Friday, October 30, 2009

In reality evil religions don't exist.

The Blood of Prokopius is an interesting blog and has a lot of interesting posts on how FrDave Christian Faith relates to D&D and his campaign. Recently he had a post on Evil. I responded with a lengthy post on my cosmology and the theology behind it and he replied.

The main point he picked out was this statement

My whole system came about because I wanted true evil, rejection of creation, but I wanted shades of gray in religion. In my reading I know that "evil" religion don't exist in reality.

The problem with evil religions in D&D is that they are not realistic if they are part of a culture or nation. My definition of a evil deity is somebody like Lolth, Elemental Evil, Bane, Howard's Set, etc. They are not realistic because throughout human history cultures just don't go into worshiping evil deities. Isolated cults yes which often manifest as small groups or individuals rejecting the larger culture they are part of.

The technical definition of these type of religions is Maltheism.

Maltheism (from "mal" meaning bad, or illness, and theism, from... well, theism) is the idea that god is just out to get us and that he or she or it is malicious, like a kid who keeps selecting "Monster" from the disaster menu in Sim City. A Maltheist, therefore, is someone who believes that a god or gods exist, and that they are evil, malicious, incompetent, or otherwise causing the suffering of humanity.
The Cathars of southern France during the Middle Ages believed Earth was under the sway of an evil god, the Demiurge. The Demiurge was equated with Satan. But being a Cathar wasn't about worshiping the Demiurge. Their whole faith was about rejecting the world (mainly through a severe form of asceticism) so their souls would be put on the road to the realm of light where God exists.

This doesn't mean cultures haven't adopted religions or philosophies that were considered abhorrent by neighboring cultures. Also various cultures adopted religions that essentially turned their nations into totalitarian states with all that entails.

The "evil" religions have some fig leaf that makes it appealing to members of that cultures. Usually by preaching some type of racial or cultural superiority. The worst practices of these religions (and they can be pretty bad) are reserved for those they conquer or capture. But among those in the "in-group" the religion can be benign. The Assyrians around 800 B.C. are a good example of this.

The way I apply this to a fantasy campaign is rather simplistic. Religions involving a truly evil deity have cults and never dominate a nation or a culture. The rest have various fig leafs to make them appealing to the cultures that adopted them.

In my own campaign cultures dominated by Set are totalitarian and tyrannical in nature. The culture worshipping Hamakhis believe that the practice of human sacrifices aids the god in holding back the chaos that will destroy creation. And that culture has an ongoing reformation that is trying to return the worship of Hamakhis back to it's older form in worshiping him as the Judge of the Dead. The last evil god of campaign, Kalis, is a nature goddess of blood and revenge. She is only worshiped by cults.


Rick said...

excellent post. I concur. part of the problem is the flabby use of 'evil' in most gaming circles. A lot of what we gamers see as 'evil' is really selfinterest (as opposed to altruism.

Chris said...

A Maltheist, therefore, is someone who believes that a god or gods exist, and that they are evil, malicious, incompetent, or otherwise causing the suffering of humanity.

How do the actions of the Greek gods not count as maltheism? This is a pantheon that would engage in exemplary punishment (individual or collective) regardless of the moral/ethical rights and wrongs of the case.

The Olympians were 'gods as gangsters writ large', and the Greeks understood and acknowledged that. "The gods are unjust; but what can you do?"

In D&D terms: the gods are just higher level than you in a world where "power = right".

Zzarchov said...

There are not groups where evil gods are worshipped, but there are certainly religions where evil gods are appeased. No one wants to sacrifice so and so, but thats what it takes to calm the angered gods.

In D&D terms any clerics of said god would be mere opportunists looking for power, those who appease them would certainly not be loyal followers (expect no zealous worshippers) and would be a populace ripe for conversion if a good and noble (or evil with a fig leaf) god showed up.

Robert Conley said...

@Chris - The Greek Gods were generally forces of nature personified. Viewed much in the same way that too little rain brings drought, just enough bountiful crops, and too much floods. Sacrifices were made to ensure that just enough occured rather than the extremes. The gods were not out to get humantity they just were what they were.

The attitude of "The gods are unjust what can you do about it?" represent this idea of the forces of nature. As Greek culture grew in sophsication you see them moving away from this because of the malethestic aspects you noted.

