Religion in Fantasy – Theological Traditions
by Rose Hill
This is one of my very last essays in religion in Fantasy, and truthfully it is very much icing on the cake. If you’ve been following along thus far, you already have a solid religious background on which you can build. You have more than enough to color the world for your story.
But maybe you want more. Maybe you want controversy.
This controversy doesn’t need to be related to your plot, sub-plot, character development or anything else. It can be merely colorful background information. Or, it can inform key parts of your story development. It’s up to you.
What sort of things might cause a schism in the beliefs of your people?
- A conflict of orthodoxy vs orthopraxy
- Varying degrees of literalism in the religion
- Multiple people claiming to lead the faith
- A rejection of church authority
- The acceptance of outcasts by certain sects
- Contradictory teachings or emphasis
- Monism or shifts between polytheism and monotheism
Distinguishing whether a religion will emphasize practice or belief is an important part of all new religions. It is also something that can prompt schisms within a religion. A religion which has previously emphasized right practice and behavior might have a sect arise that focuses entirely on belief and religious devotion.
Similarly, while many religions do believe their myths, there are those who recognize a difference between a mythic view of history and a literal view of history. If a sect arises that views myth as myth, instead of literal history (contrary to popular belief), that could cause a split in theology.
If you have a centralized religion (with a particular person or institution as the official head of the religion), any challenge to their/its authority can create a schism. This can also lead to a variety of reactions from the head church. Sacred rites might be withheld, notable personages in the new movement might be excommunicated, practitioners could be faced with legal trouble or be shunned by their friends/coworkers/family, etc.
Prophets and other counter-cultural leaders are also a prominent factor in leading a change away from the majority opinion. These are people who are good at pointing out flaws in the system; they often come from the margins and recruit there as well. How would the majority people of your religion react to a religious movement among the marginalized and outcast?
How might this schism look in your world/story?
- Debate among scholars
- Laws/edicts aimed at suppressing unwelcome behavior
- Fighting in the streets
- Declarations (maybe even counter-declarations) of heresy
- Social shunning
- Friendly debate
- Non-friendly arguments
The main thing to consider is how any theological differences show up in your world. Maybe it’s just a passing comment from a scholar, because the differences are purely high-level debates that have no impact on the common person. Maybe certain people are labeled heretics. Are heretics hunted down, or just ignored and banned from the main religion’s rites? Maybe there are many different types of a particular religion, the way Christianity has many different branches. Maybe the schism is relatively small yet, and the people who follow that way are just considered weird; maybe they’re mocked or thought a bit silly. Maybe they’re simply considered misguided. Do religious or secular authorities try to pass laws or edits limiting the type of behavior the sect practices or encourages?
This sort of thing is going to be very specific to your world and the religion you’ve developed, which makes it a bit difficult to offer generalized questions. Instead, I’m going to share some theological differences from a couple of my stories.
My tropical setting has three different races; each one with their own religion and each religion with its own theological dispute. The humans are divided over a trickster deity who is also recognized as the god of magic. On certain islands, he is condemned, and so are mages. Opinions differ on whether it is best to kill mages or simply exile them to the wilderness. On another island, he is actually the primary deity and mages are raised to positions of power. There is little actual debate between these priests; instead, the differences affect the culture of each island.
One of the races of fish-people are divided over how best to follow their deity of love, one of their primary deities. There are those who believe love should be followed to all people, regardless of race. Others point out that the deity of love was the one who gave their race the ability to shift sex; since half-breeds lack that ability, clearly their deity doesn’t approve of such unions. This debate has a direct impact on the lives of the numerous half-breed characters in the book, and is a large part of whether or not they feel welcomed at home.
The third race (another group of fish-people) is less of an actual debate and more of a shift in theology. They are slowly transitioning from a polytheistic race to a monotheistic one. Veneration in a number of the “lesser” deities is declining, while the emphasis on their primary warrior god increases. Only one tribe truly goes against this trend, and that’s because they already have a near-obsessive devotion to a different deity. (And they’re already considered a bit odd by the others.) There is not currently religious conflict between the tribes, but the set up is there for the future.
You may have some limits in what sort of discussions are possible depending on your cosmology and magical worldbuilding. If everyone knows that the gods are real, you’re not likely to have atheists. (Though you may still have people who dislike the gods, or who are unclaimed by the gods. The former would more properly be anti-theists, though the latter technically be atheists.)
If the gods involve themselves in your world, do they sort out these theological differences, or leave it to the mortals to worry about? For example, I have a world where the gods will send dreams to their worshippers to fix something that has offended them, and will send an avatar to the mortal realm if things get so bad they feel they need to step in. But when one country decided to go from polytheism to state-sponsored monotheism (finally settling on henotheism)? The gods stayed out of it and let the mortals deal with it themselves.
If your magic has a way of recording exactly what happened hundreds or thousands of years ago, there might not be any difference between history and myth.
Or, if the gods/magic choose the next leader of the religion, there’s not likely to be many arguments about that. Typically in Fantasy, Chosen Ones are pretty clear, especially if they’ve been marked by a deity in some way. (Unless you’re playing with the Chosen One trope, which is perfectly valid.) If it’s traditional for your religion to be led by divine choice, not many people are likely to fight that (unless they’re fighting against the religion as a whole).
Even if the gods in your setting are real and do tell their worshippers exactly what they want, there can still be theological conflict. For example, two deities in the same pantheon might have differing opinions on a particular subject. Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena are likely to have very different views on sex. People can have different opinions without fighting over it.