If you’ve created a fictional society, species, or even an entire world, then you’re probably looking for ways to make it seem more authentic. One of the ways to add a little life to your fictional society is to add a religion and system of beliefs for them to subscribe to. Religion is, after all, a large part of cultural identity.
Religion is a universal concept across human cultures. Even though religion isn’t the same everywhere, the notions of respecting a higher power or believing in something greater than what can be experienced are things that define human nature. These ideas can, of course, be applied to other sapient creatures besides humans.
(Psst… If you haven’t created your own species yet, you should try it! I wrote a really in-depth guide to help you out with it, too: The Ultimate Guide to Creating a Fictional Species. Check it out!)
Any intelligent species is bound to search for answers to the meaning of life or the creation of the world as they know it. Attempts to explain the unexplainable result in religion, at least in its most basic conception. It is much easier for a society—especially an early society—to blame rain on a deity instead of understanding the natural processes of the water cycle.
If you want to enrich your fictional society’s culture with a unique religion, then read on for a step-by-step guide to creating a fictional religion.
What to Consider when Creating a Fictional Religion
The first step in creating a fictional religion is deciding what you want the religion to be, and what you want it to do. In some fantasy worlds, the religion that the culture believes in could be real, and it could have actual, real gods that look over the world. There could be a real divine realm separate from the living world where gods and deceased souls reside. Or, the religion could be completely bogus and fabricated by a political organization to maintain power over the common people.
In other words, you need to decide why your world needs a religion. Was it planted by those in power to keep people complacent and obedient? Does it describe the real magical forces in the world? Is it based on superstition and fear? Or, was it devised as a way of explaining natural processes without any scientific understanding?
These are just some questions to get your gears turning. Hopefully by now, you at least have some vague idea of what you want to achieve with your religion, so you can move on to the specifics.
How to Create Structure for the Fictional Religion
Religions come in many shapes and sizes, so you can find a unique structure that fits the plan you have in mind. This step will lay down the foundation, on which you will be able to build out the rest of the religion.
First and foremost, religions can be categorized by what they consider to be divine. The three most basic categories are:
- Polytheism: the belief in many gods.
- Monotheism: the belief in a single, all-powerful god.
- Atheism: the belief in no gods. This is typically associated more with a lack of religion, however, a belief in nothing is still a belief.
There are many other ways to structure a religion, however. Divinity can come from plants, animals, objects, and connections between family members and friends. Your people may worship their deceased ancestors, artists, or even an invading alien species. There are no limits to the things you can have your people worship, but they need to worship something. They could even worship themselves and their own bodily existence.
In addition to those categories, it is also a good idea to create a hierarchy for the religion. Are all living beings made equal? Is there a god that rules over the people? Is there a pantheon of gods, above which is a god of gods? Additionally, are there individuals in the society that are revered as religious leaders or chosen by the gods? Are there preachers, spiritual leaders, or prophets? Consider how the religion creates a hierarchy, either among those that believe or the entirety of the society.
How to Create Powerful Beings for Your Story’s Religion
This is the fun part. If your religion is based around a god or gods, whether real or fabricated, this is the part where you get to create them. If the religion you are designing won’t be based around a god, you can skip to the next section.
First of all, your god will need a name, and potentially a title that explains their association (for example: “Savina, the Goddess of the Sun”). Of course, if your religion is based around a single deity, they could just be referred to as “God” or “All-Powerful” or something along those lines. Then, once you have a name, you can add some specific characteristics to the god to make them unique.
Consider the alignment of the deity you’ve just created. Are they good, evil, or neutral? Are they a trickster, chaotic, or orderly? A good deity might be celebrated and honored with feasts and parties, or revered in serious prayer and strict moral conduct. A trickster god may be avoided at all costs, unless absolutely necessary. Even if your religion only has one god, it is important to decide how that god behaves, and whether they are vengeful or merciful.
Some deities are evil, and rather than worship them, people might attempt to appease them in order to avoid their wrath. This could mean offering sacrifices, fasting, or holding a festival to honor the god despite the fear they invoke. To go back to our example, Savina, the Goddess of the Sun, could be characterized as a selfish goddess. People may offer sacrifices to her out of fear that she would not raise the sun and leave the world in darkness. A culture that thinks like this could be petrified at the sight of a solar eclipse.
Now, our example Sun Goddess might have other jobs besides raising the sun each day. She could also be associated with personal strength and independence. She might have some characteristics that are more favorable than others, and she may represent good behaviors even if she is overall an evil deity. She may bring good luck to those she favors, or she may smite the people that insult her. Depending on how divided the religion is, she may even be considered a good deity by a different sect of the religion.
You should also have a basic idea for how the god is represented by the people following the religion. You don’t need to know exactly what the deity looks like, but you should have some idea of what they are visually associated with. A goddess like Savina might be associated with a tigress, for her fiery temper and solitary nature. Other gods could be associated with other animals, plants, symbols, or concepts, and those symbols should decorate anything used to worship them, such as temples and artifacts.
