What could make for light listening better than a discussion of religion? This week, the hosts discuss how gods, faith, and worship are portrayed in various spec fic stories. They delve into deep and introspective topics such as Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s concept of belief-driven deities and argue over why anyone would worship a squid god over a cat god. As a bonus, they explain why Vulcans do actually make good spies.
- The Imperial Cult from Warhammer 40,000
- The Valar from The Silmarillion
- Cthulu Mythos Dieties
- Kushiel’s Dart (Kushiel’s Legacy, Book 1) by Jacqueline Carey
- Israelite Exile to Babylon
- Documentary Hypothesis
- American Gods by Neil Gamen
- Small Gods: A Discworld Novel by Terry Pratchett
- The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
- Merlin (2008)
- The Briar King (The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, Book 1) by Greg Keyes
- The Old Gods from A Song of Ice and Fire
- Faith of the Seven from A Song of Ice and Fire
- The Lord of Light in A Song of Ice and Fire
- Lost: Man of Science, Man of Faith (Episode)
- Star Trek: Voyager: Sacred Ground (episode)
- The Prophets from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
- The Emissary from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
- The Kai from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
- The Ancients from Stargate SG-1
- The Ori from Stargate SG-1
- The Goa’uld from Stargate SG-1
- Wishmaster (1997)
Generously transcribed by Elizabeth. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Mike Hernandez, and Chris Winkle.[intro music]
Oren: Today’s episode is brought to you by our sponsor, Kathy Ferguson, professor of political theory in Star Trek.
Mike: Welcome to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Mike, and with me is:
Mike: Before we get started with our topic today, we have a couple of email questions for you guys.
Oren: What? I was not prepared for this. This is an ambush.
Mike: First, from Emily: “Normal people get excited for Fridays. Since discovering Mythcreants two months ago and listening to all the podcasts within a week, I get excited for every other Sunday, and sometimes I get my Sundays confused and get excited for nothing. Those are dark days.” Thank you, Emily.
“I have a Star Trek: Voyager question. Why would anyone choose Tuvok as a spy? And why did the Maquis not suspect something was up? [Chris laughs] Who sits down at a table and says, ‘You know what? Let’s pick Tuvok to pretend to be a rebel. It totally makes sense to use a logical, rational being to pretend to take on a largely emotional role, like defecting from the big guy to join the little guy.’ And somehow the Maquis just welcome him onto one of their ships.
“I think if I was the Maquis conducting Tuvok’s entrance interview, I probably would have checked the box that said, “Seems fishy: should probably be assigned to sorting fan mail,” but alas, no one did, and the Maquis are shocked by his betrayal. The entire series depends on Tuvok being able to infiltrate the Maquis and I’m just not convinced enough to suspend disbelief. The entire series starts with a giant plot hole. Is there a logical way for this whole Tuvok thing to make sense? I’m so bothered by it that I watched three Voyager episodes and then just couldn’t anymore. My entire Star Trek experience is relying on you. So, no pressure, guys.”
Oren: Yeah. Okay. Chris, do you want to take a crack at this?
Chris: Okay. I have good and bad reasons for this. First of all, the advantage of using a Vulcan is because they’re not emotional. You think that they would have less tells. Less emotional giveaways. The problem is that Vulcans aren’t supposed to lie, and they actually bring up this premise during Voyager about Vulcans not lying, about them just leaving something out. And so I’m not sure how he could get through the Maquis spying operation without lying a whole bunch.
Oren: Okay. I got this one. All right. We know that there are Vulcans in the Maquis. We met one in Deep Space, Nine. (She was pretty cool. I liked her.) But Tuvok, to infiltrate the Maquis, actually makes a reasonable amount of sense if you consider the whole “Vulcans not lying” thing. Vulcans lie all the time, but everyone thinks they don’t lie, so they make really good spies.
It’s like how in the early… I think it would be the 1100s – 1400s in Spain. One of the things they would do to try to see if you were a Jew or a Muslim would be to make you eat ham. If you ate the ham, then you weren’t, because Jews and Muslims don’t eat ham. Yes, there are cultural prohibitations against that for some Jews and some Muslims, but if you were a Jew or a Muslim who didn’t particularly care about that, there you go, you’ve just passed, and now they think that you’re a Christian and you can do whatever you want. It’s the same with the Vulcans and not lying. Clearly some Vulcans don’t lie, but plenty do and don’t see a problem with it. Because everyone thinks they don’t lie, they make the perfect spies, because they’re like, “Are you a spy?” No. “Oh, well, he doesn’t lie. That checks out.”
Maybe you haven’t gotten this far into Voyager yet, Emily, but there is actually another character that turns out to be a spy among the Maquis. Everybody still loves her after this is revealed and it makes no sense whatsoever. They all hate Tuvok for being a spy, but then this other character is even worse and gets a complete pass. It’s very, very strange.
Oren: Also, I would really be interested to know what Star Trek’s or Starfleet’s criteria is for choosing their spies, because over on DS9, they make O’Brien be a spy. They send O’Brien to infiltrate the Orion Syndicate. It’s like, why? Why O’Brien of all people? Not Odo, who can shapeshift, or literally anyone but O’Brien who has… O’Brien’s experiences are foot soldier and mechanic.
Mike: And transporter operator.
Oren: And transporter operator! None of which are relevant to his role at infiltrating the Orion Syndicate.
Mike: Well, obviously their criteria for who should be a spy is, “Are you one of the main characters, and have you been neglected in episodes recently?”
Oren: They also had O’Brien be a spy to infiltrate the Klingons because Terry Farrell’s skin was too sensitive to wear the Klingon makeup. I wish they put in a plot reason for that, because they originally wanted it to be Dax, but Terry Farrell literally couldn’t wear the makeup so they picked O’Brian instead, but there’s no plot reason for it. It’s just like, “Okay, I guess Dax isn’t going on this really important Klingon mission.”
