Tuesday 2 April 2024

What if gods were real?

I went to two church services in the last few days, it being Holy Week. The first, the Good Friday liturgy at the local Anglican church, was attended by not more than a dozen of us; the second, Evensong on Easter Sunday, took place at Durham Cathedral, one of the finest buildings ever constructed and a world heritage site, and was attended by a large crowd. You couldn't really get two more dissimilar occasions in many ways, but at root the emphasis was the same: God's becoming real in the person of Jesus.

Don't worry - I don't mean to smuggle Christian apologetics into my blog through the back door. Instead I mean to raise the question as to what human behaviour would be like if there were in fact real D&D deities, who inhabited the physical world, who had personalities and needs and desires, and who one could talk to and otherwise interact with and perhaps some day even rival, fight, slay. Not to get too Joan Osborne about it, but what if Gruumsh was one of us?

In some respects, of course, it would make religion even more important than it is, and was, in human societies in the real world - which is to say, very important indeed. Religion governed basically every aspect of our ancestors' lives; they not only prayed and worshipped as though they meant it, knew what saint's day it was each and every day, worried incessantly about the afterlife, and confessed their each and every sin. They also constructed the entire political economies and legal systems of their society on the basis of what they considered to be divine right, and imagined the exercise of government itself to be a reflection of the proper relationship between God and creation. They were, to the modern eye, complete fanatics. 

Now imagine what they would have been like if there was a realistic possibility that Poseidon, or Zeus, or whoever, might show up one day, hurtling lightning bolts. Everybody's lives would hinge on what would or not be pleasing to them to an even greater extent than would have been the case for a 12th century French peasant or 5th century BC Spartan. And that would be rather a lot.

At the same time, though, the relationship between the human individual and the divine would be much more familiar and knowable. One of the great peculiarities of human religion is that it is contingent on guesswork: whether one is a modern Christian or Muslim praying, an Aztec priest pulling out some poor fool's still-beating heart, or an ancient pastoralist making an offering to the hearth god, one is making what can only be described as, well, a leap of faith. Will my god hear me? Will I get what I want? Will it work?

People in a D&D world would not have this problem. They would live in something more like a spiritual economy, in which one could be pretty sure what one's god would want of one in any given moment, and in which one could ask him or her directly to intercede on one's behalf - and therefore make trades and bargains: I'll sacrifice a dozen gorgons to you if you grant me a safe voyage across the ocean; I promise to never tell a lie again if you heal my sick child; if you give might to my sword arm when I make war on the men of Fnarr, I'll convert them to your cause when I win. And so on. By the same token, it would also be the case that one could be pretty sure - depending I suppose on the caprice of the god in question - whether one would be rewarded for doing x, y or z. 

The result would be a much more pervasive and important, but also more transactional relationship between deity and devotee. If one really wanted to, one could really push the spiritual economy point and imagine a system emerging in which rewards bestowed by gods could be represented by tokens and traded for one another or even exchanged like cash - redeemable from the god in question on a 'pay the bearer on demand' basis. 

25 comments:

  1. In my opinion, in a world with real D&D gods, these deities would still not have anything to do directly with the vast majority of beings. CLERICS, on the other hand, would be far, FAR more faithful to their god than are real-world clerics. After all, you mess up, you lose spells.

    What would be IN YOUR FACE REAL to the typical inhabitants of D&D Land is that clerics are not relatively innocuous persons who can be ignored or even mocked without a care in the world. No. Instead, clerics would be given a wide berth and treated with respect. Imagine if your local priest could hit you with a flame strike! We zero-level schmucks would avoid him or treat him with the utmost deference.

    DONATIONS would be very, very different as well. Instead of a grudging offering reluctantly put into the basket, we'd be saving up our gold to pay clerics to cast spells for us. "Let's see... I need a total of 1,000 g.p. to pay the cleric to cast a cure blindness spell on dear old Aunt Madge."

    Deities? Pshaw! It's CLERICS who would be the movers and shakers. The first several pages of the AD&D Deities & Demigods Cyclopedia have some good observations on these matters.

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    1. Yes, you're probably right about that. Kind of an interesting idea to take that idea and run with it in a fully fleshed out campaign setting.

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  2. Funnily enough, there are some religious/spiritual systems that work on exactly such a transactional nature - specifically some of the traditional Chinese/Taiwanese polytheistic religions, if I remember correctly. The idea is that, if a particular god doesn't answer your prayers enough, you have no obligation to keep honoring them and are free to move on to a different god.

    (I suppose a lot of western Magic works this way too, though it's more of a Chaos Magic thing than a polytheistic thing - the latter tend to get attached to their gods. Just ask my friend whose ecstatic experiences have made her a zealous Thelemite.)

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    1. It's interesting that the Abrahamic faiths take almost the opposite tack - if your prayers aren't answered, it's just because God is inscrutable.

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  3. Ted Chiang's short story "Hell is the Absence of God" posits just such a world where angels, Heaven, and Hell become manifest, and will have you thankful for the ontological veil in our own world by the end of it.

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  4. You should know this blog:
    https://acoup.blog/2019/10/25/collections-practical-polytheism-part-i-knowledge/

    In particular, it does a good job of showing a common fallacy of modernism: That people didn't really believe their gods were real.

    So when I see people asking "what would religion look like if the gods were real", my answer is "probably a lot like religions in the real world."

    Ask a modern Indian tantrika how he knows his god is real and he'll say because he has a personal direct experience and encounters with said deity in his meditations. Devotees would perhaps cite this and that miraculous or highly serendipitous event that clearly shows divine intervention. For a lot of people even today, gods are very much real and they find no lack of proof for their existence.

