One of the best things about being a fantasy writer is getting to invent entire worlds. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated with mythopoeia—that is, imagined cosmologies and (especially) the mythologies that describe them. The stories that explain why the world is the way it is.
Most good worldbuilding guides (and there are scores of them across the Internet) address the topic of religion, with ideas for for inventing spiritual practices and the ecclesiastical hierarchies that support them. It’s very practical advice, because those religious institutions and behaviors directly affect the cultural shape of the storyworld, along with how characters act.
Personally, though, I prefer to start with with a much more essential question: Is GOD real?
By GOD, I mean any divine presence, whether it’s monotheistic, polytheistic, animist, pantheistic or whatever. Are the myths your people tell about this divine presence actually true? Or are they stories made up long ago that help people try and make sense of the world as it exists? If the stories are true, how active is GOD in world? By which I mean, is belief in GOD an act of faith (there are stories about miracles but most people haven’t experienced them) or is it something most people have experienced directly (there’s a Burning Bush on every corner).
Being a fantasist means we get to play with all these different scenarios. In one of my retired stories, there were gods in the past, but they fought one another and are all dead, and the world has become a wasteland. Amongst the surviving population, religion is forbidden. In their experience, having gods who were present and active in the world was much worse than not having them at all. In the world of City of Bridges and my WIP novel, there is only one god who is broken and powerless, but it has intermediaries who provide direct access to divinity to everyone. There’s no atheism because literally anyone can walk up to an altar and touch a piece of God (It’s maybe not a good idea to try it, but they can). I really liked the idea of telling stories in a world where religious practice isn’t just a matter of wishful thinking, but is a concrete and practical necessity.
Well, this post hasn’t turned out as thought provoking as I thought it might be when I started it. I’ve been chasing ideas down blind alleys all day and coming up with nothing coherent. But it’s been a long time since I’ve tackled a complex subject like this, so I may have to come back for another pass in a few months!