Mike: Yeah. There’s other things in the early part of Voyager’s first season that also make you scratch your head a bit, but so many shows have a rough patch in their opening seasons. I would still give it a chance, Emily, it’s still enjoyable despite that. Right, guys?
Oren: No, no it’s not. It’s bad. [Mike laughs]
Chris: [sounds of polite disagreement] Voyager is not a very good show in my opinion, but it’s still gonna be fun to watch. You can still enjoy a show and recognize that it’s not great.
Oren: Oh, sure.
Mike: That’s what I said by enjoyable.
Oren: Chris and I are hate-watching it right now. It’s great.
Mike: That’s why I felt this question was perfect for you too, because you can hate watching it so much.
Oren: As weird as it is, of all the problems with Voyager, I think Tuvok infiltrating the Maquis is not actually a problem. I think it’s reasonable. We see Tuvok lie in other situations without any real problem. He doesn’t – it’s not like he’s charismatic, but again, he doesn’t really have any tells. He lies the same way he says everything else. It’s like, I guess if they had good background information prepared for him, yeah, sure. Why not?
Mike: All right. Well, thank you for the question, Emily. Hopefully this resolves it for you. And then we had another question; two in one week, this one from Daniel:
“In regards to a podcast from late last year about making villains sympathetic, is it possible to make a militantly racist character sympathetic without excusing how disgustingly wrong it is? I’m more than willing to change this around if a respectful solution can’t be found, but I’m aiming for a character that believes they’re doing the right thing, and over the course of the story, they come to realize that’s not true. I’m well aware that this is a very touchy subject and I’m not quite sure how to handle it. Thanks in advance and thanks for a lot of great advice.” Thanks for the question, Daniel.
Chris: I think with that one, I would go with a really harsh backstory for that character to give them… The more inexcusable their actions are, the more important is to put them through a lot of pain in their backstory so that it becomes more understandable. It’s really great that this character is going to learn differently. I think that is one of the keys to making this okay, is that it’s not just a story that accepts that and leaves it there. It’s a story that actively challenges it during the course of the character’s arc.
Oren: Yeah. It’s also important to remember that there’s racism, and then there’s racism. If it’s a fantasy story, it’s a lot more palatable to have a character who’s racist against elves than it is to have a modern story and have a character who’s racist against an actual group of humans. Not saying that you can’t do the second one, but you will be having a much harder time convincing your audience to stick around for that one as then you will for Grognar the elf hater. But I think Chris’s advice is correct in this context. The more tragic the backstory, the more audiences are willing to accept from someone in terms of bad things.
Mike: I think, also, what they’re surrounded by. If everyone around them is just agreeing, you know, smiling and nodding when they’re being militantly racist, then it’s going to be a lot harder to do a full turn later on in the story. But if they are set up from the beginning, now this doesn’t help making them sympathetic, but it does help with making it palatable. If everyone from the beginning is opposed to them, at least on the terms of their racism, that will help make sure that your story isn’t just feeding into bad stereotypes.
It also depends on when you want them to be sympathetic. If you want them to be sympathetic right away, a tragic backstory, as Chris said, is great. But, if you don’t care about them being sympathetic as a villain until later on, you could just have them be terrible and unsympathetic from the start, and only become sympathetic once they start learning the error of their ways and start changing their behavior. That’s another route that you could go.
Oren: All right. Well, hopefully that was helpful, Daniel. Thanks for the question.
Chris: Yeah. Thanks for both of you.
Oren: Yeah. Apparently you listened to all of our podcasts in one week, I think Emily said. So, yeah. Thank you. That’s interesting.
Chris: Very flattering.
Mike: Okay. We had a topic, right?
Oren: Did we? I’ve forgotten.
Mike: I believe you presented it as a joke, Oren, and then we were like, yeah, let’s go with it, and you panicked.
Oren: Yeah, that was definitely what happened. Maybe we could just make up questions. I could hope for some kind of divine intervention, as it were.
Mike: Nope. I’m sorry. The divine intervention has already passed.
Oren: All right. Well, this week’s topic is religion in speculative fiction. Which I had somewhat suggested as a joke, because we were talking about easy topics and I was like, “Religion! That sounds like an easy topic.” [laughter] So, I don’t know, religion is in spec fic sometimes.
Chris: Yeah, not all the time, surprisingly, but it’s used.
Mike: All right, that’s Oren and Chris’ input. I guess I’m going to carry this. [laughter]
Oren: [jokingly] Sometimes.
Chris: [jokingly] Yeah, sometimes!
Oren: But not all the time.
Chris: All right, let’s talk about it. So, we’re going to generally talk about religion in the context of world-building. You can world build for your novel, or you can world build for your role-playing campaign. I think one of the first questions is, should you? How important is it to have a religion as part of your world building? My personal response to that would be that I think it’s important to have a belief system, but that belief system doesn’t have to be a religion. Belief systems can also be things like political ideologies or any sort of value system that a culture follows, but a religion is something a little bit more specific that comes to usually having some sort of divine that’s worshipped, for instance, and specific rituals.
Oren: Also something to consider, and your mileage will vary on this, but just in terms of how the reader will react, I think that it’s more important to include a religion in a fantasy setting than a sci-fi setting in general. There are exceptions obviously– it’s not that you have to have a religion in your fantasy setting or you can’t have one in the science fiction setting, but I think people expect there to be one more in a fantasy setting, even if, for example, the religion is not linked directly to the plot, or it’s not a magic religion or whatever. People will just expect there to be some kind of worship going on. Whereas, in science fiction, route and modern settings, you can kind of drop it and people often won’t notice it.
