Since I don't write science fiction, I'll stick to religion in fantasy. If you are writing historical or epic fantasy, part of your world building should definitely be to create its religious order or orders. Every human society has had some type of religion. Religion has effected everything from economics to science to war. It has been the driving force in many civilizations. To create a world without any sort of religion is a bit unrealistic. I never considered a religionless world when I first started on The Goddess's Choice.
For ideas about creating your own religion, study the myriad religions that have been practiced, particularly ancient religions. You'd be surprised at the things people have believed and have done to honor their gods. In The Ghost in Exile, the goddess of love is worshiped by having sex with her priestesses or acolytes.
From The Ghost in Exile:
When The Ghost entered the temple, he was greeted by soft music and delicate perfume. Young women and men—acolytes of Aphrodite—in sheer robes that concealed nothing, danced in celebration of the goddess. Worshipers watched the dance until they found an acolyte to their liking. They gave the priestess the proper donation and disappeared with the acolyte into one of the private rooms that lined one wall of the temple, where they worshiped the goddess in a more intimate manner.
Most religions can be borrowed from with impunity. However, drawing on Christianity is tricky because so many Americans still believe it. You can do it. You just have to be more careful so you don't offended half of your potential audience, especially if the religion in your world is corrupt.
In most religions, the good wars with the evil, so having a mixture of good and evil in your religion often works best. Remember, religion and morality don't have to have anything to do with each other, and in our world, they often don't.
Conveying a moral principle or deeply held belief is much more difficult than creating a religion. The last thing you want is to come across as preachy. You are not writing a sermon. You are writing a novel. Your first job is to tell a good story. Without the good story, people won't read your books.
I struggled with this in The Goddess's Choice. One of my most deeply held beliefs is the importance of forgiveness. If we don't forgive, it twists and mangles our lives and makes finding happiness difficult. We become too focused on the wrong done us to reach for joy. Forgiving others isn't for their good. It's for ours. Whether the other deserve forgiveness or not is irrelevant, we deserve to leave the pain behind, and we can't do that unless we forgive. If the other has done something awful to us, this can be difficult, but without forgiveness, we never have peace. I wanted to convey this message in The Goddess's Choice, but to do so without becoming preachy wasn't easy. One of my main characters, Robrek, has been treated terribly by a myriad of people. If anyone deserves revenge, he does. But to claim his full power and for his own peace, he must put his anger behind him. I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote the forgiveness scene. I think I finally managed to convey this message while telling a good story. The scene is below. In the comments, tell me if you think I've nailed it.
Robrek sat and began eating the tart. Its sticky sweetness increased his anger. Lowering his shields, he glared at Holy Writ[a magical gold horse]. “Am I supposed to forgive him [his father] because he gave me a tart? Do you know how many times he ate the last one on the plate, leaving none for me? Do you know how many times he beat my back raw?” Robrek got up and began pacing. “He could never even call me by my name. It was always, ‘Boy, do this.’ ‘Boy, do that.’ ‘Boy, why are you so damned stupid?’ ‘Boy, how could I have fathered such a weak, worthless runt?’ An apricot tart and a little food are supposed to make that all right?”
:Abusing a child is never alright. It angereth the goddess.:
Without warning, Robrek felt himself hit as if by a powerful wind of darkness. He was knocked to his knees, and suddenly he was no longer himself. He was Angus Camlinstamm, and he’d been cursed with the stupidest child ever to be born.
“How could you be such an idiot? Don’t you know that the priest wants you dead?” he yelled at his son. Green eyes like Donella’s [Robrek’s mother who died in childbirth] looked up at him from underneath curly, black hair. “I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.”
He grabbed the boy, tore his shirt off, threw him over the dining room table, and yelled at Boyden to hold him still.
“Please, father, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to,” the boy begged.
Angus hardly heard the boy’s cries. Instead, he saw skin the color of creamy bhat as Donella’s had been. The boy screamed as he brought the strap down. But he needed to learn. So he hit him again and again, bringing the strap down harder and harder. The boy’s hair, so like his mother’s, lay across the table. Oh, Donella, why? How could I have traded you for him? He continued to beat the boy until his arm ached. When he stopped, the boy rolled into a ball on the floor, sobbing and trembling.
Robrek threw himself away from whatever Holy Writ had done to him. “I was five years old, damn him!” Robrek yelled at the horse. “He had no right to beat me like that!”
:He did not. Forgiveness doth not mean the other was right. Forgiveness isn’t about the other, but thine own soul.:
Robrek jumped to his feet and stabbed his finger toward the horse. “He should rot for what he did to me! I will never forgive him! Never!”
:Then thou wilst become like him.:
“I would never do something like that to a child!”
