Worldbuilding Ideology and Religion
This is a chapter excerpt from the upcoming TaleBlend Worldbuilder’s Guide, which will be released in December, 2018. To be kept up to date on the release of the book, please sign up for our mailing list in the right sidebar.
When a person has an idea, they can generally do one of two things; they can try and enact their idea, or they can simply fail to act upon it. Ideology, on the other hand, is a slightly different sort of monster. Rather than the people having an idea, it’s the idea that has people. It’s a rare sort of person that has rejected ideology and religion outright, and an even rarer person who can make that rejection stick.
An ideology is a low-resolution grand narrative shared by a varied number of people. Oftentimes ideologies take the form of applied sociopolitical theory. It’s important to note, however, the distinction between an ideology and a religion. Ideologies are often rooted in ideas surrounding economics, politics, ideals of justice, class, creed, race and other such considerations. Ideology is often used to formulate a shared set of policies which inform the decisions of those held in their grasps, for better or worse.
Religion, however, is slightly different. While they can often serve the same form and function of ideology, religion tends toward attempting to explain the universe and creation through a lens of mythological or supernatural belief, faith and traditional teachings. The grand narrative of a religion has a slightly higher resolution than an ideology, often due to the fact that they tend to be based on dogmatic texts with written rules and laws, and can hold requirements for behavior and adherence to certain maxims.
Neither ideology nor religion is inherently good or evil, and often what makes an ideology or religion good or evil is based largely on the subjective experiences and intent of the members and opponents of these beliefs.
It’s important to bear in mind when designing both ideology and religion that in most cases, the bearer of these paradigms fervently believe they are on the side of the greater good. Nobody wholeheartedly joins up with an ideology or religion if they perceive it as evil, although they may willfully ignore fringe elements of their ideology if they believe strongly enough in the cause. Spend a few minutes on social media and you’ll see this practice in action at multiple stratums of society. Conservatives and liberals often accuse each other of being on the wrong side of history, despite history having yet to be written. Batman fans argue fervently against fans of Wolverine on who would win in a fight. Members of Abrahamic religions point fingers at each other often without sense or mercy.
Most of the time, this isn’t due to an ideology or religion being evil. Often what occurs is that when an ideology grows, toxic behaviors begin to manifest. Sometimes these behaviors go ignored by proponents of an ideology or religion in favor of focusing on the toxic behaviors of their opponents.
A college professor in Canada once asked her class what they would be willing to die for. Most answers were as you would expect: Some would die to save family and friends. A few would die to save a stranger. One person stood up, proudly, and announced she would die for the revolution. Being part of one of the freest nations on the planet, there’s not much call for revolution, so she was easily identified as a member of an ideology that lacked a appropriately-developed grand narrative. Certainly the ideology in question had several key concerns that were undoubtedly true, but in the process of supporting said ideology, it meant that certain truths about Canadian life had to be outright ignored in order to adopt the ideology. The ideology isn’t evil, per se. Her choice was not born out of hate, but misguided compassion. Again, she did not hold the idea– the idea held her.
There’s another component, however, that might help us define what many would perceive as an evil ideology or religion, and that’s nihilism. Nihilists have a different sort of worldview, often born through frustration and being ill-equipped to cope with the harshness of reality. They often feel as though they are being unjustly and individually discriminated against by the vicissitudes of fate, and this sort of mentality can often lead them to lash out at the world to seek vengeance. We see this play out in the news all the time in the form of indiscriminate mass shootings. Most of the time, these nihilists act on their own accord, free of ideology. But sometimes they can act out in service to an ideology or religion. In rare circumstances, they can team up with like-minded nihilists.
Unlike terrorists, who will murder innocents in the pursuit of an ideological or religious goal, nihilists will murder innocents often for no other reason than to extract vengeance on a world they feel has slighted them. A very good example of this was the Columbine massacre, which saw two teenagers gun down thirty-three people, killing thirteen. Their hit list cited things like, “he carries his backpack funny,” and, “I don’t like the way he walks,” as reason enough to kill them.
Both ideology and religion are capable of extreme good as well, however. For instance, the religious organization The Salvation Army has fed and clothed millions of the poor, destitute and homeless across the world for over one hundred and fifty years, saving many lives in the process, and donate anywhere between 75-100% of their capital to this end, making them one of the most effective and efficient charity organizations on the planet.
To a worldbuilder, ideology and religion make for great conflict-generation devices within a plot. But it’s important to understand the nuance and caveats within each. There are enough theories and hypotheses over what makes an ideology or religion out there to fill a series of books. Having a clear mental picture of the form and function of religion and ideology, however, is of great importance.
Both ideology and religion can be purposefully subverted. It takes planning, time, and a great deal of effort, but both can be used as effective population control mechanisms. Both can also be used to fuel discord within a homogeneous social group or culture, spurring social change or violent revolution. Sometimes, an ideology that has achieved its goals can suffer from an identity crisis of sorts, resulting in it taking on a life of its own which can either cause the ideological group to fall apart at the seams due to infighting, or causes “mission creep.” Mission creep is the expansion of a project’s mission after having reached its initial goals, which can sometimes be arbitrary and in some cases dangerous, as it often carries forward the vitality of the initial movement, with poorly-thought out and easily subverted new goals. There are a laundry list of ideologies that we can point at that at one time, were arguably positive things that today have suffered so much splintering and mission creep that they’re barely recognizable in their traditional form.
And religion isn’t without its share of these things. Christianity, for instance, has an estimated forty-three thousand different denominations. There was once a time when differing from the commonly-accepted form of Christianity or objecting to the church’s interpretation of holy texts resulted in a death sentence. Wars were fought over differing interpretations of the bible. The schism between Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox church occurred nearly a thousand years ago. Before the reign of Constantine and the compilation of the Vulgate Bible, Christianity was split into competing gospels. Prior to that, Christianity was itself a schism from Judaism. Over the centuries, these schisms have only increased.
The form and function of ideology and religion are infinitely variable, and can be confusing even for the professional worldbuilder to form with any degree of clarity. As with anything, the formation of ideology and religion in your world may leave your reads with more questions than answers– but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Your job isn’t to recreate the Bible or the Communist Manifesto. It’s to present a story. You don’t need a high resolution narrative to achieve that– a low resolution image will do just fine. What’s left blank will undoubtedly be filled by the imagination of your readers.