I is for Iniquity – Worldbuilding Religions

Along with ‘what is evil?’ another popular question about religion is ‘what is sin?’

While this could lead into a huge philosophical debate that many people would disagree on, we’re going to go with a very simplistic idea of sin: sin is when one deliberately chooses to do something that harms either themselves or someone else.

From a religious perspective, that could even mean one sins unknowingly when they deliberately choose specific actions without knowing that the consequences cause harm.

Before this turns into a hugely philosophical debate, though, we’re talking about portraying fictional concepts of sin inside fictional worlds and stories.

There are different types of sin that you can deal with in those stories.

Sin Against Self

These types of sin will seem harmless, but they might actually be some of the most dangerous. These sins are easily hidden from others, which means it can easily twist a heart or soul.

Sins against self might include envy, greed/gluttony, holding grudges, etc. Sins against the self can also eventually push one to commit sins against others.

Sin Against Others

Sins against others will be more easily visible. These will be actions used to deliberately bring harm to another person, whether that harm is emotional, physical, or spiritual.

These might include lying, murder without cause, manipulation, vandalism, rape, etc.

Sin Against ‘Mankind’

The term mankind is woefully inadequate here for dealing with races of science fiction and fantasy worlds, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment, alas!

These types of sins are similar to sins against others, but somewhat on a larger scale. Sins against ‘mankind’ are things like genocide, racism, segregation, etc.

Sin Against Authority

Sins against authority are actions used to deliberately sabotage the rule of law within a society. However, it comes with a flip-side: when a government or ruling authority truly is in the wrong, it might be a moral obligation to break the laws decreed when those laws are unjust and/or they fall into any or all of the other categories of sin mentioned here.

When a government or authority figure that is veering into totalitarianism realizes they may soon have a revolt on their hands, they like to play the ‘rule of law’ and/or ‘sins against authority’ cards to try and keep people in line.

It often works. But sometimes it doesn’t.

Sin Against the Divine

While all the other sins discussed so far could technically also fall under the umbrella of ‘sins against the divine,’ especially if your beings exist as Imago Dei (made in the image of God), we’re going to focus instead on a certain subset of sin—sins that can only apply to religion. If a society is theocratic, though, then sins against the divine will almost certainly also be considered sins against authority, as well.

These will be things like heresy (belief or opinion contrary to established doctrine), blasphemy (deliberately twisting or misrepresenting the characteristics of a deity or religion), and apostasy (turning away from one’s religion completely), etc.

While for the most part, the other sins (self, others, mankind, authority) are types of actions that will either be regulated by the self or by governing authorities, religious sins can play an interesting role in society.

In historical times, it was not uncommon for religious institutions to hold their own courts, and then to turn their guilty parties over to the governing authorities for punishment. It will simply depend on how closely related your religious institutions and ruling authorities are, or have been in the recent past.

Knowledge of Sin

Now, to a certain extent, if one is ignorant of sin and its effects, it’s almost impossible to hold them accountable for their actions.

There is usually some sort of trigger that makes someone aware of the consequences their actions are having on other people, and at some point even on themselves.

In many ways, religion defines those parameters ahead of time, and that’s why religious mythologies usually have some sort of story documenting a shift from perfection to imperfection, even if it isn’t called sin. It’s the gaining of awareness one didn’t have before, and how they respond to that awareness can define a world, a culture, or a person.

Worldbuilding Exercises

  1. What does your fictional religion teach as the moment where sin began or was discovered?
  2. Are there any sins that are treated fairly casually by society, such as ‘white lies’?
  3. What are some of the gravest sins that have ever been committed in your world?
  4. Has the mythos around the origin of sin had long-term consequences for any portion of your population? (Such as some of the Christian church’s beliefs about women.)

Leave a comment below if you have any questions! Thanks for stopping by!

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