WisCon 37, part III: Creating a Religion 201

Illustration of a heraldic sunAt last year’s WisCon, there was a fairly interesting panel called Creating a Religion. It was nominally about how to create religions for conworlds. Mostly, though, it just kept coming back to polytheism vs. monotheism as the main axis of variation in religions. In fact, it’s so frequent in RPGs that I almost consider it a joke; we gamers seem to often ask only the question “What gods should I have in my pantheon?” The number of deities in a religion is an important question; but too many conreligions differ only in this way, and otherwise resemble the bland pastiche of religious stereotypes present in so many RPGs. And many real-world religions have no gods at all, or some fundamentally different way of looking at “gods” in the first place. So while last year’s panel was interesting, it didn’t have nearly the depth that it could’ve. For that reason, I suggested and ended up on this year’s panel, with a hope that it would go much deeper than last year’s had.

This year’s panel went okay, though it could’ve been a lot better. We kept coming back to Christian theology and Western biases: how many gods, what is the basis of orthodoxy, how do people argue through orthodoxy, etc. Sometimes interesting, but a) too often done in conreligions and b) too Western in its biases.

So, what areas would I like to explore more? What areas of variation do I think conreligions need more of? What can we worldbuilders do better in our treatment of fictional religions?

  • The problem of theodicy. This issue has its origin in Western theology, as the question of how God can be just when there is still suffering and evil in the world. But in its broader form — the question of why suffering exists, and what we should do about it — it is an issue for most religions. There are a lot of answers to this problem, from “suffering isn’t real” to “it’s all your fault” to “the powers that be are fundamentally capricious” to others. And I don’t see enough variation on this question in conreligions.
  • Different ways of approaching the powers of the universe. Too often, prayer is assumed to be the primary way in which people try to come closer to their perfect state of being. But in reality, there are a lot of other ways of approaching the perfect state of being: pilgrimage, sacrifice, meditation, dance, etc.
  • Truer representations of polytheism. The type of polytheism represented in RPGs, especially, seems to too often be of the same sort: everyone believes in just one god, the one whose domain is most important to them (and only one domain is ever important to them), while allowing for the existence of other deities. Well, I suppose that style of polytheism exists in the world, but it’s just one type of polytheism. More often, people believe in all the gods/powers/principles, and try to supplicate/worship/approach whichever one is most important to their current situation, while supplicating/worshipping/approaching other powers at other times. Chinese traditional religion often works like this, for example. And in some seemingly polytheistic traditions, people grudgingly accept the existence of other deities but actually consider their deity to be the really primary one in the universe; Indian religions are often of this type, with Vaishnavites grudgingly accepting but mostly deemphasizing the importance of Shiva, and vice versa. And one more form of variation I rarely see in conreligions’ polytheism: having primary deities who everyone believes in, and lesser, more specific powers that everyone also believes in. Thus, we get things like Chinese religions where every town has its own deity (the Chénghuáng) and every household has its own deity (the Zàoshén), and there are powers you worship when you’re taking a big test, trying to conceive or beginning a business venture, and other levels of the universe have their own powers and deities, all of whom are (sometimes) considered to be part of a grand universal bureaucracy.
  • Magic mixed with religion. In many traditions, “magic” is what other people do and “religion” is what we do. In too many conreligions, these two things are fundamentally different, which kind of buys into the Western theological stance. Instead, it’d be nice to see more conreligions where “we” do rituals and get specific results from doing so, but when “they” do the same thing it’s “magic”.
  • More diversity within religions. Too often, conreligions are depicted as monolithic: everyone who believes in Grog the Unbidden reads the same book, practices the same rituals and has the same code of belief. Well, it’s hard to find two Christians who agree exactly on their beliefs, practices and traditions, much less two “Hindus” or two “Buddhists”. I’d like to see more conreligions have realistic variation in practice and belief, on a variety of different counts, sometimes leading to schisms, sometimes not.
  • Importance of lineage. A lot of Westerners think of Chán/Zen Buddhism as being about meditation and confusing ourselves with logical impossibilities. Well, that’s part of it, but did you know that lineage of tradition is at least as important for a lot of Chán practicioners? That is, who you received the Dharma from is really important, and maintaining that tradition is really important. This emphasis on lineage is important in a lot of other traditions, too, and I’d like to see it more in conreligions.

And those are just some of the areas that come to mind right off. I hope that next year’s panel, if there is one, goes a bit more into these areas of variation, and into how to actually create a conreligion that isn’t just the usual fantasy polytheist boilerplate with a few bits flipped.

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