When a fantasy or science fiction writer creates an alternative world, one issue they face is how to show that world’s religion.
Religion as part of world building
Partly details about religion are a matter of world building. Cultures have religions, and writers can use them to make the world feel real. For instance, a temple or church building of some sort is probably part of the cityscape. In my middle-grade fantasy, Finders Keepers, a ruined temple lies at the center of the city, with shrines on the roads that run out from it like spokes on a wheel. Both the temple and the shrines play a role in the story.
Even if the characters aren’t religious themselves, they may curse or talk about an afterlife. For instance, a character in Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle swears by saying “tiny gods.” I find I sometimes struggle with finding substitutes for sayings like “What the hell.” Unless this culture believes in a fiery afterlife, that one has to change. The way the characters curse and pray tells you something about both them and their world.
Religious beliefs with no religious institutions
One of the interesting things Tolkien did was show cultures that believed in the divine and told stories about how the divine created the world, and yet had no organized religion. We never see a church or a member of the clergy in the Ring books. And yet Tolkien himself says the books reflect his own Catholicism. That, my friends, is a subtle writer.
Religion as part of the plot
Sometimes religious divisions become part of the plot, as powerful forces struggle for control. For example, in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, the Church of the Seven functions as a check on the Lannisters. Things go badly for Cersei once the High Sparrow becomes Septon. (Note the lovely language connection between seven manifestations of God, a church building called a Sept, and clergy called Septa or Septon.)
When treating religion as part of the plot, the writer does well to remember that the reader is an atheist in the story’s world. It doesn’t inherently matter to me if a Sun God or a Moon Goddess rules. The writer has to make me care, usually by showing the nature of those practicing a religion and the effect their religious actions have on others. Martin’s High Sparrow does not inspire me to rush to hear him preach.
Difference between religion and magic
In a fantasy, writing about magic often looks a whole lot like writing about religion.
This isn’t terribly surprising. What, after all, is the difference between a miracle and magic? Both of them are unnatural events. Michael Bailey argues that through much of European history, “magic” was what people called the other guy’s religion (Magic and Superstition in Europe).
So in fantasies, the line between the two can get blurry. When I was writing The Wind Reader, I tried to think of a magic I might use that I hadn’t seen before. So I asked myself what the most powerful force in Doniver’s life might be. He’s from the Uplands, and I decided that for him (as for me on the American prairie), wind is a constant, strong presence. So I made him a wind reader. I also gave him a culture in which words and breath are sacred because they’re a minor form of wind.
A writer creates a secondary world by drawing on a wide variety of cultural elements to build up an interesting, unified whole. Just as every word of a story should matter, so should every one of those details if the reader is to have a full, satisfying experience.
Bonus: A teaser from The Wind Reader:
An empty pocket robbed you in ways you didn’t think about ahead of time, which was maybe why it was called being broke. (Ch. 5)