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I am working on developing the cultural framework for my world and I have a singular religion in mind that plays a role in both the story and more relevantly the state of the world. To provide the appropriate level of depth I am trying to define what the religion is, which begs the question: What makes up an organized religion:

This is difficult to differentiate, but I am not asking what all belief systems have in common. I am specifically looking at structure and organization. This is not about the beliefs or philosophies nor how people react to it but rather the Organized Religion itself.

Think of the religion as a business. When compared to other 'businesses' what do the larger, global, organized ones have in common?

Setting:

  • Medieval Technology
  • Magic
  • Otherwise Earth-like
  • High fantasy racial make up
  • Singular creator deity, though multiple deities exist
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  • $\begingroup$ Fear is essential in religion. Not necessarily mortal fear, but fear of 'the other', dissent, or non-existence. Something that makes people believe that they need what you're selling. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Dec 16 '14 at 19:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel I am looking for the religion itself. What is required for a movement to be a religion? Not what makes a religion feasible. Thanks for helping clarify. $\endgroup$ – James Dec 16 '14 at 19:14
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    $\begingroup$ This closed question has a great answer for the huge thing: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/824/… $\endgroup$ – ckersch Dec 16 '14 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ Note that that question was closed because 'How do I define an organized religion?' is a massively broad question, which is more of a field of study than something that can reasonably be answered on SE. I'd recommend trying to focus this question in on exactly what you're wondering about religion. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Dec 16 '14 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ Feedback on this meta question may help to form a community consensus on how best to ask such questions. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Dec 16 '14 at 19:44
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First, there is one thing all major religions have in common. Complexity. Religions have multiple layers, multiple purposes, multiple actors, multiple sources, and these all interact and change over time in response to both each other, changes in society, cultural influences, individual people of influence, political events... Any image of religion is going to be partial, fragmentary, and contradictory.

For example, a major religion would probably have following elements.

Canonical

A religion would probably have established canonized scripture and established dogma. These would have been written at different times by different people having different opinions. Overtime the cultural, linguistic, and dogmatic differences between the writers and readers will accumulate and interpretations will vary over time and place, and almost certainly lacking serious scholarship and research be quite different from originally intended meaning.

Yet while interpretations vary, possibly to the point of religious war, having authoritative writings gives religion continuity and stability. Drawing a line between orthodoxy and heresy based on commonly accepted canon protects religion from disintegration from transient political concerns and local differences in belief.

Organized

Clergy needs to be trained and administered. Places of worship need to be built and maintained. Rituals must be formalized and organized. Dogma needs to be defined, interpreted, updated, and defended against heresy. Political aspects of religion must be handled.

Religions do not exist in a vacuum and religion has lots of power over the minds of people. Somebody needs to make religion compatible with the other power groups such as kings, nobles, mages, merchants, and guilds or eventually lots of people will die. Sometimes quite painfully. This happens both by reinterpretation and redefinition of dogma and by influencing other groups to accept the proper religious authority.

Communal

Religion is powerful agent of social identity. People identify very strongly with their religious community and will go to great lengths to conform to the values and expectations of their community. This is a major component defining the moral and ethical values of the people. If people believe their religion condemns some practice, people practising it will be stigmatised and even punished. If people believe their religion approves of something, they will approve it as well.

It is the task of the common clergy to keep the beliefs of the people within accepted dogma and prevent heresy and religious division. They often fail. What people believe generally differs from what the clergy teaches. Which differs from the current dogma. Which in turn differs from what the canonized texts actually say. Usually this will stay within acceptable limits, but this is sometimes achieved by widening the acceptable limits.

Folk

People will have beliefs and rituals they did not learn from clergy and that the clergy may even condemn and try to remove. This may be remnants of previous religions, superstitions, or local interpretations of the main religion. Or simply traditions. In a world with magic they may even be old pacts with local spirits. Or Old Gods.

These folk rituals and beliefs will blend with the official religion and give it a rich texture and depth that a religion dictated from above would lack. Sometimes the beliefs may become so popular the end up affecting the official dogma. After all even a great religious leader will still be affected by the beliefs and values he had as a child.

Personal

A truly successful religion must not only be able to affect the values and mores of communities, it must also be able to touch the hearts and minds of individual people. When a person searches for greater spiritual or ethical depth, he should be able to find it from his religion. Otherwise apostasy will spread and the social elites will become secularized.

There are rarely one size fits all solutions to personal religious needs and a major religion will usually have multitude of sects and orders to fulfil the spiritual needs of the faithful. There will also be a multitude of various schools of thought within the faith that have differing theological and ethical interpretation.

Usually personal religious beliefs will be tolerated by the religion as part of the personal relationship the faithful have with the faith. But sometimes people of deep faith cannot tolerate the mainstream religion and become heretics, apostates, or reformers. Even prophets.


This is one way to see the structure and organization of a religion. You should remember that while all these elements are connected and create a whole, they also evolve separately and respond to different forces. A political change might cause a fast change in the dogma and organization of the religion to match the new reality. But at the communal level the same change might take a generation or several generations. A conservative religion might fall out of touch with the personal and communal beliefs of the faithful.

