most central question to creating a fictional religion. There are three ways of answering this question as a worldbuilder: gods or their equivalent are real, gods or their equivalent are not real, or it is unknown. Each of these options could have profound impact.
Gods and Forces
Broadly, most religions will either center around either gods or forces. Forces are typically overarching concepts such as nature, chaos, good & evil or a central energy. This force may possess a sentience that seeks to influence the world. Gods, on the other hand, typically are individual beings (or combinations of beings) with immense power. Gods may be the personification of forces in the world, such as a god of nature or god of chaos. Determine if your religion centers on a force, or a god or gods.
The works of Terry Pratchett contain gods, while Star Wars by Lucas has The Force
Monotheistic or Polytheistic
Religions differ in their belief in one deity or many. Does the religion you are creating for your world center on a single god or force, or does it contain a pantheon? If it contains a pantheon, in what way are the gods related to one another? The number of gods in a pantheon may be few, or may be many, and the number of gods that exist is commonly an important number (2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 12 are common, but by no means necessary).
If your world contains a pantheon of gods, what are their relationships towards one another? Are they friendly, or less friendly?
Heralds and Helpers
Many belief systems have heralds or helpers that aid the gods (Angels are one such example). These may be other, minor gods, they may be demigods, or they may be some other beast or creature. Perhaps the ravens keep watch for the god of the North Wind.
Gods may exert their influence on the mortal realm in a myriad of ways. If your god or gods have a specific domain, their power and the manner in which they exert influence over the world may be aligned with that. For example, it may be believed that a sea god controls storms on the oceans while a fertility god controls healthy births. Whether this is true or not may depend on if the gods are ‘real’ in your fictional world (and whether or not those gods may be lying about their true abilities). Also consider if your gods or supernatural forces are meddling in the affairs of humans and to what end.
If your fictional faith has a single god/force, or a chief or central one, those figures often have nearly unlimited or absolute power.
- Omnipotent: All powerful
- Omniscient: All knowing
- Omnipresent: Ever present
In fictional worlds where gods are real and meddle in the affairs of humans, they may grant powers to their most devout followers. These powers often come as divine energies being channeled through a mortal vessel and are often in line with a god’s sphere or realm of influence – a god of good may grant powers to defeat evil, a god of fire may grant fire breathing, or a god of wisdom may impart some insight. In published fictional worlds these powers are often the ability to heal or cure disease, raise the dead, or call down thunderbolts.
Think about the reasons why a god may grant their follower immense power to perform a feat, rather than just performing that feat themselves.
Religions often believe different things, but there are a few general themes. Beyond believing in a god, gods, or a higher force, religions will most likely have strong beliefs or stories on the following:
- The Creation of God(s)
- The Creation of Earth
- The Creation of Humankind
- The Creation of Everything Else
- Why Evil Exists
- Why Bad Things Occur
- God(s) Testing Humankind
- The Afterlife
- The End Times
Prayer and Meditation
Prayer and meditation are common in religion. Consider how followers of your fiction faith perform this act. If your religion has more than one god, consider the times when or the reasons why a person may pray to one god or another. Determine what constitutes the physical act of prayer or mediation. This may mean sitting, kneeling, keeping eyes shut, clasping hands, extending hands or arms upwards, bowing, or other gestures or motions. There may be specific prayers or mantras that are used for specific times, or more general ones.
Holy writings are often associated with religions. These may be a compilation of the beliefs of the religion, they may be prophecies for the future, or they may be laws and rules by which the followers of the religion try to act in accordance with. Religious texts may be freely distributed to all followers, or they may be closely guarded by a select few important figures of the faith. These texts may be written in a different language.
Religious Buildings and Areas
Religious buildings are common places for believers to gather, seek guidance, or shelter. Construction of great houses of worship or other holy sites is common to religions. Consider if your fictional religion has churches, temples, or other important locations, or if worship is less public and more personal. Often religious buildings will resemble one another, will be full of iconography, and will be purpose built for the fulfillment of religious rituals.
Religions often have their own set of laws or codes. The most common of these forbids the murder of a fellow human being. Other common religious guidelines include:
- Not worshiping other gods
- Not eating certain foods
- Wearing certain clothing items or accessories
- Observing certain customs
- Worshipping in some standard manner
- Spreading the religion to non-believers
Frequently believers of a faith adorn themselves in garb specific to that belief. Robes, head coverings, sandals, prayer bead necklaces are all common. Consider if your fictional religion uses a specific type of clothing or fashion.
Rites & Ceremonies
Religions will have rites and ceremonies specific to that faith. There may be formal attire worn, highly ordered customs followed, or specific vows or oaths taken.
- Rite of Initiation
- Union or Wedding Rites
- Death Rites
- Coming of Age Rites
- Celebration of God(s)
- Celebration of Specific Religious Day
Offerings and Sacrifices
A religion may demand certain offerings or sacrifices. This may be in the form of food or goods left upon an altar, the burning of particular incense, or it may be self-flagellation or even human sacrifice. Often this is done either to please a god, or to avoid their displeasure.
Abstinence is a common sacrifice made to honor a god
Religions have symbols and iconography associated with them. Sometimes these symbols are obvious, and other times they can only be recognized by fellow believers. These symbols often represent objects of importance to the religion.
A faith may have a specific location or area of immense importance. This may be a location where some great deed occurred, where some great figure was martyred, or where a god first spoke to humankind. These sites hold significance to the faith, often leading to war and bloodshed when these areas mix with global politics. Often long pilgrimages are made to these sites.
Religions may have relics, items of importance to the faith. These items may be the bones of important religious figures, they may be historical treasure items or weapons, or they may be some other item central to the belief system. These relics are often closely guarded and/or kept secret.