Even worse, in a sci-fi setting, if you’re not careful, the religion can seem really hokey or out of place like in Burning Wheel versus Burning Empires. Those are two role-playing game settings. Burning Wheel is just sort of your cool high fantasy Tolkien setting. Burning Empires is based off a comic book series, but both of them have pseudo-Catholicism going on. In the burning wheel setting, the fantasy setting, it’s like, “Yeah. Okay. We’ve got pseudo-Catholicism going on, whatever. It might or might not be magic. It doesn’t really matter. It’s a part of the setting.” In Burning Empires, at least for me, the space Catholics feel really weird and out of place. Certainly, if you were Catholic, you might not feel that way, but because it doesn’t seem like it’s a central part of the setting. It’s just what the faith is of the setting. It’s not actually Catholicism, but it’s, it’s structured like Catholicism and it feels odd that it’s there.
Chris: Catholicism-like religions are fairly common in fantasy, but it does feel like a deviation from the theme to put it in a far future.
Mike: It depends on how well you integrate it: Warhammer 40,000. They worship the Emperor and they have Inquisitors and everything. It’s very much inspired by medieval Catholicism and some of the stereotypes of what the church was like then, but they integrate it so well into every aspect of the culture there that it doesn’t feel out of place. It is the place.
Oren: I actually feel like Warhammer 40K might be the reason why religion in science fiction often seems so out of place or weird, because it’s hard not to make comparisons to the super over-the-top Warhammer universe. When you’re looking at religion and science fiction, it’s like, “Oh, is there a God-Emperor in here too?” You know, that, that sort of thing.
Mike: Fair enough.
Oren: That’s my suspicion.
Mike: You mentioned fantasy and how religion is often included in a fantasy. In Lord of the Rings, is there any overt religion? I don’t remember it, but I never read those books very closely.
Chris: I think in Lord of the Rings, it’s a little complicated because there’s no recognition that the religion is a religion, because that’s how the world is constructed. It is a world that does have gods and has a hierarchy of more divine to less divine and less powerful. But it’s treated like reality in a way that doesn’t make you think of it as a religion.
Mike: Okay. So there are gods and demigods, and I know wizards are like a lower level of demigods, but there’s no religious worship of any of that structure, at least to my memory.
Chris: Reverence, to some degree. They go on at length about the Numerians [Númenóreans], (which are a superior race of humans basically), and how awesome they were, and that kind of thing. It’s a recognition that some people are better than others. [she laughs, strained] The Lord of the Rings has a very problematic construction in the background about some races simply being superior to other races.
So there’s a certain level of respect or reverence that’s built in it. Lord of the Rings glorifies differences in power and hierarchy and authority. But yeah, you don’t necessarily see much actual worship rituals that make you think it’s a religion.
Mike: Okay, so it doesn’t have organized religion, but it codifies the religious concept of the great chain of being into the hierarchy of the world in a very concrete way.
Oren: I actually thought that always made more sense to me than taking a normal, historical religion and filing off the serial numbers and then putting that in your fantasy setting, because it always struck me as odd; normal religions are built around the idea that these non-human supernatural entities exist, but that you can’t just go talk to them. Like they exist, but you have to take our word for it.
Mike: Well, some people would say that’s not true at all.
Oren: Right. I mean, the average person who goes to church is not speaking with God on a regular basis.
Mike: From the religious people that I knew growing up, that varies depending on their personal relationship with religion.
Oren: Look, I’m trying to find a polite way to say– [laughter]– that there’s no evidence for God. I you want to believe God is real, that’s fine; I’m not saying you shouldn’t, but most religions exist in that context, that there’s no direct evidence of a divine being, whereas in a fantasy setting, very often there is. The divine are either like, 1) they live over there beyond the hill and you can talk to them if you want, or 2) everyone knows they exist because it’s super well documented, and even if they haven’t been around for awhile, it’s just accepted fact that they’re around. If you went on a quest, you could go and get their opinion on things. It is a very different set up than how religion in the real world works.
That’s why I actually found the Tolkien system more interesting as opposed to, “Well, we have a church, but this is a god that the priest can snap their hands and now that god is here in a torrent of fire or whatever.”
Mike: The divine without the organized religion.
Oren: It gets really silly in settings like the various Dungeons & Dragons-type settings, like Forgotten Realms or whatever, where all of these gods exist and people worship them and it raises questions. Why does anyone worship the evil gods? Because then when you die, you have to go to evil god land and it’s terrible. Why would you want that? Why not just worship a good god who you know exists, and will cure your disease for worshiping them?
Mike: [joking] Well, you worship an evil god because your race is evil, and therefore by default you have to be.
Chris: Like the Drow, just chaotic evil, somehow an entire society.
Oren: [worked up] Even if we accept that some races are just evil in D&D, which is stupid and dumb, let’s just accept that for a minute. Plenty of humans, apparently, who do not have pre-built alignments, like humans can be whatever alignment they feel like, still choose to worship evil gods in D&D
Mike: I counter with Cthulhu. Why would anyone worship the Great Old Ones?
Oren: I’ll tell you why: it’s because the Great Old Ones in the Cthulhu universe give you sweet magic powers. And, there are no good Old Ones that will give you sweet magic powers in the Cthulhu universe, or at least not classically. In certain additions to the Cthulhu Mythos, there are cool gods who will give you magic powers. And they completely destroy the concept, because it’s exactly the problem. It’s like, why would anyone worship Cthulhu when they could worship Bast, I think is one of the good ones, and get the same powers, but not go insane. Why would anyone do that?
Mike: Maybe you like going insane.
Oren: Maybe that’s your thing. [laughter] Certainly it’s much easier to excuse evil cults in a Cthulhu setting, because you can believe that there are some people who would be willing to pay those costs, either in their own sanity or in sacrifices of others, in exchange for a sweet magic powers and not getting devoured when the Old Ones wake up. It’s less easy to believe that if they could go next door and worship a cool cat goddess who doesn’t drive them insane, and also provides magic powers and kittens. Like, why not worship kitten goddess? [laughter]
Chris: Speaking of some more fantasy series that do interesting things with their religion and don’t just have religion sitting around, in the Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey, she does something interesting where she has different races of people that each have their own religious system, but it does more than just affect who they worship. It actually changes who they are. They have, basically, different powers inherent to their race, depending on which gods they worship. The main characters are in this race that are love, their essential deity’s all about love, and so they’re all super beautiful; they basically only get pregnant when they want and all these other kinds of powers. But then if they go out and explore different countries, that country usually has different gods and a different religion and how things work there are very different.
