Recently, I attended a symposium on Islam. Really central to this religion, as you might figure from the name, are the Five Pillars of Islam. This is a brief collection of the most important elements of the religion gathered together. The speaker went over each of them and explained their significance.
The first one was, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet.” This is the creed, or overriding idea on which Islam is built.
The second pillar is constant prayer.
The third pillar is charity. The Muslims are required, every year to give one fortieth part of the value of all they posses to charity unless they are too poor.
The fourth pillar is fasting in observance of Ramadan. They may eat no food and drink no water from sunrise till sunset every day throughout the month unless doing so would endanger their health.
The fifth pillar is the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca if physically and economically possible.
Now this isn’t evangelism for Islam. Neither, certainly, is it in any way meant to disparage the significance of Islam to its people. It’s simply an example that gave me an idea for creating religions in my conworlding efforts. This also certainly isn’t to say that every religion needs to explicitly have a Three Pillars of Shakaru or Seven Pillars of the Zen Baptists. Quite likely any formulation of “Pillars” of your religion would remain unseen in the background. A tool to help you in the creation of your cultural structure.
Looking at that last sentence, you can see something else. I don’t think that this pillar-finding expedition is limited to the creation of religions. It can be useful in the creation of any culture with a coherent belief system, secular or theocratic.
So let’s go back over those five pillars and look at them at the simplest and most abstracted level. The meta-significance, as it were.
The first pillar was the creed, the root from which all else in the religion’s philosophy must derive its meaning, significance and legitimacy. Further abstracted, this is philosophy, the world of ideas. Any set of “Pillars” for a religion or culture should include at least one such core idea.
The second pillar was a required action. It also had philosophical significance as a constant reminder of man’s position in the universe, in this case as a supplicant to an almighty and all-encompassing creator.
The third pillar is another required action. Philosophically, it helps to define one’s relationship to one’s fellow man, and also one’s relationship to the creator from whose mercy, in their belief, all blessings flow.
The fourth pillar, once again is an outward action. It also serves as a goad to thoughtfulness. Both to the creator and to life. This makes it in some sense a reiteration of the philosophy of the first and second pillars. Also, according to the speaker, the act of fasting helps one to gain a greater empathy towards other people who might hunger every day, and so it reinforces the third pillar.
The fifth pillar is another required action. One of the details of the Hajj is that as people enter Mecca, they remove their ordinary clothing and garb themselves in basically the same clothes as everybody else. Besides being the major focus of one’s life directed towards religion, it also reinforced once again a notion of human equality.
So we see here one pillar describing a central overriding philosophical belief and four pillars which describe outward visible acts and also refine and expand upon the philosophy in the first. There’s something deeply brilliant about this formulation. One might even say inspired. In order to be believable as something to which people would devote their lives, devotion and loyalty, any religion or culture must have something which could reasonably be considered inspiring or uplifting in some manner.
How does one go about constructing a Pillars structure?
First one needs to create a basic philosophy. This may be as simple and straightforward or as complex and arcane as you wish it to be, although it is probably best to keep the complexity down. If you can fit it onto a three-by-five card you’re probably good. If you can’t do that, then you might want to break that up into multiple pillars. Start, then, with one or more pillars devoted to the ideas of your people or religion.
Now one needs to show the outward aspects of one’s constructed culture or religion. What are people expected to do in daily life or over the span of one’s life that goes beyond the ordinary? These things could be tithes to a religious organization, pilgrimages, or dietary requirements. These are the pillars that support, describe and inform the outward, visible actions of people within the religion or culture. They may involve sacrifices, human or otherwise. They may be as seemingly trivial to those outside the faith as funny hats or always standing your boiled egg fat end down before breaking the shell. Trivial or not, we’ll come back to these later.
The prime number thing is kind of tongue-in-cheek, though it’s the way I do it. Prime numbers are pretty darn mystical things after all. There are a few minimums. There should be at least one purely philosophical statement. Not, “We give sacrifices to Unruho that It might lead us out of the diabolical trap which is life,” but, “The Circle of Life is a trap, set by the Diabolical Creator, and Unruho is the only Path to escape.” The sacrifices can be described in another pillar, and they may add to the philosophical texture in ways that otherwise would not fall out as easily. In my opinion three pillars is a pretty fair minimum. Fewer and you really don’t have much basis for a unique and interesting religion/culture unless of course it’s just extreme or seriously strange.
Once you have compiled a set of philosophical statements and activities, it’s good to go back over what you have. Particularly the outward physical indicators. How can these pillars be tied back to the basic philosophical pillar? In what ways do they suggest other philosophical principles. If people are expected to wear very similar shapeless frocks and masks in public, what does this say about notions of individuality and one’s relationship to others? Do people wear different masks depending on situation? Perhaps one would wear a special mask to a job interview and a different one when out doing household chores? Do the masks come off in the privacy of one’s home when among friends? Family? Can you as the creator of this religion or culture think of ways in which these different masks have meaning. Can they add nuances to the philosophy of interpersonal relationships and the relationship to the Divine and to the greater society?
You can put as much time and effort into this as you like. Obviously, the more effort put in, the better the result. This is not an iron-clad perfect way to build a religion or whatever, but it may help to agitate the little gray cells into motion. You may find a whole new understanding for the mental universe in which your people live when you figure out just why they all wear little conical saffron-colored hats.
This is a complex enough process, that I feel I will have to go over it again if only to understand it myself. Hopefully what I have here will at least help others to formulate better ways of creating attributes for their constructed religions and cultures. If so let me know what you come up with. I always appreciate comments.
The Great and Mighty Astrographer