Whether the religion you are creating for your cultures and worlds slips into becoming a cult or not will depend on how they treat those who question aspects of the faith, as well as outright doubt.
Whether a character is a new convert or a long-time believer, there are multitudes of reasons why questions about the nature/characteristics of a deity and certain doctrines may come up. For new converts, even if they’ve been exposed to religion for a long time, they’re now living in it for the first time. For long-time believers, there are many reasons why even a seemingly unshakeable faith can falter. It may be the death of a loved one, or the betrayal of someone in a position of authority within a religious institution.
The way religious leaders (and even lay-people*) respond to these things can affect your characters in a few different ways.
If the response to questions about faith and the existence of deities (especially in a world where your deities do not walk amongst the people) is hostility, then your character’s instinctive reaction will be to pull away, especially for new converts or for those who are already jaded against religion anyway.
Now, some characters may be able to see past the hostility and realize that the reactions of their mentors are not indicative of faith itself, or of the deity they represent. In those cases, your characters may either continue on with their pursuit of religion, or they might push away from organized religion.
It is entirely possible for your characters to push away from organized religion while still retaining their own faith. These followers will be the ones who still continue to live devoutly, but may only show up for the religious events that have significant social and cultural value, rather than all the little things along the way. They will still call themselves adherents of that faith, but will likely not have a presence in the communal practice of that faith unless it is required (such as church attendance used to be mandatory in colonial days).
There is another option as well—that hostility from organized religion will actually motivate your character to become more involved. If they can see that something is clearly wrong with how a religion is treating matters of faith and doubt, but they wholeheartedly believe in it despite their own doubts, then they may join forces in the hopes of eventually reforming that religious organization.
*‘Lay-’ is a term used to indicate religious followers who are not formally trained and hold no formal position of authority within a religious organization, but who would still be considered knowledgeable about the ins and outs of religious belief.
- Does your religion allow questions of any sort that are contradictory to doctrine? If not, how are they not a cult? Or, conversely, if you’re deliberately creating a cult, don’t worry about this as much.
- Has there, in the history of your world/culture/religion ever been a faith question/doubt that was dealt with so poorly that it resulted in either a mass exit of believers from that faith, or a schism that branched off into a new sect of that faith, or even an entirely new religion altogether?
- In your world, what would the religious life look like of a person who still followed faith traditions but no longer participated in organized religious activities?
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Rebekah Loper began creating epic worlds and stories as a child and never stopped. She is the author of The A-Zs of Worldbuilding series, and has a fantasy novella published in Beatitudes and Woes: A Speculative Fiction Anthology.
She lives in Tulsa, OK with her husband, dog, two formerly feral cats, a small flock of feathered dragons (…ok, ok, they’re chickens), and an extensive tea collection. When she is not writing, she can be found battling the elements in an effort to create a productive, permaculture urban homestead.