Fantasy Religions: Divinity and the World

It’s been a while since I last wrote about ways of making religious elements of a secondary world feel more authentic, but here’s another thought worth considering when you’re writing: how people feel about the gods tends to reflect how they feel about the world.

Traditional religions tend to see the world differently and posit that divinity exists within the world, that the physical world around us and the social world we inhabit as humans is also inhabited by sacred forces. Interacting with the world means necessarily interacting with divine entities. Some modern religions preserve this view of the divine, notably Hinduism and Shinto. In traditions like these, divine forces are located within the world, whether they are gods associated with natural features such as mountaintops or rivers, or divinities connected to human relationships, such as blessed ancestors or household spirits.

For many of the major modern religions, by contrast, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and some versions of Judaism, the divine exists outside the world. The physical world we live in and the social world we inhabit as human beings is a barrier between ourselves and divinity, and the function of religion is to help us transcend that barrier. Attachments to worldly goods or to social relationships are seen as impediments that must be resisted or shed in order to achieve harmony with the divine.

This distinction is not an absolute one. Traditional religions can also understand divine forces as abstractions or seek ways of achieving a closer communion with the divine through asceticism, and modern religions can see sacredness connected to specific places and people. Still, one of the defining characteristics of any religious tradition is whether it encourages people to seek harmony with the divine by inhabiting the ordinary world in meaningful ways or by escaping from its distractions and temptations.

The point for writers is not that one or the other of these religious approaches is right or wrong for an imagined world, but that each one responds to the needs of societies under different circumstances. People are inclined to see the divine in the world around them when they feel at home in that world. Well-established cultures with a strong sense of identity and long history moored in place are likely to see the world itself as sacred. Shinto in Japan and Hinduism in India both arise out of this kind of long history. Religions that see the world as a barrier to be overcome tend to arise in times when people are unsettled and feel powerless within the world they live in. Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam all arose among peoples who lived with chaos, violence, and a lack of control over their own destinies, while Judaism has been deeply shaped by a history of diaspora and oppression.

What kind of religions exist in your invented worlds depend on what the people in them have experienced. If your characters feel connected to and safe within the world they inhabit, they are likely to perceive divine forces all around them; if their world feels dangerous and alien, they are likely to feel equally alienated from the divine.

Other entries in Fantasy Religions:

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.