Mike: Interesting. That’s a callback to some of the very ancient ways of thinking about religion in human culture in the Middle East. Before monotheism had fully developed, gods were regional. You had a land for your people and for your god. One of the reasons the banishment of the Israelites to Babylon was so bad for them was because they were going to a land that didn’t include their God. Now that interpretation is going to be unfamiliar to probably most of our listeners, but it is well supported by scholars that study the Old Testament in its historical context. So, that [series] is actually not just creating a new idea that God’s are regional, but borrowing from history. I like that.
Oren: So is this idea that like in modern times we’ve created better storage systems and preservation systems for gods, so they travel better, whereas before, you couldn’t really move around much? [laughter]
Mike: I don’t think it’s that we move them around. I think it’s that the idea of “omnipresent” started to develop.
Oren: But what about Tupperware for your religion, so that you could put it in a Tupperware and take it with you so it wouldn’t spoil?
Mike: I’m pretty sure Tupperware hadn’t been invented in the BCs. I think back in BCE, the best we had were gourds and baskets.
Oren: Gourds are pretty cool. I’d put my deity in a gourd and carry it with me. [laughter]
Mike: Fun fact: most gourds were domesticated, not for nutrition, but their use as carrying devices.
Chris: Interesting. [laughter]
Chris & Oren: Good fact.
Oren: Yeah. The idea of the God that you worship that has specific aspects that grants you some kind of specific supernatural ability, or what have you, is not uncommon among fantasy in particular. Neil Gaiman kind of set a template for one way of doing that – the whole idea of gods, basically being banks for your religious magic, where everyone prays to a god and all of that power goes into this reservoir that you call a god, and then you can withdraw it later, requesting miracles and whatever. That’s sort of the Neil Gaiman way of doing it.
Chris: How do they prevent a bank run?
Oren: They don’t. [laughter] It’s not a very stable system because if enough worshipers are in enough trouble, they’ll all be like, “Hey, Poseidon, I need all of your sea power,” and then Poseidon’s like “Okay, but you guys have better do some prayers and some sacrifices to fill me back up because I’m running a little low,” and they’re like, “We don’t have time for that, Poseidon!” And then he’s like, “I guess I can’t answer any more of your prayers guys. Sorry.” And they’re like, “You’re a terrible god, Poseidon. Your era’s over.”
Mike: What? Your prayers aren’t federally insured?
Oren: Not yet. That’s the way that American Gods and Sandman do it. And in American Gods and Sandman, it doesn’t go into the mechanics of it that deeply, but the gods are characters in those books and the ones that don’t have worshipers anymore are portrayed as being in a very bad situation, and it’s kind of tragic. That’s why in American Gods -spoilers for American Gods- you kind of sympathize with Wednesday, whose plan is to cause unbelievable destruction to bring himself back to the fore, as it were, but you kind of sympathize with him because he used to be really cool. Now he’s not cool because times are changing and like, wasn’t it really awesome back when we all like, got to just hang ourselves up on the world tree and gained infinite knowledge? That sort of thing. So there’s a certain, like built-in reverence for the way things used to be, but at least it’s counterbalanced by the fact that a lot of the old gods are dicks in the Neil Gaiman setting.
Neil Gaiman’s world does fall apart a little bit around Christianity, because, if his logic holds true that it’s all based on belief, then the Christian God, and then slightly second, the God of Islam should be super powerful and just be able to grant prayers whenever. That’s clearly not how the world works and it isn’t how it works in the Gaiman setting either. It’s not really clear why; there’s just kind of a ‘Don’t ask any questions over here’ field.
Mike: It would be interesting if all of the different denominations of those religions split like separate local credit unions, and that’s why it’s not super powerful.
Oren: Yeah, that’s actually kind of what happens in Discworld, which, I don’t know if Terry Pratchett directly did this on purpose, but he actually provides an interesting solution to the Neil Gaiman god problem, where he has a big monotheistic god who has a super powerful church of everyone who worships him. His idea is that after a while, as your religion gets more and more organized, it stops being about the god and becomes about the church itself. The church gets bigger and more powerful, but the god is starved for worship and loses all of his powers.
The Discworld book where this is most illustrated is Small Gods, which is an excellent book. I definitely recommend it. The monotheistic god character has to become a tortoise because he has no power, no actual worship left, because everyone’s just busy worshipping basically the church itself and the church kind of pays him lip service, but it doesn’t really care about him. And so he ends up with the one person who still cares about him as an entity, and is carrying around this god tortoise. [laughter] It’s a good book series, and you know, this is my Discworld corner time. [laughter]
Chris: One book series that I think sets up religion well for having conflicts with the different sects of the religion is the Chalion series by Bujold. In there she has five gods, but the four of them are like the father, the mother, the daughter, and the son. And then the fifth God is the bastard.The idea is that the bastard’s the god that takes care of the people who are outcasts, et cetera. That makes sense. But then there are other people in countries that reject the bastard as a god and just go with the four. It becomes this sort of feud between whether or not you’re like a quintarian or, I don’t know if they call the others quadrarians, but whether you believe in four gods or whether you also include the bastard or whether you think the bastard is a demon that shouldn’t be worshipped.
It’s also pretty realistic because the biggest religious squabbles are generally between two sets of the same religion that are actually, for the most part, similar. We don’t get into huge fights between belief systems that are completely different from each other. They have to be close enough that they feel like they’re contradicting each other.
