How To Create Fictional Structured Religions
Table of Contents
- Work out how big it is.
- Determine who leads it.
- Decide how it all started.
- Figure out what the divine powers are expected to do.
- Determine how adherents relate to the divine powers.
- Determine what the clergy is expected to do.
- Figure out how new clergy is appointed.
- Work out what the laypeople are expected to do.
- Figure out how people are supposed to join.
- Figure out what it looks like at different social stratas and in different places.
- In summary!
Work out how big it is.
A structured religion might cover a large area - EG, a whole country. In such a case, then it would be appropriate for it to have an organizational system similar to that of a large government - IE, 4-5 levels of management. You might have a head whose job is to oversee the entire religion. Beneath that you might have people whose job it is to oversee a fairly large region, such as a governor would oversee a state or province. Beneath that you'd have people whose job is to manage smaller regions (akin to counties), and beneath that, you might have the people who deal with the laity directly.
Structured religions can also cover much smaller areas as well, such as perhaps a small town or a tribe. In this case, you won't have the massive hierarchal system you see in large religions, but rather the whole thing will be run completely locally. Such a religion will most likely have much in common with neighboring religions, though it will probably have at least some beliefs and practices peculiar unto itself.
Determine who leads it.
Thanks to Catholicism, many people are familiar with the concept of a large religion with a single head (in this case, the Pope) overseeing the whole thing. This is one possible way to do things. It's also possible for a religion to be headed by a council. It's also possible for a religion not to have a single head or body of leadership, but be more of a conglomerate group headed by a number of different people.
And then there's the question of how much control the government has over it. Some religions might be fairly well run by the government, with the national and religious head being one and the same. Or it might be that the religion is lead by someone who reports to the government. And it might be that some religions have little to no government intervention, and operate independently, or at least mostly independently. (Though people in government might still try to influence religion, or try and get whatever religious ideas they favor promoted.)
Decide how it all started.
Whether your religion was personally handed down by the divine, developed from human effort, or a bit of both, you should put some thought into how it all came it be.
First, let's go over human-originated structured religion. Religions like these often amount to generations' worth of traditions and teachings that that are curated, maintained, and practiced under the authority of an organization dedicated to such.
Of course, whoever sets about the task of curating their culture's traditions and teachings will likely try to keep whatever they personally agree with and might toss out a lot they strongly disagree with, which may be a good or a bad thing depending on what ultimately makes it. While some people might tend to imagine something this as a sort of mustache-twirling affair where someone decides which traditions are going to be the best for controlling the masses serve them, it's just as plausible for this sort of thing to be an honest (if sometimes misguided or short-sighted) attempt to keep the true and discard the false.
This isn't to say it's absolutely impossible for someone to create a religion with the sole intent of controlling or exploiting the masses, because it certainly is possible. It's just erroneous to assume that this is how all structured religions must originate.
Things also get really difficult if one is trying to create an all-new religious system that supplants an old one (King Akhenaten's failed attempt to force Egypt into monotheism is a good example of this). It also doesn't work well if those trying to force a new religion onto people are perceived as enemies or oppressors. While there have been some cases where this sort of thing has worked, it tends to involve forcing the culture to forget - EG, such as by destroying literature, killing those who could pass on tradition, and placing children into controlled learning environments. (If you do ever intend to go this route, try and bear in mind the logistics that would be required.)
Now, let's move on to divinely-ordinated religions. If this is what you're doing, take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of whatever divine power handed this religion down to mortalkind. What did this divine power hope to accomplish by establishing this religion? What does it get out of it? Why does (or did) it think these rules and ordinances are the way to go, as opposed to anything else? Did this divine power establish rules and ordinances that actually produce the desired results, or were they actually counterproductive in some way? If you notice a discrepancy somewhere, you'll probably want to tweak and change things - whether in the nature of the religion or in the nature of the divinity that started it - until everything aligns.
And remember, even if the adherents of the religion never fully understand the nature of the divine force that created it, you, the author, should. Otherwise, you risk undermining the credibility of your own narrative when people eventually catch on to the fact that the divine force in your story is nothing more than a device to execute the author's whims. (And trying to claim that the divine is "too far beyond mortal comprehension to understand!" isn't a good way to go, either, because all you're really doing is asking people to please ignore the man behind the curtain.)
