What is religion?Perhaps if I had a full semester, post-grad class, I could define the term "religion." The best that I can say is that it’s complicated. It’s very complicated. This complication arises from two main sources: no two cultures define religion exactly alike, and religion encompasses all of what makes us human, which goes past unreasonably broad and dives straight into incomprehensible.
At our most primitive, the earliest humans made no distinction between religion, law, history, and daily life. These were entwined with each other, undifferentiated, inseparable, and self-apparent. Every action had some possibility to interact with the spiritual world, and so every action had some element of religiosity. One simply could not exist outside the spiritual world any more than one could exist flying off the ground.
What united such people is their narrative about what those magical-spiritual were, what they meant, and how best to interact with them safely. So at a minimum, a religion is a communal set of beliefs for making sense of the world and for understanding our place in it.
Community is at the heart of religion. One person does not constitute a religion. The elements of religion are communicable between one person and the next, and between one generation and the next. That makes a religion learnable. A religion may be so complex that no one person knows everything, but as a community, the sum of their knowledge will constitute the sum of their religion.
The community of a religion may be small, such as a single town or village, large, such as an Imperial State Cult, dispersed, with beliefs holding them in common, or centralized, with beliefs managed by experts.
There’s also a few things that religion is not.
Religion is not a literal system. When treated as a literal system, religion is reduced to a machine, removing the very humanity that makes it religion. A system implies that a religion is self-consistent and coherent. Because religion contains so much humanity, who are not consistent and who are far from coherent, which encompasses human cultures which are far from systematic, which contains within itself various arguments and conflicts, and which utterly fails at producing a predictable result, reducing religion to a system does a disservice to the institution. Not once in my studies of a religion has any significant scholar demonstrated that a religion is a system.
In contrast, people inside the religion may attempt to use it as a system, but that doesn’t make religion a system.
Wikipedia contains this quote about systems: “A cultural system may be defined as the interaction of different elements of culture. While a cultural system is quite different from a social system, sometimes both systems together are referred to as a "sociocultural system". A major concern of the social sciences is the problem of order.”  For our purposes, religion makes sense as a component of a sociocultural system rather than a system by itself.
What is religion in a fantasy context?Religion in the context of a fantasy novel is whatever the writer wants or needs religion to be. It’s a world building element that offers a glimpse into characters or their societies that might not otherwise be apparent, provides character motivations that differ from our own, creates narrative opportunities for readers to enjoy, and supports plots.
In short, religion is a tool for the author.
Because religion is a tool, it can be used in any way, or any combination of ways, inside a work of fiction. Religion becomes a vast and flexible omni-tool. Used well, religion enhances a work, adding color, depth, complexity, and humanity to the work, but used poorly, detracts from the work, adding unnecessary and distracting words to a story.
Because religion can be used so broadly, any discussion of its use must be equally as broad. I doubt that there is any work out there that could possibly encompass the use of religion in every aspect. At best, the use of religion in fantasy can be a survey work, focusing either on widely applicable uses, or focusing on particular areas of use, such as the creation of a pantheon. I will be using a broad approach, touching on many areas, rather than go down the more complicated, and frankly more challenging route of examining any single topic in significant detail.
Return to: Religion in Fantasy