When building any fictional world, perhaps especially a fantasy world, the whole question of religion is bound to come up. What are the gods? What do people believe in? How and where and why do they worship? And what effects or implications will that have?

Then there are the sub-questions, such as:

  • What if miracles really work?
  • What if the gods show up sometimes?
  • How do magic and religion intersect?
  • Can there be religion and really advanced science at the same time?

In short, what are the fundamental elements of religion, and how should I go about constructing them coherently and plausibly as I design a religion for a culture in my world?

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    $\begingroup$ "The fundamental elements of religion" alone is the subject of entire books, isn't it? Without a practical context, this seems far too broad. $\endgroup$
    – BESW
    Oct 2 '14 at 3:29
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    $\begingroup$ Many, many books, yes. But somebody's got to lay some groundwork or questions about religion can never be formulated narrowly and get anywhere. See below. $\endgroup$
    – CAgrippa
    Oct 2 '14 at 3:31
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    $\begingroup$ This is not the right place to "lay some groundwork;" Stack Exchange Q&A isn't really built to support a general education post. "Too broad" doesn't magically stop being a valid close reason just because someone is wrong on the Internet. $\endgroup$
    – BESW
    Oct 2 '14 at 3:37
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    $\begingroup$ I would qualify the title with the word "realistic". If you want to effectively design a typical fantasy religion, this is not a particularly way to go about doing it. $\endgroup$
    – Bobson
    Oct 2 '14 at 4:05
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    $\begingroup$ @BESW: I am sorry that this isn't helpful to you, but it does fairly precisely match the "answer your own question" principle strongly encouraged at SE. That principle being, the next time someone wants to dig into a given type of question or problem, she or he will find an extensive explication of the basic constraints and principles thereof. From that point, the person may well be empowered to propose a highly specific new question rather than reinventing the wheel. $\endgroup$
    – CAgrippa
    Oct 2 '14 at 4:12

There are a number of preconceptions that need to be cleared away in order to get at a useful answer.

  1. Religion is not reducible to faith, belief, ethics, or philosophy.
  2. Religion does not necessarily have anything to do with "gods" in whatever sense.
  3. "Miracle" is an extremely narrow and specific type of event that is properly limited to Christianity (though arguably also to Judaism and/or Islam); it is again not generalizable.
  4. "Magic" is a well-nigh impossible category, even worse than "religion," and as such there's no way to make blanket assertions about their intersections.
  5. The "war between science and religion" is a 19th-century invention, principally American; there is no intrinsic conflict.
  6. There is no generally-accepted scholarly definition of religion, nor is it likely that there ever will be.

Once you accept these points, which are broadly accepted by professional scholars of religion (which is very different from "religious scholars" or "theologians"), the question of "designing a religion" changes dramatically. One can hardly give a "right" answer to this, but there are some general guideposts worth considering by way of preliminaries.

Religion is universal

Any of the various semi-functional definitions of religion references a set of phenomena that appear to exist and have existed among all human societies in all places and times. We do not know of strong counter-examples. This has a number of interesting implications:

  1. A society truly without religion is deep in fantasy territory, arguably harder to imagine and formulate than extraterrestrial alien societies.
  2. Religion is not intrinsically bound up with technology, science, etc., but at the same time it is not intrinsically distinct from these things either.
  3. Religious phenomena tend to be recognizable to one's neighbors. Albeit the category "religion" as we know it is a sixteenth-century European invention, some of the most ancient extant texts already reference neighboring peoples as having gods, temples, sacrifices, and so forth, in some cases (notably Egyptian ones) offering translations: "Among the Greeks, Isis is usually known as Aphrodite, and is offered the following sacrifices...."

Religion is ordinary

Most of the phenomena we think of as "religious" are embedded in everyday life and concerns. Fertility, health, death, marriage, hunting, crops, and so forth tend to get a lot of attention in religious systems. This runs contrary to an old (but utterly false) notion that religion is about explaining or accounting for the extraordinary, i.e., the old wheeze that religion comes about because people see lightning and get scared or whatever. On the contrary, religious expressions, when they can be called explanations or accounts in the first place, tend to provide explanations and origins for the utterly ordinary: why do humans eat animals? why do humans excrete? why don't we have three buttocks?

