I want to talk a little bit about religion. As big as this subject is, I’m sure I’ll come back to it several more times, but for now I want to look at how religion can impact the rest of the world. Don’t worry, I won’t be going into any real religions, let’s keep away from those, but religion can have a lot more impact to your world than you might think.
It’s important to remember that everything interacts with each other when creating a culture. The kinds of religions you create, how important that religion is to the populace, the methods it’s used by the governing class, all of that will influence your world in far more ways than simply how the characters worship their god or gods.
To start with, there are two major questions you need to answer when determining how religion interacts with the rest of your world and characters. There are plenty more beside this, but these are a good place to start thinking about it.
Do you have one god or multiple gods? If multiple, how many? Do you have ten or a hundred?
How important is this religion to your society? Is it casual to or demanding of your characters? Will it be mentioned in passing or a continual presence throughout the story?
Those two things will determine a lot and give you a reference as your build your world. Knowing how many gods you have tells you more than who your characters pray to. Art, literature, architecture, song, dance, community, all these things can be affected by how many gods you have.
If your world is monotheist, will all your temples or churches have a similar, familiar appearance and atmosphere? If your world is polytheist, do the temples or churches reflect each god’s personality? Is there a hierarchy that means the bigger gods would have more elaborate temples and smaller gods more humble places of worship? Are gods common fixtures on non-religious buildings?
Religion has always been a major source of inspiration for artists and storytellers. Whether it is the creation story being made into plays, or pottery and tapestries and paintings of important figures from religious mythology, no matter what time in history or what religion, you can always find these images as a part of their culture. Not only can including these details flesh out your world, but it can increase the value of objects and become a way to describe a character’s wealth or influence. If you’re working in a visual medium, it can also help to create a sense of continuity through the use of symbols or reoccurring imagery.
Song and dance are commonly used in religions, and those religious influences do not remain contained to a church service or religious festival. Think about Christmas carols. Some are secular about Santa or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but just as many commonly played in public places are specifically religious (“Oh Holy Night,” “Little Drummer Boy”).
Religious aspects, even in a casually religious society, seeps into all manner of life choices and events that your characters may need to deal with. Your characters could take shelter in an abandoned temple, watched by the haunting, half-broken gods forever standing sentinel over an empty hall. Or your thief could enter an extravagant mansion in search of a golden chalice engraved with the story of your god reaching down to craft the first person from the red clay ground.
Of course, how important that chalice is or how ruined that temple would be depends on the second question: how vital to your society is this religion(s)? A casual or personal religion may be nothing more than background to the world or important only to a single character, which could give them more depth. On the other spectrum, religion could define every part of a society’s life from government to daily rituals, and how your characters react to that can be just as important.
So what are some ways religion can determine society?
Government: Your society might be ruled as a theocracy, with the religious leaders acting as the governing body, or perhaps those in power simply use religion as a means of guiding/controlling the populace. Perhaps religion and government are considered incompatible. All these choices will create vastly different worlds and laws and interactions.
Rituals and Holidays: Everything from daily rituals such as prayer before meal or at certain times of day, giving offering to gods, symbolic motions (making the sign of the cross), to major holidays and festivals are often based in religious institutions. Having these can also make your world feel more real with a history and culture of its own.
Allies and Enemies: Sadly, this one is easily understood by most people. Religion can bring large groups of people together, or tear multiple groups apart. This can determine how people view/interact with your characters or vice versa. Such allegiances can also be the cause of major world events or historical actions your characters may participate in or at lease know of.
So whether your world’s religion(s) is important to the story or not, having an understanding of the religion can make your world feel solid and relatable, and that’s always a good thing.