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Greetings, World-builders! Here is another question from a group of Catholic writers at an online conference I spoke at several times as a non-Catholic guest.

Today’s question deals with common elements in religion.

Q: What are the common elements of all religions, and how do you decide what to keep and what to discard when creating one for your world? Can you discard any of the elements? 

This depends on whether the religion is revealed or “compiled”. I think there may be a revelation in the seed stage of most, if not all, religion, even the ones we think of as animistic. But for the sake of this discussion, I’d say revealed and compiled (or accreted) religion are distinct forms. 

A compiled religion is a response to universal but sometimes mundane questions. Why does it rain? There must be a power behind the weather that knows when we need rain. What about the Sun — what’s up with that? There must be a deity or power responsible for that, too. Let’s not get them angry — what do you think they like for breakfast?

A revealed religion is simply that: An Avatar or Messiah arises who seems not to be a product of His times. He is inherently different — knows things He shouldn’t know, understands things no one else seems to grasp. He usually claims some connection with a previous revelation. For example, Christ’s “If ye believed Moses, ye would believe me, for he wrote of me.” He says outrageous things: material existence isn’t everything, love your enemies (yeah, even the Samaritans), women and men are equal, you’re all brothers and sisters under the skin, etc.

Among our current revealed world religions (i.e. Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, the Bahá’í Faith, etc.), there are a body of core teachings that are identical. The Big Three, I guess you could call them: 

  1. Love God;
  2. Believe in the One He sends;
  3. Obey His commandments. 

The top commandment we are called upon to obey, in all cases, is to love one another. Take what we know in the West as the Golden Rule: “So in all things, whatever you would have men do to you, do also to them, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Christ, The Gospel of Matthew)  This exists in similar form in all of the above-mentioned faiths from the oldest to the youngest. It’s important enough to Christian doctrine that Christ associates it with the “narrow path” that leads to salvation.

Another commonality is that each of these religions has two sets of principles: the spiritual and the social. The spiritual teachings (think Golden Rule) seem to be constant. The social ones change. Think of the kashris or food laws of Judaism. They’re not observed by Christians because Christ didn’t renew them and Peter had a vision that seemed to abolish them.

In writing about an existing, real-world religion, a writer certainly could opt to leave out any of these common elements. And I think, depending on the age or phase the religion is in, that’s realistic. I’m sure we’ve all witnessed how professing believers even seem to forget them. For example, Christ’s exhortation to love our enemies and Muhammad’s warning in the Qur’an that “God loveth not the aggressor” have fallen on ears so deaf during some periods of history that we have been treated to horrific atrocities committed by avowed believers. In some cases, the commission of these atrocities has been institutionalized to a point approaching doctrine.

I think even a cursory study of the history of religion is a great asset for a fiction writer who wishes to make religion a living, breathing part of their stories. How you incorporate the common elements of all faiths into those stories will depend on the role religion plays in your world.


5 thoughts on “WORLD-BUILDING & RELIGION: Common Elements”

    1. The relationship the religion you’re writing about will have with the power structure depends, again, on what stage of development it’s in. In the lifetime of every historic faith there is a period of time—usually but not limited to its early history—during which it is most definitely NOT hand-in-hand with the rulers or government and undergoes sometimes horrific persecution, especially as it begins to make gains among the adherents of established traditions.

      The newer or “other” faith often becomes a scapegoat on which the rulers blame everything from a poor harvest or an issue with the water supply (which happened to both Jews and Christians in the Roman empire before the time of Constantine), to political unrest. The Christians and their pacifistic doctrines were effectively blamed for the weakening and unraveling of the Empire when the truth was it was simply and unsustainably too thinly spread.

      A current day example of this is the way in which various leaders of Iran have used the Baha’i community since its inception in the mid-19th century. The maltreatment of the minority faith, which is not covered by the Qur’an’s view of older faiths as part of God’s plan, comes in waves that reflect the difficulties the rulers are having in domestic or international affairs. Such a wave of persecution is taking place now, in fact.

      And, of course, the world has witnessed wave after wave of anti-Semitism. That, in part, is what causes the Iranian government to lean heavily on the Baha’is; they can’t openly attack Iranian Jews, so they use the fact that the center of the Baha’i Faith is in Haifa, Israel (and has been since before the modern nation of Israel existed) as a reason to accuse Baha’is of being Zionist agents.

      As a writer and a student of religion, I find these turbulent periods offer a rich revelation of human nature in which the best and worst of virtue and vice, courage and cowardice are on vivid display. This is why I chose that volatile period of time as the setting for my first fantasy trilogy. .

      Whether the subject religion is an established faith that’s useful to leadership as a means of directly exerting power through mandate and influence, or a new or rising faith that leadership views as challenging to its power, there’s a rich mine there for a writer to draw on.

  1. Well. Yes. As we recall, for instance, more Christians died at the hands of other Christians once Christianity became the state religion of what was then the “Roman Empire,” than ever did at the hands of “pagans.” Team Arian? Team Athansius? Team Iconoclast? Team Orthodox? Team Roman? etc. etc. etc.

    1. Indeed. So in writing about religion—whether about a real historical religion or one you made up out of bits and pieces—it’s important to have a clear idea of the “age” of the faith. The examples you cite in your following comment show how far the faith—which has now accreted dogma and been edited to suit—has strayed from its original teachings. It’s fascinating, really, how the life cycle of religion is repeated again and again in history in ways that are unique to each faith in some ways, but have striking commonalities in others.

      Every religion has the concept of treating others as we would be treated at the core of its doctrine, but that deceptively simple commandment is difficult in practice. So difficult that the late Christopher Hitchens (God love him) in his book GOD IS NOT GREAT claimed it was completely beyond human capacity to practice it. I suspect this may be the reason it’s one of the first foundational pieces of a faith to fall when things start to go pear-shaped. Human beings want to be able to measure and count things, so replacing such a commandment with its commitment to a particular behavior with a doctrinal or ritual litmus test has been the historical go to. Instead of having to modify our attitudes and behaviors, we’d really rather have a checklist we can tick off.

      In Gethsemane, Christ chooses to tell his disciples repeatedly that IF they want to stay connected to him and to God THEN they must love one another. IF love does not exist THEN they are cut off from the Divine and are as withered branches fit for the fire. How might we view Christians hating on other Christians for differences in doctrinal viewpoint in light of that classic IF/THEN statement?

      That could make for some drama in fiction as in real life. I found writing the moment that a character comes face to face with such a realization (set in a fantasy country with a made-up religion) was exhilarating. I got some interesting insights out of the experience, myself.

  2. BTW, an Interesting piece on these matters of how inextricably religion and politics / ruling class / imperium interlock and grip each other, has just gone up in the New York Times’s T Magazine, written by an Indian Muslim about al-Andulus:

    In Search of a Lost Spain
    In the southern part of the country, churches and streets hold the remnants of eight centuries of Islamic rule.

    Final paragraph:

    [ ” …. There was something wistful in hearing her, against the backdrop of this now-pacified theater of religious strife, voice a desire for faith to remain a private matter. The Spanish Inquisition, deeply modern in texture and feel, abolished the very idea of the inner life. It gave us the blueprint for what would serve as the dread apparatus of state surveillance ever after. Even so, the Inquisition’s dream of homogeneity, it turns out, was no less a fantasy than the imperishable diversity of Al-Andalus.” ]

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