Oren: Well, you do, but you’re right. I mean, there are examples of some pretty vicious fights between people of completely different religions, but I think history would bear you out that the most, at least bloody and long term religious conflicts, have been between different sets of the same religion.
One thing that I would like to never see in fantasy again is this idea that religion and magic would be inherently opposed. I know why we think that it’s because we have this idea of witch hunts and what have you, and like there’s at least some anti-sorcery rhetoric in the various Christian scriptures. But, the trick is that none of those witches could actually do magic. These women who were burned as witches, you know because if they could, they wouldn’t have been burned as witches because they would use their magic to get out of it. They were either political because of the church or just women who weren’t subservient enough or occasionally women who had certain knowledge that the church wasn’t interested in being around.
They might’ve had knowledge of different things like herbology or what have you, which is valuable knowledge, but it’s not magic. If they could summon fire or whatever, they would just use that and not get burned. So if you have a world where magic actually exists, it will almost certainly be incorporated into your religion.
Chris: That’s also an issue with BBC Merlin, right. They’re fighting against magic, but with what? I don’t know how they’re holding their own against magic.
Mike: With swords!
Oren: Well, the BBC Merlin is kind of like if Uther’s wife died in a plane crash and he decided to declare war on planes. It’s kind of what it is, but everyone else still has planes, but somehow he’s able to hold his own against them. I don’t know.
Mike: I would love to see a re-interpretation of that series where that is the premise. Sudden modern day. Uther declares war on planes.
Oren: [jokingly] No motorcycles for you! [seriously] But in a fancy setting where magic is a thing you’re probably going to see, if religion’s important, because it might not be, but if it is, you’re going to see probably sorcerer priests who will say that my magic comes from God, whether it does or not, because it might; we’ve been talking about Neil Gaiman and Kushiel whether it actually does, or it might just be that they can shoot fire out of their hands. Then they’re like, yeah, God totally gave me this higher power. That’s why I deserve to have it: because God chose me. Or you could end up with sorcerer gods, because who needs some abstract God who might or might not exist when you have a person right here who can shoot fire out of their hands. This is just why we just worship them.
Chris: I find more often than not, in fantasy/ alternate worlds that are fantasy settings, almost always the religion has some sort of magic happening in it somewhere. An interesting one is the Kingdom of Thorn and Bone, which has kind of a Catholicism system. But it even works magic and, and in an interesting way where it has these saints that have multiple faces to them, and you have to walk a certain path from all the different sacred locations of these saints. Once you walk that path, you get a specific power related to this saint. Usually somewhere. That one is an example that is not obvious and overt even in that world. These secret paths that people walk are known, but it’s not very casual. It’s a little bit hidden. That’s probably one of the most subtle ones I found. Usually religion has lots and lots of magic upfront.
Mike: What I really like is how religion is handled in Game of Thrones, because there’s a very diverse representation of a lot of the concepts that we’ve been discussing. There’s a whole bunch of different religions and gods, as is appropriate for such a complex and in-depth world, but the main three that we hear about are the old gods, the Seven, and the Lord of Light. They’re all very different from each other.
The old gods are very passive. They don’t really demand worship. It’s basically the druidic religion of the Northern peoples. They have their worship around ancient trees and there are, in fact, magical beings that actually exist and have great power, but they don’t actually ask anyone for worship. It’s a very passive religion in that they’re not demanding anyone worship them, but people do worship.
Then you have the Lord of Light who is very evangelical, demands that people worship the Lord of Light and burn all false idols, gives promises of great power to the Lord of Light’s followers, and we see some displays from sorcerers or priests of the Red God (the other name for the Lord of Light).
And then we have the Seven, which are also fairly demanding of your worship, but it’s more of an institutional thing. It is the church of Westeros. Very formal. It is supposed to be respected by all of the ruling class within Westeros. Otherwise they have issues, because the monarchy and the church are supposed to be intertwined. Institutionally it’s very powerful. When the Faith Militant shows up later in the series, they have a lot more influence, because they now have large mobs of fanatics that are willing to kill for the church. But it’s the one church that has zero instances of magical power being confirmed. There isn’t actually any power in the Seven that we see.
It is a very interesting dynamic that you have these three main religions with very different sources of power and expectations for worship and how they interact. And the fact that some of the most fanatic followers are of the Seven, who doesn’t bestow any power upon its followers; that to me is very interesting
Oren: The Seven honestly confused me a little bit, because when they first showed up, they had this whole “old gods and new”, and I was like, okay, the old gods are clearly going to be mystical in some way. Like, I could tell that from book one. It turned out that they were; there was some kind of connection with the old ones and the ancient stuff that’s going on north of the Wall. And then for most of the books, the Seven are kind of a non-entity. They’re around, but they don’t really seem to matter as a religion or as actual gods. Because there wasn’t really a very big difference in the way the northerners who believed in the old gods and the southerners who believed in the seven behaved. They seemed basically the same.
Whereas, the Lord of Light actually has very clear behavioral differences that he demands on you. You have to act in a certain way. Then also they have the priests with magic powers. Although interestingly, they have very different temperaments, right? We ran into a couple of them. One of them is this really jovial guy who likes to go around resurrecting people [Thoros of Myr]. I liked him. And then you’ve got the Red Lady, who’s evil, and the other one was hanging out with a dragonborn who’s evil, but clearly it’s not a unified thing.
Whereas, the Seven, the fact that like when the church militant showed up, it felt kind of sudden. It was like, wait, now people care about religion? Because no one in the book seemed to care about religion until suddenly they did.
Mike: Well, no one in the upper classes that consists of all of our viewpoint characters really care. They pay lip service to the Seven because it is the official religion and it is a political institution alongside the crown. But all of the peasantry, all the lower class is invested in it, and they become more invested after all of the chaos of the War of the Five Kings.
Oren: From a storytelling perspective I think it was a mistake because it felt like adding another faction into this mix that hadn’t really been there before. We already had plenty of fashions. [laughs] I don’t think it was really necessary.
