I could go on about religion and spirituality for ages. Really, I could. I find it one of the most fascinating parts of human society, and it’s ridiculously interesting to me to study how and why religions formed. So when I’m doing it for my own story, it’s even more fun. You have a lot of degrees of freedom when you create religions (or spiritualities) for your storyworld, and religion can often be a major factor in your plot (or a subplot).
First of all, I should probably clarify what religion and spirituality are. They are different things, although they can be combined.
Spirituality is as follows: a private, personal path to either enlightenment, ultimate reality, or inner peace. It can involve things like prayer, private contemplation, incorporation of various aspects of religion, and meditation. The goal is to have a more rich and fulfilling inner life.
Religion is as follows: A set of beliefs, practices, and routines practiced by either a solitary person or a group of people to relate humanity to spirituality. Religion is not necessarily private, but spirituality is. Religion also tends to be more organized in a lot of cases, and often preaches about moral values. Religions can have sacred ceremonies or texts.
Hopefully, those are loose definitions that clarify the difference a little bit. You can have both spirituality and religion in your life (or story)! For instance, if you follow Christian practices, the practices and the traditions of Christianity could be your religion, and the inner fulfillment you get from performing those practices is your spirituality. I’ll explain how you can weave either religion, spirituality, or both into your story.
If you’re writing something where there is a lot of introspection but you don’t necessarily want to write about religion, spirituality can still work for that. Spirituality doesn’t necessarily have to do with a higher power, either. It can be your character slowly discovering who they are, or what they think is right. Focusing on that can help a lot when it comes to making dynamic characters. You could also have it happen in reverse - a character loses their sense of self, their faith in humanity (or society), or their moral compass.
Religion, on the other hand, has more far-reaching aspects than just affecting one character (although a character affected by a change in spirituality can certainly affect other characters). Here are some things to consider when involving religion in your storyworld:
- How many religions are there? Just one, or many? How are they distributed?
- How does the public view religion? Is it popular? Is it a bad thing not to have a religion? Or vice versa? Do people think you’re delusional if you believe? Do they think you’re without morals if you don’t? Do they have different opinions depending on the type of religion?
- What are the ceremonies like in the religion you’re designing? Do they even have any?
- Is the structure of the religion rigid, or more free-flow?
- Does your religion have a sacred text or other sacred artifact?
- How does your religion treat outsiders? Do they welcome converts with open arms? Do they discriminate against certain types? Do they try to accommodate different people? Or do they turn up their nose at people who are different?
- How diverse is your religion? Does it have a wide variety of people, or only a specific group?
- How do the religions interact in your storyworld, if there are more than one? Do they get along? Do they have an uneasy coexistence? Have there been any religious wars?
- How many gods does your religion focus on, if any? Do they worship something other than gods (this can be a concept, an object, a leader, anything)?
- If your religion worships any number of gods, do these gods actually exist? You can go a lot of ways with this one. The gods could not exist, period. There could also be figures worshipped as gods (such as old leaders) who aren’t actually gods. You could have a leader worshipped as a god as well, and they could be worshipped out of fear or love, or both.
- Does your religion focus on moral values? If so, what moral values does it preach? Do the people of your storyworld agree with these moral values? Are these values actually moral?
- How heavily is religion involved with politics and the government? It’s important, if you have a country, to know whether it’s secular or religious. When religion factors into a rule, it can make a country a lot different than it normally would be.
- How many people subscribe to this religion? Is it popular, or is it a very small religion? Are there sects within the religion? Is there infighting?
- How much control does the religion try to have over people’s lives? What sort of things does it try to govern or control?
- How does your religion treat atheists or those who believe in other religions than itself?
- How did the religion form, and why? In history, most religions have developed to explain things that humans could not explain with science at the time. Religion also gives people answers to questions we have not discovered solid answers to yet. Your religion could have evolved for this reason, or it could have had other origins. It’s all up to you!
- Did your religion take aspects from other, previous religions? If so, which ones? Why? How does it view those previous religions? (For instance, Christianity and other Abrahamic religions took a lot of aspects from pagan religions, but don’t necessarily view pagan religions as right or valid)
- Do people study your religion? Is it something you can take classes in? Are there monks, nuns, or other groups of people devoting their lives completely to that religion? If so, what are they like, and what are their traditions?
- If there’s more than one sentient species in your story, do they have religions too?
- Are there extreme sects in your religion? What do they do that makes them extreme? Do they try to take violent action, or are they just very vocal? Do they do both? Do they try to affect laws and legislation?
- How does the religion in your story affect your main characters personally? Do they try to stay out of it? Is it a main focus in their lives? Is it something prominent in that storyworld that is impossible to ignore, even if they don’t like it? If it’s involved with the government, does it discriminate against them? Has it helped them in the past (i.e. charity efforts of a religion)?
- How important is religion to your plot? Is it just in the background, or is it something that affects your plot quite a bit?
Religion is complicated and very interesting. Hopefully those bullet points will give you a starting point, when you’re brainstorming your world’s religion. Good luck!