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Single-Precept Religion

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"Make it a double!"
"You know what this Dragon Code reminds me of? A fad religion. You know what I'm talking about, like, when people latch onto a new religion or philosophy, and they only apply the surface tenets in the extreme, without looking into the how or why."

In Real Life, religions tend to be built up of a vast number of different things and can take such a variety of forms that it can be very hard to pin down exactly what the word "religion" means. As such, when someone needs one for a story, it can be very easy for them to to throw together any old thing and call it a religion. The reasoning is that as long as it looks the part people will fill in the details for themselves. This generally leads to a lot of works featuring religions that look an awful lot like Christianity, Buddhism, or similar, with what those people believe roughly copied, though, in some cases, the writer will choose to create their own from scratch to suit their needs. Either route can result in vast and detailed histories and belief systems that are complex enough (or at least seem to be), to draw us in and immerse us in the writer's vision.

And then there are these ones.

A Single Precept Religion is one where the writer created the look of a religion, but none of the substance. They may be grand and religiony-looking, but if you actually stopped one of the adherents and asked them what they actually believe... they can't really tell you. Or, if they can, the entire totality of their beliefs can be written on the back of a matchbook. Of course, they could be members of a Mystery Cult, in which case initiates actually won't know what they have gotten themselves into and the inner circle won't be keen on telling you (but that is another trope entirely).

In this instance they don't know because their religion doesn't actually have any beliefs, or, if it does, there are very few of them and they may actually sound like a secular secret society or be more akin to mysticism.

Subtrope of Artistic License – Religion. Related to Fridge Logic. Compare Planet of Hats where an alien species or society is written this simply.


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    Comic Books 
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: The Church of Universal Truth worship life, and are fuelled by their relentless faith in it. Of course, they were founded and led by an Ax-Crazy nigh-unkillable demi-god to summon a group of Eldritch Abominations.
  • There's plenty of religions in the Marvel Comics multiverse, but like the Church of Universal Truth above, most of them have all the depth of a grape leaf. The Purifiers? "Mutants are Satan". The Acolytes? "Magneto is Jesus." The Dark Riders? "Being a Social Darwinist is holy." And so on, and so forth...