Again the dark wind hit him, knocking him to the ground. He was in the stable paddock. His sword was wet with blood, and there were piles of corpses surrounding him. A man approached, and he stabbed quickly. Behind him he heard a small noise. He turned, cutting Tegan nearly in half. The child that had reminded him so much of himself dropped at his feet, and he turned to kill another. He crushed the child’s hand with his boot.
“Stop it!” he screamed, wrenching his eyes open. “That wasn’t real!”
:It could be.: The body of the slain boy appeared in front of him again. He closed his eyes, but the image still burned in his memory, and again he saw his sword plunging through Milady’s mouth. :How art thou different from thy father?:
He backed away from the horse. “When I killed the child, I didn’t even understand what I was doing.”
:And didst thy father understand what he wast doing to thee?:
The dark wind came again. He heard his beloved Donella screaming from their bedroom. She’d been screaming for nearly two days, and the baby still wouldn’t come. It was all his fault. The herb witch had warned him about having another child. Please, Sulis, please. Let her live. The screaming stopped, and he heard a weak cry. He ran into the bedroom. Donella was lying with her eyes closed, her dark skin nearly as white as a Korthlundian’s. The entire bed was covered in blood. “Do something!” he bellowed at the herb witch, who was wrapping some small hideous thing in a blanket.
He was kneeling by a freshly dug grave as they lowered the body of his beautiful Donella into the cold earth. He’d had to purchase a spot of land just outside the graveyard because the priest wouldn’t allow her to be buried on consecrated ground. Would those gods of hers take her? He sobbed as the shovels of earth began to fall onto her sweet body. She can’t be dead. It’s all my fault. She can’t be dead.
“No!” Robrek shouted. “It wasn’t me that got her pregnant! He had no right to blame me for her death. He deserves my hatred.”
:It is not about what he deserveth, but what thou deservest. Sin provideth its own punishment. He chose to indulge his grief and his rage until he hath choked out all that could have been good in his life. He is an empty man when his life could have been full of the joy of his sons. Dost thou desire such emptiness for thyself?:
“I desire nothing but revenge.” Robrek’s hand itched for a sword so that he could strike off the horse’s head..
As always, the horse seemed to know what he was thinking. :Dost thou believe thou wilst feel any better if thou dost?:
“Yes, I do!” Robrek ran to the stable and grabbed a sword. As he turned around, he found himself faced with illusions of his father, his brother, Duke Argblutal, and Father Gildas. He rushed his father and with a single stroke struck off his head. He turned and did the same to Boyden, Argblutal, and Gildas. As he turned back, he found his father whole and alive. Again and again he killed the four men, and again and again they rose. He slashed and stabbed until he dropped with exhaustion.
“What do you want from me?” he sobbed. “Why won’t you leave me alone? I never asked you to come! I never wanted any of this!” He gestured wildly at the three horses, and Holy Writ nodded. At that very instant, a profound silence descended into the clearing. He looked around frantically, but he soon realized the silence had nothing to do with the lack of sound. The wind was still rustling through the treetops, and the birds were singing every bit as loudly as they had a moment ago. He could still hear the stream rolling over the rocks. Holy Writ had done as he asked. He could still see the horses, but he couldn’t feel them any longer. They’d gone and left this emptiness behind.
Wild Thing edged closer and nudged him with her nose. :Wild Thing scared. What wrong?:
“Nothing’s wrong, girl. It’s just you and me, like it always should have been.” Struggling desperately to ignore the emptiness, Robrek rubbed the Horsetad’s nose and set about cooking himself something to eat. Every few moments he looked over his shoulder to make sure the horses were still there. Despite how much he fought them, if they left, they’d take half his soul with them. But what Holy Writ demanded was impossible. He’d have to live with half a soul.
Darkness fell as he finished eating, and with the darkness, the emptiness became unbearable. I don’t need them. He knew this was a lie, but he wrapped himself up in it and fell asleep.
Dressed in clothes of deepest black, he stood on a dais. Duke Argblutal knelt at his feet; the duke’s supporters, servants, and guards knelt behind him. Argblutal begged for mercy. But mercy was dead inside Robrek. He grabbed the duke by the hair and pulled him to his feet. He used his magic to turn his hands into claws, and with a smile of triumph, he tore deep into the duke’s chest and ripped out his still beating heart. The duke screamed and dropped at his feet. Robrek laughed, but the duke’s death had done nothing to assuage his grief or his rage. So he grabbed the hair of the first of the duke’s men and tore out the man’s heart as well. Still, he felt no relief. One by one he ripped out the hearts of every one of the duke’s men. But it wasn’t enough. He ordered Father Gildas brought before him, and he tied the priest to the stake and set him on fire. He reveled in the priest’s shrieks of agony, but when the priest had been reduced to ashes, he felt no better. He had the bonfire built higher and threw in all of those who had testified against him and all of those who had joined the mob that would have killed him. Their cries of pain were music to his ears. But when they had all been quieted by death, he felt no peace. He struck out with his magic at all that came within his reach. He used his power to cause the utmost suffering and pain, as he had once used it to heal. Both the guilty and the innocent suffered and died at his hands. None could stop him because he was the most powerful sorcerer the land had ever known. But the more he killed, the more his emptiness grew. until it became a chasm so vast that not even the deaths of every living soul in the joined kingdoms would fill it.