Figure out what the divine powers are expected to do.
Unless you're creating a religion that doesn't have any gods (ala Buddhism), this is a majorly important step because just about everything that follows will ultimately tie back into this. So stop and put some thought into what exactly the divine powers are supposed to do in related to their worshipers. Some examples include:
- Looking after their worshipers' personal needs or daily lives.
- Helping worshipers out with particular issues they specialize in.
- Saving them from some sort of threat, whether real or imagined.
- Being placated into withholding punishment.
Optimally, the religions you create for your setting will incorporate some mix of the above (and with emphasis on each quality proportioned differently between different religions in your setting), as it will help them feel more natural and realistic.
Once you've gotten at least some idea of how this is all supposed to work, you're ready to move on!
Determine how adherents relate to the divine powers.
Are adherents, whether clergy or laypeople, expected to essentially serve the divine in some way? If so, how? Or is more a system where they're expected to pay their respects with occasional displays of fealty or offerings of gifts? Or are they expected to have a more reciprocal system, where if they do or give something to the divine, the divine gives something back? Or is it a mix of some or all these elements?
Determine what the clergy is expected to do.
Most structured religions will involve clergy - people appointed to positions of managing the religion and its adherents. The exact duties the clergy will need to perform can vary depending on the exact beliefs and needs of the religion. Here are a few examples of what they might do:
Relating to laypeople:
- Teaching others the beliefs and laws of the religion.
- Giving personalized religious guidance/council to others.
- Conducting religious ceremonies and rites.
- Petitioning the divine for blessings.
- Petitioning the divine for protection or relief from malevolent forces.
- Settling disputes on matters covered by religious law.
- Making sure people have necessities (EG, food, shelter, etc.).
- Making and keeping historical records.
Relating to managing the religion:
- Determining and setting religious policy - EG, how and when it's appropriate or right to do what, or exactly how a particular issue ought to be handled.
- Preserving and recording laws, traditions, scriptures, etc.
- Maintaining the religion's records and doing its bookkeeping.
- Training new clergy.
- Appointing new clergy.
(Note that structured religions can also have people who fill some of these roles without being considered clergy as such - they may simply be volunteers, or they may have studied the religion's traditions enough to be considered authorities on them. However, as they are still laypeople, they probably won't perform any function that would require them to act as an intermediary to the divine.)
As a general rule, if they believe that it's connected to the divine, or if they believe the divine has some sort of mandate about it, the clergy might manage or cover it. For example, in an agrarian society where people consider celestial objects to be divine bodies, priests might be trained in astronomy so as to inform people of when to plant their crops and the like. In a society where people believe that laws were handed down by the gods or that the gods ought always be approached in legal matters, clergy might also serve as lawyers.
If you have a large-scale (IE, nationwide or larger) religion, it might be structured similarly to a large government - a central authority that oversees the whole thing, followed by those who manage smaller regions and so forth.
The clergy of a large-scale religion might also be more generalized than the clergy of a smaller one. For example, where a clergy member of a smaller religion might tend a large number of events and issues that are expected some clerical intervention - say, life milestones (EG, birth, marriage, and death), sorting out communal disputes, etc., in a larger religion, there might be different people for these different functions - those who conduct rites for the deceased might be a separate class of clergy from those who take care of communal issues.
Another thing to consider is whether members of the clergy are paid for their duties. If they aren't paid, then they'll need day jobs to support themselves. If they are paid, then who pays them? Are they given money by the laypeople directly, perhaps? Or are they funded by a sponsor (for example, the government)?
Figure out how new clergy is appointed.
In many traditions, one can choose to become a clergy member and study for the job. But this need not always be the case (it's certainly not always the case in real life). Perhaps your clergy are personally appointed by the divine through a mystical experience. Perhaps they are chosen through ritual. Perhaps they are chosen through bloodline. Perhaps they're selected by a council. Perhaps it's some blend of the above.
So bearing in mind the overall nature of the religion and its divine powers (or lack thereof, if that's the way you're going), put some thought into what might be the most likely approach and go from there.
Work out what the laypeople are expected to do.
