That said, I was raised Lutheran, and given a considerable religious education as a young man, which I followed up through university by a minor in religious studies. While I don’t respect belief systems, I have in the past enjoyed tearing people’s arguments apart from inside their belief structure – particularly in terms of Christian religion, with which I have the most experience. I have a Bible on my shelf. That is because it is a necessary source document to understanding this culture’s history and perception.
Why is that? Upon what is the success of Christianity based? Why did it, among all the pagan religions that infused Rome during the first four centuries AD, successfully superimpose itself upon the Roman and Greek mind? Was it chance, or luck, or the action of particularly brilliant thinkers? And why did it, along with Judaism and eventually Islam, inculcate itself so prominently into the world at large? More than two thirds of the world operates according to a monotheistic religious principal. Even Hinduism, which is extensively polytheistic, has had its greatest unifying success through the incorporation of a single principal entity, Krishna, introduced in the Upanishads at the time of the European Dark Ages (when monotheism in Europe was fully establishing itself). And Buddhism, which has no deity per se, speaks of a ‘oneness’. What is the appeal?
There are of course a great many reasons, and you are welcome to pursue a degree in the subject if you are so inclined. It would be ridiculous for me to attempt a complete account of the rise of the Christian Church here, and thoroughly useless if you were not prepared to take up a reading list beginning with Augustine’s City of God, along with works from Origen, Tertullian and a whole whack of contemporary writers from Plutarch through Suetonius to Tacitus describing the development of Roman life and its eventual collapse. Let us assume, therefore, that anything I say is going to be seriously ‘dumbed down’, simply because I’m not interested in writing a 90,000 word thesis on just this one topic. Besides, I only wish to address one particular angle on the subject, and that is the treatment of monotheism as a technology, which is after all the focus of this series.
You can accept it from me or you can accept it from L. Sprague de Camp, who wrote extensively upon this subject (that source is for you, Jeff), that the ancient Greeks and Romans produced hundreds of intricate and sophisticated technological improvements ... the knowledge of which, for mysterious reasons, fell out of favour. We know that Archimedes produced various clever devices which enabled the defence of Syracuse. None of those devices were ever used again, to our knowledge. Greek Fire was a thoroughly useful and effective weapon, particularly at sea. We don’t know for sure what it was. Woad was used to produce a blue dyestuff which was popular among the Celts. We have no clear idea what woad was, nor can any natural British plant produce a blue dye. We have Roman devices which were run by steam and evidence of Byzantium robots. Why were these innovations lost?
From our perspective, where every innovation is immediately seized upon and spread throughout the population, and ultimately improved upon, it is hard to believe that this was not done. Therefore, it has previously been supposed (up to the early 20th century) that such things were fabrications in the minds of historians, and that they never existed. But it is now believed that yes, they did exist, but for cultural reasons, there was no compelling need among the population to implement them. This is upheld by Chinese examples, such as iron founding in the 11th century which was put to an end by a disinterested bureaucracy, and vast shipbuilding skills from the 15th century that did not exist when the British occupied the country hundreds of years later.
Some people, it seems, just don’t care.
Allow me to suggest the workings of the pagan mind, for which there was no afterlife. You will find authors (none of them reputable, mind) today who will argue vigorously that there was an afterlife for the Romans, but I will point out that there are no sources for any supposition beyond vague suggestions of a ‘destination’ such as the Egyptian City of the Dead, or the Greek Hades. No philosophical treatment is given to these places ... they merely ARE. What one does there, or what purpose they serve, has no description which has survived to this era. This may be due to a successful Christian campaign to destroy such documents, but given what has survived (lengthy accounts of other pagan practices, sexual and otherwise), this seems unlikely. Consider also that we have little in the way of knowledge regarding actual Roman practices for burial. Beyond fragments and bits of law, we have nothing.
Consider the pagan’s mindset: when he is dead, he is truly dead. He is not a ghost, he does not haunt or drift around his family members, there is no heaven, there is no hell. At best, he might imagine a sort of eternal waiting room where he waits for nothing. In our culture, it is far easier to let go the concept of God than it is to let go the concept of an afterlife. The most sincere atheists I have known continue to concoct personal belief systems regarding what they might be privileged to do once they have died. They will catch themselves falling into ruts of afterlife assumptions, which they must habitually quash, reminding themselves that such things do not exist.