He awoke, sick to the depths of his soul. I am a monster. He tried to tell himself that it had been just a dream, but he knew Holy Writ was right about him.
He knew what he had to do. He went to the stable and got the gold sword. He knelt in the paddock and placed the point at his breast and closed his eyes.
:Stop!: Three voices shouted in unison, and the presence of the three horses returned. :This thou canst not do.:
:No hurt.: Wild Thing wailed.
“I have to,” he said. “I won’t be like them.”
:Then forgive them, but do not destroy thyself.:
Robrek laughed savagely. “Why do you care? Because it’s not my ‘destiny’? I never wanted a destiny.” His hand slipped, and he felt a sharp prick in his chest. Bright blood stained his shirt. What am I doing? He dropped the sword and fell to the ground, clutching the small wound.
:Thou dost not have to feel this pain. Release thy hatred. Forgive.:
“I can’t. They deserve to suffer for what they’ve done.”
:They are suffering. But thou needst no longer punish thyself for what they hath done.:
The dark wind hit him. This time he was his brother. He was ten years old and a crowd of five boys near his own age surrounded him. “I say he has demon blood, too,” one of them said.
“I do not,” he protested.
“His mother was a demon witch,” another jeered.
“No, she wasn’t.”
A third laughed. “Just look at your little brother. Father Gildas won’t even let him in the school.”
“I don’t care. My skin is as white as yours.” He shoved his white arm toward them.
“White on the outside, but black underneath,” another said.
“Liar!” he shouted at the boy who voiced his deepest fear. He struck out with all his might. He knocked the boy to the ground, but there were five of them. They ganged up on him and beat him.
When they stopped, he dragged himself home, and a servant fussed over him. Robbie came into the room and peered up at him. It was Robbie’s fault this had happened. If it weren’t for him, nobody would say things like that . . . .
He sat in his room at the inn, counting his coins. What did he care if no one in the village would talk to him? He didn’t need them. He had everything he needed right here. These coins would fulfill his every need.
But Robrek felt the emptiness his brother refused to acknowledge—a chasm within Boyden he attempted to fill with greater cruelty, but doing so only widened the chasm. Not wanting to feel Boyden’s despair, Robrek struggled to separate himself from his brother, but Holy Writ refused to release her hold on him; instead he plunged once more into the dark wind. He was his father again. He stood at the back of the room near the pier. With the other young men, he hooted and made crude gestures at the new whores brought from abroad. “And the next, from the barbarous land of Mahngbhayo,” the auctioneer called, as a small, dark-skinned girl was led into the room. He went silent as her green eyes bored into his soul, stirring something in him he’d never felt before—something far stronger than lust. “She doesn’t speak a word of the language, but what does that matter with assets like this?” The man grabbed her breast. She slapped his hand away and glared at him with defiance and pride. “A spirited one! She may need some taming, but isn’t that half the fun?”
The girl drew herself up as if she were a queen looking down upon her subjects. Angus wasn’t fooled—he saw her lower lip tremble. He found her courage and dignity enchanting.
“Come on, sweety pie! Show us what you got!” the young man beside Angus called out, and Angus threw the other man against the wall. “Show some respect,” he hissed, though Angus had said something similar to the last whore.
He whirled back to the auctioneer and named a price. He glared around the room, daring someone to top it. No one did. He handed the auctioneer every dram he’d intended to use for new stock for his farm. He draped his own coat around the woman to hide her near nakedness from the prying eyes of other men . . . .
He saw his sweet elfin girl lying on their bed with his tiny son sucking at her breast. “He’s a strong one, like his father.” Donella smiled.
His heart bursting with love and joy, he sat beside her. He was a father, and the most perfect woman in all of Sulis’s creation was the mother of his child. “He’s perfect,” he whispered, and gently stroked the soft fuzz on his son’s head. He promised himself he wouldn’t be like his own father. He’d be gentle and kind. He would earn his son’s respect and love.
“What shall we name him?” Donella asked as she raised the infant to her shoulder and gently patted his back.
“What do you think of Boyden?” he asked.
“Boyden?” She wrinkled up her brow in the way that he’d always found alluring. “Boyden is a fine name for a barbarian without an ounce of color in his skin.”
He leaned in closer and kissed her deeply. “Mother of barbarians.”