Different communities might have quite different and even incompatible views of the same religion. Usually religious authorities will try to suppress such differences. Some differences will be deemed harmless and will be tolerated. Sometimes it will be more profitable to let the differences grow and then cut off the cancer with sword and flame. Sometimes this fails and schisms happen. Some schisms are temporary some will create permanent divisions.

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If you reduce religion to a system of habits and beliefs, which is a very broad definition (a common one, but not shared by everybody), then you could ask yourself :

  • why it started ? What needs does this religion fulfill ? This need can be psychological, social, etc : Hiding the fear of death behind the hope of a better existence ? Believing that your specie/group is doomed to some destiny or is simply "better" ? Creating a strong social link between members ? Being a justification for a minority to dominate the whole group ? Note that even science or rationality could be included as they are also system of belief (with some specific capabilities).

  • why it continues ? This could be the same as the initial cause, but this is not systematic. A system of belief require some information sharing to remain consistent, especially in a large group. This may involve some formalism around the religion (books, practices, values, culture) and some propagating vectors (people). People involved or taking benefit from the system may become a full organization. And as organizations tend to justify and maintain their mere existence, this may turn into conflicts against alternate systems of belief (internal ones or external ones).

So it may be worth considering why and how your religion appeared and evolved. This is a story on itself but could make it really fit your setup.

Considering tour case :

Medieval Technology Limited way to reach people/masses, so it is likely to have a significant amount of people ensuring the propagation of the religion, especially if just emerging, where fanatical believers will take great risks to disseminate it, compensating the somewhat reduced number of them. After some time, church people will settle down and create places to practice and maintain religion locally, also ensuring there is no challenger (or at least ensure challengers will not overthrow them). Interconnections between these local places will become the communication network of the church. Some special places, of political or religious importance will emerge and may attract significant amounts of believers, becoming also places where information/books are written and stored, bringing structure in the belief system. Things like schools and universities focused on the religion will appear in such places.

Magic May alter the communication, but probably not on a large scale, except if magic is so mainstream that it allow magic-phones or the like. Magic may improve the communication in case of crisis, and occasionally help in miracles and enforcing belief. Depending of the religion values and system of belief, there may be conflicts with magic-users. If the church is old enough, is will probably be more political than idealist and deal with this contradiction. In any case, important people of the church may use the service of magic-users anyway, as they are deeply involved in politics and power games, where magic is an important asset.

Otherwise Earth-like / High fantasy racial make up Not sure it would change many things : races may have their own religions, multiplying alternative churches. However, this would probably mean that deities are limited to one race, so religious conflicts are unlikely as they do not compete for believers.

Singular creator deity, though multiple deities exist This may be an interesting source of conflicts, especially if the same church managed the whole pantheon with specific people taking care of every deity. Internal struggles are likely to happen, but will rarely take dramatic proportions, as the survival of the church itself will be a priority.

Is the religion recent or old ? Well implemented or emerging ? Aggressive or tolerant ? Involved in the physical world or purely spiritual ? Political or detached ?

Depending of this, you could see fighting-priests helping to secure roads, enlightened hermits, a rich or poor church, etc

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  • $\begingroup$ Uriel, this "This may involve some formalism around the religion (books, practices, values, culture) and some propagating vectors (people). People involved or taking benefit from the system may become a full organization. And as organizations tend to justify and maintain their mere existence, this may turn into conflicts againss alternate systems of belief (internal ones or external ones)." starts getting at what I am asking. Could you re-focus your answer on that section? $\endgroup$ – James Dec 16 '14 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ @James : could you describe your world setup ? Technology, culture, etc. will impact how a religion or a church (you seem to be more focused on the later) is structured. $\endgroup$ – Uriel Dec 16 '14 at 20:17
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I made some more edits. Thanks for the help Uriel. $\endgroup$ – James Dec 16 '14 at 20:24
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  • internal structure of priests: Great example is catholic church. But it is almost common that priests have several ranks in every bigger religion

  • system of religious festive, alias the calendar: It can be relatively easy system of solstices and equinoxes to something quite complicated, as the Easter is (first Monday after first full moon of the spring)

  • shared dogma about the god: Mohammad is the true prophet, Jesus is the son of the god... Just to give you the idea what I am talking about

  • often shared enemy: From different nation to same nation, believing the same god but not having the same dogma

  • system of religious rituals: How do you worship god? Is it singing song, sitting in quiet, or bowing in special manner?

  • shared religious artefacts: The holy tree under which Buddha become enlightened, holy places...

  • often shared dress code: In earth religion it's hats. Everyone loves wearing hat

  • philosophy: What you shall do and what not. How to live "good" life

  • and shared idea about afterlife: Do good warriors go to Valhalla? Is there place in afterlife for "bad people"? Wide spread religions have answer

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  • $\begingroup$ Even if you hadn't answered the question I would have to up-vote this for the hat comment. $\endgroup$ – James Dec 16 '14 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ I know it is most "non-answer" but I tried to list "common religious structures" $\endgroup$ – Pavel Janicek Dec 17 '14 at 9:26
  • $\begingroup$ @PavelJanicek : I think it generally encompasses the basics for a lot of the systems I know about, so it's a fair answer. $\endgroup$ – Crabgor Dec 17 '14 at 13:09

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