Once you have one deity, you simply repeat the process to make more. Then, you can decide how the gods and goddesses all relate to each other, or if they do at all. In the Greek pantheon, many of the gods were biologically related to one another, but your gods might simply materialize from nothing or have come into existence at the same time. Their relationships with each other could be based purely on their jobs. For example, the God of the Moon might interact with the Goddess of the Ocean, since the moon’s gravitational pull on the ocean changes the tides.
Finally, don’t forget about lesser religious beings, such as demigods, angels, demons, and other figures like that. These aren’t strictly required, but they can add another dimension to the pantheon.
How to Write a Creation Story
One of the biggest questions that religions answer is how the world began. Creation stories can be simple, like in the Christian Genesis: God simply speaks, and it is so. He claims that there should be light, and there is light, and so on and so forth. This is an example of an Ex Nihilo creation story, where the world is made out of absolutely nothing. However, there are many other common themes that you can draw inspiration from if you are having trouble coming up with something:
- Creatio Ex Nihilo: Before the world, there was nothing. No space, no air, no universe, no time—just nothing. And then, a deity, or deities, simply create the world out of that nothing, simply by willing it to be.
- Creation from Chaos: Before the world, there is simply an expanse of an endless, formless void that is chaotic and unpredictable. It lacks form, mass, and dimension, and it is beyond mortal comprehension. A deity, or deities, create the world out of that chaos, symbolically bringing order to chaos.
- Primal Couple: The ground and the sky are personified, and the world is brought into existence by being born from this primal couple. Often times, this couple must split up for the world to survive, since the sky and earth must remain apart. This can be handy for explaining natural disasters, since those could be seen as the deities’ misery at being separated.
- World Parent: Before the world, there was a god that sacrificed their life to create that world out of their physical body. Their flesh becomes the dirt, their hair becomes the plants, their tears become the waters, their blood becomes the animals, and so on. This type of myth is often associated with a religion that holds the world and everything on it to be inherently divine since it is all part of the body of the god.
- Emergence: Before the current world, there was another planet, in which the world germinates for some time. After that period of time is over, the new world emerges, signaling a new beginning. This type of creation myth is deliberately comparable to giving birth, and there is even usually a (female) deity to act as a midwife in the process. However, the earth could also emerge from a god instead of another planet.
- Earth-Diver: Before the world, there is nothing but a vast expanse, often likened to an endless ocean or outer space. A deity then sends an animal, spirit, or lesser deity out to find debris to construct a new world in this space. In many of these stories, the Earth-Diver is unsuccessful several times before a viable planet is created.
Creation stories should also involve some sort of explanation for how humans (or whatever species you’re working with) came to be. The first people could have evolved over time, emerged from the dirt, or been created in any number of absurd ways. However you choose to describe it, you need to make sure that it makes sense with the rest of the creation myth that you’ve laid out. If you’ve selected the World Parent option, or created something similar to it, then you already have an answer to this: they were created when the world was, from the body of the god.
Often times, creation myths also contain some explanation of how the world will eventually end. Sometimes, this contains a timeframe (such as Satan’s return after a millennium underground), but other times, the story contains only a vague hint about what will happen. Other stories, such as Ragnarök, predict the end of the world and the emergence of a new one. An apocalypse could be the end of everything, or the start of a new beginning.
Now of course, if you are working in a fantasy setting, then this creation myth could very well be the actual, correct, canon story of how the world was created. But if you have multiple species or societies with conflicting stories, you should probably find a solution that works for everyone (such as the god of elves, the god of dwarves, and the god of humans coming together to create the world).
Writing About The Afterlife
One of the other big topics that religions address is what happens after a person dies. People have historically always wondered about what happens after death, but different religions disagree on what the afterlife has in store for their dearly departed.
Despite the disagreement on the details, there are two prevailing theories that consistently appear throughout different cultures and religions. Those two theories are:
- Spiritual Realms: Whether it’s Heaven and Hell, Hades, Valhalla, or The Summerland, this theory is the idea that a person’s consciousness lives on after death in some sort of realm. That realm could imitate the physical world, or it could be purely spiritual. Typically, though not always, this realm serves to either punish or reward a person for their behavior when they were alive.
- Reincarnation: This is the idea that after death, a person’s soul is simply reborn into the world. They usually have no recollection of their previous life, but their soul is able to live on for generations in this way. In some religions, a soul might eventually reach a spiritual realm, or the soul may rest for a while in a spiritual realm before rebirth.
The two categories are not completely separate, and often overlap in many religions. However, this doesn’t mean that you have to limit yourself to just those two ideas. There are many other ways that you could craft an afterlife story for your religion. Here are some suggestions I just came up with off the top of my head:
- Souls become part of the world after death, as soil, plants, or water.
- The deceased ascend to godhood in order to watch over their descendants.
- The deceased soul is carried by their living descendants, so they live on as long as their bloodline remains intact.
- The soul as a self or consciousness no longer exists, but their memories exist forever in the mind of their god.
- The deceased each becomes a star, potentially with their own solar systems.
- The world that people see in their dreams is the afterlife, and that is where they go after death so that they can still visit their loved ones while they sleep.