She laughed, and the baby let out a sigh of contentment. He had never imagined such happiness . . . .
He heard the small, weak cry coming from the other room. It wouldn’t stop. The wet nurse wouldn’t be there for an hour. He stomped into the room to pick up the baby himself. It was incredibly small, much smaller than his brother had been. The tears of its hunger fell from emerald green eyes. He ran from the house, leaving the crying infant behind . . . .
He sat on the bed at the inn and handed over the coin. The woman dropped her dress and joined him. He closed his eyes and took her in his arms. He tried to pretend she was Donella as he made love to her fiercely, desperately. But it didn’t work. When he’d shared Donella’s bed, he’d felt complete. Now, releasing his manhood into the whore’s body, he felt emptier than ever.
When he reached home, he found Robbie drawing pictures in the dirt with a stick instead of doing his chores.
“Boy!” he bellowed.
The ten-year-old boy looked at him with terror. “Please, sir, I didn’t mean . . . .”
He refused to listen to whatever fool excuse the boy made this time. He grabbed the strap next to the door and threw the boy over the dining room table. He beat the boy viciously, but he got no more relief from the anguish than he’d gotten from the body of the whore.
He stopped and ordered the boy to his room. He couldn’t stand the sight of the curly black hair or the rich, dark skin . . . .
He watched as his seventeen-year old son mounted his Horsetad and rode away. He’ll be back, he told himself. He can’t survive without me . . . .
He looked at the remnant of the scaffold on which they’d meant to burn his son. Robbie had escaped the flames, but he’d lost both his sons this day: no kin murderer would live under his roof. Where had he gone so wrong? He remembered when he’d watched Boyden suck at Donella’s breast. He remembered the promises he’d made to himself. He’d broken them all. His sons had no more respect or love for him than he’d had for his own father. He went to the inn, intent on giving coin to the whore, knowing that doing so would do nothing to fill the aching void inside him.
“No! I can’t stand it any more!” Robrek cried. “Why wasn’t I the father I promised myself I’d be? Why did I let Donella’s death turn me against my own son?”
More visions followed. Father Gildas’s failures in healing while the power of those he condemned grew, fueling his fears for his reputation and influence over the people. Duke Argblutal’s obsession with kingship, which had twisted his life so that hatred and anger were the only emotions left to him. Unable to tolerate the pain and emptiness, the guilt and despair any longer, Robrek tore himself loose from the visions. He sobbed for the pain those he hated had caused themselves.
:Dost thou see? They have paid the price for their sins. Thou canst hold to thy pain and become like them. Or thou canst release it and be free.:
“I don’t know how,” he moaned. “Tell me what to do. I just . . . want it to be gone.”
:Forgive. Release thy hatred into the hands of the goddess. The Holy Mother can bear all of our griefs.:
“How?” he asked, but then he felt it—the goddess’s open arms ready to enfold all of his pain into herself. Suddenly, he understood. Sin, and the pain it brought, was its own punishment. He could allow others’ sins against him to turn him into a monster, or he could forgive them and save his own soul. It was a choice between emptiness and joy, between sorrow and love, between destruction and fulfillment.
In other words, it was no choice at all.
“Take it please! I don’t want it any more!” He thrust himself into the goddess’s arms, allowing her to heal his wounds and purge the anger from his soul. As soon as the last vestige of his anger and hatred left, his power poured forth within him. Energy filled his body with exquisite pleasure; every ounce of his flesh was flooded with joy. He laughed with sheer delight and was sure he was glowing with light.
Sensations poured in from all sides. Ronan’s simple pleasure while he sunned himself. The hawk’s fierce triumph as it took the pigeon, and the pigeon’s terror and pain. The rabbit’s delight in the new patch of cabbage leaves, and the mother’s despair over her wayward child. The bird’s bliss as it sang to its mate, and the farmer’s joy as his grain pushed its way toward the sun. It was too much, far too much. He collapsed onto the ground and covered his head, but there was no escape. He’d go mad.
Over the whirlwind of sensation, he heard Holy Writ’s command. :Shield!:
He reached through the chaos for the knowledge of how to shield, grasped it, and snapped his shields into place. The entire world went silent in an instant. He rolled over and smiled at the sky. He felt spent and abused, but also clean and pure. His head ached, but he was happier than he’d ever imagined possible. He wanted to dance and sing. He lowered his shields slightly to allow the horses in. He felt their pleasure and pride in his accomplishment.
:Thou hast done well. Thou art worthy of thy destiny.:
:I knew you had it in you, human child. Oh, how you will be able to move now.:
:A good beginning.: Robrek threw back his head and laughed. He hadn’t realized Brazen was capable of humor.
Religions help make your world as full and rich as the real world, so yes, create a religion when you build your world. Moral beliefs can be part of your story. You just have to make sure the story comes first.