In the beginning….
The Chinese have a world born from a dragon. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have it created by an omniscient God. Christianity was once unified, but slowly fractured out into different sects of Catholicism. Then it became completely different denominations with different interpretations of the Bible, not simply religious focuses. Buddhism was created when the suffering under Hinduism became apparent to a man of noble birth. Shintoism, I believe the only massively recognized animistic religion in the modern days, continues to evolve and exist, though people from hundreds of years ago wouldn’t recognize it today.
Religions are alive. They are breathing, shifting, shattered things. Whether or not the Divine breathed into it to begin, it eventually makes it the hands of us mortals, and we are a corrupting, self-serving, greedy force. In the darkest of times, we can also be a compassionate, loving, and selfless people. All of these actions influence religion in our world. It should also influence religion in yours.
When you begin, look at your world and how it came to be. It could be anything. Come up with how each culture envisions the world was created, because surely they each have their own interpretation. You don’t even need to decide which one is right, as more than likely it’s academic. Keep it academic unless you are going to reveal the creators. This gives a sense of faith and it’s true to our own world experiences.
From these creation beliefs, and using the cultures of your societies, form the religion of the time. A group of nobles may try to kill their ancestral religion, becoming monotheistic or polytheistic to buck the old trend. A bunch of villages scattered and without an abundance of learning are likely more animistic, worshiping hundreds of individual spirits.
The chances of there being no religion is minimal. There will always be faith in something. There will always be something science can’t explain, whether simple anomalies or straight out miracles. Religion may not have been big in Star Wars, but it was there. Even Mass Effect had religion, Enkindlers bless the Hanar.
At this point you have a general sense of religion in your world. Check which are simple and which are complex. Simpler religions will have a more personal edge, less doctrine, and so there really aren’t splinters in how people worship, but there are different focuses and most (though they still have taboos) are good. The hunter prays to the great stag, while the weaver prays to hemp. Worship is respect, and because of how they live they respect different aspects of life.
The more complicated the religion, the more ability for interpretation, the more likely it is for spider-webbing and eventually a complete shattering. Christianity began under harsh persecution. The people did not have the luxury to have divisions. While there were some debates as to proper attitudes and behaviors, even what Christ meant, the body of followers remained one. It’s difficult not to when your people are being burned to light city streets or they’re being fed to lions as entertainment.
In the Byzantine Empire, everything changed. Constantine, when faced by an insurmountable horde, had a vision of a cross and was told to conquer in that image. When they were victorious, he found it was the sign of Christianity. So began Christianity’s acceptance.
In the coming years it gained favor, but there were disputes. Greek Orthodox broke off due to interpretations, such as if it’s right to use images. In the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire maintained solidarity through ignorance, guilt, and fear. Unity was not out of fear from the outside, but fear from within. People were discouraged from reading, especially the Bible, and scripture and liturgy was always said in a language the peasants couldn’t understand, so they could not question.
Until Luther. Appalled by the way a merciful God was turned into a tyrant, he fought the church, and from him the protestant movement spread like wild fire. Lutherans, Calvinists, Puritans, and many more branched out almost immediately. The Bible was one of the first mass produced pieces of literature through the Gutenberg printing press.
Today Christianity is a cluster of faiths, heretics, heresies, cults, and depending on which group you belong to depends upon which groups fall into which categories. This is just one religion in the world, each one being just as complicated and multifaceted. Each one filled with tenants we cannot possibly understand, some we do not want to understand, and others we will cling to as if the world would end if the sin was committed. Each one completely altering history and culture.
Give your religion these details. Make it so there is confusion and debate. Scripture is rarely airtight, especially after a thousand years and most people can’t even read the original texts, let alone understand the nuances. Wars are fought over religion, either because of different religions or interpretations within the same one. Families are ripped asunder, people are exiled, politicians are condemned and lose all ranking. Gods shift in and out of importance. The Hindu pantheon changed regularly as far as who was powerful and well known and who was obscure.
So go create your own religions. I generally keep this in the same book as my history, and usually enjoy making them alongside each other, as religion should be influencing history, and history influencing religion.
How do you go about religion in your writing? Do you prefer mono- or polytheism? Either way, happy writing, writers!