    Film — Live-Action 

  • Kushiel's Legacy: Elua's one commandment to his people was "Love as thou wilt". People of other cultures often see this as a bit wimpy, but the D'Angelines would remind them: love is not easy, and for them it's not optional either. It doesn't have to be romantic or sexual love, but D'Angelines are commanded to follow their hearts.
  • This is played with in Master Of Space And Time by Rudy Rucker. One of the main characters wishes up a door to a parallel world where he can have an adventure. The world is controlled by a cult run by The Puppet Masters-like slugs. The cult has three teachings, God's Laws, which are "1. Follow Gary. 2. Be Clean. 3. Teach God's Laws". One character describes it as "A thought virus. A parasitic system that propagates itself."
  • The religion Mr. Tulip professes to follow in The Truth appears to consist solely of carrying around a potato as a sort of spiritual anchor ("as long as you've got your potato, you'll be alright"), and in feeling remorse for any of your misdeeds. It's suggested, though, that Tulip is gravely misinformed about the religion, which he hasn't encountered since his childhood (not that it matters, as long as he believes in it).
  • The Dark Side of the Sun, also by Terry Pratchett, features a less comedic version — the religion of Arte Sadhim has the "One Commandment", which is eventually stated to be "You Will Not Waste". There is a bit more to the religion than that, but it neatly sums up that Sadhimism is, basically, Whole Earth Catalog-era environmentalism.
  • "The Church" in the Darwath series and The Windrose Chronicles by Barbara Hambly has no visible theology other than "wizards are evil", and no connection with the real life of the people, and no discernible purpose beyond making people, and especially Our Heroes, miserable.
  • The Belgariad: Surprisingly common, given that the main characters are in regular contact with the deity Aldur and are opposing another deity with the covert support of another five. The worship of Nedra, for example, seems to boil down to a few rules involving money. The Bear-Cult's core beliefs are, in most cases, tied to overt racism and the grand plan of whichever villain is manipulating them that week. Torak's religion is heavy on ritualised gestures of devotion and human sacrifice, but no real philosophical substance beyond reflecting Torak's own arrogance. Possibly justified given that the protagonists are mostly in service to Aldur, who doesn't have a culture to serve him, so they're too tied up in their duties to delve into any aspects of theology that aren't directly related to the mission.
  • The Wheel of Time: The Whitecloaks. Their beliefs and rites seem to go as far as: the Light is good, Whitecloaks are good, the Dark is bad, Darkfriends are bad, Whitecloaks can't be Darkfriends, disobeying a Whitecloak makes you a Darkfriend. Their founding principles were more complex, but over time they've been somewhat... distilled.
  • Wax and Wayne: The Path, the religion dedicated to the god Harmony, has one founding principle: Do more good than harm. There are two caveats (don't waste time worshiping because doing good is the worship, and meditate for fifteen minutes a day), but it is still an extremely simple religion. Most people in-universe just find it too bizarre to actually do anything with, despite the fact that Harmony exists and everyone knows it. Notably, the only reason this works at all is because of constant low-level divine intervention. The point of the meditation is to allow Harmony to observe what Pathians are doing and give them subtle suggestions.
  • Justified with the Church of the Survivor in Mistborn: The Original Trilogy. The Lord Ruler suppressed almost all knowledge of other religions, leaving the oppressed skaa with little to no concept of dogma or faith. So Kelsier gives them a precept they do understand: 'survive'.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Doctor Who features the Silence, which is basically a cult built around one single solitary belief: that "Silence will fall when the question, "Doctor Who?", is asked". That's it. Why do they call it a religion? No idea.
    • Later episodes showed that the Silence were actually a splinter sect of the Papal Mainframe that became obsessed with that one line.
  • On Dinosaurs the Elders start looking for a belief system simple enough to be understood by the dumbest individual. The winning entry is one based on the world being created by a potato.
