Religion in Fantasy – Organizations and Institutions

by Rose Hill

When people think of “church,” they typically think of one of two things: first, the building, which we covered last week; second is “church” as an organization, which we will be covering today.

Institutions are large, overarching networks of people who work together towards a common goal.  Institutions not only work within themselves, but reach out to other organizations and individual people.

In religions, organization can take a variety of forms:

  • Involvement with lay people
  • In-temple hierarchy
  • Organizations across temples
  • Political influence
  • Economic influence
  • Cloisters
  • Cults

Involvement With Lay People

This may seem like an obvious first step, but consider how your clergy interact with the lay people of your culture.  In general, clergy are the ones responsible for various life marks: birth blessings, death prayers, marriage ceremonies, coming of age ceremonies, etc.  But in addition to these specific occurrences, what else do clergy do in your world?

Do they lead worship services with sermons and prayer?  If so, how often does this occur?  Why does it occur at that interval?

Do they handle the sacrifices, to make sure the sacrifice is performed correctly and the gods are pleased? Do they read auguries for their constituents?

Do the clergy act as middle-men?  Do they interpret the ways of the gods for the lay person?  Do they keep the gods appeased so they do not kill everyone in their anger?  Do they invoke the gods into their own person to bring the holy down to earth?

Do they wander from place to place, offering blessings and cleansing demons where they go?

Do the majority of dedicated priests spend their time in solitude and contemplation?

 

In-Temple Hierarchy

What does the personnel structure of one individual temple or church look like?  Is there a head priest/ess?  If so, what is their job?  Who serves underneath them, and in what capacity?  Are people there willingly?

How devout are the people who serve in the temple?  Are they fervent in their belief, or is this just a job?  Does serving in a temple bring honor/status, or does society denigrate such people?  Are there any people who serve the temple, but not the religion directly (cooking, cleaning, accounting, correspondence, etc)?

Organizations Across Temples

Is there a large, overarching structure between the temples in your world?  Each temple could be independent, like the majority of temples in Ancient Greece.  Or they could all be a part of a unified structure like the Catholic Church.  Or you could do something in between.

If each temple is independent, each one’s individual influence in society is likely to be small–unless are strategically located or have the ear of a ruler (or two).  Heresy is likely to be smaller concerns, since such considerations are unlikely to go beyond the bounds of the temple.  Blasphemy might get one banned from the temple, but just that temple.

Certain temples may be connected, but not all.  Maybe all the temples to a particular deity are part of the same organization.  In that case, certain practices are likely to be standardized across the temples: religious rites, requirements for priesthood, standards of behavior, symbols and messages of the deity, etc.

If temples are connected, what happens when one disagrees with official practice?  Do the other churches try to bring them back into the fold?  Are they allowed to have their deviant practice?  Are the gods or other divinatory practices consulted in mediation?  Are they branded heretics?  Does it form a schism in the organization?

If temples are connected, do they all work together equally, or is one temple seen as the dominant temple?  Does an individual person head the temple organization?  If so, how closely do both priests and adherents have to listen to this person?

If all the temples of a particular religion are connected, they are likely to have a higher degree of standardization.  In addition, they could have a hierarchy all the way up the chain of command.  Depending on the religion’s spread across the population, areas could be divided within the church hierarchy like a political map.  Person X reports to person Y, who has a dozen or so Xs under their command.  Person Y reports to Person Z, who has a dozen or so Ys under their command.  And so on and so forth.

If there is more than one religious organization in the world, how do the organizations interact with each other?  Do they see each other as allies, enemies, or completely unrelated?  Do they work together to solve common social ills, or wage war in the streets?

Political Influence

How prevalent is the influence of religion in society?  This could range anywhere from a theocracy to a completely atheistic society (one of these days I’ll have to work on my godless theocracy again) with potentially hundreds of permutations in between.

If you have a theocracy:

  • Is there a god-king that rules?
    • How is this person selected?
    • Do they rule in truth, or are they a figurehead?
    • What are their political and religious responsibilities?
  • Is there a Chosen One of the gods that rules?
    • How is this person found?
    • What if someone tries to fake it?
    • Have there ever been competing Chosen Ones at the same time?
    • Have there ever been no Chosen Ones?
  • Do the priests rule?
    • Is it a council, or is there just one head ruler?
    • How are the priests in power chosen?
    • If there are priests of different gods/religions, do they have equal power?
  • How are competing religions handled?
    • Syncretism?
    • Forced conversion?
    • Loss of citizens’ rights?
  • Do the gods themselves rule?
    • If they’re immortal, what does their immortality mean for technological and social advances?
    • If they’re powerful, what do these powers mean in a war situation?
  • Who counts as a heretic?
    • What is the punishment for heresy?

In a theocracy, religion will affect every part of a person’s life, from their laws to their clothes to their food.  There will likely be no difference between religious laws and secular laws.

You could also have an official state religion while not being a theocracy. The ruler could still be a secularly selected individual, whether king, president, dictator, or anything else.  In a state religion, the laws of the religion are still likely to be the laws of the land.  There may also be additional secular laws that are not religious laws.

