The worship of various gods, saints, spirits, totems, daedra, and hero-gods has been a staple of Imperial culture since time immemorial. There are thousands of different cults in modern Cyrodiil, hailing from innumerable different traditions. This variety of faiths is maintained by the Empire's traditional position of passive tolerance, the result of a deep-seated cultural reluctance to mingle religion and governance. More in general, it is an aspect of Cyrodiil's vibrant history of trade, conquest and exchange, both within its borders and with surrounding provinces, a state of affairs which has led to the attitude that a creed, much like anything else, can considerd a commodity.
In modern, secularized Cyrodiil, cult affiliation is a social and economical affair first and foremost. Cults provide standing to their members, giving them collective influence, political connections, and paths of advancement in the faction with which these cults are often entangled. For many believers, the message of the faith is at best secondary.
That is not to say that spiritual fervor is unknown to Cyrodiil. Despite (or because) of this irreverent attitude, there are a great number of extremist cult on the margins of Imperial culture. As turmoil and instability in the Empire rise, so does the influence of these outliers.
Nibenese Religious Attitudes
Religious fervor is strongest in the east. The numinous, constantly evolving cultural attitudes of the Nibenese gives rise to almost seasonally popular cults. Ancient tradition and new fashions go hand in hand, and only a handful of cults have permanent, irrevocable relevance. Most religions struggle for power in the political arena or, occasionally, in brief and bloody temple-wars.
Nibenese cults run the gamut from charismatic sub-cults dedicated to the Divines, to the worship of Daedra, ancestors, saints and hero-gods, totem societies, foreign loan-gods, and inscrutable hermetic philosophies. This diversity is attributed to the era of the Marukhati, whose dogma of a singular God composed of innumerable facets ironically caused a proliferation of minor cults focused on minute aspects of the Divine.
Some cults are simple mendicant orders, others are nihilistic death-cults, bureaucratic fraternities, or merchant syndicates. This extravagance, which stands in shrill contrast to the blasé attitude of more worldly Imperials, is a reflection of the rich heritage - and frequent social instability - of the central valleys society.
Colovian Religious Attitudes
Colovians are spiritually sober and moderate. They are pious when it comes to the Divines, but exercise their faith in private. Many consider it an offense to inquire into their personal beliefs. Bizarre ritual is wasted on them, and western temples are sparsely decorated. An exception is made for the worship of the Nine Divines, an obligation to the state which affirms their loyalty to the Empire and its ideals. Nevertheless, a handful of charismatic sub-cults and eastern-style sects do flourish, especially in the cosmopolitan lowlands cities.
The Colovians honor a number of hero-gods (in what they presume to be the Nordic fashion) and a modest roster of saints -- special mention should be made of the Founder Saints, credited with conquering the west and creating the Colovian Estates as they are now. Saint-heroes are exemplars to be matched in virtue and piety, but not spirits who can be cajoled into bringing favors or gifts, as some Nibenese do. The Colovians acknowledge the existence of Nibenese spirits, but consider them dangerous, fickle, and unworthy of worship.
Worship of Shor is an important status marker for the nobility, though the Colovian Shor is closer to the Nedic Shezarr than the original Shor of Skyrim.
A Note on Heartlanders
Heartlanders are simultaneously the most agnostic and most zealous in their beliefs. For many, religion is merely a part of the intricacies of society life - a Heartlander honors the Nine Divines alongside a house-god, sect, sub-cult, or secret society of his preference, selected with an eye on business alliances or social advancement. Someone who only honors the Divines, without attending any exclusive sects or brotherhoods, would be considered dull and lacking aspirations.
However, extremist sects also flourish here. The Imperial City alone is home to hundreds of cults, both in the Inner City as in the teeming slums of lower districts. Cults, not gangs, rule these districts, and their activities cross the line between ritual practices and criminal misconduct. Temple-wars, indistinguishable from gang warfare, are commonplace. The days that cultist activity was restricted to the Temple District are long gone, and small chapels, shrines, and worship places can now be found across the city, even spilling out into the satellite towns of Lake Rumare.
The Nine Divines and The Great Faiths
Belief in the Nine Divines, Cyrodiil’s highest pantheon of protector-creator gods, is universal among citizens. Lip service to the Divines is expected from all public figures, and even the Emperor sometimes assumes the mantle of the high priest of Akatosh or mortal incarnation of Talos, as the pageantry of court requires. Despite the decrees of tolerance, the Great Faiths and the Talos Cult are institutionally bound to the Empire in a way that no other religion it, and their missionary branch, the Imperial Cult, is widely considered a subsidized tool for imperialization of the provinces.
State-sponsored and endorsed by the Emperor, the Great Faiths are the most prominent religion in Cyrodiil. These syncretic religious orders worship the “common orthodoxy” of the Nine (or Eight-and-One) Divines. While not compulsory or exclusionary towards other cults, worship of the Divines is an essential aspect of the Imperial citizen identity, and those who deny or disparage the Divines effectively place themselves outside of the social order.