  • The Bajoran religion on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine went into great detail about the customs and traditions of the Faith of the Prophets, but there was never much in the way of actual beliefs and tenets other than "Prophets Good, Pah-Wraiths Bad, Sisko Awesome."
    • Arguably justified, as many previously-core tenets, such as the strict caste system, were dropped during the Cardassian Occupation and are now viewed as quaint dogma by most. Its portrayal is also rather hampered by the fact that big chunks of the religion that had been matters of faith were proven to be nothing but the literal truth in the show's pilot. The Prophets are real, they can really see and affect events across time (existing outside of it), the Orbs really are a way to communicate with them, and their "celestial temple" is a real place you can get in a ship and fly to (although they may or may not actually speak to you there).
    • The Ferengi belief system seems to be founded on the idea that the gods offer a beneficent afterlife to the rich; the Rules of Acquisition, while sometimes treated as religious doctrine, are more like The 285 Habits of Highly-Effective Ferengi than anything else.
    • The one-off religions held by the alien-of-the-week in many, many episodes would look at the elaboration given to the Bajoran religion and develop extreme jealousy. The religion in Star Trek: Enterprise which managed to send its native planet into a nuclear winter due to a schism over whether creation took nine days or ten was a memorable, if stupid, example.
  • Kings: The show is maddeningly vague on what sort of church "Reverend Samuels" heads, and why a population of no visible ethnicity thinks that "God gave this land to us." Since it's pretty clearly based on Saul and David from the Bible, we can surmise it's similar to Judaism though.
  • Babylon 5: Most of the alien religions get this to varying degrees.
    • The Centauri pantheon has enough gods in it that Londo and Vir aren't quite sure of the number, and that is most of the explanation we get of their religion. There is a belief that Emperors can ascend to godhood upon death, which becomes problematic when Emperor Cartagia, quite insane, decides he wants to take his adoring people with him when he ascends.
    • The Narn have multiple faiths, based around different prophets. G'Kar happens to be a follower of G'Quan, and is surprised to learn that G'Quan's holy book is actually a history book detailing one small part of the last Shadow War. We don't see much of this faith besides a few rituals, and in fact we see more of the faith that G'Kar accidentally starts when his diary is stolen and reprinted, complete with a coffee ring that none of his followers understand but dutifully copy. Naturally, his own followers get into arguments with him over what he is trying to say in his own writings.
    • We see little enough of the Minbari religion, besides a prophecy foretold by the prophet Valen who is later revealed to be a time-traveling Jeffrey Sinclair. If anything, it seems to be a cult of personality based around Valen and The One Who Was, The One Who Is, and The One Who Will Be.
    • For the humans, we learn that Doctor Franklin is a Foundationalist, which is described as basically being Cultural Chop Suey turned into a religion. They take what seems to work from other belief systems and incorporate it into their own. In an early episode the various ambassadors were doing exhibitions on their cultures' dominant religions, and the human one was just filling a room with members of different faiths to demonstrate that humans don't have one.
    • Most of what we learn about the Brakiri at all is that their religion involves comets and a belief that once every 200 years it is possible to commune with the spirits of the dead, a belief that ends up being quite correct, and not limited to the Brakiri, as several other station inhabitants learn.
    • Things get weirder when we learn that many religions across the galaxy were actually inspired or manipulated by The Vorlons, using their telepathy to hide their true forms as they meddled in the development of the younger races, which might explain any superficial similarities to Earth religions.
  • Played for Laughs on Goodness Gracious Me, which had skits where a young British Asian would ask his elders for guidance on the true meaning of their faith, only to be told that their entire religion revolved around the single stereotypical tenet that the average white viewer could be expected to know about, i.e. Hindu = "no beef", Sikh = "wear a turban", etc., "Oh, and that thing you do with your hands? Very bad."

