Religion in Fantasy – Multiple Religions

by Rose Hill


Religions are very closely tied to culture. If there are multiple cultures in your world (and if there aren’t, you better have a damn good reason for your monoculturalism other than laziness), chances are there are multiple religions too.  Now, if the gods are extremely active in your world, this might not be the case. Depending on the activities of the gods, it is possible that different cultures (even every culture) share one religion.  But, that is the exception rather than the norm.


Depending on the age of your religion and the open nature of your culture, it is even possible to have multiple home-grown religions in a given culture.  Think of Buddhism’s origination in India or the growth of Neo-Pagan and Polytheist religions in the West.


Depending on how much people migrate (and it is very hard for a given country not to trade with at least some neighbors), there could be long-standing (or recent) religious groups within a particular country.  If the recent arrivals (or converts) are populous enough to approach the majority numbers, do the majority feel threatened?  Feeling threatened is a natural reaction in such a circumstance, but how soon and how badly they feel threatened can be related to how difference in values systems are between the dominant religion and the up-and-coming one.


Before we get too far into this, I want to introduce the idea of syncretism.  Syncretism was touched on briefly in “Forms of Theism.”  At its base, syncretism is a blending of two culture, beliefs, religions, or practices into one.  A clear example of this is the blend of Ancient Egyptian deities with Greco-Roman deities.


There are a couple of key differences between syncretism and cultural appropriation: power differentials, acknowledgement of sources, and respectful use.  Cultural appropriation almost always comes from someone with more power (economic, social, political, etc) taking aspects from a culture with less power.  The person doing the taking does not acknowledge how they gained the knowledge; it is often viewed as free for the taking, or may simply be considered theirs once they have it.  The actual people who practice that culture are not credited by the person who cherry-picked aspects of the culture that they found appealing.  Lastly, cultural appropriation is more likely to rely on stereotypes and cultural aspects that have been completely stripped of their relevance to the culture.  There’s nothing respectful about their use.


Syncretism, on the other hand, appears most often with people who are living with two cultures.  Inter-faith families who celebrate both religions with their children might have children who blend both religions into a personal, syncrestic faith.  People who live in a border region between two cultures might blend them both together.  Oppressed peoples forced to dance to their masters’ whim might hide their religion beneath trappings of the masters’ religion.  Syncretism happens when the power levels are equal, or even when the person syncretising is at a disadvantage.  Syncretism is organic, and comes from people already straddling those cultures and trying to find a home for themselves.  Syncretism is a sincere attempt at making a home for oneself within cultures or religions, because nothing appropriate otherwise exists.


Basic Reactions to Other Religions


In general, any religion that does not exist in a vacuum is going to have an opinion about the existence of other religions.  It may be an exclusivist position: only our religion is right.  It may be an adversarial position: those gods are evil (for reason X, Y, and Z) and thus must be defeated.  It may be a neutral position: each group of people have their own gods, who largely don’t interact with each other.  It may be a syncristic religion: they must all be the same gods viewed through different lenses, so let’s figure out who corresponds to who.


Once you’ve determined the basic reaction of your religion to other religions, think of how that reaction comes into play.


If you have an exclusivist religion, is the focus on conversion and proselytizing?  Are non-believers slated for death?  Are they simply refused citizen rights?  Or are they simply all ignored as being wrong, because the chosen few are born into the right religion, and there’s no other way to join?  People from exclusivist religions are likely to be the most hostile to other religions, because the sheer existence of other religions causes theological problems.


Adversarial positions between pantheons are popular in Fantasy.  Certain deities are labeled “evil” and questing groups are gathered from stereotypical Fantasy races in your pseudo-medieval Europe to take them down.  (See “Developing Deities” for reasons not to paint your deities in such broad strokes.)  Maybe the deities of X race hate the deities of Y race.  If the gods are real, they could be feuding over real slights, which their mortal chosen then have to act out.  In those situations, what do the mortal chosen think of playing out the gods’ arguments?  Are they even aware of the history between the feuding gods?  How much ability to refuse the gods do mortals have?


Neutral positions are common among polytheist religions.  Each culture has their own pantheon.  Just like the cultures are different, the deities are different, and that’s all right.  This is a good position for a religion to take if it’s conflict between religions is not a part of your plot.


Syncristic positions are also common among polytheist religions.  This one is particularly prevalent among conquering empires: the pantheons of the vassals are folded into the pantheon of the conquering nation.


Parent/Sibling Religions


If the religion you’ve created grew out of another religion that is still around, what does the child religion think of the parent religion?  Does it demonize the old religion?  Respect it, but still think it’s misguided?


Are there multiple religions that grew out of one parent religion?  If they’re all still active, consider not only what each child religion thinks of the parent religion, but also what the parent religion thinks of each of its branches and what the child religions think of each other.


Part of this will depend on what position what position it takes towards other religions in general, but related religions often have a particular history that inspires particular feelings.  Think of classical Islam, which had special provisions for Christians and Jews (as opposed to pagans and other sorts).