Thursday, August 26, 2010


Well, settle in. I haven't written one of these Civilization IV Posts for quite a while, principally because I've bucked up against this topic. It's the sort of thing most don't like to read. My plan here is to ramble over a lot of the historical aspects, badmouth religion in general and especially the catholic church, make my point about theology being a technology, and finally posit three strategies on how to incorporate religion and gods into a D&D campaign. I have every intention of indulging myself on the subject, since I don't expect to come here again, so this will be a long post.

Theology is usually described as the study of a particular religious faith - which it has been for the last two centuries, where the primary concern of legitamate scholars has been the study of those persons responsible for the creation of the faith, or the manner in which the faith has come about. But theology is very different when the subject is not the religion itself, but rather the gathering of knowledge which is, in fact, unknowable.

This is to say, given that the existence of gods is in doubt, and that gods and their servants are not available for general discourse, the interpretation of 'what gods have told us' is a highly questionable practice. Nevertheless, it is a practice that has been universally invoked. I say to you that the god of this place has this purpose, or that intent, or wishes for this or that thing, and once you are convinced that I have a knowledge along these lines that you do not have, the knowledge itself gains credibility.

The fundamental leap forward for theology comes when my knowledge and your knowledge and Dave's knowledge (Dave lives in the next town) vary to some degree, and the three of us sit down and hash out just where the differences lie and where we are able to come to a consensus. It is at this point that the human imagination is paramount, as it draws elements from what we have already invented and invents a further postulation - something that is immediately perceived as a brilliant supposition by others, who in turn repeat it to still more others, spreading the idea. For example, humans are here on Earth, they must have come from somewhere - which is a supposition, and not based on evidence. It's a very reasonable sounding supposition, however, and seems so eminently logical that most will blindly stipulate the argument as though it is a 'proof' of some sort. That we may have been here all along, but as mice or reptiles or amoeba or what have you fails to retain the same sort of instinctive certainty that if you are here, at some point you must have been there. We have no experience with having been amoeba, but we have all moved from there to here.

Having established that as 'knowledge,' it then relies upon some gifted soul to postulate that perhaps we cannot remember a 'there' because we were, in fact, created here. For example, a ball of mud was never anyplace except the place where it was scooped from the ground and packed into the shape that it has. It is therefore reasonable that we were packed, somehow, from the materials of the Earth into our shape, thus explaining our presence ... and in turn, giving ample cause to postulate the existence of a mud-packer. All very reasonable, and therefore worth repeating. And in the repeating, the postulation becomes accepted and thereafter, given the dignity of being just as real and truthful as the mud itself and our existence.

But if Dave believes that the Mudpacker who has some intention for creating us (another reasonable assumption) and I believe that the Mudpacker is little different that a young boy wasting away his time making mudballs for no purpose (also quite reasonable), then Dave and I are at an impasse. We can either attempt to murder one another - or my people can attempt to murder all of Dave's people and vice versa - or through much dialogue we can try to hit upon some greater 'knowledge' that will encapsulate both our perceived truths into one Unified Theory. This is the essence of Theology - to produce additional explanation or knowledge that will encapsulate existing truths and yet provide additional evidence in order to encourage either Dave or I to change our minds about what we believe.

Perhaps Dave 'realizes' that the Mudpacker was a small child ... but the Mudpacker's Mother found the ball and, as it was made by her son, has found a place for it upon her mantle, thus giving it purpose.

And so we are off and running.

Leaping into the real world, it is possible to trace through all the major religions how these leaps of knowledge were substantial in bringing the religion into existence. The invention or realization or creation of the additional evidence outlined above is described as 'enlightenment' ... which is just another term for saying that what I didn't know five minutes ago I know now. For anyone who has ever hit upon a really phenomenal idea, there does seem to be a supernatural quality to it. For anyone who has created any work-intensive article (article = art), there is a point after the work's creation where the creator is struck with disbelief that this thing that now exists actually came from his or her own efforts.

