Religion in Modern Fantasy

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, And that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”― Dr. Seuss

This is not meant to be a comment on actual religions, but the rather the role of religion in Fantasy Fiction

Religion can be a touchy subject at the best of times. Fantasy settings provide a relatively safe place to examine the relationship of mortals to the divine, but few writers seem willing to get into theology these days, even though it is a remarkably interesting subject. Gods in Fantasy often seem to be window dressing, and Fantasy religions seem mostly to fade into the background. Even Fantasy setting where there are no gods or religion often do not seem to take that into account. It may be that Modern Fantasy is currently pre-occupied with Grimdark and Urban Fantasy and does not want to tackle the big questions directly. Or it may be that no one wants to court controversy.

Zeus!

I wonder if there is a difference between the way published and self-published Fantasy authors deal with religion. I would suspect a self-pub does not have to restrain themselves quite as much.

Why does this matter? well, religion is an integral part of society. It is one of the first systems that men create, and hence influences many institutions.  To illustrate lets take a standard medieval example. If you remove the Judeo-Christian religions  then you remove more than just the church and its direct traditions. The Nobility often leaned on God to provide justification for their regimes. I am astounded how often Fantasy writers who muck around with religion in a medieval society fail to take this into account. The Church often provided an alternate system of  arbitration and avenue for ambition for the nobility as well. Noble Families with extra sons would often send them to the clergy. The list of influences goes on. Taking religion into account makes for better world-building, even if your characters are cynical bastards who don’t really care for the spiritual.

And don’t get me started on the time I played an RPG where the Gods literally walked the earth and one of the players decided he would play an atheist 🙂

Here are some of the basic religious characteristics and paradigms that should be considered when making a Fantasy world.

What Are The Gods? (these are just examples)

  • No One Knows: It is realistic and offers moral ambiguity. Often paired with works in mysterious ways.
  • True Divinity: In this case the Divine is something special and unique, having a quality that cannot be replicated by mortals. One thing to keep in mind is that this means that the power of the Divine and Magic could be two different things in this case.
  • Ascendants: In some traditions it is possible for Mortals to become Gods. This makes for interesting settings and seems fairly common in Fantasy literature. Frequently the Gods are just supremely  powerful mages.
  • Social Consciousness Given Form: I once ran a game that I made called Nordan-saga. In this game it was theorized that the Gods were created by a form of cultural mass consciousness given form by magic, in that the Gods were the belief of the people made real. This meant  that the faithful and strong willed could call upon the powers of the Gods and that the Gods could walk the earth and so on. It also meant that the Gods were unable to act in places that they had no worshipers and weaker in places where belief was weak. Fun stuff.

How Many Gods Are There? (this list is by no means exhaustive)

  • Monotheism: There is only one God, or one God who is well above the others. Illuvatar in Tolkien could be fit into this category, along with the Judeo-Christian religions. I see surprisingly few Fantasy tales with a single divine power. Again, I think this is because Fantasy Authors are wary of offending potential readers. Still I think it would be fun to read a Medieval Fantasy or even a Grimdark tale with a serious take on a monotheistic system with an active Deity.
  • Polytheism: Polytheistic societies worship multiple Gods. These are often grouped into a Pantheon (or family) of Gods. The Ancient Greek Pantheon is the example that still gets quite a bit of use in modern fiction, partly due to the rich tradition of epic storytelling that involved the Greek Gods. Fantasy worlds tend to default to Polytheism because it is familiar, it leaves room for multiple beliefs, and it is simply less controversial than Monotheism in fiction.
    • Cultural Polytheism: Some Authors take an extremely wide lens view of Polytheism, with each Culture or Racial group having its own Diety or Pantheon. This has the advantage of allowing a great deal of cultural divergence and encompassing a lot of interesting religious traditions.
    • Animistic Twists: Animistic traditions often posit that natural features, animals, and such can have spirits. Particularly strong spirits can be considered Gods. These could lead to some really interesting religions.

How do the Gods Interact With the World

  • Works in Mysterious Ways: While Religion is real the Gods do not interact in an obvious fashion with mortals. They could exist or they might not. It almost doesn’t matter in this paradigm. Most Modern Fantasy tends to lean this way since it is realistic. Miracles could be coincidence, and are at least open to interpretation.
    • God as the Causal Event: I love the portrayal of God as the causal act of kindness in Les Miserables. If someone were to do this in a Fantasy work, I’d read it… just sayin’…
    • Diminishing Divinities: In this paradigm the Gods grow away from the world over time. People often wonder if they are dead/gone/uncaring while others still hold the faith.
    • Set the World in Motion and Left: In this paradigm the Gods created the world and have little to do with it afterwards. Simulationism could fit in here.
  • Limited Interaction but Grants Power to Followers: The followers of the Gods have powers. These could be a form of magic or they could be a true Gift granted to the faithful, but the power itself is undeniable. In this paradigm it would take a very sophisticated critic to doubt the Gods. Power tends to win converts. There is a broad range of interpretation here as well, from occasional small miracles to great power or frequent use. If there are multiple Gods they may grant different powers, if there is a single god, then different sects could get different powers.
    • Visions: Some followers might get visions. This is a useful way to convey information, but also open to skepticism and fallibility.
    • Divine Intermediaries: Some gods might send messengers like angels, ghosts, or lesser gods to communicate.
  • Real But Impersonal: The Gods are real but impossible to comprehend or just plain impersonal. In this case the Gods act more like natural forces than anything else.
  • The Gods Walk the Earth: In this paradigm the Gods walk the earth, communicate directly with mortals, and go about their business. Their presence should effect the story directly and they could even be characters within it. Steven Erikson offers a good take on this in his Malazan series, while David Eddings offers others. Some stories in Greek Myth show interaction between Gods and mortals.

The Details

  • Is God Good? (Monotheism) If God is good, then why do bad things happen? This is a fascinating question that has tripped up philosophers and theologians for thousands of years, especially in monotheistic religions where God is posited to be supremely powerful and and benign. As a Fantasy author you could really play with this. Perhaps the Devil Figure is powerful enough to challenge god, creating a dualistic system. Perhaps the God of your world looks upon people like we look upon ants. By Crom, that could lead to some interesting storytelling…
  • What about the afterlife? Almost every religion deals with what happens after death. This is a good place to start when defining your religions.
    • Is there as system of reincarnation?
    • How are the dead Judged?
  • Taboos and Beliefs: This is the least offensive way to distinguish Fantasy religions regardless of your approach to the actual Divinities. Beliefs can persist long after the rational behind them has disappeared and can justify all kinds of behaviour from clothing, to persecution, to human sacrifice. All of these can have a huge effect on the story, if you want them to. Erikson, Jordan, and Sanderson do a decent job with these.
  • How does religion relate to magic?
  • How does religion relate to various races?
  • What sort of Conflicts exist within a religion? Do different sects compete?
  • Can the Gods die?
  • Can Gods Breed? with Humans?

I could go on, but I should get back to writing Bloodlust: Will to Power. Religion is a complex, often irrational system that can really lend depth to Fantasy world building. Religious questions fascinate readers and fiction allows us to examine them on neutral ground (or as close to it as we can come). Instead of having an ambiguous, mysterious God in your Grimdark Fantasy, why not have an uncaring God who watches over the struggles of mortals with amusement. In the end it is another facet of the world to detail, but one that can be very exciting and relevant.

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