Chris: I have to say I only watched the show, but seeing it happen in the show, it had that same dynamic, I was like, why doesn’t the king just kill those guys that are getting in his way? There hasn’t been anything to suggest why they’re powerful enough that they can actually stop a king from doing what he wants. I get the concept of having a rebellion on his hands because the peasants support the church, but it just doesn’t feel that way.
Mike: Its execution could be done a little bit better. The idea is that it’s supposed to… Well, first of all, Tommen is weak. Second of all, the king is supposed to get some of his legitimacy to rule from the church. So, once the Faith Militant have become the dominant faction within the church, it’s difficult to directly oppose them. And they do come out of nowhere. I actually kind of liked it. I was confused at first, but once I realized what was going on, I did like that, because yeah, if you’re a noble and you live in King’s Landing and everything seems fine, then you’re not going to notice a lower-class movement, like the Faith Militant, until it reaches critical mass and suddenly it’s a problem for you.
Oren: Right. I’m not saying it’s unrealistic. I’m just saying that from a storytelling perspective, there was already a lot happening in these books. I don’t think we needed to add another thing
Mike: More, Oren! More factions!
Oren: It’s like, more is not always better. [laughter] It’s not like there was any shortage of people fighting. Now we have more people fighting.
Chris: This also calls attention to the fact that there’s a lot of viewpoint characters in Game of Thrones, but most of them are nobility. There’s not a lot of peasant main characters in Game of Thrones, if there’s any, and this sort of highlights that. There’s a lack of a perspective from, you know, the lower classes and that’s fairly common in fantasy and it’s unfortunate that we’re still telling stories about the most privileged people.
Mike: Unless you are the chosen one farm boy, and then the peasants are [laughter] almost certainly viewpoint characters.
Oren: But you’re almost certainly secretly a king. It’s very uncommon for you to be a chosen one farm boy and not be secretly nobility. I’m sure it happens sometimes. And it would have been interesting if this had been a story with a point of view character of an actual peasant person who rallied the peasantry through some new brand of religion to fight against these murderous monarchs who were just causing havoc in their petty war over the throne. That could have been interesting, but because, like Chris said, there are no peasant POV characters, it’s like suddenly in one book, “Oh, I guess there’s a peasant uprising. That’s interesting. Where did that come from?”
If I can mention another thing that I would like to not see again, in terms of religion in specific, is this idea that was capsulated perfectly in a Lost episode, by which I mean an episode of Lost, not an episode that was lost. It’s called “Man of Science, Man of Faith.” It’s a terrible episode in which we have one character who was supposed to be the man of science and another character who is supposed to be a man of faith. First of all, this sets up the dynamic that science and religion are opposed, which is a bad idea.
It’s not true, but even if it was, this episode approaches it from the angle that the man of science is stupid and won’t accept anything is happening that he can’t understand, but that the man of faith is also stupid and assumes that everything that is happening is happening for a good reason and that you shouldn’t do anything to try to stop it, which is not a thing that I would consider to be called either faith or science.
Mike: So, it’s false equivalency while also straw-manning both positions.
Oren: Right. If we could just ease up on the whole conflict of science and religion, like again, the conflict between magic and religion, is I get why we think that, because in the real world there are, and have been, religious institutions who feel that their authority is challenged by new ideas. Those new ideas often come from scientists, so they cracked down on that; that does happen, but science and religion are not inherently opposing ideas. You would certainly think they were from looking at a lot of our fiction.
Chris: Should we talk about the Voyager episode where Janeway learned faith? [laughter]
Oren: Oh, God. That episode, it’s like Janeway goes down and hangs out with a bunch of nihilist monks for an hour. I don’t know they’re actually nihilists, but their whole thing is that nothing matters. That’s what they keep telling me.
Chris: You shouldn’t have any expectations whatsoever because nothing actually has any inherent meaning to it.
Chris: At the end of the episode, there’s things happening. She’s trying to save Kes, right? Because Kes is dying, she’s desperately trying to save Kes. They’re just being like, “You shouldn’t expect things. Everything is meaningless.” And then at the end, when they finally find a solution and she gets a scientific explanation, she’s been, like their portrayal of Janeway i s that she doesn’t like having scientific explanations for things anymore because… No, that’s not really what it is.
Mike: Isn’t it her background as a scientist? Isn’t that her thing?
Chris: Well, that’s why she’s the main character in this episode. It’s like her scientific mind trying to wrap around these nihilist-ish beliefs.
Oren: Which is again… The premise of this episode, just to make it clear, is that Kes is dying because she walked into a doorway that is deadly, that in this temple they didn’t have marked, right.
Chris: They gave them a tour and she wandered a little way away from the tour and then… You’d think there’d be partitions or something to keep people from it.
Oren: Or a door with a lock on it or something. But no, she walks into this doorway that has this lethal radiation field and she’s dying. The Voyager people are like, “If we could scan that thing, we might be able to figure out what it did to her, and then we could fix her.” And the monks are like, “No. No, you can’t do that. That would ruin our spiritual mystery. If you want to find out Janeway, you can do this weird, dumb ritual in which we keep telling you that nothing matters and nothing means anything.”
Okay. Janeway should beam down there with 50 security dudes, dual wielding phaser rifles and then shoot them all, then say, “I thought nothing mattered. Monks. Doesn’t nothing matter? Why are you so upset that I’m doing this?” And then just scan the thing and get the solution, which apparently they could have done from the beach. I hate that episode. I hate it so much. [laughter]
Chris: [smugly] And so I decided to bring it up.
Oren: Right. To give Star Trek credit, over on Deep Space Nine, they had a much more interesting view of religion with the Bajorans and the Prophets, who are aliens. They are literal aliens. They live in the wormhole, but they are also kind of god figures to the Bajorans. They’re interesting because part of the reason that they work so well is that they are so different from humans, because they have a non-linear sense of time. They’re able to preserve some of the mystique around them. That works fairly.