If I may speak from my own experience: if I have written something which I perceive to be very good, I often feel an emotional disconnect with myself as creator. I often have a feeling that, if somehow the work was to be lost, that I just wouldn't be able to create it again and have it be half as good, despite my having created it the first time, and dispite the fact that I am probably slightly better as a writer now, since I am always improving.

In other words, I'm obviously wrong to hold that opinion. Yet it is so compelling an opinion that I can easily see how Greeks attributed their most brilliant works not to themselves, but to muses, or how Christians throughout the ages have attributed their most brilliant works to God. It seems to explain the emotion felt when one looks at one's own work with suspicion, saying in effect, "I'm not that smart."

Feeling now that I've established the basis for this knowledge, let's move on to the application of said knowledge. I could do so by highlighting any number of religions, but because I am most familiar with Christianity and its founding, we'll use it as a template.

Upon the death of Christ (assuming that Christ ever really existed, which isn't that unreasonable since we only have Plato or Xenophon's word that Socrates ever really existed), the religion that did not actually exist as a religion as yet was in a muddled state. For a century, untold numbers of authors wrote, largely in obscurity, about the life and death of the religious figure, attributing their work to Peter and other apostles, using pseudonyms to avoid detection, letting their imaginations run wild and what have you. In other words, an era with much belief, and much 'knowledge,' but little consensus.

For most, the perception is that the most important writers of this period were Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul ... those 'authors' acknowledged to be the sacred creators of the New Testament. This too is a marvelous bit of theological knowledge. It does well to put the words in the mouths of 'sources' who themselves defy investigation.

When I was a child, the basement wall of the church where I did my three years of Lutheran bible study included a map of what was described as "The Journeys of Paul." As my fascination with maps began at an early age, I found it fascinating; and, naturally, I had no idea in my youth that this very detailed depiction was a total fabrication, based on the New Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles. It has occurred to me since that the importance of the map, and its creation, is to lend credence to the words in the Bible - as in, "See, we have a map. It must be true."

One begins to wonder just where the line divides the invented authors from actual, living persons. But according to what I've seen and read, the four gospels were designated as THE gospels (from dozens of potential gospels, many of which we have uncovered from archeological sites) by a fellow named Irenaeus, who determined that the number of gospels ought to be Four, just as there were four elements, and four winds, and four 'corners' of the earth. Irenaeus was a prolific theologian (invention artist) who wrote and argued successfully for his insistence that the present-day gospel works were the right ones. His work followed upon the production of other master theologians like Tertullian, Valentinus and especially the much earlier Ignatius.

By the third century, theologians were as thick as thieves, writing all sorts of high-toned stuff. If you get a chance, have a look at fellows like Origen or the later Eusebius. None of it is especially encouraging if you're looking for anything like the divine truth of the scriptures ... in fact, it's not very hard to imagine any of these fellows (once you get past their glowing biographies and get right into the actual shit they wrote) simply changing words and lines whenever the text they had on hand didn't quite measure up to their insights. But at this point the Roman Empire was still carrying out the occasional pogrom against Christians, roasting them or dreaming up more interesting horrors than just lions - all of which would change once the Empire switched sides and embraced the New Thinking.

Which brings us to the subject of theology as technology. Like any form of tech, the purpose is to overcome an obstacle: a boat gets you over water, an axe brings down trees or a backscratcher cures that nagging itch. In this case, a religious policy is invoked in the hopes of binding together an empire.
The emperor Caesar Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus, in 306 CE, was at the end of a long line of usurpers and masters of empire who had come to the throne on the dead bodies of other Romans. The pile of names he had were adopted to emphasize his legitimacy to the throne - Caesar and Flavius being imperial Roman dynasties, and Valerius and Aurelius being respected Roman Emperors. Augustus is a term meaning, in effect, "Old Man." Thus, the name we recognize for this fellow is that of "Constantine."

