Religion in Fantasy – Forms of Theism
by Rose Hill
One of the first things people think of when creating a religion is gods. Many fantasy writers default to a psuedo-polytheism that looks like D&D, or monotheism that looks like pseudo-Catholicism.
As people who work in realms of pure imagination, we can do better than that.
This post is going to break down various forms theism that one might find. It is intended to give you a wide range of ideas, so you are not limited just to polytheism or monotheism.
Keep in mind that religion is closely tied to culture, especially in places where the religion in question is the state religion. A monotheistic culture will have an emphasis on one right way to do things for everyone, whereas a polytheistic culture may be open to wider possibilities. A duotheist culture might have a very either/or perspective on things. Keep culture in mind when developing every part of your religion. How does religion affect culture? How does culture affect religion?
This post is about what the society believes at large, though it could also be used for what individuals believe. This is not about what is what is true in your world. That is for you to decide. Keep in mind that what is true about deities in the world may not be what people believe about deities in the world. It’s okay for people to be wrong.
This post is not intended to be a religious debate. There are obviously far more layers to the types of belief I have listed than their extremely brief descriptions here. This is to help writers and other worldbuilders build better religions in their worlds.
Atheism, at its base, means without gods. This can take two basic forms: soft atheism and hard atheism.
Soft atheism means there are no gods, but there may be other forms of spiritual beliefs. One might not believe in gods, but they might have a pantheon of angels. Soft atheism might also be combined with animism, believing that everything has a spirit but nothing reaches the power level of a deity. (This, of course, leads into the question of what makes a deity a deity in your world. That is a question only you can answer.)
Hard atheism means there is nothing supernatural going on. No gods, no spirits, no afterlife, nothing. One might think this is a strange option in Fantasy, but that is not necessarily true. If magic is an accepted part of the world, than it’s not exactly supernatural, is it? In a hard atheist Fantasy society, one might expect to see a fair bit of magitek–the scientific method applied to magic, magic powering technology, magic as technology.
Atheism could also be used as a political convenience. If you have the sort of world where the gods do not take an active hand, a secular society that privileges no gods or religions would be a sort of functional atheism. If you have a world where the gods physically walk the earth, then a sort of practical atheism might apply if the laws of the world apply to the gods as much as they do mortals. (Of course, this would require a way to control said deities, but that’s what worldbuilding is for.)
Agnosticism is more of a philosophical position than a matter of belief. It says that one does not know the gods exist, but it does not touch on belief. If the gods take an active hand in your world, chances are people know the gods exist, though what they believe about them may or may not be correct. If the gods do not take an active hand in your world, however, you can have all matter of belief and assumed knowledge about the way things work from the perspectives of your characters.
Animism is the belief that everything has a soul. This takes two common forms. First, that everything has a soul: rocks, animals, cars, pens, books, plants, people, etc. Second, the belief that organic objects have a soul: rocks, people, plants, and animals but not man-made objects.
Animism is often combined with other belief systems. Animism doesn’t speak about gods so much as it does about spirits, so it is entirely possible to combine animism with just about any other belief system.
Animism is often combined with ancestor veneration, though that is not a requirement. It depends on the form of afterlife that people believe exists in the religion. (Afterlife will be a later essay.) If people believe the souls leave and go on to some other realm, or are reincarnated, then any remembrance of the dead is unlikely to connect with souls (unless the souls return, such as on the Day of the Dead). If all or part of an ancestor’s soul remains to watch over the family, then it is likely the family will continue to revere the ancestor.
Monotheism is the belief that there is one deity and only one deity. This is common in religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. One need only look at the many forms there are of each of these religions to see how many different ways one could create a monotheistic society.
Monotheistic faiths in the real world are typically revealed faiths with a focus on orthodoxy rather than orthopraxy. They are created by a prophet, and the focus is on correct belief over correct practice. That’s not to say that practice isn’t also important–incorrect practice might get one excommunicated. But the focus is on belief, first and foremost.