    And yes, polytheism was a lot more transactional than Christianity. Also covered in the blog above.

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    1. Ha! You beat me to it. An excellent series.

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    2. Thanks for recommending the series. I think the big difference between the modern world and that of fantasy (or history) is that we have now been fully secularised in the sense that even religious people think of reality as being divided into the temporal and spiritual realms, which aren't necessarily connected. There are, to a greater or lesser extent, separate spheres. What I am talking about is a world in which this is not the case - in which gods actually physically walk around, and you could if you were of a mind to walk up to them and say 'hello'.

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  5. "The unknown, ... , the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion." - Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

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    1. Is this true or just a clever and poetic idea?

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  6. This is a very good series on how practical European polytheism was. A lot is based on trying to guess what the gods want, which wouldn't be the case if they could show up and tell you, but the idea of gods being useful, of prayer and worship being utilitarian, and of gods being an actual part of a community is all touched on: https://acoup.blog/2019/10/25/collections-practical-polytheism-part-i-knowledge/

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    1. Thanks - will definitely have a look at the series.

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  7. I wonder if you take it as far as it will go in the d&d context, rather than a free market of marvels you get a dark forest situation: the downstream effects of, “If you stat it they will kill it." Sure his god might grant your Adept cure light wounds, but more like how El Chapo grants a high school kid a bag of brick weed - through a labyrinth of middle-men, feints, and false fronts lest the wrong god-killer find his home address. Call it the ill-lighted weald. Your halfling goddess of compassionate mercy? It was Gruumsh after all.

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    1. Good point that D&D gods should be afraid of their underlings, that is a straightforward implication of Greyhawk cosmology. The ACOUP article points out some ways we don't see D&D characters acting like ancient polytheists. I think the difference is that D&D has a fundamentally modern assumption that the value of getting hold of a worshipper's soul for eternity is far greater to a deity than any amount of tributes they might offer while alive. El Chapo grants you the brick weed if you sign an insurance policy that is payable to El Chapo when you die.

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  8. Max Gladstone Craft novels give an interesting answer to this question, that real, obvious Polytheistic gods would act like corporations. They're distant, intangible entities of immense power, who work their will through chosen representatives (priests/executives). Regular people pay them with worship and in return receive defined benefits, for example the rain god making sure it rains during the wet season.

    The books mostly follow powerful wizard lawyers called Craftsmen that specialise in the laws and contracts used by gods and spirits to receive and lend their power.

    One the background events of the novels is the Gods War, where a number of powerful Craftsmen overthrew and killed a large number of gods, only to find out that the gods actually kept the world running and having to set up actual magical corporations in order to replace them.

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    1. That sounds interesting although I tend to be resistant to settings which too heavily rationalise the fantastical in thay way. Are the books worth reading?

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    2. It's a setting where the magic has advanced so far that in places it's indistinguishable from technology, with an end result that sometimes reads more like magic flavoured cyberpunk that traditional fantasy. The elevator pitch for the first book is "It’s about bankruptcy law, only the entity in bankruptcy protection is a dead god, and the attorneys are necromancers.".
      If that description doesn't send you running for the hills then I'd give the first book, Three Parts Dead a try and see if it's for you.

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  9. This a common misconception I see among rpgers. To have faith is to believe and KNOW that God(or gods) is real, that miracles(ie spells) are real and happen and that your both listens and cares about you enough for those "miracles" to happen. Believers already know that the god is real in the flesh. What if God was real and walked among the people and we could talk to him? Well, there was Jesus and people still don't believe both while he was alive and now.

    So, no religion wouldn't be different, people would have still have similar/the same belief systems and practices. Real world religions are completely transactional (from a certain point of view). There would still be disbelievers, because belief is not based on sight but on faith. Before posing a question with a simple and logical answer, maybe try to understand the mental state of other human beings.

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    1. Well, I would quibble with the idea that to have faith is to know that God is real. I think the point of faith is that one doesn't know whether God is real, but believes anyway. If you know God is real, then that isn't faith - it's knowledge.

      There seems to be a misconception here in any case. The point about being a Christian now is precisely that Jesus isn't walking around. What I am talking about is a world in which the gods are actually physically present. I don't know why that point got missed.

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    2. I don’t think it got missed, I think people are just pointing out that modern Christians are somewhat unique in stressing their lack of certainty as a key aspect of their belief. Most other religions, especially pre-modern ones, believed, and were certain in what they believed (regardless if they were correct or not), so it can be argued that if gods actually, beliefs wouldn’t actually change that much just because they are correct.

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    3. Yes, but I'm pointing out that - perhaps I'm going out on a limb here - in the real world those others gods that pre-modern people believed in didn't actually exist. In the fantasy world I am describing, they actually do exist. There is a big difference between a world in which people believe lots of gods really exist and a world in which they *really exist*.

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  10. > what human behaviour would be like if there were
    > in fact real D&D deities, who inhabited the physical
    > world, who had personalities and needs and desires,
    > and who one could talk to and otherwise interact with [...]

    The best way to imagine this (especially for the Christian tradition) is to read _Hell is the absence of God_, from Ted Chiang. A world with not one but several godlike beings, as interpreted via Chiang's lens, would be very very different from your traditional D&D romp. Think more along the lines of the BCE era kingdoms and empires.

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  11. “in the real world those others gods that pre-modern people believed in didn't actually exist.”. Or all gods?

    Would it not create problems for our modern sensibilities if gods actually existed? So thunder wasn’t meteorological but caused by Thor and his hammer. Rain wasn’t weather patterns but a god crying?

    I understand your point, but I don’t understand just how fantastical a world it would have to be to support real gods.

    Interesting

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