This is Faith in Play #38: Places of Worship, for January 2021.
As a boy I several times went to summer camp at Camp Lebanon (in Lebanon, New Jersey). One of its more memorable aspects was a chapel in the woods known as The Green Cathedral (pictured). To me there always seemed something providential about the place—a perfectly flat open space was surrounded about three-quarters of the way by cliff walls, highest opposite the opening; people had added crude benches, a lectern or pulpit, and a simple cross, but regulars would point out that there was a natural cross in the cracks of the rock of the cliff face directly behind the wooden one. It was one of the few places I’ve been in my life which seemed to have that air of the holy, that feeling that this place was in some sense sanctified, set apart for God.
That was not, though, the first place that came to mind when I thought of places of worship. I rather thought of the great cathedrals and mosques of Europe and the Middle East. Then as soon as I thought of them, I was reminded that in the far east it is much more common to have tiny shrines, buildings so small the worshiper cannot enter but simply stands in front making his prayers. In Dungeons & Dragons, the druids have less than that, groves in the forests.
There was something grove-like about that chapel in the woods at camp, something almost druidic. Sitting alone in a place like that, it was perhaps easy to understand the nature religions.
I didn’t have to wonder why the west built such huge stone buildings as places of worship and the east tended not to do so. There were three reasons why large buildings were constructed in the west that didn’t apply in the east, and understanding the religions in your game world will help you understand what kinds of religious buildings you need, and where.
The first and obvious reason why large buildings were constructed in the west is that the religions of the west—and I’m including Islam along with Christianity and Judaism—involved and indeed required gathering. In some places it was a crime not to attend regular services, and at least a sin in many others. That meant large numbers of people coming together at regular times, and without regard for weather conditions, making large buildings necessary. The more densely packed the local population, the bigger the building had to be. It was also valuable to make them sturdy enough that repairs would not be required as often.
In the East, faith was more a private and personal thing. Large gatherings were uncommon. You went to the holy place to bring your offering and make your prayer, and you left; sometimes you spoke to a holy person who attended the shrine. If you encountered someone else there when you arrived, you probably waited respectfully for them to finish so you could start. They didn’t need a building for that.
The second reason should not be discounted. We might call it ostentation, but should not suggest thereby that it was a bad thing. The people building these gathering places wanted them to be beautiful, wanted the world to know that they loved their God or gods and were willing to make financial sacrifices to give the best, most beautiful, building possible. The Gothic arches in cathedrals of that period had pointed tops, accompanying tall spires, all of which pointed to heaven. They were designed to say, see how much we love our God.
Whoever built the shrine in the East might have been known or recognized for having done so, but in the main it was done for his personal use and shared with others. Perhaps a significant sum was spent on it, but there was no competition, no need to be particularly ostentatious. A small building was sufficient.
The third reason for these buildings, though, was defense. Nations were frequently at war even with themselves. Don’t be fooled by the hype—the wars weren’t usually about religion, but about territory and sovereignty. Religion was just a side issue often used as a rallying cry. Yet because it was an issue, religious leaders had to defend themselves and their people. Even monasteries would have walled enclosures and defensible gates, and would bring in the peasants when soldiers were known to be approaching. Princes would help build cathedrals that doubled as fortresses—after all, if you’re going to spend that much money on one large solid building, it ought to do more than one thing, and these buildings did many things, but one of them was provide a last line of defense against invaders. Some invaders had the respect not to attack a church, but some did not, so defense was necessary.
In the East, no one cared, really, whether you were particularly religious or which religions you believed. Even today worshipers can be syncretic, following the practices of several religions, and no one thinks they are being unfaithful to one just because they also adopt another. Conquerors didn’t care about the shrines or the religious leaders or the faith of the people; they were just there for the land and the tribute.
Obviously there are religious buildings sized between the huge cathedrals of the Western cities and the tiny shrines of the Oriental countryside—but the size of the building is to some degree a measure of these factors: does it have to provide a meeting place for worshipers, such as a synagogue? Will it be ostentatious, such as a mosque or Greek temple? Does it have to be defensible, such as a monastery? Answer those questions, and you’ll be closer to knowing what kind of religious building you need.
And maybe it’s just a grotto in the woods with a few benches, a lectern, and a religious symbol.