L is for Laws – Worldbuilding Religions

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I’ve covered concepts of law before, both in G is for Government in The A-Zs of Worldbuilding: Building a Fictional World From Scratch and in L is for Law (much creative titling, I know) in Creating Cohesive Magic Systems. In G is for Government, it was more a discussion of societal laws and how those laws were established to keep your world running smoothly (or, you know, to enable an authoritarian or tyrannical government). In Creating Cohesive Magic Systems, it was about how laws might affect magic users, both from a perspective of liability and potential persecution.

But religious laws can be an entirely different thing unto themselves.

There’s really two major ways religious laws play into the governing of a society: religious law is either the basis of societal law (such as in Western civilization as we know it—however much some people might try to decry our society as secular, the structure for most of our current law systems has been greatly influenced by Judeo-Christian factors), or religious law applies only to religion.

Often, when religious law dictates the law of the land, then some sort of theocracy (see previous topic K is for Kings) is in play, but not always. Sometimes religion is more cultural than it is personal, and the core religious laws are still kept because a group is trying to maintain a connection with their cultural heritage.

However, there are many countries in the world that still use religious law as their form of government, especially Muslim countries.

Those of us in Western societies are more familiar with the concept of religious law applying only to those following the religion, but with the understanding that religious law won’t really hold up in a court of law and there are no civil punishments for religious infractions (such as heresy). Only when religious law and civil law intersect (such as theft or murder) will there be civil consequences.

As mentioned in I is for Iniquity, in past times there have been instances where civil law and religious law exist side-by-side. Religious law was responsible for convicting a person who had broken those laws (heresy, apostasy, etc.) and they then turned them over to the civil authorities to be punished. Often, these punishments were the death penalty.

Worldbuilding Exercises

  1. What sort of relationship does civil and religious law have in your world? Briefly explain, and if they exist side-by-side or completely separate, make sure to note when the two do work in concert.
  2. Does civil law ever try to take over religious law, either historically or in the ‘present’ of your story? How about religious law taking over civil law? What does that look like?
  3. How much authority are religious institutions allowed to exercise, whether they work in concert with civil law or they are completely separate? Do they have their own prisons? Are they allowed to train a private army?

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

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