LESSON Building a Religion: Part 2 - The Deity

Discussion in 'BUILDING WORLDS' started by Peregrine, Sep 3, 2014.

  1. This is a continuation of my guide on building a religion. To see Part 1, please follow the link to my Overview of Religious Aspects.

    While Part 1 of this guide gave a basic list of things that could be considered when building an in-depth religion, in part two I am going to enter into the realm of :gasp: analysis. This is especially true for this article, which covers The Deity. I encourage you to keep reading anyways. I promise, analysis isn’t that bad.
    In context, the Deity is the most abstract concept on the list I compiled in Part 1. While it is entirely possible that there is incontrovertible evidence for the presence of a Deity in your world, that does not change the fact that the Deity is a symbolic representation of your world, and, even more importantly, your story. More than any other category, the Deity needs to reflect the overall theme of your story. Everything else, in the end, relates to your characters, and will help bring your cast to life. But through a Deity it is possible to express some of the underlying truths of your world, and the basic questions that drive your story. This is, naturally, going to be reflected in your hero or heroes’ basic quest, and the challenges that they are going to have to face.

    Disclaimer 1: As always, these are only my own opinions on the matter, but I hope you will find them true. It is very possible to simply ignore everything I am about to say, and still create an absolutely incredible religion. But you may find that you subconsciously did some of the things I am about to discuss, in which case, it might be helpful to recognize them consciously.

    Disclaimer 2: There are an infinite number of ways to build any religion, and there is no “right” way to do it. However, there are “established” ways, which are the ways that are most commonly used in modern fantasy literature. That is what I will be discussing in this article. Nothing has to be the way I am saying it is, but that is the way that they often are. Please approach this article with that mindset.

    Disclaimer 3: Because I am expecting that you have, at the very least, glanced at Part 1 of this guide, I’m not going to offer explanations on what I mean by “type,” or “involves.” If you ever forget, please feel free to look back at Part 1, which is linked from the top of this guide. All of my headings are taken from Part 1.
    Right. Onwards.


    In my mind, Type is the most important thing in determining the significance of your Deity. Like all the other categories serve to deepen the theme, concept, or idea you are looking to reveal with your Deity, all the other categories within the Deity serve to reveal what you are trying to show with your Type.

    There are far more types of deities in the world than monotheism and polytheism, but they are the ones most commonly used. For the sake of making as complete a guide as I can, I will mention more than monotheism and polytheism, but most of my analysis is going to go into those two categories.

    In particular, the choice of type is going to give a good probability as to what is going to be waiting for the hero or heroes of your story, if the Deity plays a major role in the life of the hero.

    Monotheism, or the worship of a single god or divine being, is, as the name implies, singular in nature. Your religion has one god, and therefore your Deity possesses a singular truth.Of course, there will be many facets to that truth. A god is not a broken record, only able to say the same thing over and over and over again. It is going to reveal different things, and it is going to have different ways to reveal those different things. But, ultimately, all of those different things are going to combine together, and are going to become a single unit, an explanation for one fundamental truth of reality. Because the Deity is a fundamental force of the universe, it is not going to contradict itself. Contradictions create confusion, and weakens the position upon which this single, mighty god stands.

    Therefore, a monotheistic religion is best aimed towards a story that has a single goal or lesson to teach to the players, readers, or characters. That message may be hidden, and the way to reach that message may be complicated and convoluted, but, like the single god that exists, there is a single, fundamental realization hidden within the world for your character or characters to obtain.

    Polytheism is the worship of multiple gods or goddesses, and is basically the antithesis of a monotheistic Deity. Polytheism is in a perfect position to create conflict in the world and within a character, because there is no perfect unity between the gods themselves. Each god has their own area of understanding, their own rituals, and often their own methods of worship. Every one of them is completely unique. One god may pull the character one way, while the other leads it down a different path.

    Unlike a monotheistic religion, there is rarely a perfect, ultimate truth waiting to be discovered by a chosen individual of God. Rather, it is up to the individual to find their own perfect truth in what they have learned and what they feel about the world. The more gods there are in a religion, the more likely it is that the expectation is going to be on the individual or individuals who guide the story, rather than on the Deity to “show the truth.” That is why many fantasy stories have a pantheon of gods. The Hero’s Quest connects beautifully into the uncertainties that can more easily be woven into a polytheistic religion.

    Dualism, as a more specific form of polytheism, is uniquely suited to telling stories that focus on the battle between good and evil, or a story where there are two, perfectly incompatible, opposing forces. Two gods, each one representing a fundamental truth of the world, and, somewhere along the line, the protagonist or protagonists will be forced to make a choice between the two, and commit themselves to the truth that god represents.

    Henotheism is the worship of a single god, but is accompanied by the acceptance that other gods exist. Most likely, this will culminate in an event where a hero has to choose between “their” god for another god or gods. The difference between this and dualism is that, rather than being a battle for the world, it is a choice that will primarily affect the gods, or celestial plane. While the changes may unbalance the heavens and have a cataclysmic effect on earth, the world is only a secondary effect, while in Dualism the world and what happens on the world take priority.

    Pantheism, the belief that god and the universe and the same thing, and panentheism, the belief that a god is a part of the universe and everything in it, but is ultimately separate from the universe, are rarely used in fantasy stories, because there is no truth or choice or climactic moment that waits for the hero or heroes. Pantheism and panentheism will lead the hero or heroes on a journey to discover themselves, but the changes will be slow, natural, and constant, just like the world itself. It is doubtful that there will be any moment of grand revelation, simply because there is no revelation to achieve. Enlightenment does not happen in a moment, but over a lifetime of seemingly average events.