Most Imperials worship the Divines in abstract terms -- as powerful but indifferent creator spirits to be emulated or appeased, but not approached on personal terms. Indeed, while personal and heartfelt worship does exist, a substantial number of Imperials see the worship of gods not as something transcendent, but rather as an obligation, similar to paying taxes or making public displays of loyalty. By placating the Gods and observing their demands, they ensure prosperity for themselves, their family, and even for the Empire as a whole. Faith is thus interpreted as a transaction.
There is a heavy social pressure on those who do not partake in such ritual gestures - not only do they endanger themselves, but their negligence and misconduct is detrimental to society as a whole. Indeed, the collapse of previous Empires is often attributed to a mass failure to observe the Virtuous Life and the public rites and proper conduct expected of good Imperials.
Of course, this perfunctory attitude to state religion rarely satisfies real spiritual needs. As a result, many Imperials also worship more personable saints and spirits alongside the Divines, or attend one of the many charismatic sub-cults that focus on a specific, personable aspect of a Divine.
Few Imperials worship each Divine in equal measure. Often they focus on preferred Gods who have special relevance to their life or profession, paying mere lip-service to the others. The role that the Divines play in daily life is contingent on their sphere of influence: an Imperial can become a devotee of a specific Divine when life’s circumstances dictate it: obedience to Mara when in courtship, to Stendarr in war, to Zenithar in business affairs, to Kynareth when traveling, etc. A life well-lived will have seen each Divine worshiped at some point. Note though that this is not a matter of personal preference - one cannot choose not to worship a Divine when it is appropriate or opportune to do so, and a failure to observe proper respect and correct rites simply because one does not care for any one god is a surefire way to invite disaster.
The Great Faiths and the Imperial Cult
The modern Imperial Cult is a far younger organization than the ancient, decentralized Great Faiths. A missionary order, it was founded by Pelagius I to support belief in the ascension of Tiber Septim and to promote Imperial citizenship in the newly conquered provinces. The Great Faiths support the Imperial Cult with missionary priests and resources, but they remain two very distinct organizations.
The Great Faiths were never a proselytizing religion, and their interest in spreading the word of the Divines to the provinces remains minimal. The state-sponsored Imperial Cult are more proactive, offering both support for Imperial colonists abroad, and attempting to convert the peoples of Morrowind, Black Marsh, Elsweyr, the Summerset Isles, and Valenwood. Over time, this has caused the Imperial Cult t develop its own, distinct orthodoxy, which is sometimes at odds with the canon of the Great Faiths.
The success of the Imperial Cult’s mission in the provinces is variable, depending on the whims of an often indifferent Imperial government. Usually, support for the missionary activities correlates with the immediate need of the Empire to project unity and power in unstable regions. Many of the Empire’s high dignitaries prefer the active, unified Imperial Cult over the rather apathetic Great Faiths -- the former is a much more useful tool to them.
For now, the Imperial Cult is content to spread the faith in the provinces, acting as an Imperial institution on par with the likes of the Legion or the Census & Excise Office. The Imperial Cult is guided by the Imperial Seminary in Tiberiad, which is in turn controlled by the Ennead Council which includes members of each Great Faith, various prominent sub-cults, and emissaries of the Emperor. The Ennead’s authority has waned of late, especially in the wake of the Simulacrum. Many now consider the council and the Seminary as hollow institutions without real authority. In practice, most provincial branches of the Imperial Cult operate under the authority of their local Primate, many of whom have begun acting in complete autonomy, ignoring the Ennead’s direction and pursuing their own, self-serving interpretations of the Faiths.
The Great Faiths and their Charismatic Sub-Cults
The Great Faiths represent the orthodoxy of a Divine synthesized from all observable facets in the mortal world. This is (according to Imperial theology) an ideal image of the Divine, free from the contradictions and information loss caused by the interference of the mortal world. The Great Faiths are powerful and widespread, but their message is abstract, formal, impersonal, and difficult to comprehend. As a result, many people turn to the charismatic sub-cults.
These sub-cults are minor sects (often, but not exclusively within the greater Faith tradition) who honor a specific aspect of a Divine. Often, this sub-god is indicated with an epitaph, a specific name which signifies a certain role or attribute. The sub-cults have more intimate and emotional connections to their Divines, but tend towards exclusivity, and some are fanatic in their beliefs.
The term “charismatic” does not imply that the sub-cults are more personable or affable, but rather that they seek an ecstatic religious experience, the immediate spiritual presence of the God in the so-called charismata -- miracles, spiritual gifts, and revelations.
Relations between the Faiths and their sub-cults vary. Many in the Great Faiths accept the sub-cults as legitimate ways to worship the Divines, though they are often myopic and narrow-minded. Many dismiss the charismata as the result of overactive imaginations, or even fraud. More sceptical voices identify the charismata as their opposite - the disquieting prodigia, signs that go against the natural order.
It is not unusual for a member of a sub-cult to also earnestly attend the Great Faiths. However, some outlier sub-cults preach that the mainline Faiths are wrong-headed or corrupted by (foreign or worldly) concerns, placing themselves outside the greater tradition.