I’ve mentioned before that fantasy is an important tool for analyzing and commentating on reality. Many social conventions that exist in reality are reflected in fantasy, with varying degrees of abstraction, and this allows for some pretty accessible metaphors. I have realized recently, however, that there is a significant difference between the place religion occupies in society and the way it is typically represented in fantasy. The most critical thing is that in reality, of course, religion is a matter of faith: the results of prayer or ritual are not measurable and the existence of deities is not provable. In fantasy, on the other hand, it’s quite common for deities to appear unambiguously and for religious rites to produce clear and repeatable results. That’s generally convenient for the characters, but excluding some or all of the “faith” element makes fantasy religion a much less useful metaphor for real religion. When religion is an important element of a fantasy world, therefore, it does serve a purpose, but generally a less direct purpose than representing or commentating on real religion.
One common use of religious inclination in characters is as a shorthand for morality. When a character is affiliated with a holy force of some kind that the audience perceives as good, it makes the character’s actions seem less morally ambiguous, even if they would otherwise be questionable. Making the deity tangible also makes it much more difficult for those actions to be read as fanaticism. Religion is used this way in The Legend of Drizzt series and other Forgotten Realms books, using the deities from Dungeons & Dragons. In the context of a tabletop game, the gods sort of have to have a mechanical element for the sake of keeping the game fair, but in the related novels they are used rather clumsily as moral dividers. Certain deities like Lolth, the drow goddess, and Gruumsh, one of the orc gods, are definitively evil, making any character that follows them evil, and therefore perfectly okay for the moral but badass main character to kill without asking questions. Drizzt himself is an adherent of Mielikki, a nature goddess who is explicitly neutral good, which pretty much makes him good by association, even though he kills a lot of things. So while Drizzt does plenty of things that—taken individually—would raise some significant moral concerns, the vague good deity/bad deity umbrella serves to minimize those questions so we can get on with the fight scenes. The deities also grant specific, obvious powers or favors to their followers, making it clear even to non-adherents who is a follower of which deity and even to what extent they are committed to that deity. This removes a lot of character development as well; seldom does the writer have to delve into a character’s personal morality or rationality if the followers of any given deity are mostly homogeneous.
Unambiguous deities can also be used to represent real-world religions in a simplified way that makes them easier to digest. This is how C.S. Lewis represents Christianity in the intensely allegorical Chronicles of Narnia. Aslan, the deity on whom the story focuses, is directly representative of Jesus, and while most people agree that Jesus as a person existed historically, he is not actively hanging around performing miracles in corporeal form with modern Christian children. Aslan, on the other hand, appears in corporeal form to many people and groups of people throughout the Chronicles of Narnia series, doing miraculous things in plain view of both the characters and the audience.
The books are certainly a positive moral tool, and unlike fictional religions that exist as good/evil dichotomies, morality is dealt with in depth in The Chronicles of Narnia; however, the characters rarely have to demonstrate true faith comparable to the way real-life Christians do. Some of the main characters go a while without seeing Aslan and have to trust that he still exists, but even in those cases they have seen him in person, and their doubts are pretty easily and rationally cleared up. The Chronicles of Narnia were clearly intended for children, and children understandably respond better to showing than telling, but because The Chronicles of Narnia is so uncommonly direct of an allegory, minimizing the element of faith seems to do that particular narrative a disservice.
One of the few cases where fictional religion has some solid social comparisons to real religion is in Game of Thrones. Although magic exists within the universe, it is not clearly linked to any one deity or religion, and in cases where adherents use magic, it is unclear whether an actual deity has granted that power. Melisandre, the priestess of the god known as Lord of Light, admits that at least some of the “miracles” she performs are simply tricks, through which she hopes to inspire genuine faith. Many results of prayer or ritual in Game of Thrones could be real or coincidence, depending on interpretation, and nothing is definitively demonstrated to the audience as provable or consistent. While no in-universe religion directly represents any real-life religion, by incorporating recognizable elements of religions in a new context, it prompts the audience to consider those elements more closely. This, in my opinion, is a more effective and poignant use of fictional religion than the cooler but less relatable portrayals of religion in fantasy.
While of course not all elements of all fantasy worlds have to be relevant to real life, the more depth there is in a story, the more opportunities the audience has to engage with and relate to the material. Writers spend so much time on complex worldbuilding that it seems a shame to reduce the whole concept of religion to a tagging system for good and evil, or to minimize the complex role that faith and uncertainty play in life and society.