    For my purposes, there are only two possible directions for a religion. Outward religions are the religions that have a focus that impacts other people, rather than impacting themselves. Most commonly, the outwards religions are those that are known for forcing their opinions onto others, or trying to take over the world to spread their own religion. And there is no doubt that outwards religions are better able to play a villainous role. However, that certainly is not the only option. The only qualification for a religion that has an outward direction is that the nature of the Deity promotes a focus on someone else rather than one’s self. Most commonly, any religion that has an outward focus is going to involve journeys and exoduses, where a hero or heroes are required to abandon themselves in the service of someone else, be it a king, a nation, or a lover.
    Inward religions, on the other hand, are the ones that have a focus on the betterment of one’s self. Inward religions are often more self-contained, focusing on improving that which is already there, rather than, as a nation, looking to improve things. Inwards religions are often considered weaker, and are the common prey of outwards religions. While this is not certain, however, it is true that most heroes are going to be going on a journey to learn a truth about themselves. This journey can be a physical travel away from home, or a mental travel into relationships or situations in which the hero is uncomfortable. While the hero or heroes may gain this self-understanding by aiding someone else, the focus will remain, if only subtly on the hero him or herself.


    A Focus is a further narrowing of the Direction, and is often used to connect the Direction back to the Type. While it is possible to have a Focus that does not agree with the Type, making it so that the Type and the Focus have some level of synchronicity will create a feeling of connection in the story. The things the hero or heroes are encouraged to do by their religion will, if followed faithfully and with purpose, make it easier to understand the truth the Deity represents. For example, a monotheistic religion that had an inward direction and a focus of freedom from sin could easily lead to a revelation that all of the world’s suffering is created from sin. That is a single truth, and fits with the monotheistic concept proposed previously. Likewise, a polytheistic relationship that had an inwards direction and a focus of increasing empathy would be natural and intuitive, because the countless different gods that could be worshiped each have their own individual personality, and could easily encourage worshipers to find common connections between each other, therefore increasing grounds for empathy. That is not to say that a polytheistic religion that had an outward focus of spreading the divine word would not work, its connection may simply be more subtle.

    While the connection between Focus and Type may be more subtle, there should always be an obvious connection between Focus and Direction. Some Focuses may work for both, like harmony with nature or good deeds, but some Focuses obviously belong with either an outwards or inwards Direction, like health and physical well-being or bringing the messiah.

    Divine Interaction

    Divine interaction reveals how directed it is possible for the Hero to be on his, her, or their journey. This is something that needs to be very carefully tailored for every story, since it is going to have a large impact, but there are a few common generalizations. Monotheistic religions rarely have a Deity that communicates with everyone. Since a monotheistic religion has a single truth, it can rarely be told straight out to everyone. People have to go through their own trials to understand it. To retain followers while still revealing its truth, a monotheistic Deity needs to limit contact to people who are already seen as teacher figures. That makes the discovery of the truth a learning process, rather than it being gift-wrapped from their god. Polytheistic religions, on the other hand, often have much more frequent contact with gods, from the highest ranking to the lowest ranking. This is in part because the gods in a polytheistic religion need to compete with each other, and being the biggest showoff is a good way to start that, but it is also because a polytheistic Deity promotes conflict and questioning between the various perspectives of the gods, and having more constant contact will only serve to make the confusion between the different options more poignant. Rarely is there no divine contact, since such a thing makes it hard for worshippers to have continued faith in their Deity. However, it is very possible that the things that are taken as Divine Contact are entirely subjective, and are wrong as often as they are right. The only situation where no Divine Contact is really plausible is a situation where the only purpose of humans is as a servant to the Deity, and the Deity has no reason to acknowledge humanity.


    Because the primary things that a religion involves are very selective and have less of a connection to the deeper meanings of your story, there is really only one thing that religious involvement can change, and that is the amount of attention it requires an individual to meet the requirements of the thing their religion involves. The more complicated the involvement the more time a worshipper is going to have to devote to that thing. This will in turn mean that the religion is a much closer part of their everyday life, and all aspects of the religion will be thought about more frequently. If this is the case, whether an individual thinks about it in a positive or negative light, it will be at the forefront of their mind. This, in turn, will mean that their actions will more likely relate to their religion, whether they act to obey a tenant or to go against it. If it involves something that is easy to do, or requires little thought or attention to complete, the other aspects of the religion may not be given as much attention. This means that their actions are going to often be personal choices, rather than being done in relation to the religion. While the hero’s receptiveness to Divine action is dependent upon their history and personality, this is likely to affect whether their final revelation or understanding of the truth comes from the hero’s own actions, or from a sudden understanding of their faith, or part of their faith.

    The Ultimate Lesson of the Deity

    When you are looking at things that relate directly to the deity, never forget to pause and ask yourself “why”. Your Deity is a reflection of your world, your story, and the morals of the people who will come to inhabit, or already do inhabit, your land. The reason does not need to be empirical or irrefutable, but if you are adding a detail to your Deity, or even creating the initial concept of your Deity, with no purpose whatsoever, there are going to be moments where your religion seems to lack direction and truth, and that lack of direction will likely be reflected in any character who is a deep worshiper of the religion.

    Your reason does not need to be profound or thematic. Something as simple as “it sounds interesting” can often be enough. Most of the time, things sound interesting because you are curious about the effect they would have on your world. You’ve already taken a step down the right path.

    I hope this guide has given you a little bit of a look to some of the reasoning that can go behind the creation of a Deity. If you have any contributions or places you would like to expand, please leave a comment. If you have something you would like to refute, please re-read my disclaimers, and then post away.

    * The Afterlife section has been purposefully left out, and is going to be put in with the Other Relevant Pieces guide. This is not because it does not belong with the Deity, as I believe it does, but is because the information I am going to offer on it will be easier to communicate once the Methods of Worship guide has been completed. Thank you!