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World Building Wednesdays: Religion



Tweet of the Day: Episode 20 – Stuff Teenagers Read (Past Tense)


Religion permeates all parts of human endeavor, so an author would be remiss if they didn’t include it as part of their world building. Since this is a complex subject, I’ll start with the broad strokes first and then dive in further in future posts. Different genres use religion in different ways.  For example, many fantasy stories take the Dungeons & Dragons approach to religion: a polytheistic religion with deities that cover a limited set of aspects. You can have a deity of knighthood and just warfare, another of ingenuity and crafts, and of course your deities of death and destruction. Each deity serves to define different aspects of the setting and more deities can be added as needed by the plot. Since many fantasy sub-genres thrive on magic, count on deities to be real, active and brimming with power, only limited by their areas of expertise and the power of other deities.

Contemporary stories, be they horror or urban fantasy or near future cyberpunk, organized religion takes center place:the power plays of cardinals, the deceit of cult leaders, the untold riches donated by thousands of church goers. Here religion tends to play an adversarial role either as obstructive bureaucrats, or as a gang of dangerous fanatics.  Often the question arises if the power behind the religion is supernatural or truly divine. You may even have philosophical movements and political ideologies fill in for old time religions.

In science fiction (outside of science fantasy) religion serves as a cultural artifact, i.e., one that defines a culture or species. It maybe the reason for certain taboos, laws, ritual behavior, and even styles of clothing. Even the lack of religion can be used as a defining cultural trait, perhaps one where the members of the species have evolved beyond “such superstitions”.

Of course authors often mix and match. You could have a conquering alien fleet driven by a physical god that demands constant sacrifice or an ancient tradition of agnostic looking for the true meaning of life.




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