Religions have a significant hand in shaping the cultures around them, and developing them can be a powerful tool both in developing those cultures and in exploring worldview. While I’ve talked before about the basics of creating a fictional religion, today I want to talk about some of the complexities and details that will deepen that religion (or really any organization or culture) and make it feel more organic and complete.
Give it factions
Very few groups are completely unified. What different ideas have caused the followers of your religion to create new denominations or sects? Does everyone consider these ideas significant enough to create a whole new group, or are there some who would prefer to have those differences within the main group? How do the different sub-groups interact with one another? Are they all still friendly, or are there certain groups that believe themselves superior?
As an example, one of my fictional religions was actually founded around a separation of groups. The religion follows three deities, and followers are split into groups based on which deity they follow most closely. Each group has its own way of worshiping, its own slight variations on the core tenets of the religion, etc. They all work together, as they believe each group has its distinct necessary strengths. In addition to these three core groups, there’s also a group that believes the groups should be integrated together.
In another religion, in which peace is the most important thing, there are two core groups: one which believes conflict should always be avoided and one that believes that conflict is sometimes necessary to achieve true peace. Those two groups don’t like each other very much.
For other organizations: Not much tweaking is necessary for this one. What are the sub-groups of your organization? How do they interact?
How do conversions work?
What does it take for someone to become a follower of the religion? Is there a rigorous training process, or do they simply have to believe and say a quick prayer? How seriously is conversion taken? Does one have to prove their belief somehow?
How about de-conversions? What happens if someone wants to leave the faith? Are they allowed? Will anyone attempt to talk them out of de-converting? Will they be treated as a pariah? Will they be executed for betraying their god(s)? Does it change in any way if they’re choosing to become atheist/agnostic versus choosing to join a different religion?
For other organizations: Replace “conversion” with “initiation.” How do people join this organization? Is there any ceremony involved? What about if they want to leave? This can also apply to entire nations, as you consider how characters gain citizenship or leave a nation behind.
How are the gods served?
What, if anything, do the gods ask of their followers as far as sacrifice is concerned? Is it something physical, like a goat? Or something more abstract like lifelong service? Why is a certain offering significant to a god? Do they appreciate moonblossoms because they’re the goddess of the moon? Do they ask for goats because they like the taste? What is the lore there?
Are these offerings brought to an altar, or are they kept around a person’s house? Are there certain times or days that offerings are brought to the temple? Is there some combination?
For other organizations: Does the organization require a tax or a pledge of its members? Are members instructed to keep a token of their membership around their house to advertise their loyalty?
Is prayer an option for the followers of this religion? Are they allowed to contact the gods? If so, is it a direct correspondence or does it occur through smaller deities or demi-gods? Are there certain times of day that people pray? Are there certain places that are appropriate or inappropriate for prayer? Why are these times or places significant?
What is the core purpose of religious meetings? Teaching? Fellowship? Offering? Are meetings limited to a certain group of followers, or are they open to anyone? Who is in charge of these meetings? What activities are involved in these meetings? Is there singing? Are there prophecies? Do religious leaders read from religious texts, or are those texts considered exclusive to the clergy and not shared?
For other organizations: Does this organization meet? Who is involved in these meetings? What is the purpose? What activities are performed?
Who may serve the gods in an official capacity?
Can just anyone join the priesthood/clergy/other leadership or are there certain prerequisites they have to meet? What are those requirements? A certain level of education? Certain standing in the community? Evidence of character?
What training is required to join the leadership? How long does it take? How intensive is it? Is it mostly bookish? Is it hands-on? Is a certain amount of religious service required?
For other organizations: Who achieves leadership in this organization and how?
Is there an afterlife?
Does your religion believe in an afterlife? Does it have a classic dichotomy between heaven and hell or are there in-between areas? Do they believe in a hell at all? Is hell a place for all unbelievers or is it reserved for the “worst sinners”? What sins are considered the “worst”?
Bonus: Nuggets of the truth
In the real world, all (or at least almost all) mythologies contain nuggets of truth. Is the same true in your world? Or are there some religions that are just completely wrong?