When not sending demons back to the place from which they came, Constantine worried considerably about the future of his empire. Even if it happened that he might live to remain emperor until his death by old age (something that had grown increasingly rare), it would only mean that the Empire would once again be at its own throat the moment he passed on. As it had been, repeatedly, for more than a century.

And yet, here are these Christians. We slaughter them and march them into rivers of their own blood to be drowned, and yet there are always more - they multiply like rats, there are ten times more of them than there were fifty years ago and hey, they seem to share a solidarity that is truly frightening in its tenacity. Perhaps, thinks Constantine, we should bring these fellows around for a chat and find out what's what.

So he did. Having decided that the Empire needed to make peace with Christians, and in fact adopt the religion, he brought around an estimated 250 to 318 attendees (no one can agree on the number) in order to hash out the theology good and proper. It has been called the Council of Nicaea, and it took place in 325 CE.

One has to remember that at this time, communication between these various entities had existed under a cloak of deception, since the Empire had been executing them right up until Constantine's edict to stop doing so in the year 313. Thus, Nicaea was a HUGE opportunity for the scattered and clumsy Christian Church to organize itself into a singular, stable entity ... which it did. After a considerable storm of thoughts, proposals, ideals and truly inventive theology (you know, knowledge that doesn't appear in the Bible), statements of belief were codified into existence and adopted by the majority of the attendees. Not all, mind you. That's very important.

Forgive me for making some generalizations about the next hundred years or so; this is a pretty long post, and I think we can just cover the high points and move on. First off, I'd like to point out that Christianity didn't solve Constantine's fundamental problem. He died, the various armies of Empire still turned on themselves and the pattern of usurpation continued. The Christian fathers like to argue that Constantine "saw the light" on a road outside of his founded city Constantinople, and therefore bowed before God to become the first Christian Emperor (and a Saint, at that) ... but of course this is all convenient theology. There was a lot of it going around at the time, if you'll remember.

The Christian Church, meanwhile, had designated itself 'catholic' at Nicaea. You can find it in the Nicene Creed, the formal statement that billions would have to memorize in centuries to come, including yours truly), written, "In one holy catholic and apostolic Church ..." The word itself means 'universal.'

This catholic church (not a proper noun in the 4th century) did unite the various disparate and distant groupings within the Roman Empire, such that the social and local political aspects of the Roman culture survived the anguish of the next five centuries. An anguish that was begun by this new, catholic church.

When people talk about the fall of the Empire, an aspect they habitually fail to address is the civil war that was occupying considerable resources of the Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries. I do not speak in this case of emperor vs. emperor - that did go on, as I said. I am, rather, speaking of the other civil war. The one that began between those councillors at Nicaea who accepted the new catholic church and those who did not ... as well as those who, on account of being pagan or Jewish, were not asked to attend.

This is a civil war purposefully covered up these past 16 centuries, principally since the winners went on to establish a thoroughly dominant western religion - with the rights to commit murder and ten thousand other atrocities whenever it pleased them, while at the same time standing under a banner marked "MORALITY" that continues to hold sway today in the highest levels of political and philosophical debate. Having been given sanction by the Roman state to "spread the word" of Christianity for the good of the Empire, the various entities of the church took to the program with a will that makes the Nazis look like little children playing with blocks.

Unfortunately, in the middle of slaughtering the Gnostics, the Arians, the non-Trinitarians, the Cabalists and a whole host of other sects and cults who disagreed with them, the Christians suddenly found the countryside denuded of several million non-believers (so estimates suggest - there are obviously no firm numbers) at just the moment the Huns and Slavs started turning up in the east. The Goths, many of whom had converted to Arianism, were encouraged and in a good position to take advantage of all this religious cleansing.

