Religion: Matters of Faith & Doubt in Speculative Fiction

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Warning: Massive Post Ahead. Proceed with caution (aka: after you’ve caffeinated for the day).

R is for Religion...
R is for Religion…

I’ll be honest – I could write an entire series on this topic alone, and I may do so after the A-Z Challenge is finished. I’m going to do my absolute best here to keep this somewhat brief, but this is an intricate topic, whether you’re discussing it in fiction or in reality. 

You are not going to need to know all of the answers to these questions if religion doesn’t play a major role in your plot. At the very least, glance through this, and make note of things that pop into your thoughts as you do so.

Be aware what religions are present in your world, and how they interact with each other and society. But you don’t need to know everything.

Why is religion important?

Unless you are dealing with characters, peoples, and civilizations vastly different from our own – I would almost argue that if they are that different, readers are not going to be able to relate to them – it will be nearly impossible for religion not to exist.

Culture and religion are deeply tangled together. Look at Jewish culture, Islamic culture, Hindu culture… and numerous (countless) other religions and cultures around the world.

When someone is sincere in their beliefs, no matter what the religion is, it affects an infinite number of things. It changes the way a person thinks about the past, the present, and the future. It changes how they react to circumstances. And, most importantly, it changes how they react to the thought of death.

Morals and ethics (whether their presence or absence) usually spawns from religious belief as well.

So, let’s get started on the meat of this…

Cult or Religion?

Is the belief system a cult, or a religion?

What are the differences?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell – both will demand that someone does something against their better judgment, at times. Both may require you to give up something you don’t want to.

The deciding factor between whether it is a religion or a cult is the motives of those in charge. So look deeply at those.

Both religions and cults serve their purposes for a plot, just make sure you are aware of the difference between the two as you build.

History of Religion
  • What religions are so old no one remembers how they began?

Superstitions usually evolve out of these types of religions. Someone may wear a talisman or cast a charm because they saw their grandmother do it, who in turn saw her grandmother do it, and while the practice remains, the root of it has been forgotten.

  • What religions are new?

‘New’ is a relative term, but usually it is either a religion that is currently being formed, or it is something where people are still living who witnessed its birth.

If you’ve played with the history and timeline of your world some already, you may be able to look it over and see which religions are newer in the case of time. For example: while Christianity is definitely not a ‘new’ religion on the scene in today’s world, compared to the age of Judaism or Hinduism, it’s just a baby.

The age of a religion does not have limits on its impact within a society.

  • What is the greatest good each religion has done in your world?

  • What is the greatest evil?

Religious Practices
  • What are the major tenets of each religion?

Some examples would be:

The Sh’ma Yisrael is one of the major tenets of Judaism. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

The Nicene Creed is still used by almost all Christian churches and denominations as their basic statement of faith.

The Five Pillars of Islam.

  • What differentiates them from each other?

This can be as simple or as complicated as you like – just look at all the different religions and their differences that exist in our world. Find some inspiration there! 😉

  • How do they clash with each other?

Once again, anything is possible here.

  • How do they agree?

Giving to the poor is a trait that is encouraged in nearly every religion, for example.

  • What does each religion promise?

Eternal life, eternal… nothingness? Reincarnation? Wealth? Health? Peace?

  • What does each religion demand?

Those promises a religion makes? What is expected in return? It’s okay to say ‘nothing’ – but it’s a question you need to take into consideration.

Religion in Society

Religion can, at times, affect a society more rapidly than politics can. Religion is written into someone’s very soul, in a sense, and politics change as quickly as the wind.

Politics can be shoved aside, depending on the situation. Religion is a way of life, so it’s important to take a look at how it affects your characters every day.

Look at major milestones in life, and ask how religion is involved.

  • Birth
  • Coming of Age
  • Marriage
  • Children
  • Grief
  • Death

Are there any rituals for these occasions?

Are there any daily rituals?

How does the local economy make a profit from religion?

  • Selling talismans.
  • Selling idols.
  • Selling blessings/curses/spells.

How much control does the local, prominent religion have over social matters?

Let the People Say Amen…

Religion can be as complicated or as simple as you want to make it. It can drastically change a person’s lifestyle – and life goals – or it can be something as simple as praying at a shrine once a day.

Religion can cause rifts in families, rifts in countries, and it has even been known to cause wars.

So have fun, and wreak havoc! And, you know, spread some peace… maybe.

Original photo used in header image is by AtomicJeep. The image has been cropped.

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About Rebekah

Rebekah Loper writes character-driven epic fantasy featuring resilient women in trying and impossible circumstances who just want to save themselves but usually end up saving the world, often while falling in love.
She lives in Tulsa, OK with her husband, dog, two formerly feral cats, a small flock of feathered dragons (...chickens. They're chickens), and an extensive tea collection. When she's not writing, she battles the Oklahoma elements in an effort to create a productive, permaculture urban homestead.