The importance of Religion in worldbuilding
When it comes to worldbuilding, one of the most important parts of your society that you will need to define, is what does their religion look like? Is it a religion of peace that discourages any level of violence, no matter how small. Or is it a warriors religion that encourages violence and death? Is this religion only practiced by a single race, or is it embraced by all the races in your world? Today we are going to take a look at some of the basic questions that you as the storyteller should ask yourself (before your audience does) about the importance of Religion in worldbuilding in your world.
First, what is the truth?
Unless your society is made up of a single mind and everyone else is a drone, with a hive mentality and being completely controlled by the central mind, then there will be disagreements within your society of what the truth is. Fortunately for you, as the author you are the final arbiter of what is or is not the truth. You may never reveal the truth to your audience, and leave them wondering or determining that for themselves, but you will need to know it for yourself so that you can answer your own questions.
There may not even be anyone in your world that knows the entire truth, but perhaps some of them have a fraction of it, or a twisted reality of the truth, that they believe to be the truth. You can see many example of this even in the religions of our own world. Many real world religions have similarities within them that can be recognized, such as the story of the world wide flood. Over two hundred different religions or societies in our world have an account of a flood sent by God to punish man. Although there are variations to this story in different groups, it makes it clear that there is some grain of truth shared amongst them all.
One God, Two God’s, many God’s, No Gods?
How many gods do your people worship? Note that as mentioned in the previous point, this doesn’t have to be the true number of gods. Perhaps your god has a many faceted personality and shows different sides of it to different people at different times, so that they believe in a plurality of gods, or at least conflicting versions of who that one god is. The number of gods worshipped by your society will play a large role in shaping the rest of society.
Are all of the gods equal in their deserving to be worshipped? Are they patrons of particular pursuits or careers? Does each god have their own temple, priests, and followers in each city? Or is their only one temple allowed per city? Are the gods jealous of each others worshippers? Or are people allowed to worship multiple gods depending on what they need that day? Or perhaps your people do not worship a god at all, but instead follow an ideal or principle whole heartedly.
What is the purpose of your religion?
Why does your god demand, or seek worship? This is not necessarily why the people worship, although it can be related, but instead we are trying to determine why the reason for worshipers is required in the first place. This can be as simple as your gods ego demands that they have more followers than the rest of the gods. Or it can be something much more complex, like the gods actually trying to better the lives of their followers and show them a better way to live, so that they can reach a state of enlightenment and become gods themselves, to assist your original gods in their fight against some other entity.
Are your people merely pawns of the gods, being used in an epic chess match of the heavens? Or are they truly the children of the gods, who are being cared for and shepherded along? Or perhaps your religion is entirely a fraud, and it’s only purpose is to line the coffers of those leading it.
Why do your people follow this religion?
As mentioned in the previous post, your peoples reason for following the religion is not necessarily the same as the reason that your god or religious leaders had for instituting it. One of the most common reason for people to follow a religion, is that it gives them some sort of peace or comfort. Normally this is in return for something from the people, through sacrifices and offerings to their gods. Obviously, if the people feel like they are getting nothing in return for their sacrifices, then they will cease to follow this religion.
This makes promises of the afterlife especially appealing for religions, as no one can reliably dispute their value provided to their followers. But perhaps your religion has much more visual benefits, such as miracles and blessings bestowed upon it’s followers. Maybe your religion offers something as simple as peace and happiness here on earth during this life. What ever it is, you will need to determine what it is that your people receive in return for following their religion. This does not need to be the same for every individual though. Some may follow simply because it is the socially acceptable thing to do, with no real belief behind their actions.
Cult vs. Religion in worldbuilding
Although they are often associated and only divided by the fanaticism of their followers in many eyes, cults and religions are two distinct entities. That being said, it is quite possible for a religion to transform into a cult, or vise versa. Some of the main distinctions to note when you are adding a religion (or cult) in your world include the following.
Who is being followed? A religion follows and worships a god, or other higher power, while a cult follows a single leader (who may claim to speak for a god).
How are questions handled? A cult allows no questioning of authority, and any doubts are cleansed through discipline. A religion on the other hand encourages questioning, and doubts, as it is believed that the religion holds all of the answers and those who study it deeper to find the answers that they are seeking for will become even more devoted followers.
How are outsiders viewed? A religion views outsiders as potential converts who should be exposed to the faith and convinced of the worthiness of the religion. A cult, on the other hand, views outsiders with distrust and are always suspected of trying to subvert the cults authority over it’s followers.
Another distinction to note between the two is how individuals are treated. In a cult, no individuality is allowed (note that they are often depicted as all being dressed alike for example), and the individuals are expected to contribute to the welfare of the cult. A religion on the other hand often embraces individuality, and realizes that each person has their own strengths and weakness to contribute to the religion. The individual followers are not required to support the religion, but instead the religion will try to help the individuals.
A final word of caution
As a word of caution, when you are creating a religion for your world, you may want to avoid coping to closely any actual religions. This is due to the fact that many people tie their identity strongly to their religion, and are defined by the religion that they follow. And insult, however minor or unintended, that you offer to their religion in your story has the potential to personally and deeply offend them. Unless you are familiar enough with that particular religion to make sure that you accurately and fairly represent it in your story, then I would recommend creating your own from scratch, and making sure that it is distinctly your own.