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer: The religion of the thunder god Tor has but one commandment: Don't stand under a tree in a thunderstorm.
  • Zig-Zagged by the Imperial Cult in Warhammer 40,000. The Imperial Creed itself is only a few lines long (the God-Emperor is the one true god, the Imperium is an extension of His will, and heretics must be purged), to ensure easy compatibility (and conversion) with every culture. The beliefs of specific planets can be quite elaborate and varied. It's stated that the Echlessiarchy acknowledges that it's nigh-impossible to maintain a single doctrine over billions of different planets, so as long as you worship the God-Emperor, how you worship him is largely up to you. That said, their Inquisitors will frequently declare specific practices to be "heresy" based solely on their own discretion.

    Video Games 
  • The Church of the Holy Light in World of Warcraft. People follow it like a deity and it's set up rather like Catholicism, but the actual beliefs of the religion are never really elaborated upon in the game.
    • The pen and paper rpgs do a good job of establishing its tenets. To oversimplify, followers are expected to avoid two things: altruism (giving so much to others that you have nothing left for yourself) and hedonism (taking so much for yourself that there is nothing left for others).
  • The Chantry in Dragon Age is an unusual example. It has immense detail in its history, hierarchy, style and so on, but its actual teachings are pretty much limited to "Magic exists to serve man, not to rule over him." This seems rather odd in a role playing game which often asks the player to express either devotion or disdain for the chantry, despite knowing virtually nothing about it beyond it being the religion of the land.
    • The Chantry's main reason for existing is spread the teaching of its prophet Andraste to the entire world in the hopes that their creator-god will return to humanity after leaving when Andraste was betrayed and executed.
    • Part of this is a mix of All There in the Manual (the codex and supplemental materials explain at great length) and part is the in-game background being overwhelmingly from Chantry affiliated sources. Lots of things that are really just Chantry points of faith are presented as simply how the world is, and they have a de facto monopoly on academia. The third game especially gets into how these ideas are wrong, or at least incomplete.
  • Neither the Path of Light nor the Path of Dark of (old verse) Might and Magic had any real detail given to them. They both had priests, the Path of Light was vaguely good (and has a thing against undead) and the Path of Dark was vaguely evil (and has a thing for undead), and they had predecessor religions involving (respectively) the Sun and the Moon in some way, but beyond that...
    • There was a short story released that mentioned that religion in the region were the Paths of Light and Dark were most common centred on orthopraxic and ritualistic elementsnote ... except the way it phrased it suggested that phase of religious evolution gave way to wizardry a millennium or more before the Paths emerged.
    • This resembles the three Kings back in Might and Magic III, that each religiously symbolize and champion their alignment (i.e. Good, Chaos, and Evil) complete with high priest... but on closer inspection the only thing each king wants to do is destroy the other two. Bring any of them eleven Power Orbs and the other two kings get destroyed; that's it for their entire philosophy.
  • The reformed pagan faiths in Crusader Kings II arguably fall under this category. Though they take their inspiration from real-world religions, none of them (with the possible exceptions of Hellenismnote  and Aztec Paganism) ever achieved the level of organization and theological sophistication implied by the in-game reformation events. The game doesn't provide the player with many details about the reformed faith, beyond a few lines suggesting that a church hierarchy and holy book have been established (some of the reformed pagan faiths do give a little more detail on the church hierarchy by introducing a title denoting the leader of the faith). The game does have a function that lets religions put in the relevant scripture name, randomly chosen god or evil god (as appropriate) names or leader god name in events, but all the reformed pagan faiths have the same for all of those as their unreformed predecessor.
  • In Halo, the Covenant are (or more currently, were) an empire of religious-type Scary Dogmatic Aliens, united by a shared belief that the Forerunners built a set of Big Dumb Objects to Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence, and that they can do the same if they find them… and that’s it. Stories from their point of view make a lot of noise about sacred Forerunner artifacts and the various types of heresy (mostly defiling sacred Forerunner artifacts) and religious schisms (about the proper treatment or purpose of sacred Forerunner artifacts). If they believe or practice anything besides worshiping the Forerunners and their sacred artifacts, it gets a handwave at best, such as asides about characters demonstrating humility or undergoing penance (for failing to protect a sacred Forerunner artifact).

    Web Original 
  • SF Debris: The Bajoran religion is occasionally mocked for showing signs of this, but particularly in the review of "Children of Time" (DS9).
    Kira: I miss [First Minister Shakaar], but the last time we were on Bajor we went to the Kenda shrine, and we asked the prophets if we were meant to walk the same path.
    Dax: ...And?
    Kira: We're not.
    Chuck: Well... that's certainly a quick, neat, and ridiculous explanation. I'm surprised it wasn't revealed that he was a Leo and she was a Sagittarius, and their signs clashed. If they do, I don't know, I don't respect astrology enough to even look it up to accurately mock it. But they're really keeping it vague for such a life-changing decision, I mean, do they make use of one of the orbs to get some vision of the future? Is that how they found out? Or is this just asking some Vedec who was trying to take a nap?
    Vedec: (sleepy) Huh? What? No, you're not compatible, now go away, prophets be with you.
    Random Bajoran: Uh... Vedec? My father just died...
    Vedec: He's rotting in hell. Prophets be with you. Go away.
    • This turns into a small Brick Joke when later in the episode we find out that Kira was killed when the Defiant accidentally jumped 200 years back into the past and crashed on a planet in the Gamma Quadrant.
      Chuck: Ah. Well, I have to credit them this much: I suppose dying 200 years in the past is a definite sign that you're not destined to be with somebody.
      Vedec: Ha! Told you! Prophets be with you. Fuck off.
  • Door Monster: This is Played for Laughs in the "Civ 6: Theological Combat". The sketch revolves around a member of Boat Mormonism and a member of the Denouncing Venice religion trying to convert the same guy (leading to the titular combat). When the man asks what the actual tenets of the religions are, the Denouncing Venice guy simply says "We hate Venice" while the Boat Mormon admits he doesn't know what the tenets of his religion are. According to him, Boat Mormonism was founded because it sounded funny.

    Western Animation