Now, should you think that I'm making all this up, and that Europe embraced Christianity out of the goodness of its enlightened heart, I understand. Cynicism is a good thing, and we don't have a lot of evidentiary evidence from the period. I could quite reasonably be inventing a bit of my own theology, yes? Of course yes. It is generally conceded that pagan churches were razed to the ground all over Europe and replaced with Catholic Churches; travel through Europe and visit churches, and you will be told the tale a hundred times. It is also recognized that pagan gods throughout the Empire were 'reformed' into Christian saints, particularly in those areas highly resistant to Christian influences, such as most of Eastern Europe (the parts occupied by Goths). There's considerable evidence built up about the persecution of pagan sexual practices, particularly those carried on by women ... and we find within a few centuries that the word 'pagan' - which means, after all, "a rural person" - is replaced with the term 'satanist,' as the various practices from the Roman period and blended together to be rewritten as worshipping the 'devil.'

I can't argue absolute truths and absolute lies. I suggest if you have any real interest that you read deeper into the period. It's marvelously interesting. Oh, and don't ask me for sources. My sources could be all wrong, remember? Spewing out a list of names and publishing houses only proves the books were written, it doesn't make them accurate. I'm not a university. I'm not here to give my stamp of approval on the books I've read. Go read your own. The books are in the library, all on a convenient shelf. Draw what conclusions you will.

Despite everything, despite the devastation of the Empire, despite the invading barbarians, and later the vikings, despite the long destitution of the Dark Ages, the theological foundation of the Catholic Church endured. It did bind Europe together (though not as Constantine had hoped) and it did impose an supreme authority on western culture. It enabled its believers to dispense with fear (promised resurrection) and with hedonism, the latter in particular being the ruination of the Roman empire. The Christian morality that was established encouraged the pursuit of things other than sexual gratification and luxury - such as the creation of responsible authority and the acquisition of non-theological knowledge. The sense that the culture was joined together by God gave the European peoples a unified respect for the future, not only of themselves, but of their children also, who themselves would ultimately be judged by the same higher authority. Christianity became the thread that bound generations together into a single cohesive ideal.

So, are you still with me? I confess, sometimes it feels good to just stretch out the whole brain and go for broke.

Coming down then, how in hell does this massive pile of bleck apply to D&D?

I wanted to get a full grasp on the influence religion has, not only upon its believers, but upon the whole gamut of society. The fundamental beliefs of a religion are more than a collection of rules about when to sacrifice and where to be on a particular morning. The whole culture, for good or bad, will embrace the existing theological belief, no matter how absurd it will sound to the players or even how destructive it is to that culture. The people will BELIEVE it, just the same as they believe the sun will rise and set ... and where it comes to non-believers, they will set aside time to explain their religion, they will have hundreds of arguments to prove the validity of their religion - and when those arguments fail, they will murder for the good of their religion. There is no getting around it. Either the party will pay lip service or the party will be hunted down and murdered, and their deaths will be sanctioned by the state, as the religion of the state and the state itself work together to support each other's right to power.

This is a force in the hands of the DM that is hardly ever applied and very definitely hated by some quarters. I am not a religious person - and my daughter is so non-religious that she swears she'll never run a cleric in this game (so I guess I did a good job there). But I see religion as a cultural force, and much more than just the window dressing that it is usually taken for ... and I love scaring the hell out of parties by having a steady, growing dissatisfaction for their behavior begin to show in the grumblings and rudeness of the common townspeople. You know, once you lose their respect, you're in deep trouble.

Given the presence of Gods that are not false, but real, I perceive there are three fundamental approaches that a DM can take towards incorporating a Grand Scheme to the perception that these Gods have of things that go on. How the people's dogma develops would depend on how you perceive the interest your Gods have in your world.

The Gods don't give a damn what goes on. This is the child Mudpacker theory: "We made the world, we do exist, but there are billions of worlds and we really don't give a crap what happens here. If it's a Sunday afternoon and the family isn't dropping by for tea, we may look over to see what the hell goes on, but beyond that its flat out beneath our contempt."

This leaves the dogma almost entirely up to the population, who will quite likely get everything wrong, given that the only hint at the truth that they get is when some god sticks his fingers at the globe on his way to the bathroom. This is more or less Conan's universe.