If you look at the Greek Gods compared to fantasy evil god like Bane, and Howard's Set there is a world of difference. The fantasy evil gods are out to get humantity and do not do much else other than be evil. My point is that realistically cultures would not adopt these type of gods as their religion.

@Zzcharkov - Yes a religion with a pantheon of god could have an evil god as part of it. With sacrifices, rituals, and offerings designed to avert the evil one's attention. However the evil god would not be the dominant focus of that religion. Such a religion would have something like

"If you are sinful you will be handed over to the Priests of the Dark One to be sacrificed for your evil."

The clergy of the Dark One would likely view their role not as devotees of the philosphy of the Dark One but rather serving an important function in their culture of punishing evildoers with their just rewards.

Joshua Macy said...

If a "good" religion can burn people alive for heresy, what need is there of an "evil" religion?

Gothridge Manor said...

I don't think realism has much to do with it. There are many things that exsist in game that do exsist in reality. It's a fantasy game. Evil gods, religion can exsist. Absolutely. If you have a powerful god who imposes his will on the populace. There are many senerios where an 'evil' religion can exsist. It all depends on what kind of fantasy you want to develop. And it depends on which side of the fence you are on.

How many times have we seen something that started at its core being a 'good' thing only to be corrupted. I say if you cannot have evil religions then there can be no 'good' religions.

I will give an example from my own mythos, I have a blood god Azeel, his priests are vampires. It is an outlawed religion and is seen as evil. But what most don't know is Azeel is in constant battle with 'obilvion' and he requires blood to power his strength. So what id view on the small scale as evil on a larger scale is probably the most noble relgion there is.

But please oh please, don't double dip your reality into my fantasy.

Geek Gazette said...

"If a "good" religion can burn people alive for heresy, what need is there of an "evil" religion?"

How true...

Robert Conley said...

@Tim good points, but there are many GMs and players who like their games to have some amount realism. My post is for those who want some measure of realism in their campaigns.

Your example of Azeel is not very Malethestic. What matters is not how other perceive it but rather how it's adherents perceive it.

In Azeel's case the adherent views the fight against Oblivion to be of paramount importance. They don't believe that Azeel is out to get them.

rainswept said...

Dealing with the problem of evil is just one of the ways in which FRPGs stray not merely into the ahistorical, but pretty much the downright silly.

Best of luck to DMs who hope that their fictional cultures and sages can help them resolve this issue.

Alex Schroeder said...

In my own game, I've tried to create a list of evil gods that still provide some sort of benefit to society (the fig leaf) in order to explain why they are tolerated at all (even if their main temple is hidden away in some dungeon). I think it's far more interesting if there's an actual reason to keep the cult of Orcus alive (he grants Raise Dead in my campaign).

Corby Thunder said...

If a "good" religion can burn people alive for heresy, what need is there of an "evil" religion?

What if the good religion is corrupted and twisted by the lure of power for those in charge and through deception the enemy who does not want people know the true intent and ideals of the good religion? Take away what is good use the name of the good religion to do evil and people turn away from it. So through lies, trickery and deception the good religion is percieved as evil and the evil good. Sounds like a good campaign to me :)

Marshall Smith said...

Question: Do evil races exist in your world?

Your argument is really just an extension of the argument that no man views himself as truly evil. He is always justified in his actions, whether through a belief of "they deserve it" or "everybody does it, I just don't lie about it."

It is true that, in a "realistic" game, there should be no religion that self-identifies as evil. In a "fantastic" game, though, I see no problem with introducing a religion that preaches "win at all costs," which is inherently evil.

Stefan Poag said...

One of the problems I see is that many of the real world religions which are currently practiced may either explicitly or imply that believers should deny the validity of other belief systems in order to be a 'good' practitioner of that belief system. For example, Muslims accept the existance of Jesus Christ, but deny his divinity (saying he was instead a 'great prophet' and the Christians are mistaken). For most Christians, the Muslim stance is a deal-breaker.

I think that in the ancient world, one of the big paradigm shifts that is hard for us moderns to wrap our heads around is that you didn't deny the existance of your rival's gods, you simply claimed your own gods were better (or hoped they were, I guess).

As a teen I was astounded to learn that many of the names that were associated with 'evil' like Baal, Maloch, etc., had previously been pagan gods that had been discredited, replaced or forbidden by new belief systems. I think the ancient Roman practice of adding other people's gods to their pantheon (or simply finding an 'equivalent' god) would be most puzzling. The average Roman acknowledged hundreds or even thousands of gods, although they might make appeals to one god or another at certain times.