Those are just some ideas; feel free to take them! The point is that there is an infinite number of ways that you could come up with a story about the afterlife, and once you come up with something unique, you can make it even more special with the details that you add to it.
The most important thing to keep in mind about afterlife stories is how they impact the burial customs of the society. Consider the ancient Egyptian society, and how much their belief in the afterlife impacted how they buried the dead. It was believed that a soul could only get to the afterlife if their body was properly embalmed and placed in a sarcophagus. Other religions forbid the practice of cremation, because of the belief in a bodily resurrection. Some religions even encourage cannibalizing their deceased loved ones. Think about the religion you’ve created so far, and try to think of how the dead would be treated within that context.
Creating Traditions and Rituals for a Fictional Religion
Religions influence culture in a number of ways, but the most prominent influence they have is with traditions and rituals. This is a wide scope of a topic, and it has a tremendous impact on the way the religion is experienced, perceived, and celebrated. There are many traditions and rituals that you can include to really make your religion come to life, including:
- Celebrating holidays, usually on the anniversary of a notable event in the religion’s history
- Celebrating coming of age in a specific way, such as with a parade, a festival, a feast, or even a sacrifice
- Ritualistic scarring or body modification
- Only eating, or avoiding, specific types of foods at specific times
- How a family is structured
- Attend a ceremony or gathering regularly
- Celebrating milestones in life
- Going on a journey for a religious mission
Think of these traditions as a way for you to add believable complexity to your fictional religion, and to make it truly memorable.
In addition to those behavioral traditions, consider the items and symbols that are significant to the religion. For many religions, there is a sacred book that represents the teachings of their god or gods. Symbols are ways that religions can identify and differentiate themselves and communicate broad ideas about their beliefs. For example, hands are a common symbol in many religions, because of how they can symbolize comfort and protection.
Creating Ethics for Your Fictional Religion
Religion plays a huge part in a society’s perceptions of right and wrong. Some behaviors would be encouraged or discouraged, depending on what the religion teaches. This influence could have a positive impact on survival if those ideas are along the lines of “don’t kill your neighbor,” but it could just as easily do the opposite and encourage sacrifice or justify murder.
On a less dramatic scale, the religion could have superstitions about otherwise harmless or arbitrary behaviors. For example, it may be considered a fatal crime to eat a specific food, or to dress in a certain way. These behaviors are neither helpful or detrimental to the survival of the society, but are nonetheless dictated and controlled by the religion.
The Origin of Your Fictional Religion
By now, you should have a pretty complete religion, with moral standards, structure, traditions, and specific beliefs. Now, you need to come up with a story to justify how the religion began.
In many religions, their origin story relates to a single prophet that gained a group of followers until the ideas were widespread enough to be considered a religion. Other religions began by deviating from an existing one. In other cases, religions could get their start because of a scheming dictator, by evolving from an old folktale, or even being influenced by other cultures around the society.
You don’t need to write out the entire history and evolution of your religion, but you should at least have some idea of how it got started and how it was spread to the public.
Who Believes in the Fictional Religion?
There are just a few more aspects to consider before you can call your religion complete. One of those aspects is how widespread the religion is in the society.
What percentage of the population believes in this religion? Is there another dominant religion in the area? Of the people that believe, how strongly to they believe in the religious teachings, and how likely are they to attend every gathering and obey every arbitrary custom? Are there religious fanatics, and if so, how many? In addition to those questions, you should also consider how life would be different for those that believe and those that don’t. Which group seems happier, safer, or in a higher social class?
This part could get a little muddied if the religion you’ve created is true in the world you’ve created. It would be harder to justify someone not believing in a god that has been proven to be real in one way or another. However, you could have a person or group be skeptical of the goodness of a god, or express faith in a different god. Nonbelievers could also dismiss the godly status of that god altogether.
How to Create Variations of the Religion
Any religion that has existed for any span of time is bound to have people who disagree on how it should be experienced or expressed. Sacred texts could be interpreted in different ways, other aspects of culture could influence how traditions are celebrated, and leadership could dissuade behaviors outside of the scope of the religion. These situations can result in entirely new variations of the same religion, such as the distinct variations to catholicism: Oriental, Orthodox, Roman, Protestant, and several others. Sometimes, variations can be fundamentally different, but other times, they can be as simple as referring to a god by a different name or wearing a different kind of religious attire.
This part can be difficult, and it is not strictly required to have a good fictional religion. However, it can be a fun way to add some additional complexity to your fictional world.
The Religion’s Impacts on Society
Finally, as you prepare to tie the final ribbon to your new fictional religion, it’s time to add some fun last-minute touches. Take some time to consider how religion has had an influence on the history of the society as a whole, such as wars, laws, government, and more. How much power have religious leaders had throughout history? Is society structured around a religious hierarchy?
In addition to the history and politics, you should think about what kind of influence the religion has had on the arts. What is the architecture of holy places like? What kind of impact has it had on music, paintings, sculptures, poetry, and more? Does it influence the way individuals decorate their homes and public spaces?
If you want some more guidance on creating an entire culture, then check out my other article: Creating a Fictional Culture: Step by Step.
Go out there and be creative, I know you can make something great!