A common liberal view of religion (popularized by esteemed religious scholar Huston Smith, a Unitarian Universalist and author of the classic comparative religion textbook The World’s Religions) is this: All religions are fundamentally the same. They are different paths that lead up the same mountain, to use Smith’s metaphor. This viewpoint has been espoused by countless people around the globe, and is fairly popular among modern liberal people.
The spirit behind this viewpoint is a noble one. It is a viewpoint that suggests that while humankind might be different, we all are equals, and each of our viewpoints is deserving of respect. However, some scholars suggest that this viewpoint is naive. They suggest that minimizing the differences between faith is disrespectful, and thus gets in the way of meaningful interfaith dialogue.
So what does this have to do with religion in RPGs? Hold on to your holy symbols, I’m getting there.
One of the critics of the liberal viewpoint is Stephen Prothero. Rather than viewing all religions as having the same destination, Prothero argues, it may be more useful to viewing all religions as having the same starting point. “What the world’s religion’s share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. They begin with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world.” The notion of exactly what the problem with the world is differs from religion to religion, and the rituals and beliefs that each religion has created to deal with the problem is just as unique.
A few real-world examples, to illustrate the point:
- Christianity views sin as being the thing that’s wrong with the world. The answer to sin is salvation through Jesus Christ, expressed via various rituals (baptism, communion, etc.).
- Buddhism views suffering as the big problem. The answer to suffering is nirvana, as achieved through the ritual of following the Eight-Fold Path.
- Islam views self-sufficiency and arrogance as the world’s problem. The answer to that is obedience to God as expressed through the Five Pillars of Islam.
- Judaism views spiritual exile as the problem. The answer to spiritual exile is seeking closeness to God by obeying His laws.
Are these analyses simplistic? Of course they are. Are the statements above broad generalizations that are boldly glossing over thousands of years of tradition and scholarship? Yep. Is there a lot more to (for example) Judaism than the notion of “spritual exile?” Absolutely. Prothero’s intent is not to be disrespectful of religion (and he is a proponent of the view that understanding the differences among religions is crucial to respecting religions other than your own). But the problem-oriented approach offers an interesting and, I think, useful framework for looking at religion.
And it can be very useful for game design.
In fantasy RPGs, the gods (and it’s usually polytheistic) often get short shrift. There is often a list (and a huge list) of gods of very specific domains. It seems like the designers of these games created the gods first, and then created the religion as an afterthought, if they indeed bother detailing the religion at all.
What would it look like if the religion were designed first? Well, rather than focusing on a god’s portfolio, we would focus on this: What do the people of this setting need? What problems do they have that could be solved by a god? After all, a god that doesn’t solve any problems for his followers — even if their problems are abstract or esoteric — isn’t worth following.
The religions listed about focus on solving very big, universal human problems: they speak to people who struggle with problems like the meaning of existence, the existence of suffering, and how to be a good person. In a monotheistic setting, your religion may want to address these problems. In a polytheistic setting, you might feel a little freer to have the gods solve smaller problems.
Let’s suppose a theoretical nation called Urf, because “Urf” is fun to say aloud. Urf is a harsh place. Snow covers the ground for nearly nine months out of the year, and the inhabitants eke out a marginal existence by farming what they can and fishing what they can’t. What sort of problems do these people face? What sort of religion could help them understand and cope with their problems? There are many answers to both of those questions. Here’s an answer that I came up with:
The people of Urf view isolation and division as the great wrongness of the world. The people of Urf value community. Resources are scarce, so they have tightly-knit communities and help out their neighbors who are in need.
The religion of Urf would accordingly place a strong value on community. It would punish thievery and intracommunity quarrels severely, and emphasize charity and hospitality. The god of Urf is unlikely to demand great sacrifices (due to the scarcity of resources), but may have complex rituals in the form of dancing, or music — meditation seems out-of-place for a religion based on bringing people together. Hospitality and generosity are important virtues; gift-giving may be seen as an act of piety. The religion might even encourage shamanistic rituals to promote a sort of expansive feeling among worshipers.
So what might the God of Urf be? Well, based on the above information about the religion, Urfgod might be considered to be the cumulative spirits of the ancestors — a sort of collective unconscious. It would protect against the cold, and extoll the virtues of unity and warmth. Urfgod might be harsh and fascistic (Urf is a harsh place, after all, so maybe the person in charge isn’t so nice), and punish outsiders and transgressors mercilessly. They might have a notion of “hell” where souls who turn away from Urfgod are frozen into crystalline isolation, doomed to eternal frozen desolation.
Sprituality and religion have played a huge role in human civilizations, and vice-versa. A bottom up approach to religion can help create a world that feels rich, organic, and maybe even more meaningful for your players.