A way with worlds: 14 – Creating new religions by Steven Savage of Seventh Sanctum

Well, we’re back on the creativity track after a few diversions, and back on the subject of religion in your continuity.

Eventually, you’re going to have to design a religion if you’re making a really original world. You aren’t going to be able to avoid it for one reason:

DESIGNING A RELIGION 1: Religion is inevitable.
In the broadest sense, religion is how people define and relate to the universe, and how they order their lives around how they feel the universe works. Yes, this is my definition, but it’s my column and it’s the approach I’ll be taking.

So, in short, you WILL deal with religion in your world – because your residents will have ways of perceiving the universe and ordering their lives.

OK, well, you’ve admitted it, you have to design a religion, and here’s the hard part to admit – you’re going to have to know something about religion. Its unavoidable, and to be honest, you don’t want to fake it – faking the basic way your characters and their culture view the universe will show up, trust me.

However, this leads to two interesting paradoxes:

DESIGNING A RELIGION 2: Know about religion
If you don’t know about religions, you can’t write new ones. Case closed. So, its time for a little research.

First of all, Huston Smith’s “The Worlds Religions” (ISBN 0062508113) is a good start.

Secondly, read up on other religious traditions on and offline. If your cultures have similarities to existing cultures, a focus on those similar cultures may help. Remember my advice about going to used book stores and overstock shelves – I’ve found great books on religion there.

DESIGNING A RELIGION 3: Don’t rip off an existing one
The problem about studying other religions is you may try to do an import of an existing one to your world with the names changed to protect the Divine. That, unfortunately, tends to have the following effects:

It’s obvious.
It may not fit the world/culture properly.
You may miss potential and fine detail.
You may straightjacket your creativity.

This is a major problem in religious design – you need to pass the point of knowing about existing religions to the point where you can create your own. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, but at the same time, it usually doesn’t come without some kind of study or knowledge.

However, in designing a religion, I’ve found a few things to keep in mind that help a great deal. Think about these when designing and studying, and they’ll make your work go faster.

DESIGNING A RELIGION 4: Religion happens for a reason.
Actually, as I’ve noted many times in this column, everything happens for a reason, and a culture’s traditions and religion are no exception. Ask what matters your culture will seek to solve theologically/spiritually/supernaturally, and what they will find in your world when they do so.

Also ask what will not be within the sphere of a culture’s religion – if anything.

DESIGNING A RELIGION 5: Religions change and evolve
Religion changes, it adds more ideas, loses others, faces new challenges, and deals with new technologies. Whatever eternal truths there may be, their trappings are not always the same.

Some of the Old Testament is nothing more than a record of people facing challenges and dealing with them, and finding new insights and new ways to act. I myself am a philosophical/mystic Taoist, but Taoism’s most popular manifestation today is more a combination of various beliefs and traditions. Buddhism merged with various local elements where it took root.

DESIGNING A RELIGION 6: Ideas may stay beyond their use or not be understood.
Since religions evolve, sometimes ideas may alter, rituals change – or things may hang on that are no longer useful. In addition, their usefulness of concepts and rituals may no longer be understood – until it is lost or altered. That, in fact, can be an entire plot in itself (“We figured the rituals were useless so we stopped and now the Chaos Demons broke in!”)

DESIGNING A RELIGION 7: Religions are Implemented by man (or whatever your sentient species is) and are not perfect.
Let’s be honest – in human history religions have been misused. Errors have been made in translations, religious leaders have been corrupt or stupid. Good ideas have been misused.

Making religions you design perfect won’t seem realistic, and to be frank, won’t be realistic. Everyone makes mistakes, and no system is perfect.

DESIGNING A RELIGION 8: It’s more widespread than you think.
How many churches do you see on your way to work/school/wherever you go in the morning? Anyone involved in a church or temple or synagogue you know of? Ever buy religiously-themed books as gifts or for yourself? Wear a WWJD bracelet or seen any?

Religion does not usually exist in the corner’s of peoples lives, its usually widespread. Flesh out your culture carefully and figure out just where religion goes – it’s usually farther than you think.

SUMMARY:

Is it worth it? It seems like a lot of effort?

The answer is yes.

Look, its not easy to design a religion, especially an original one, but it’ll flesh out your world, make it deeper – and make you think about important and vital issues.

I won’t lie and say its easy; it’s not, though its easier than it sounds once your imagination gets going and once you learn enough. However, it’ll make your world live, make it real.

And that, is, after all, the point.

STEVE’S SITES:
Last week I mentioned sites to help promote and find fiction – and here are some more. They’re great to register your site with (if you fit the criteria) and to find more sites and resources and cool stuff.

Free Novels Online -It’s just getting started, but the site owner is building links to original online novels and similar large-scale fiction projects. The guy running it is very nice, so help him out by telling him about your online writing project and give him some encouragement.

Published.com – An online listing of media sites, writing, resources, and more. Easy to register your site and find some other interesting ones.

Sffworld.com – An almost overwhelming sci-fi site with reviews, columns, links, everything. They accept link submissions. Worth exploring, but set aside some time to do it.

Thinkers.net – An online resource for intellectual information, literature, and thoughts. Some of this gets pretty deep, and I’m still exploring it all. They appear to take literature sites, but the sites may be in some heavy company.

Take a trip to my own alternate world, the Crossworld of Xai, at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/xai/

Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Steven Savage, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

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