Religion is not falsifiable

Religious systems do not necessarily make any claims that could be tested in any way whatever. When they do make such claims, they tend to be accurate within reasonable limits, e.g., claims about the natural world and its various phenomena. (The causes attributed to these phenomena are likely at variance with modern scientific explanations, but the phenomena described are usually accurate enough, and sometimes stunningly so.) The usual supposition is that any falsifiable and totally false claim will tend to die out over time, because it becomes obvious to everyone that it's false. On the other hand, bear in mind that "correlation does not imply causation" is a logical principle that most people simply do not seem to grasp, and that a claim based on its reversal is not likely to be easily falsifiable. (E.g., "the sun comes up every morning because we sacrifice to the gods every night" isn't falsifiable, since nobody's going to just stop doing all sacrifices to find out, and even if you did one could always suppose that the next tribe over did their sacrifices, QED.)

Religion is not intrinsically about explanation or fear

This is a very old theory, of course, but it doesn't seem to work in the real world. The overwhelming majority of extant etiological myths (myths about where something came from) do not provide an "explanation" in any kind of straightforward sense. Natural phenomena that are genuinely terrifying to a given people may well have little direct representation in their myths or rituals. While one can certainly argue that religious behaviors do in some sense provide some people with some kind of psychological support with respect to some sorts of insecurities, that's so broad as to be useless (and in no sense exclusive to religious phenomena however defined).

So... how do you go about designing a religion?

Let's think about this as a process rather than a checklist.

In all likelihood, you already have some vague notions about what you want, so write those down. Probably this is stuff about gods and whatnot, perhaps a creation myth or something. The next step, however, needs to be about ordinary people in their ordinary lives. If in some way these gods are important to these people, what is it that the latter do? Why?

The answer does not have to be "worship." That doesn't really mean anything much. Think about the gods as people for a minute, however strange and powerful. If I'm an ordinary male person, is my relationship with a given god akin to that I have with my friend? my brother? my father? my chief or king? my wife? my lover? Does my wife have the same kind of relationship, and is it to the same god? (Gods don't have to have consistent sexes, you know.) Do I get involved with more than one god? Perhaps, for example, I talk to my personal or family god in a chatty sort of way every few days when I am alone, kind of keeping him up to date on my life. I don't really expect a lot from him, and he doesn't expect a lot from me, but we're sort of buddies. I gather that my wife and the other ladies have quite a different way of relating to a singular goddess, but that's female mysteries and I don't really want to know -- I'm sure it's icky, since my impression is that a lot of it happens when all the ladies head off to that forbidden longhouse west of town for a few days once a month. (Which is not to say that I don't know about menstruation, just that it's none of my business.)

Probably the next thing I'd do is consider the ritual specialists, i.e., the people who have a professional involvement with and special knowledge of the gods. Are they chosen (and by whom), or do they choose, or are they hereditary? Does it depend on their functions (healers, shamans, rainmakers, judges, etc.)? Probably they have some special limitations on their conduct, be it clothing that they must or must not wear, actions they may not perform, times of the year when they must behave specially, etc. All of this is going to seem perfectly ordinary to everyone, as they've seen it all their lives, but at the same time it may be invested with special emotional significance: gravity, fear, excitement, etc.

What do these priests or whatever do publicly? Chances are, sacrifice: pretty much everybody sacrifices, worldwide, usually but not always in blood. What happens to the bodies? Probably they're eaten, but by whom? The priests? the poor? the king? everyone communally? What range of things are sacrificed -- is it just one small set of animals (e.g., domesticated mammals, wild fowl, humans) or is it pretty general? Does it depend on the god to whom the sacrifice is dedicated? Is there any general understanding of or theory about why we should sacrifice? (Note: it doesn't necessarily make the gods happy; it could feed them, or keep them asleep, or keep them bound to us....)

I would now continue by thinking about the sorts of social structures such a system of ritual practices might entail. If there is a large priesthood performing constant sacrifices, as in ancient Jerusalem, you're bound to have a whole economy built around the animals and around ensuring that the priests can keep doing this. If priestly knowledge is held to be reasonably consistent or entwined with knowledge in general, as was sort of the case in ancient Egypt and medieval western Europe, these priests are going to need to run schools and training facilities. If priests are also in charge of healing, they're going to have to have ways to ensure that the sick and wounded have access to them (or the reverse). And if they have to do all these things, there are going to have to be a lot of them and they're going to need to be reasonably well paid or supported by everyone else, because how else can they carry the load on all these jobs? Meanwhile, if everybody has his or her own personal god that is in some sense a manifestation of a reasonably limited set of gods, how are these people clustered, and where do they get their personal gods? Perhaps they go on vision quests or something like that to find their affiliation, or it's passed from father to son, mother to daughter, or perhaps a man gains his first god from his father and a second from his wife's father, at which time he must return his first god to his father....