With a state religion:

  • Is there an official head of the religion?
    • If so, how close is this person to the ruler of the country?
    • Does this person dictate who rules a country?
  • What happens to people of other religions?
    • If they allowed to live in the country, are any of their rights restricted?
    • Does it even matter, as long as they respect the state religion?
    • Are religious minorities ever persecuted?
  • How do schisms within the religion affect the politics of the country?
    • Are multiple sects within one overarching religion acceptable?
    • Are countries particular about which sect they allow?
    • Are people of one schism or another branded heretics?
  • Are there any secular laws which are not explicitly religious?
    • Are they extrapolations from religious laws or completely separate?
    • Are the punishments for breaking secular laws different from the punishments for breaking religious laws?
  • Who runs the legal system?
    • Who has the authority to condemn a person?
    • Who, if anyone, has the authority to execute a person?
    • Who has the authority to absolve someone of a crime, or offer them sanctuary?
  • Is the police/state security force part of the religion, or separate?
    • If separate, are there ever conflicts?
    • If combined, what is there to keep the religious organization from taking over entirely?
  • How much are the laws of the state religion actually enforced?
    • Are they religious in name only and act more like a secular country?
    • Do people just give it lip service and think little of the actual religion?
    • Is the average person particularly devout?
    • Is the religious enforcement being imposed on the people by the government?
  • Are people allowed to build/use temples to other religions?
    • If no, are they even allowed to worship in their home, or with a small group of other adherents?
    • If yes, are there any limits to the building which can be built?

With a dominant, though unofficial, religion, you start getting a bit more acceptance towards other religions.  Negative reactions towards other religions are more likely to come from social pressure than laws against them.

A country that treats all religions equally could go one of two ways: first, they could try keeping religion out of politics entirely, to make everyone’s life easier (but that provides less drama or your plot/game); second, they could try appeasing all religions.  If you do not have exclusivist religions, this is not as hard as it seems.  Religions could be entirely focused on their own gods and promoting their own temples, in which case religious freedom laws and respect for holidays and other religious requirements are all that’s needed.  If you have religions that encourage fighting, killing, or forcing conversions on non-adherents, that is where the conflicts come in.  A country that treats all religions equally may still have devout rulers, but a fair ruler would still try to keep from privileging their beliefs over other people’s.  (Which is not to say your rulers need to be fair.  Worldbuilding is about creating a world for a story, and unfair rulers creating better drama.)

A country that is strictly secular could vary anywhere from being completely neutral when it comes to religion to banning all religions, certain religions, or parts of religions.  When it comes to a government that bans certain parts of religions, think of why such things are banned.

  • Is slavery banned, despite being allowed in religions?
  • Is male and/or female circumcision banned, despite being a requirement of certain religions?
  • Are certain garments banned, despite being a standard of the religion?

Conversely, is there anything that is legally required despite being banned by the religion?

  • Vaccines?
  • Medical procedures?
  • Education?
  • Military training?

Keep in mind that people have very strong opinions about these things in real life, and will take those opinions with them to your story. Unless you have characters of competing opinions that are treated equally and given equal weight, people will assume that the dominant character’s opinion is YOUR opinion, as the author.  It is very easy for the intersection of religion and politics to turn into a morality tale, especially if that is the plot of your novel.  That is not to say you should avoid such things–just be aware of what you’re writing.

Economic Influence

Churches can make a lot of money, especially if donations or monetary sacrifices are a requirement or standard of the religion.  The next question becomes, what do they do with this money?

Supporting the people who work in and for the temple seems to be the obvious first step.  After that (or possibly even before) is keeping up physical maintenance of the building itself.  If there’s still money after that, what do they do with it?

  • Do priests get a bonus?
  • Are the temples continually being improved and expanded upon?
  • Are more shrines/temples/churches in the organization built with the money?
  • Is it held in reserve as an emergency fund for the constituents?
  • Does the money to go support other services?
    • Feed the hungry?
    • Shelter the homeless?
    • Clothe the cold?
    • Pay for cloistered organizations?
    • Support refugees?
    • Support missionaries (if a proselytizing religion)?
    • Bail money for religious protestors?
    • Bribes for political officials?

Cloistered Orders

Are there any cloistered orders in your religion?

If so, how are they supported?  Does a rich financier pay entirely for their funding?  Are they supported by another temple structure?  Are they a self-sufficient community?  Do they make and trade goods with the outside world?  Such things might include beer (particularly common in the Middle Ages), textiles, artwork, pottery, or really anything else they can sell.

How is the cloister organized?  Are they segregated by gender, magical ability, or other qualifiers?  Who heads the cloister, and how do they relate to other temple heads?  Who determines who is allowed into the cloister?  How is the safety of the complex maintained?

If not, what happens to the people who want to spend their lives in religious contemplation?  Do they simply become hermits?

Cults

There are two different meanings of cults used in religious contexts, with very different implications.

The first is a veneration of a particular religious figure, such as a deity or hero of a religion.  One could talk about the cult of Demeter in regards to the Elusian Mysteries.  The historical cult of Isis could be thought of as part of the broader Egyptian, and later Roman, religion.  This is the sort of thing you’re likely to see with a henotheistic culture.

The second is the more modern usage of the word cult: an abusive religious organization focused on or around a charismatic leader.  This might include a complete devotion to the cult leader, cutting off cult members from outside groups or help, emotional and occasionally physical abuse, the belief that only the cult is the right way, the belief that the cult leader can do no wrong, etc.

If you’re going to use the word cult in your novel/world, be very clear which meaning of the word cult you’re referring to.

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