In my ongoing Bizarre the Beyond Armoire campaign (latest session here) religion has come up a surprising amount. Surprising to me at least, as I provided only a barebones summary of the world's religions at the outset.
So my players and anyone else who's interested can have a better understanding of the world without me going on an exposition dump in-session I've put together this primer on the three main religions/religious groups. The entries are based on the level of knowledge & bias the characters would have (e.g. more on the archons, as Velasco is a heterodox archonic monk):
The church of the archons is called the Exarchate. At least nominally, the Exarchate administers the entire world for the archons. In reality their authority is much more limited, particularly in regions remote from their centers of power like Nalas-Dula where the campaign takes place.
The archons, the celestial planets, even the sun itself are one and the same. By ineffable means (and the occasional meteor impact) they control the fate of all people. Their actions are often inscrutable, when they're even recognized, but their ultimate end is distant yet just governance of the sub-lunar realm. Those loyal to the archons' Order will prosper and be fruitful, the wicked and disobedient will be brought low. Many of the things which their Order includes are commonsensical: be honest and fair in your dealings, obey rightful authority, honour your parents, your friends, and your enemies as they have honoured you. Sometimes it is not so: sacrifice a thousand cattle at this moment at these locations, build a structure of this material to these exacting geometric specifications, say this phrase with this intonation to that person when you receive such and such signal.
They are not anthropomorphic beings, in fact addressing them by names is taboo. That used to be different, but now only remote cults will worship archons individually.
Their priests (called exarchs) are the only ones who may pray to the archons and expect a response. Exarchs are consulted constantly for the interpretation of witnessed omens, advice, and to act as an intermediary for divine requests. Monks & nuns live a step apart from worldly civilization to observe the stars and other signs to interpret the archons' will and nature. Superstitions to attract fortune and ward off misfortune abound among archon-worshipers. So does vegetarianism. They do not view themselves as having dominion over or especially above animals.
Their worship is transactional, more similar to patronage than faith. To the archons humanity (hedgehogs included) shares the position that a draft horse does to us. It is not the draft horse's place to question why it's made to pull the plough, it only knows that it must. We are protected and succored only so long as we are useful. The world holds the ruins of those before us who were not so useful. That attitude is known and accepted even by laypeople, consider the following joke as an example (adapted from Slovenian rockstar philosopher Slavoj Zizek):
A group of archon-worshipers are in a temple publicly admitting their lowness in the eyes of the archons. First, an exarch stands up and says: “O archons, I know I am a mere beast. I am nothing without your favour!” After he has finished, a rich merchant stands up and says, beating himself on the chest: “O archons, I am also a mere beast, I pursue wealth over your will. I am nothing without your favour!” After this spectacle, a poor ordinary archon-worshiper also stands up and also proclaims: “O archons, I am nothing without your favour.” The rich merchant kicks the exarch and whispers in his ear with scorn: “What insolence! Who is that guy who dares to claim that he is nothing without the archons' favour too!”.
This is accepted because the archons generally hold up their end of the bargain. An ice age has been held back, a supervolcano lulled into dormancy, and legions of demoniac enemies have been obliterated by light from the heavens by their whim. That being said they are not all-powerful (but more powerful than any earthly ruler), they are not all-knowing (but more knowledgeable than any who have not been around since the start of time). Sometimes some things slips through the cracks.
The Shining One
Physical properties, except perhaps position, are all ultimately just descriptions of how an entity will behave in various circumstances. So far as we know, there is nothing it is to be an electron but to interact in this way with the electromagnetic field, this way with gravity, etc. Physics tells us about the mathematical structure of the universe, and the entities it posits are just particular roles within that structure. Trying to find an intrinsic nature to the electron independent of its physical role is like trying to find an intrinsic nature to the number three, independent of its role in arithmetic.
For experiences, this is not the case. Red is the sensation produced by particular patterns of nerve firings, it results in particular outputs like the act of saying "that color is red", it is similar to the sensation of orange, less similar to blue, and less similar still to the feeling of sneezing, but a complete characterization of all of these things doesn't tell you what it's actually like to see a red thing- experiences have intrinsic properties. They have content, independently of their role in some larger structure.
You are not merely physical. You have experiences. This is because you are not of the physical universe. Not originally at least.
There was no beginning to this universe. There was only matter, without context, without purpose, without experience. Then there was light. That light was the Shining One.
You are a piece of that light. That is how you are able to experience. That is why you give meaning to the world.
That light, of which you are a part, is not meant to stay here in this universe. It is only one point in a long, possibly eternal journey There are powers which seem far above you which find you exploitable. They would trap you here. Some among them are called the archons. Some of these archons are known to you by name and title:
-Sabaoth the Red, Sabaoth of Armies, the Star of Discord
-Adonaios the Golden, the Sun, the crippled runt of their litter
-Horaios of Wealth, Horaios the Silver, Goddess of the Coin
-Saklas the Purple, Saklas the Ender, He Who Devours His Children
The Shining One's premier servants in this temporal world are the paladins: living saints, fierce bodhisattvas, walking, talking, burning holes in the universe, far closer to monster than mortal. A single one could break a siege or turn the tide of a battle. They are fortunately rare, and rarely active. They desire nothing more than universal annihilation. They are certain that, on a long enough timescale, they will win.
The Shining One is known according to Exarchate doctrine as TH-R-ZD-N, an entity of invasive and malignant chaos. They might even be right.
The Natural Spirits
There have been many Orders, many orderings of the world towards an end. However the world is a very complex place, and so the systems for ordering the world must be complex too. The problem with complex systems is that such systems behave in ways not predicted by their components. Even the mere maintenance of an Order produces chaos. Chaos in turn produces irregularities in the functions of elements and forces, which demand an expansion of Order to regulate.
Throughout time there have been agents tasked or created to regulate these irregularities: mephits, nymphs, elementals, and genies among them. Inhabitants and avatars of aspects of the natural world that ensure the natural world behaves in accordance with the natural Order.
Even as agents of Order these spirits are not immune to moral hazard. They may be bribed, seduced, appealed to, coerced, tricked, and so on to bend their charge to the benefit of mortals, regardless of how it might affect the world's stability (or the plans of the world-rulers) in the longest term. Over generations these procedures can become enshrined in impossible-to-dislodge ritual.
That is the basis of worship of the natural spirits. Do a little something for them, they'll do a little something for you: make rain come during an ordained drought, bring the fish swarming upriver out of breeding season, move the roots out of this field, and so on. As long as it stays out of sight of higher powers, everybody might end up happy for a long time.
Some related reading (spiritually if not literally in the same universe):