Keep thinking about the practicalities, about what ordinary people do in ordinary life, and what sort of role these small-scale ordinary sorts of behaviors and rites might play. Big festival gatherings of huge numbers of people can be very expensive, even dangerous, but they probably happen periodically. In whose honor? Why? What happens? Who pays for it? On whose territory does it happen? Is that a prestigious thing?

Eventually you will have a quite complicated and detailed religious system that looks a great deal more like actual religion in the actual world than the overwhelming majority of "fantasy" religions do. You may or may not have gods with specific zones of control; for that matter, you may or may not have gods! There may be no Big Ideas or Important Tenets or anything like that -- there usually aren't, as it happens. But what you will certainly have is a lot of ordinary people doing things that seem somewhat peculiar from our point of view but which seem utterly unremarkable to them. If somebody else from the world comes across the sea and meets them, the new guys are going to have a completely different system, but they'll very rapidly make rough translations, ranging from "ok, so your god Blarg is like our god Yarg, except Yarg drinks snake blood and Blarg apparently just eats fruit and has four heads. Funny old world, eh?" to "ok, so you have disgusting notions like feeding fruit to your four-headed freako thing, instead of giving snake blood to Yarg like decent people." Whatever.

A note on research and modeling

I would advise you to stay away from very close modeling on extant examples unless you know a great deal about them. Most particularly, I advise you to stay away from "fantasy religions" that are essentially mildly retouched versions of Christianity and Islam. If you are going to do research about religion in the real world, I would suggest starting with premodern China, pre-colonial South Asia, and/or any of the many indigenous American cultures. Do note, however, that one reason to choose these examples is because they are riven by huge numbers of very complicated -- and to an outsider, sometimes frankly bizarre -- distinctions that may or may not seem to play a big role in this or that person or group's life. When you encounter something in your reading that tells you what "Hindus" or "the Chinese" or "American Indians" think or feel or believe, in broad-stroke terms, either stop reading or become hyper-skeptical: what you're reading is claiming a generalization that spans culture-groups which don't generalize at all well.


For religious system design and concepts, the bar for scholarly currency can be set somewhat lower than in professional circles. And quite obviously, it should not be necessary to take an advanced degree in religious studies just to achieve your goals. That said, a great deal of the best scholarship is going to be frankly inaccessible, as it is highly technical. A few suggestions:

For clarity, precision, and a kind of mental bolt of lightning, one cannot do better than Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). I advise reading Carol Cosman's wonderful translation available from Oxford University Press, which captures Durkheim's voice and trims out a good deal of material that won't be helpful for most non-scholarly readers. Once you've read Durkheim, your way of thinking about religion will be profoundly altered -- for the better.

For a remarkable (if somewhat dated and problematic) attempt to get at "how religious cultures think," a number of the works of Mircea Eliade remain excellent. I would advise beginning with The Sacred and the Profane, which is accessible and short. One can then follow up with any of his more narrowly-focused books on initiation, yoga, alchemy, shamanism, etc. Personally, I would suggest reading Patterns in Comparative Religion instead: it's a strange book, and long, but you will end up with an amazing sense of just how wildly varied religious expressions actually are. Especially if you are inclined to think negatively about religion, Eliade's take will be a valuable counter.

Those looking for a litany of examples can certainly make use of Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, but be sure to discard any of his theoretical interpretations and formulations (notably chaps. 3-4 and the final chapter), which (as Durkheim will have demonstrated to you) are simply unworkable.

Claude Lévi-Strauss's The Savage Mind, despite the execrable translation and the unquestionable difficulty and density of working one's way through it, is to my mind the single best attempt to think one's way into what traditional religious societies actually think like. But it's a stunningly hard book, and I don't advise you to read it until you've already read Durkheim at the very least.