Chris: Without deliberately obscuring knowledge like what happens in that Voyager episode.
Oren: I still think DS9 stumbles a little bit, especially since part of the thing that I would imagine that would come up, if you were part of a religion, especially for people like the Bajorans who have this really tragic history, and then like you find out that your gods literally exist in that weird space anomaly, and you can go talk to them if you want and they’ve been there this whole time. I imagine you’d have a serious crisis of faith for some people, being like, if you were there the whole time, why didn’t you stop this occupation that happened? Why didn’t you do that?
At that point, the question, which was not super well explored, but I thought was really very interesting, isn’t so much do you worship a god who might or might not exist, it’s do you worship a god who exists, but does things that seem counter to your interests? Right. I thought that was a fascinating idea but unfortunately it was never taken up.
Chris: Yeah. Their choice to make Sisco a profit figure like the Emissary of this Bajoran religion was kind of interesting. I wouldn’t have gone there; it seems somewhat problematic to make one of your characters an important religious figure for an entirely different people. I did, however, like the episode where Sisco’s very reluctant to take this role for obvious reasons. He should probably not have.
At one point they make another character show up that could also be the Emissary, but this character starts telling people that they need to reinstate their caste system and that forces Sisco to sort of step up and be like, no, I don’t want to be your Emissary; I don’t think I’m your Emissary; at the same time, I can’t let this guy claim to be it and then do terrible.
Oren: According to this new guy, Kira has to be an artist and she’s terrible at that. We got to put a stop to this right quick. Also, someone died for not wanting to do their caste stuff. We should also probably stop.
Mike: There’s also some weird political complications in that, because if they did re-institute their caste system, then their application to join the Federation at that point would fail because that’s something that the Federation doesn’t have tolerance for. And Sisco’s job there is supposed to be to help along the process of integrating Bajor into the Federation and making sure that goes smoothly for both parties. It’s like, [as Sisco] “Okay, I have a conflict of interest for why I’m telling you not to listen to that guy; also, telling you not to listen to that guy, by necessity, means I have to emphasize my role as the Emissary, which I hate.”
Oren: They at least choose to resolve it by actually flying into the wormhole and asking the prophets what they meant, which is interesting that they can do that. Most religions don’t have that luxury.
Mike: Overall, there were a lot of interesting aspects to that episode and very convoluted issues that the characters had to deal with.
Chris: They deal with a lot of issues with the Bajoran religion in DS9. It’s all very interesting.
Oren: They show something that happens a lot in real life, which is that often a society will retreat into their religious values when exposed to extreme stress. And in this case, the extreme stress is the occupation of Bajor, which is this terrible traumatic event in which lots and lots of people die. And it’s pretty clear that the way Bajor was able to endure as a cohesive cultural unit and also format a resistance, was at least partially because of the shared religion that they had.
That’s why the Kai is so important: even though technically they have separation of church and state, it’s hard to tell people, “Oh, this religion that you’ve depended on for the last 50 years to keep you going, now you have to not really listen to the Pope of that religion. Now you have to listen to this guy we elected who you may or may not have ever heard of.” That was really interesting, and Kira’s faith is a very important part of her character.
One thing that is difficult for me about the DS9 religion is that you have Gul Dukat,Who becomes the Space Antichrist and he’s the champion of the pah-wraiths, who’re the evil prophets. As their champion, they give him cool fire powers and levitation abilities and stuff. Whereas, Sisco is the prophet’s champion who has to fight Dukat, and he doesn’t get any of that. It’s like, “Come on, prophets. Do you want to win this fight or not? Get your head in the game.”
Mike: Stargate also did that with the Ancients being hands-off. We observe, we don’t interfere. And then their evil counterpart was like, no, we love this worship. We’re going to give our followers all sorts of powers to conquer everyone else. The ancients still refuse to do anything, even though their evil brethren taking over would lead to more people worshiping them, which gives them more power, which would allow them to finally destroy the good ancients.
Oren: At first with the prophets, it made sense that the prophets were not just directly helping, because again, they were like, “Corporeal matters do not concern us.” It’s what they would say. They were kind of lying because they would give the Bajorans orbs and stuff, and they did actually agree to help Sisco against the Dominion at one point. But, for the most part, they clearly saw that as not being their thing. They were like, it’s not our job to reach over and straighten out every time you mortals are having a mess, but with the pah-wraiths, it’s like, you know if the pah-wraiths win you guys are all gonna die. The pah-wraiths are trying to kill you all. Do you not have a sense of self preservation? What’s going on here?
Chris: But overall, Emily, if you’re iffy on Voyager and you’ve not watched Deep Space Nine yet, you should do Deep Space Nine.
Oren: Yeah. Deep Space Nine is definitely the best Star Trek show. I would recommend it wholeheartedly. That’s not really a religious thing, but you should definitely watch it. [laughter] Can we talk about Stargate for a minute?
Oren: Okay, we can go back to Stargate. So first of all, Stargate’s a little problematic because the evil gods are mostly gods worshipped by people of color, and the good gods are the ones worshiped by Europeans. The Asgard and what have you.
Oren: They saved that a little bit by the Asgard being, especially as the series goes on, more ambivalent than good. They’re not as much of jerks, but they’re also clearly not super nice guys.
Mike: There are also minor European religions in Stargate that are used as cover for the Goa’uld. I believe Gaelic or Celtic Goa’uld, old gods and stuff. So it’s not 100% that gods of people of color from ancient times are evil Goa’uld and the great Northern Europeans are all of the good guy Asgard, but yes, for the most part, it is fairly problematic in how they structure it.
