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Article - 'Fantasy Religions' by Xanqui

An item about Plots/Characters posted on Nov 22, 2004


Tired of the same old religions? Want to try something new? This will guide you through several different steps towards creating a religion that is beyond just a God and worshippers.


Note: If you are offended by anything in this article, please know that this is intended to spark creative ideas, not change anyone's views. None of the ideas in here are intended to contradict your belief. In my articles, sparking creativity is far more important to me than making sure that I don't offend anyone.

The common belief for many storytellers is that, even on strange worlds, religion will basically be the same thing: there is a higher being of some sort out there that has a major influence on society and individuals. Or there could be many higher beings. It doesn't matter either way though, because it's always the same basic principle. However, religion can be more than just that. This is a guide to other forms of religion that you might not have considered yet, but if your story focuses around a war, you may want to include religion, and you may want to try something new.

Let's begin with the basic principles, and we'll build off from there. It's important to have a grasp on where religion comes from before you go off and start creating your own.

How a Religion is Born
First, we'll begin with the setting. In this case, we'll use the one place in which all of us are familiar: Earth. Way back in the day, when dinosaurs just died out, and people were roaming the world, cavemen were forced to kill animals in order to survive. Everything was about survival. Religion wasn't important to them. But people had a higher ability to think than animals, and they came to realize this.

All these cavemen are killing these animals, and they start to find an interest in them. Whenever they kill one, they feel a huge rush, which we now know is adrenaline. But they thought it was something else. Perhaps the spirits of the animals passed through them and became one with them. Or maybe they went someplace else, and passed through their hunter on the way there.

As humans grew more intelligent, religion became more complex. People came to realize the unbelievable things in life, like lightning or fire. Something had to be creating this. It was something powerful, too. From there, you can probably see how we ended up with Greek and Roman mythology, or whatever religion exists. The deaths of animals, lightning, earthquakes, all of those are symbols that represent one religion or another.

It only makes sense why we would believe that the heavens must be beyond the skies. But what if there was no lightning? What would happen if the species in your story only ate plants? If you have a story, I want you to stop reading this for a moment and consider all of the things about the society in your story. What makes them tick? Do men have an advantage over women? Is there a difference between men and women?

By this point in the article, I am assuming that you have thought about the previous paragraph, so I'll move on. If you haven't written a story, or even begun planning one, even better. You can use this as a guide for starting your religion. ...In the story, of course.

What is is that makes us believe that there must be a higher being? It's simple: safety. As long as we feel safe and secure, then we know that the god is on our side. It's protecting us. If we were born safe and lived forever in eternal bliss, what use would we have in a god? We would never know harm. We would never know pain or suffering. There would be no war, and everyone would be eternally happy.

The Utopian Gods
In a utopia, there is no need for religion. Read any story that takes place in the future in an oppressed society. The closest thing to religion in Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is the belief that Henry Ford was the founder of society. But they believed that because he sparked a revolution in the automobile industry and created assembly lines: the basis to the structure of the world. Without assembly lines, there would be chaos in that story. In fact, people are created through assembly lines. But if you take it down to the bare bones, the reason the people believed Ford was god was because they felt safe in their oppressed society.

I believe that Aldous Huxley is a genius, and if you've not read it, READ BRAVE NEW WORLD. It's not a boring story at all, and considering the date it was written, it's creepy how realistic it is. I guarantee you that you will enjoy the book.

Vegan Religion
Now let's look at a vegan society. They don't eat animals, so they never had the exhilaration of killing one. This would be a society in which people have no need for adrenaline. Without that, there would be less war, since people wouldn't be so angry so easily. Man and animals would live in harmony, and the animals may evolve to be as intelligent as humans. But that's going way off topic. (If you haven't played it, I highly recommend playing The Sandbox of God, which can be downloaded here in GW).

Where would religion come into play in a vegan society? Perhaps the discovery that different plants have different effects when consumed would spark something. People may believe that they are magic, and would proceed to believe in the healing powers. Hey, isn't that a bit familiar with us? Yes and no. The people feel safe with animals, but maybe some plants cause people to die when they eat them. Obviously there must be a contrast between these plants, creating a sort of good and evil. Maybe some plants even cause people to go insane and on killing sprees.

Now there is fear. But there are plants that cause people to lose their fear (drugs), and so people believe that the plants represent a God versus Satan sort of thing.

Now it's time to take this article in a whole new direction, the direction in which the first paragraph of this article stated. What would religion be without a higher being? In the vegan society, there wasn't any sort of higher being. There was only the plants. But let's look at the human brain. It's a fascinating thing. It uses impulses and chemicals to tell our bodies what to do. But what controls the brain? Is it a soul? If it is a soul, where does it go when the body dies? What if it doesn't go to heaven, but just stays where it was, only in another dimension?

Reincarnation is a fascinating theory. There are so many beliefs that surround it that it's hard to tell which one is more plausible. My theory is that, if it does exist, people are given a list of things to do over a period of time, say ten thousand years. When they die, they come back, and continue to complete the list. Everything is does subconsciously though, and you don't know that you're completing this list.