Duotheism is the belief in two deities. Dualism is the belief there are two opposing forces in the world. Duotheism takes two basic forms: ditheism is two gods in opposition; bitheism is two gods in harmony. Do you want two deities locked in eternal battle, or two deities that balance each other harmoniously? Or some combination thereof? Remember, none of these categories are necessarily hard lines. Peoples’ beliefs grow and shift throughout their lives, and beliefs may shift among location and/or cultural lines as well.
No matter what form of duotheism you choose, there is likely to be some level of duality in the culture itself. People might strive for balance, they might have a strict division between good and evil, they might be extremely heteronormative looking for balance in a relationship. It’s up to you to decide how that dualistic thinking makes itself apparent in your culture.
Polytheism is the belief in many gods. Modern polytheism distinguishes between hard polytheism, where the each god is a distinct, individual entity, and soft polytheism, where similar gods from different pantheons might be the same deity.
One of the defining traits about polytheism, whether hard or soft, is that it is open to many possibilities. There is less emphasis on orthodoxy, right belief, because people might believe many different things about many different gods. There may still be some measure of right or wrong to beliefs, but typically all gods are recognized as existing, even if one does not worship all of them. (And depending on the multitude of deities, it may well be impossible to worship all of them.) Polytheism isn’t a matter of “either I’m right or you’re right, but not both” and more a case of “I have my gods and you have yours, and it’s ok if they’re different.”
Related to soft polytheism, but present in many places where religions touch, is syncretism. Syncretism is the merger of discrete traditions, particularly in theology and mythology. Syncretism was particularly common around the ancient Mediterranean (see the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, especially in the Classical period).
Syncretism relies on multiple religions touching, which assumes there are multiple religions on your world. Many people take an easy route of just developing one. Your world will be much more fun if there are many. (We will dive into this deeper in Reactions to Other Religions.)
Henotheism is the worship of one deity in a polytheistic setting. This is not monotheism in a polytheistic culture. This is choosing to worship a single deity while acknowledging that others exist. This is also not monolatry, which is the worship of one god in a polytheistic culture, while believing that the one deity is the only one worthy of worship. One might believe that many or all deities are worthy of worship, and still choose to focus only on the one.
Henotheism is a particularly common set up in Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). In most D&D settings, there are many gods that exist, but clerics (the priests of the world) typically only focus on one deity to the exclusion of all others.
Monism is more often a philosophical belief than a belief that shapes practice. Monism is the belief that all things in the universe arise from a single substance. From a theological standpoint, this often means that mortals, animals, plants, and deities all have the same sort of soul inside. Often, this becomes they all have a related soul inside, or are parts of a greater whole. Monism is closely connected to a variety of pan-isms.
Pantheism is the belief that everything is a part of god/the divine (often capitalized), and that all gods are one.
Panentheism is when deity is both immanent and transcendent.
Pandeism is when the creator deity merges with the world and ceases to exist.
Deism is the belief that deity(-ies) created the world, and then either died or left. Either way, they are no longer influencing the world as it is. This is the classic sort of “god in the gaps” theory for people who see no divine influence on the world but don’t know how it was formed.
Depending on the influence of deities in your world, this could easily work in Fantasy. Perhaps deities used to walk the earth, but were killed off in some epic war. What would that do to people looking for comfort in life? What would the death of gods do to the afterlife? Do people still swear by deity names?
Transcendence is the belief that the deity is beyond the world. It resides in heaven or hell or some other plane, but not in the physical world. Transcendence can be a part of any religion that includes a belief in gods.
Immanence is the belief that deity is embodied in the world. This might take a form like pandeism, where the deity is the world. This might mean the gods are flesh and blood creatures who walk the earth. This might mean a deity is a particular mountain, or tree, or river. Like transcendence, immanence can appear in any religion with deities.
Next week we will pause before going in to Places of Worship to have a brief essay on how to create that polytheistic pantheon that is so popular in Fantasy.