I do not recommend Joseph Campbell, despite his undoubted popularity, intelligence, and charming prose. He is in essence proposing Eliade's view as a normative theology for the mid-late 20th century, not interpreting the data as he finds it.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that, per SE norms, I am answering my own question. My hope is to clear away a fair bit of confusion and misconception so that future questions about religious phenomena with respect to worldbuilding can be formulated precisely and narrowly. I am happy to assist, comment, or clarify anything I've said here: I've been working on these questions professionally for nearly 25 years, including grad school, so this is kind of my bread and butter -- particularly as a college teacher. $\endgroup$
    – CAgrippa
    Oct 2 '14 at 3:30
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    $\begingroup$ Oh gods, thank you for this. I can see myself linking to this answer a lot, and not just on this SE. $\endgroup$
    – octern
    Oct 2 '14 at 4:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Euphoric: there is no agreement as to a definition of religion, and most have just given up on the question as incoherent. But this is not to say that there aren't some generally agreed-upon points. One unfortunate result is that most of the accepted points tend to be negative or proscriptive: religion is NOT reducible to X, is NOT... and so forth. But when it comes to saying what religion IS, we tend to get rather shifty and red-faced and start changing the subject. Hope that helps. $\endgroup$
    – CAgrippa
    Oct 2 '14 at 5:58
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    $\begingroup$ I registered just so I could give you an upvote $\endgroup$
    – Dunno
    Oct 2 '14 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ "The "war between science and religion" is a 19th-century invention, principally American; there is no intrinsic conflict" I beg to differ. With religion forcing conformaty and punishing "heritics", enquirey is stifled. For an older example look how Islam went from being the most scientific, to being the least when policy was changed to make math something to avoid. That shows that religion doesn't necessarily conflict with science, but is has at other times and places then you admit. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Dec 13 '14 at 7:06

A good religion must help society to live. This means

  • If the majority of people accept the religion, this should make the society stronger, not weaker (Kant's categorical imperative). Otherwise the society will counteract (like against some guild of thieves), eventually eliminating the most of followers and propagators of the religion one or another way. It is not uncommon for the followers to go away and try in isolation (like Amish). Still, at least such isolated colony must succeed and not turn into self destruction like Heavens Gate.
  • It should also more or less help for a single individual to live as well, regardless of one's wealth and talents. It is easy to define a religion where sense of life it to sing, or to fly airplanes, or to make business. A good religion should also help someone who is not talented enough to be an artist, cannot afford to become a pilot and is lacking starting capital for a private business. If the religion only works inside some elite group, only that elite group would ultimately accept it.

There are these two features that make existing religions "real", and not some ever observed magical events. Your fictional religion should also probably be aligned towards these lines as well, the more the better.

  • $\begingroup$ Actually that's not true, you can make a compelling argument for religion being parasitic instead of symbiotic. Parasites don't have to be beneficial to their hosts, they just need to not harm the hosts so badly it prevents the parasite spreading. (For example celibate priests do not create children - but they do spread the religion to more non-celibate followers than they would just by having children and indoctrinating them). $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Oct 2 '14 at 11:23
  • $\begingroup$ Normally parasites evolve from being harmful to harmless and from harmless to symbiotic. Non-compliant religions like Heavens Gate or maybe something less extreme yet useless, may exist for a limited time. $\endgroup$
    – eigenvalue
    Oct 2 '14 at 11:27
  • $\begingroup$ That's a massive generalization and incorrect in many cases. For example Anthrax and Toxoplasmosis both deliberately kill their host in at least one part of their life cycle. Flu doesn't try to kill the host but it makes them cough and sneeze as much as they can for as long as they can in order to spread as much as possible...and it doesn't really care if the host dies so long as most hosts survive. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Oct 2 '14 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ In principle, religious phenomena as they actually exist in the real world are, and thus should doesn't apply. A normative argument about what religion should do or be like is counterfactual. If we said, "a government should be based on the will of the people," that's a statement of opinion, not a description of all governments in all places and times. $\endgroup$
    – CAgrippa
    Oct 2 '14 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ Some ancient religions included the sacrifice of humans; for those humans that got sacrificed, it certainly did not help living well (or living at all). $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Oct 2 '14 at 16:01

Religion is a substitute for the inability of humans to understand the complex world around them. If in the early times lightning strikes one's home, people are afraid as of the incredible destructive power. They want to know why this happened and how it can be prevented, essentially how they can gain back control. As they lack the understanding of the physics behind it, they just come up with an explanation, preferably one that the common folk can understand.

Such a religion must promise that chaotic events can be controlled by the individual through certain tasks, that he/she is easily capable of, and must come with a believable explanation for failure, effectively explaining everything based on actions taken (or not taken) by the believer.