What is happening on this planet has huge influence on other things, but not directly; the gods watch or dabble in what's going on, but very carefully, not wanting to mess with the overall balance: "It's an experiment, you see. In ten thousand years the ultimate power will be unleashed by the petty fools that dwell on the planet, but this power must be unleashed in exactly the right way and at exactly the right time; therefore, we will influence, but it is delicate work - too much messing around with the program will fuck it up beyond repair."

The dogma is therefore going to drift along certain lines according to what the gods want people to believe: that certain chosen people have preference because they will be important at some future time. Or others must be repressed because they represent a threat to the desired outcome. But since there are so many gods, and they disagree as to the exact methodology, mixed messages are given to the system all the time, creating local areas of havoc. This is more or less Middle Earth.

The very life of the Gods depends upon the amount of worship the gods receive. Those who are beloved by millions have great power, while those who have fallen into obscurity are weak and vulnerable, very nearly mortal. "You must worship me, and you must kill my enemies; you must bring me MORE worshippers, more and more, and build great churches, until my power grows and spreads and I gain dominion over the world!"

The majority of dogma is basically directed at the destruction of everyone else and the profligation of the religion's worshippers. Tiny gods have the benefit of stealth; Powerful gods are overwhelmed by the number of difficulties and challenges to their authority ... so that in fact the very act of getting stronger results in an over-reach of power, ultimately to the point where it can collapse entirely, leaving a vacuum for another religion to rise and conquer.

This is, more or less, my world. I like the violence.

Well, now you see why it took me a long time to write this post.


  1. Good god, this is the most brilliant article I've read in my life.

    I hate to sound like a sycophant, but I've got nothing else to say.

    How do you do it?

  2. Your three approaches can also be mixed. Different gods might have their OWN differing beliefs about the nature of the universe and their role in it.

    Also: The Lamentations of the Flame Princess box set puts it in an interesting light (to paraphrase): The gods may exist, or it could be the power of human will that grants spells. Don't go into it too much.

    You might enjoy some of my posts and ideas about in-campaign religions. I was surprised I posted anything at all about clerics, as they aren't my favorite class. But here you go:

    /shameless but relevant pimpage

  3. Brilliant as usual. Religion is driven by people and people love power. It can range from a tolerant, benevolent theocracy to a rigidly conformist dogmatic nightmare. You've hit upon the essential effect of theology, which is the unifying force of powerful ideas.
    It is especially important for the modern mind to understand that the church, the state, and the society were basically the same thing. Heresy and sacrilege were given at least as much importance as treason and mass murder. What today has devolved into accusations of evil deeds was once accomplished through accusations of evil beliefs. Casus belli was so much easier to invent in those days that it was child's play to start a war.
    Stability at home was brought by the overlapping and mutually reinforcing messages received at home, at church, and at court: do your duty, obey your masters, and do not question your place in life. Adventurers as most people play them are inherently anticonformist. They do question why they should be a peasant or a low-ranked soldier when they have the potential for so much more. But, they have to reach out and take it, and that goes against the grain of the times.
    Unless a character is already beholden to a major church, it seems inevitable that they will be approached for alms, tithes, and committed service. Unlike today, passing the collection plate without an offering could get you killed for disrespecting the gods and flaunting your ill-gotten wealth. With your possessions confiscated as reparation, of course.
    It is interesting to consider that the pattern of beliefs held by a person are subject to natural selection, as are most traits. Over time, those traits which most improve the chance of procreation become dominant. However, ideas are also subject to their own transmission. Ideas that allow the idea to propagate become dominant. By this point in history, major religions are supported by the bastions of centuries-old ideas whose primary purpose is to spread. At the time of most campaign settings, these ideas are at war with all other ideas in a fiercely competitive struggle to take control. Whether or not the gods are fighting for dominance, ideas spoken in their name certainly are.


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