Secondary World Religions

Crystal Dragon Religion

World building is the one element that sets speculative fiction apart from every other category of writing. When designing a secondary world, it’s crucial to establish a foundation of internally consistent principles to help readers suspend their disbelief.

Religion in general has been a constant of human existence. Writing a secondary world where there are no and never have been any religions will automatically cause tension between the setting and known history, straining credibility (though it could make for an interesting story hook if handled properly).

The advice in this post will mainly apply to fantasy authors building a secondary world separate from our own. But it should help science fiction writers whose stories are set in speculative primary world handle the subject of religion, to the extent that it comes up, with proper respect and depth.

How do you avoid clich├ęs like Crystal Dragon Jesus, the Evil Church of Evil, and smarmy secularist characters who know the Bible better than lifelong churchgoers? You build from the ground up—or in this case, the sky down.

The Three Qualities of Religion

First, let’s start with three qualities possessed by all religions: cult, code, and creed.

Cult: every religion practices some form of organized worship, with formularized rituals and fixed times for liturgical celebrations.

Code: all faiths promote a particular set of morals derived from their beliefs.

Creed: all religions profess belief in a body of theological knowledge. A faith’s creed is how it defines itself.

When designing your world’s religious landscape, consider what form the qualities above take in each religion. A particular faith’s cult, code, and creed should be intertwined. Ask yourself how they’re interrelated in each religion and how those interrelationships affect the beliefs and behavior of the faithful.

The Three Sources of Revelation

Having discussed three elements common to all religions, let’s examine an area where many faiths fundamentally differ: their sources of revelation.

Historically, the major religions have drawn upon three sources of knowledge about the divine: myth, mystical experience, and prophecy.

Myth: attempts to explain natural phenomena by relating them to the supernatural realm. This is where you get prototypical shamanic religions.

Note that “myth” is not synonymous with “falsehood”. Myths are primitive people’s efforts to make sense of basic truths they find operating in the world.

Mysticism: individual believers’ powerful personal experiences of the divine. Mystics pass on their wisdom to disciples who are encouraged to seek enlightenment for themselves.

Prophecy: unlike the mystic who receives truths meant for him alone, the prophet bridges the gulf between creature and creator as an authentic mediator between humanity and the divine. As such, the prophet’s word is morally binding.

When you get down to designing each particular faith, you’ll want to decide where that religion’s beliefs come from: myth, mysticism, prophecy, or a mixture of two or more sources. The choices you make here will have a major impact on each faith’s cult, code, and creed.

Let’s look at three examples of religions from my Soul Cycle universe to see how all of this hangs together.

The Cult of Midras is based on myth and prophecy. They profess faith in two gods, one good and one bad, to get around the problem of evil. Because of a prophecy stating that humans will decide the war between good and evil, they’re big into moral law and have priests who are basically Judge Dredd.

The Nesshin faith is based on prophecy. They believe that their tribe’s founder was the only real prophet. He taught them that God was put to sleep at the moment of creation and will arise at the end of time to judge all things. This makes them fatalistic, and they’re not too concerned with converting outsiders. Their priests hold liturgies to strengthen and sanctify the people.

Atavism is Nesshin religion infused with mysticism. Atavists believe that everyone is a fragment of God and that separation from the cosmic soul is the cause of all evil and pain. Atavists have monasticism but no priesthood. They value living things as aspects of the divine, but they see death as reunion with God.

That should be plenty to get you started. Play around with these concepts and see what you can come up with. Just remember that each religion’s origins should influence its beliefs, practices, and morality in consistent ways. Even if actual religious history is quite a bit messier, as spec fic authors our world building, like our dialogue, should be the “best of” the real world version.
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  1. Fiction has to be realistic and consistent in a way reality can and usually does ignore :)

  2. These recent reposts have been good to see. Thank you.

    1. You're welcome. This one was originally posted on the web site of a publisher that's been defunct for a few years now.

  3. You've actually been helping me quite a bit (along with David Stewart and Adam Lane Smith) with setting up good settings for my tabletop groups that have something the default settings are often missing now. My Pathfinder setting has so far benefited the most, as I tried to make the world fit the mechanics instead of a lot of D&D settings where the mechanics just are what they are. Contrary to the current trend that the classical dungeon crawls are boring and morality needs to be gray and grey, my players LOVE how it added mystery to the setting, and with properly designed dungeons, they get just as much fun figuring out what the building once was as they do clearing out the monsters on search of treasure. I even made a religion that began as medieval Catholicism with the serial numbers filed off. It is unambiguously a force for good and does not tolerate heresy or witchcraft, and is the only religion in known civilization. Rather than balk at the lack of moral ambiguity, my players started making up their own holy orders for their characters to join.

    Conventional wisdom in storytelling is all wrong.

    1. I went with a vaguely Catholic medieval religion too, I mean, how do you even define the Middle Ages without it?

  4. Perhaps I read The Everlasting Man too young and too often, but do all religions necessarily include all these elements? A lot of Pagan and Eastern religions and philosophies seem to either cover primarily myth, mysticism, and cult _or_ be of a more philosophical/mystic bent to include code and creed, but they often have some degree of coexistence or hybridization.

    1. I think they do. To put them in another order, on the basis of an old axiom - "Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi" - every religion has certain acceptable forms of worship (cult), which in turn shape how its adherents understand the world (creed), which in turn determines how they behave in it (code). This is even true of religions that don't see themselves as religions, like the various fandoms within the Pop Cult.
      For example, Buddhism is technically a philosophy which denies the existence of the divine, if memory serves, that is. In practice, Buddhists pray. Those prayers, and the bells and wheels and such that go with them, indicate what they really believe about the spiritual world.

    2. Cult, code, and creed are defining components of all religions.

      A given religion can be sourced from myth, mysticism, prophecy, or combinations of the three.

  5. Off topic - I want to thank the gent who suggested watching "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" as a religious morality play with Blondie as Tuco's literal guardian angel. The movie is now vastly improved - and it is a MUCH smarter take than the typical critical play, which is to call the film nihilistic. I found it made the film quite fascinating.

    1. That was me and thanks and you're welcome. Now check out B-Movie Cathechisn blog and his comments about how slasher horror flicks (at least the older ones) are also morality plays: https://b-moviecat.blogspot.com/2010/10/b-list-questionable-musical-moments-5.html

  6. I'm enjoying this series. Very informative!