They don’t for our pagan. They haven’t been invented yet. For him, what good does it do to improve the world around him? What good does it do to amass knowledge? He is not part of a social heritage ... he is still fundamentally just another animal. There is no grand purpose in the universe for which he is a part. For him, it is eating and feeding his needs until the day he dies, and there is no reason to feel guilty about that. Excess is good, for no other reason than because it is excess, and there is only so long. Bereft of every guilt-concept that will be invented over the next five centuries – by Christianity – he is free to indulge to the best degree in which he is able. And the entire culture thinks that way. This helps explain the never-ending slaughter that is Greek and Roman history.
Meditation began to lift the pagan out of his hedonism by suggesting that there is a greater truth. Hinduism, the most successful polytheistic religion, instituted the concept of karma, which would compel believers to resist hedonism in the recognition that a well-lived life would begat a better life the next time around. Zoroastrianism and Judaism, the first early monotheistic religions, superimposed elaborate ritual and social order so as to create cultural stability.
Christianity bettered them all – by creating an afterlife, it allowed for the belief that once you passed on, you would join your ancestors, and continue to take part in the history of the world following your death. Suddenly there was a reason to see the world not in terms of what it offered you, but in terms of what services you could render as a devout believer. Yes, there exists the reward/punishment system ... but that is more an aspect of the evangelistic reform beginning in the early 19th century than it was a part of Christianity seventeen centuries ago. The principal philosophy, proposed by Augustine and others, was that the world mattered less as a trial than as a place where one worked and lived in order to make it as close to heavenly as possible. To begin to live in the now as one would expect to live in heaven afterwards. Contrition wasn’t enough. You had to prove that you had a mind CAPABLE of contrition, otherwise God would know at once that you were not truly repentant. This is a distinction our modern born-agains fail to consider.
My favorite joke by the comedian Emo Phillips: “When I was a little boy, I prayed and prayed for a bicycle. Then I realized that God didn’t work that way. So I stole a bicycle and prayed for forgiveness.”
It would not have amused Augustine.
It is a strange thing, but by creating a sensibility that the world existed as an ongoing process, by which things were improved and on which a soul could look upon for eternity, Christianity invented a social climate which would allow for the rise of Science. Through teaching that the world existed by virtue of the purpose of God, the investigation of God developed the investigation of the world. Christianity may be bunk, but without it we could not now exist in a culture that bridges the generations between the venerable Bede and myself, the stones laid carefully by every thinking human who has lived during the interim.
And so, D&D. Where monotheism is a hated conception, presumably because it is so rife with moralisms that were clearly anathema to the Gygaxian ideal. It is the nature of little children to hate with considerable passion that which they do not understand, and to suppose that because they do not understand it can therefore have nothing of value. But clearly D&D is absolutely a monotheistic society, made more so when pagan deities are reduced to the status of monstrous additions to the bestiary compendia. For what else is the DM but a singular, unparalleled supreme being, who can bring forth any number of creatures he fancies, who can rule upon the roll of dice, who can zot every living thing with lightning by merely speaking the words, who can redirect the courses of rivers with an eraser and pen, who divines the very laws of physics by gauging how far and how fast a crossbow may fire, without need to appeal to any power save that of the DM’s own peculiar predilections. Whatever your DM may say, whatever I as DM may say, we are forced in the creation of the game to make ad hoc decisions continuously, whether we choose to adhere to a ‘rule book’ or not ... since obviously the rule book’s justice demands our approval. A rules lawyer may prate and scream precedents (and obscenities), but he or she is still subject to the final dictate of the judge, in whose court they argue.
You are God. And being God, it behooves you to retain as much an aspect of every religion’s god that has so far come down the pike ... that is, blessed disinterest. No god should be too heavy handed in their involvement, lest they should stab too hard with a finger and eradicate ten thousand useful cannon fodder for the player’s next venture forth. You may take glee in bringing down towns with earthquakes or washing away islands with tropical storms, but too much of this sort of blasting nonsense and you will find yourself a God over a world with few intelligible inhabitants. God you may be, but your players are your prophets and you need them. They need to feel a degree of security, a sense of greater purpose, else they will tire and take the unholy option – call it suicide, because their characters will be dead to you.
I cannot conjecture the presence of a God over this world, but if there is one, he does very little to disrupt the interests of the greater number of his menagerie. We may slaughter one another, or create institutions to torture one another, but God is well out of most everything. You as DM should take note. Set the stage, bring forth the extras, herd in the set designers and sell tickets if you’re able – but let the actors alone. Left that way, they will bring your heavenly concept to fruition, they will create your campaign for you and you will need do very little beyond providing a few obstacles and a few conditions on their behavior.
Poetic? Perhaps. Sometimes philosophy needs a little poetry.