As with anything else, what the laypeople - the everyday followers of religion - are expected to do can differ between religions, so you'll need to put some thought into the particulars of yours. Here are some examples of what they might be expected to do:
- Attend public religious functions, and depending on their nature, participate in them.
- Attend religious festivals.
- Attend educational/instructional events (IE, where priests teach the laypeople traditions and religious laws).
- Volunteer assistance to the clergy at times.
- Donate goods and/or money to the clergy.
Another thing that can variate is how much pressure there is on people to do what's expected of them, and what sort of pressure it is. For example, it's possible that people who fail to donate to the clergy might face some sort of legal repercussion, or they might just be considered selfish and greedy by their society.
Also ask yourself, how many functions are laypeople expected to attend? Are there many of them, or are they relatively few? (And don't forget, the more time-consuming rites and functions are, the less time people will have for other things - so try to keep in mind what their schedules and duties would realistically permit.) And what role do laypeople play in them? What do these functions mean to them? What are they supposed to get out of it?
Figure out how people are supposed to join.
Many people aren't too familiar with how religions gain new members beyond how it's usually done in Christian sects, and many assume that's how it's always done. Many people also assume that all religions are looking to expand. But both assumptions are false, and there are many ways these things can go.
For tribal or national faiths, where the divine is supposed to look after its members, simply being born to a member may be all it takes - because you're part of the group, the deities are supposed to consider you one of theirs by default. In such cultures, the concept of conversion might not even exist - either you're a member of the culture and you honor its patron deities, or you're not a member and you don't. In fact, the idea of conversion may be seen as downright bizarre to members, because shouldn't outsiders have their own deities to watch over them? It can also happen that they believe that their divine is the only real true divine - but still have no concept of conversion simply because they believe their gods just aren't interested in other people.
More open belief systems might not actually have a concept of "conversion," either. One might not be expected to pledge oneself to follow its divinities so much as just start paying respects to it, if one wants its favors and blessings. It might also happen that some choose to dedicate themselves to serve the divine or a particular god, but this would more likely be seen as an optional and personal choice, much as joining a convent or monastery might be.
And of course, some faiths might involve an actual initiation ceremony as a matter of course, where all new members are ritually and formally brought into the fold. The particulars of what it involves should relate to what the religion is about and may involve actions or objects that are considered symbolic of that. Think about the character and symbology of the religion you're developing, and ask yourself what they might go with based on that.
Figure out what it looks like at different social stratas and in different places.
Huge, lavish churches and richly-decorated robes are probably going to be the domain of very wealthy metropolitan regions, whereas those who live in smaller, rural areas you'll probably see smaller and simpler fare. Relatively few people might personally know the clergy in a big city, but in a small town where everyone knows everyone, it might be another matter. People in rural areas might also incorporate their own folk beliefs and legends, and depending on how much contact they have with a central authority, they might have some pretty significant differences from their urban counterparts.
Another thing to consider is that if the religion is polytheistic, people might worship different deities in different places. For example, farmers might honor deities who relate to agriculture, but those who live in large cities might be more likely to focus on deities who relate to business and prosperity. So if this is what you're doing, put some thought into what sort of dieties are going to be most relevant to whom.
- Work out the size of the religion - whether it's large, small, or somewhere between. If it's large, it might be structured and operated something like a large government, with 4-5 tiers of management.
- Determine who leads it. Is it essentially government run, or is it independent? Does it have one leader, or a body of leaders, or does it have many?
- Decide how it started. Did it start through human effort, or was it divine in origin? Or some blend?
- Decide what the divine powers are supposed to do, if they exist. What are they supposed to do for (or refrain from doing to) adherents?
- Determine how adherents relate to the divine powers - are they expected to serve them, or just show them respect, or is it a more reciprocal system where offerings are made in exchange for help? Or is it a mix of some kind?
- Decide what jobs and functions clerics are expected to perform, and whether they're more generalized or specialized in their duties.
- Decide how new clergy is appointed - whether through choosing to study and become clergy, or divine appointment, or some other means.
- Work out what laypeople are expected to do, and what their roles in the religion and its practices are.
- Figure out whether it allows new members to join or not, and if so, how and just what that all entails.
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