Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Religion

Again, a disclaimer: none of this is meant to relate to my own religion beliefs, nor that of anyone else. I'm looking at religion purely from a fiction-writer's standpoint, not intending to reflect on anyone's real beliefs.

A few posts ago, we discussed the nature of divinity in the City of Lives universe. If you'll recall, we determined the gods are physical beings from the bizarre dimensions known as the Far Realms, capable of performing godly miracles because of the interactions between their own laws of physics and those of the Realm of Lives. They are not dependent on worship for life or power, and have as many motivations for helping their parishioners as human politicians do for taking office. However, we haven't determined the nature of religion in the City. All too often in fantasy literature (and especially fantasy gaming), who the gods are, what their abilities and motivations are, and even how to worship them, are all understood perfectly. I have a problem with this -- it doesn't in any way resemble the real world. "But Emlyn," you say, "The City of Lives is pure fantasy, it doesn't have to be realistic!" My response is that I always try to follow a simple rule: the rules of a fantasy world can be bizarre and completely unlike reality -- as long as people act like people. And people have a million different ways of interpreting religion.

Now, there is the argument that since the gods are definitively real in The City of Lives, performing miracles  and communicating with the populace, people would know how to worship them and wouldn't argue. I... think not. Pardon me for a perhaps not-terribly-apt metaphor, but observe the US government (or any government, for you readers across the world). It has the power to make laws (as gods are known to do), send rescue workers to disaster areas and help people in ways the local populace would be incapable of doing (manna from heaven, anyone?), and punish people (in the end, transforming someone into a pillar of salt is just showier than a lethal injection, not any deadlier). And there are a lot of different opinions on how the government should work: how to interpret the Constitution ("holy books"), what laws should be introduced or struck down, and how to enforce the ones we have. Democrats, Republicans, the Green Party, the Tea Party, uncle Marvin and his militia in Idaho...

If we can't agree on how to run our government, then I see no reason that all the believers in a single god should agree on how to worship him/her/it, let alone the worshipers of the various other gods that populate the multiverse of The City of Lives. In fact, religion in the City is just as complex as in our own universe, if not more so.

It doesn't help that the most powerful deity regularly worshiped by the City-dwellers -- The Light -- is notably non-interventionist and seldom communicates directly. This is, of course, a decision I made in my effort to make The Light parallel Christianity -- in this respect, similar to how God was seen in the Renaissance period, where many small pieces of science had been figured out, and it was accepted that God didn't speak to the average priest or parishioner, but sometimes Saints healed people and God smote the wicked. Essentially, I want the Light to be less interventionist than D&D gods (handing out magical power to priests willy-nilly), but more definitively powerful and real than, well, the real world. So, as @kelly suggested, one way to do that would be to have some occasional miracles -- clearly magical manifestations that don't have anything to do with the known magic system. It would be a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime event to hear the words of the Light or see Its works, but it would happen approximately once in everyone's lifetime.

As to the true nature of deities as physical beings from the Far Realms, I think it would, and should, be up for debate -- if not quite as much as gods on Earth, then at least as much as poorly-understood laws of physics. After all, the Far Realms follow different rules from our world, strange and incomprehensible -- even with Fractal Elves and Scarcity Merchants visiting the City, people's understanding of them is probably somewhere between how well medieval Europeans understood Chinese culture and how well an ant understands humans. And that assumes that the deities even cop to their status. Whether a deliberate deception or simply not correcting a misapprehension (I haven't decided), the Light is viewed by its worshipers as I think the worshipers of the Light see It as eternal, outside reality -- all the things the Christian God is. Finding out it's a physical being would probably break all their heads.

Ultimately, like in our own world, there will be debate on the nature of the gods. Some believe that deities (well, their deity) exists outside the Realms and those who maintain that, definitionally, the Realms encompass everything. After all, nobody really knows how far the Realms go, I'm assuming. Some people might theorize that in infinite Realms, everything anyone believes in, and indeed everything anyone can imagine, exists somewhere. There are probably even some who believe that it's just another form of magic, and can be understood the same way -- that worshiping that phenomenon as a god doesn't ultimately make any more sense than worshiping Shapers, Sharers, and Shifters. And thus, even the City of Lives, where gods are a fact of life, there are atheists... just a different sort.

Join me next time as we delve into religion more completely and examine The Light.

As a side note, thanks to @kelly for brainstorming some of this out with me!