Gods are a very common type of religion, as their behavior is easy to understand (they behave about the same as the believer), it is equally easy to grasp that their moods can be influenced by finding the proper type of worshiping, and failures can be explained equally easy by defining that the specific god was not satisfied, because the believer did not invest enough time/money/resources in properly worshiping.

A different approach is the "it is not about you" concept often found in Nature-centric believe systems, combined with the idea that the believer is in some way superior. Thunder is the way Nature expresses anger, but not against the believer but against something or someone else. Calming Nature by remove the source of that anger, allows the believer to influence Nature and in that way utilizing a part of the divine power that is all around him.

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    $\begingroup$ "Religion is a substitute for the inability of humans to understand the complex world around them." Sometimes, and yes, especially in the past, but in today's increasing understanding of phenomena religion still persists, tackling this statement to the ground. In other words, your premise has a serious flaw. $\endgroup$
    – frеdsbend
    Oct 2 '14 at 17:26
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    $\begingroup$ I think it is not a coincident that the further the European society advanced, the more people left the church. But then not everybody has the same view of the world, and especially not the same understanding. $\endgroup$
    – TwoThe
    Oct 2 '14 at 17:49
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    $\begingroup$ @TwoThe: this is an old theory, usually associated with Sir James Frazer and E.B. Tylor around the turn of the 20th century. It has been solidly refuted. To take a very simple example, the 20th century and onward has seen an enormous upsurge in religious adherence and expression, something every major scholar around 1900 predicted could not happen. Religion (or magic) as substitute for scientific (or accurate, etc.) knowledge doesn't hold up, too, because (as B. Malinowski showed) "primitive" people have accurate knowledge and do not confuse it with the effects of spells or prayers. $\endgroup$
    – CAgrippa
    Oct 2 '14 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ @CAgrippa I'm not sure if that follows. People can have knowledge that improves their outcomes in aggregate, and yet still feel at the mercy of chance. Isn't it pretty common for traditional religion / folk magic to concern itself with things like illness and fertility? In modern, Western Christianity, people understand what cancer is and how it functions biologically -- but many people will still talk about miracles or a divine plan when explaining why one person died while another got better. That doesn't mean religion exists to explain those phenomena, but people certainly use it. $\endgroup$
    – octern
    Oct 2 '14 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterMasiar Vulcans also don't have consistent writing. Purely logical psychology is completely impossible for humans and most likely impossible even for aliens or AI. The same powerful pattern-matching engines that grant us our incredible intelligence and visual acuity must lead to some degree of pareidolia and irrationality - by cutting off the ability and desire to manipulate concepts and patterns that aren't there, you also cut off the ability to recognise subtle patterns that are there. $\endgroup$
    – Leushenko
    Dec 23 '14 at 22:27

I do appreciate the questioner because of thought. Only people who think about others will ask this question. As somebody answered before , we have to separate God and relegion.

Religion as it seems today is a cumulation of practices, which may or may not involve belief in God. The practices conatins things like "how we have to behave with others" , "how do we conduct our own daily routine" etc.

When we take up the question of freedom, every individual in this world is a free person. When people act freely on their own will conflicts can occur between two individuals. So there should be rules to solve the problem that might occur. Now the question popsup as to who will make the rules. The person or group should definitely have knowledge on lot of things to make rules because the worldly systems are complicated. The psyche of a person is a very complicated system which is very evident if you notice different conflicting theories in psychology.

Here comes the question , how these systems are evolved and how the universe itself is created. Is there any power behind this or everything came to existence accidentally. If a power created the universe and all systems within , definitely that power is the Super intelligent and has enough knowledge to formulate the code for human behavior.

Search on these lines and you will definitely come to a very good conclusion. if anybody wants to discuss any thing further personally with me , my email is domangiano@gmail.com

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    $\begingroup$ You might want to use better punctuation, and clean up the post a little, as well as removing your e-mail. You don't know who will get hold of it if you post it online like that. The first couple of lines are a little weird but ok. I actually like how you answered this question, it isn't a very good question. But unfortunately it doesn't actually answer the question. It answers part of it, but not all of it and so is not very helpful. Trying expanding it to answer all of the question. Then again this question is too broad, so you may decide it isn't worth your time to answer everything. $\endgroup$
    – DonyorM
    Oct 2 '14 at 9:10
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding and StackExchange in general :-) We look forward to seeing you around the site $\endgroup$
    – Mourdos
    Oct 2 '14 at 15:09

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