The other theory is that everyone is reborn into a new personality. So in one life, a soul is a housewife, and in the next, it's President of the United States. The idea is to gain an infinite amount of experience and something happens afterwards I guess. I don't fully understand it.

Anyway, there has to be a reason for believing in reincarnation. Let's take the eyes of a newborn baby. I hear many a story in which parents look into the eyes of their child, and without knowing exactly why, just know that that their son is years ahead of them. But how can this be? They're only babies. However, if they've experienced things over the course of dozens of past lives, and the parents have only experienced a few lives, then this might explain it.

Let's compare a homeless man on the street to someone who leads nations into an unforgettable reign. The homeless man is experiencing his first life, so he's got nothing to help him out. He's inexperienced, poor, and his first life just plain sucks. He dies off. The next life, he's now got a better shot, but he ends up being a grocery store clerk most of his life, and then dies. In his third life, he makes it through middle school, but drops out and become the manager of a fast food joint. As he builds up experience with each life, he improves the next time around. Eventually, he has experienced everything, and is going to achieve his absolute destiny, which will change the course of the future forever. That homeless man and the powerful leader are the same person, only in different lives.

Reincarnation can be a fascinating concept for your plot. It can be used as a second chance. Or it can be used to explain why some kid manages to save the world.

But in order for reincarnation to be believed by people is by some sort of hint. Maybe early on in society, some guy experiences deja vu. Or maybe many people experience it. They have dreams of things they never did, or have strange pains that they can't explain. Maybe a child is born without a foot, so people believe that it was cut off in his last life.

The Undeniable God
Most religions are based on faith. Faith relies on the ability to question whether something exists or not. But religions don't necessarily need faith in a story. What if people knew that these gods existed, and they could be seen at any time during the day?

Perhaps a world could exist in which a powerful race leads a less powerful race. This advanced species demands that the people worship them, but if the people pray to them, they can received immediate feedback.

But here's a different direction: what if the gods left undeniable traces of their existence? Maybe they left behind massive structures or statues that people recognize as symbols for the gods. This could lead to some serious twists in a plot if it turned out that the structures had actually been left behind by a former species that had died out because of war or something.

Structures like Stonehenge and the Pyramids mystify the world today, but we brush theories that it could have been left behind by aliens or something away. We've already established our beliefs, so no one really takes these theories seriously and is acknowledged for it. All it does is raise questions, but many fear to give answers because they worry that they may sound ridiculous.

The Planet is Our God
The theory of Gaia comes from the Goddess of Earth, so if your story doesn't take place on Earth, you may want to avoid using the term "Gaism." This is the belief that the world itself has a soul and that it serves as a god. There are many variations of this theory, but the main one is that deep in the core of the world exists a spirit that breathes, giving life to the world on its surface.

But this can range to many other ideas. Trees, clouds, or even mountains could possess these spirits. Just imagine what would happen if people believed strongly that trees had minds of their own, and were what guided religious people, and companies started cutting them down because wood was a useful tool. It would be a story of an epic religious war full of twist potential.

Unfortunately, this sort of religion is scoffed at by most people. A lot of people just HATE it. Look at Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. People don't like this sort of thing because it's been proved false by science. But that doesn't mean that it's been proved false in the world that you've created.

We Choose Our God
What would happen in a totalitarian world when it comes to religion? Obviously, religion would be much different. Leaders would want to immortalize themselves before they died, so they would convince people to believe that they will become their gods when they die. Back in the Roman day, this was something that many leaders desired. Upon their death, if they have enough people pray and give money to the church, then the leader becomes one of many gods.

You could take this a step further though. Perhaps people could elect their leaders, and if they're good enough, then the people would elect them once again to become the next god. There could be some awesome assassinations stories with something like that.

Society and peace would not exist without religion. We are not born with all the tools to make our lives happy. Without religion, there would have been no hope for some people whose lives were ruined in the Dark Ages. Religion is what brought this world back on its feet. As long as people have hope, they have a chance to survive.

Religion can be a very powerful tool in your story, and it's perfectly fine if you want to stick to the old formula of a single god leading all of us. Religion and society go hand in hand. As society develops technology, religion becomes more obsolete. But when we've created so much technology that religion ceases to exist, there will be a massive downfall, and our only hope will be to look to the skies for help. History repeats itself, and this has happened before, only on a smaller scale.

We will never completely understand our universe, and in order to fill in the holes of the unexplained, we believe in a supernatural force. How did the universe come to exist? A scientist will tell you that the big bang created it. How did that happen? He will tell you that the universe was once a tiny ball, but the heat inside of it caused it to expand. Where did that ball come from? Could it be nothingness? But how does something come from nothing, let alone all the tools necessary to create life and allow it to become advanced enough to create technology that would be used to discover how it all works out in the first place?

Do your characters question these things? Their questions may lead you towards what they truly believe in. Even if you don't believe in it, let your characters try. There's more to them than you might think.