More recently I recall all of the hoopla about a game called Dungeons & Dragons being an 'evil game' being made by some people who clearly didn't really know what they were talking about (my favorite example being a suggestion from Pat Pulling's MADD organization that tells parents if their kids are found reading 'The Necronomicon,' they are probably Satanists).

One of the roots of the problem is that in D&D fantasyland, all creatures have an alignment which is detectable --- and even has it's own language. So fantasy 'evil' has its own taxonomy and we can sort good and evil creatures according to their alignment. In the real world, we can really only judge people by their behavior and their associations --- which makes it much harder to say with certainty who the good or evil guys are.

Robert Conley said...

Question: Do evil races exist in your world?

Yes and no.

There were only two races after creation Men and Elves.

When the Demons rebelled they used magic to alter man in search of the perfect servitor race. Halflings, Dwarves, Orcs, etc.

Some of these servitors races had been twisted brain wise. Orcs have heightened agression, goblins maniacal obsession, etc.

After the Demon were defeated and imprisoned in the Abyss. The survivors of all races were given their freedom to live as they please. Some like orcs are enable to cohabit peacefully with other races.

A group of minor demons managed to escape the Abyss and establish an empire (Viridistan) They actively prosecute all adherents of any religions within their domain. For their conquered subjects they have imposed a religion that similar to emperor worship of the Roman, the Imperial Cult.

Chosen people play a big part in my setting. For example the Ghinorian are a chosen people of Mitra, while the Thules are the chosen of Set. These cultures only worship a single deity.

Tetsubo said...

The Cathars were wiped out by the Catholics. The first Crusade on European soil in fact. Who needs evil religions?

JB said...

Actually, I think you miss the point of evil religions in Dungeons & Dragons.

Lolth (for example) is an evil deity...but that's the appearance to people outside of the Drow race. Why? Because she drives her people to do things surface dwellers (and deep gnomes) don't like, namely: slaying, subjugating, and enslaving other sentients in her name.

To the Drow, Lolth is All Great and All Good. Sure she demands the occasional ritual sacrifice...what god doesn't? Even in ancient times, real world religions required blood sacrifice (human for some, mostly animal). The Drow are doing nothing more...heck sacrificing a higher being is a more devout form of worship. The fact that they generally attempt to sacrifice OUTSIDERS (much as the ancient Aztecs and Mayans would prefer to sacrifice rival tribesman captured in battle) is part and parcel to this.

Just as in REAL life, the Drow nation doesn't consider their god to be "evil" to THEM. There are certain parts of their dogma they accept (failed high priests being transformed into driders...hey, at least it's a type of transformation...and Drow clerics aren't required to be celibate or impoverished based on their religion, so it's a small price to pay, right?).

But to those on the outside looking in, WE see Lolth as evil: for what she requires of her followers and for what she compels them to do. Similar to 21st century folks looking at Tlaloc (or another mesoamerican deity) and saying, hmmm, pulling people's hearts out and skinning folks alive wasn't an especially nice thing to do.

"Evil religions" do exist in reality...but you have to put it into context. D&D takes a particular stance (humans, elves, dwarves are good...monsters are bad), assigns "alignments" accordingly, and then can make a judgment about what's evil and what's not. Evil is in the eye of the beholder; always has been. If one was running a medieval campaign set from the point of view of the Islamic people, Christians might seem to be evil being driven to Crusade again and again into the holy land. Hell, what did the Celts or German tribes think of the conquering Christian armies of Rome? Etc., etc.

Stefan Poag said...

Maybe this is just my interpretation, but I always accepted that 'evil' races like goblins, orcs and (sigh) drow DID embrace their evil-ness. It wasn't just a case of perspective or point of view --- in 1e D&D, Chaotic evil is 'detectable' by spell and even has it's own language, so there is a measurable difference between an evil creature and a good one. Your character might need a spell to detect it (and I am not such a stickler for the rules that I am unable to accept exceptions, i.e.: an occassional 'neutral' or even 'good' goblin might be interesting).

Tetsubo said...

For me (and my campaigns) there is no such thing as an 'evil' race. There are *cultures* that are widely perceived as evil. But a 'race' is made up of individuals. All whom have there one personal views of the moral universe. In my campaigns no monster entry ever says 'always evil'.