Writing a novel

Worldbuilding 101: Religion

Religion plays an integral part in any society, whether it’s there in strong supply, or noticeable for its absence. Earth has a multitude of different faiths, some of which have long since died out, some of which are closely related to others.

Although religion is perceived as fixed, faith is not. Faith is fluid, mutable. Look at the western world over the last… two hundred years? A lot has changed. (Scientology, for one. I could dedicate a post to the history of that. Only I don’t really care enough. ^^)

Le Medlock: Worldbuilding 101 - Religion
Image via Flickr Creative Commons by More Good Foundation

In terms of writing a novel and worldbuilding, religion has historically been integrated with those in power. Kings, tyrants and rulers dictated what everyone else had to believe in.


      • Henry VIII, the horny sod, set up his own church so he could divorce his wife.
      • Akhenaten elevated the cult of the sun-god with his own family at the heart (instant ticket to Paradise).

As well as influenced by those in power, religion and religious figures tended (or tend, depending on your opinion about today’s religion) to influence those in power. Church tithes meant the institute had wealth, and places of worship, monuments, etc., were built in the name of the god(s). Priests became the mouthpiece of the god, and worship channelled through them. They had a lot of power.


      • The High Priest of Amun
      • The Cardinal de Richelieu

And religion is often the cause of war. The most obvious example being the Crusades, but also the Spanish Reconquista and the Ottoman wars in Europe. Whatever it is, religion should be tightly integrated into the nation’s government and social structure. Which brings me to….

Traditionally, religion enforces an ethical system: The Ten Commandments, Buddha’s Eightfold Path, the threat of Hell and the reward of Heaven. All of these inspire society to act in certain accepted ways. Some more than others – there is never one single group of people who act the same way or believe exactly the same things. Beware of cookie-cutter religions sects. Faith has a spectrum even within one religion.

Punishment for breaking these laws varies depending on country, religion and even on factions within that religion (e.g. Christianity has numerous different churches). The punishments are dictated by governmental laws, but they often arose from religious doctrine.

Le Medlock: Worldbuilding 101 - Religion
Image via Flickr Creative Commons by Ruud Raats

In the Medieval Ages monks knew how to write, because they were the ones who copied out the Bible and translated it into Latin (or whatever it was they did to it). In Ancient Egypt (yes, I do bring this civilisation up a lot…), scribes were the most educated among the officials because they had to inscribe murals and monuments with words of prayer and protection for the afterlife.

Religion affected society’s level of education and what they believed in. One school might teach one belief and another in the neighbouring country would teach another.

One caveat: Beware of an over-reliance on monotheistic religions. A few prominent modern day faiths uphold a single central deity and it’s commonplace in a lot of speculative fiction (either as a God or Goddess).

One of my favourite aspects of worldbuilding is creating a rich pantheon of gods, drawing coloured lines between each one to represent their relationship with each other, and writing up their colourful history (I probably spent more time on the gods in my first novel than I did on the rest of it. And only two of them saw the light of day. … Yeah, that novel’s on the shelf.)

Religion is something that will give an instant flavour in a novel – but, like salt (not garlic, never garlic), too much will make it unpalatable. Don’t be preachy.

Any tips for religion? What’s your favourite aspect worldbuilding?

2 thoughts on “Worldbuilding 101: Religion”

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