Creating Culture: Religion: Organizations and Practice
Updated: Dec 11, 2019
Alright. We've now done much of the back work to get to the most fun part of creating a religion within your novel's world: the practicing of the religion.
You know the deity structure, you know how those deities are or were involved with the people who worship them. You know how that involvement plays out in special times of life, and now you get to look at how it plays out in daily life.
If you're basing the religion you're creating off of a system that already exists, you'll find two general types of religion: organized and unorganized.
Organized religion has a hierarchy of leaders and a more strict order of practice. In organized religion, you'll likely find temples and protected holy sites, idols and alters, and there will be a set person who is allowed to take part in the ceremonies. This person is usually called a priest or shaman, or some other name that sets them apart in their role.
Other roles you'll likely find in organized religion have to do with the site of worship and the practices or routines that make up a cleric's day. You may find oracles, diviners, treasurers, ground keepers, goldsmiths, teachers, and disciples. All of these roles could have significance in the religion, though not all are necessary for an organized religion.
As you look into crafting these roles within the culture of your novel, you'll also need to think about how people come to be in those roles. Are they born into it? Does it get passed down on the mother's side from mother to daughter, or father to son? Is it the first born? The youngest child? The second born? Do these members of the community have any other expected roles in the community (i.e. is the high priest also expected to be a political leader or doctor)? Are there things that these people must abstain from always or only at certain times, depending on the upcoming festivals? (See how this all ties together?)
What happens when these people walk through the street? Do they wear certain clothes that set them apart? Do they eat or not eat certain food?
When the position is passed on to someone new, how does the new person learn what they need to do?
Some of these questions cross over with the ideas found in unorganized religion, and they're important to think through no matter which route you take.
If, however, you choose to go with the unorganized religion, you'll end up looking at a religion that is run by everyone equally and equally accessible to everyone. You'll still find sacred objects and rituals, but the necessary objects are more likely to be generic. (As in, you need the skin of a sheep, rather than the skin of this sacred sheep blessed by the high priest at the full moon.)
There will still likely be groups of people who go together and join with the expectation that at some point they'll be able to do it on their own. Another thing to take into account is that each festival won't necessarily follow the same script.
For example, it could be the festival of the new moon. In this make believe religion, a celebration of this festival could require a group of at least three women, joining hands and chanting in the middle of the woods.
Here's the trick though. In organized religion, one of those women would be expected to lead in a known script and known celebration. The chant would be well known and well practiced. In unorganized religion, you would find these three women taking turns, speaking as they're moved to speak, probably listening to nature and the moon and saying why the new moon is significant to them right then in that moment. The next new moon it could be a completely different chant and it would have the same effect.
If there are aspects of fictional religions you'd like me to go into more detail on, or you just have other questions, I'd love to connect with you and talk this through. You can either schedule a consultation on my services page or just reach out to me on social media.
J. J. Hanna is a Professional Writing major at Taylor University. In her spare time she creates YouTube Videos and Comics, and practices Karate at a local dojo. If you have a writing question, she'd love to hear from you! She is also looking for freelancing work, so if you have editing, beta reading, or writing needs, or would simply like to chat in a consultation, please let her know. Like what you see and want to get more content like this, or have your specific questions answered? Check out how you can support her on Patreon for as little as $3 a month.
In this week's YouTube video I reenacted a comedic representation of one way writers and editors can interact. Let us, as writers, strive not to be like the writer in this video.