Oren: Right. And then there’s the fact that they have an episode where Teal’c straight up says that the Goa’uld would not try to impersonate the Abrahamic God, because the Bible says that the Abrahamic God is too nice a guy for the Goa’uld to impersonate. Teal’c, have you read the Bible? Also even if that was true, even if we were strictly talking about the New Testament and you assumed everything in the New Testament was nice, it’s hard to imagine that a Goa’uld couldn’t figure out a way to manipulate that.
Mike: I actually don’t remember that episode, but it conflicts with the premise of Stargate in a couple of ways, in that the Goa’uld weren’t impersonating the gods of Egypt and the Asgard weren’t impersonating the Nordic gods. Those religions sprung up from the Goa’uld and the Asgard being on Earth and interacting with people. Ra and Ba’al were not appropriating names of established gods; those were their names and they became religious figures.
Chris: Wait a second. The Asgard are supposed to be the good gods, but they’re based or the Nordic gods are based on them?
Mike: That’s how that works. Yes.
Chris: But the Asgards are assholes. Like really, read some of those stories. They’re terrible.
Oren: That’s part of the reason why it’s weird. Right. And I’ve seen this before; it kind of feeds into the idea that the Christian God was this like savior figure that showed up to rescue humanity, either as an actual God, or just as like an idea that humans came up with, from all the evil guys we were worshiping before them. That happens in the Lovecraft universe sometimes and is super problematic and kind of racist. And at least in the Stargate episode they had, that was the episode where a Goa’uld was I think impersonating a priest instead of a god figure, but it was still weird when Teal’c was like, yeah, Goa’ulds would never be the Christian God because like he’s too nice. I don’t think he is, Teal’c. I’m pretty sure you could find some rude things the Christian God has done that could be totally a Goa’uld.
Chris: Just look at the Old Testament.
Mike: Yeah. Every now and then there are some odd bits during the Goa’uld seasons where they address Christianity. It is better off most of the time they are just ignoring it as a thing, because that’s not a major motivator for any of the characters. They’re not highly religious, so it just doesn’t come up. In the last season, possibly the last two seasons, they have a new enemy that I was mentioning earlier: the evil ancients, which are called the Ori. There it is very much an analog of early Christian organized religion and how they are violently conquering things to get worshippers, and you must only worship the Ori. Those are the ones that are actively giving powers to their followers and gain power from worship. I think there’s even something in there that they’re draining the life force from their – no, they promise, because the Ancients and the Ori are all ascended beings (they used to be mortals, and then they ascended to a higher plane of existence) the Ori promise to ascend their followers upon death, but they gain their power through worship and in the process deny the possibility of Ascension to their followers.
Mike: Very rude. And the ancients on the other hand, as former mortals on this plane of existence, are like, “No, we can’t interfere. You must find your own way to ascend or not. That is your thing.” They’re like an even more ambivalent Q. There they finally tackle Christianity head on and there’s even one or two mentions directly of how Christianity on Earth, we also have similar beliefs, but when they’re trying to negotiate possible settlement with one of these Ori priests, but we also recognize that people have the right to believe their own things and that sort of thing. And it’s a kind of awkward attempt to be like, yeah, we’ve ignored Christianity and explored all of these other real earth religions as speculative fiction pieces. We’re going to kind of try to address it.
Oren: I mean, I like it in theory. I haven’t, I didn’t watch far enough into Stargate to get to that point. I’ve been told that later seasons aren’t as good.
Mike: It actually gets significantly better than the seasons that were in decline before it. With the introduction of the Ori we also get lots of Camelot mythology. According to Stargate Camelot mythology was inspired by a few Ancients that broke some of the rules of the Ancients, of not interfering, and Merlin and others were in fact, Ancients that left treasures and clues on how to fight the Ori. Camelot versus the evil Catholic space church. It was a very interesting way to end the series.
Chris: I will say that covering real religions in an urban fantasy is always very tricky, kind of a sensitive topic, but the most popular ones to adopt seem to be Catholicism and stories like Constantine. Also very, very funny: there’s a movie, Wish Master 3, that’s supposedly about the genie that grants wishes, but it’s actually all about Catholicism mythology.
Oren: Okay. Sort of. The Wish Master series is supposed to be about an evil genie. You make a wish and then he grants it in a way that you hate. Then also like by doing that, you’ve sold him your soul. It’s a combination genie-devil figure. Then in the third Wish Master series, because of the second one, (they go progressively downhill after the first one), and the second one is just a really transparent demon versus angel story, but they call the demon a genie. And he has a magic sword and then he has to fight an angel who also has a magic sword. Every once in a while he grants someone a wish because they remember that’s what their series is called. So, I don’t know if it was deliberately trying to use Catholic mythology or if the writers were just really tired.
Chris: Probably just inspired.
Mike: Honestly, I think they were trying to write something that was more like a typical devil versus angel movie, but then weren’t able to get it approved by any studio. And they’re like, this studio is looking for a script for a new genie movie. What if we just renamed the demon? [laughter
Oren: What if we just wrote in genie right there? It’d be great. [laughter]
Mike: I honestly think that’s what they did there.
Chris: The other one that has been adopted a couple of times is Wicca is sometimes used for shows and movies involving witches; The Craft is a notable movie. I think Charmed is also using some Wicca.
Oren: I was going to say, at least they claim to, right. Again, this is one of those things where I don’t know very much about actual Wicca. I’m watching these shows go like, “This is a Wiccan thing!” It’s like, is it? Because it could be. I don’t know.
Chris: Well, I think if the magic system involves lots of crystals and pentagrams, then they’re at least taking inspiration from it. Like it might not be officially Wicca, but I think they’re at least deliberately invoking a resemblance.
Mike: Which seems like appropriation and problematic in that sense. It’s exoticising it.
Chris: Yeah, it’s definitely uncomfortable. I would say, don’t add magic to a real religion in urban fantasy, unless you are an actual practicing member of that religion. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be fights, because people can have different viewpoints about the same religion, but that at least gets you mostly out of appropriation territory, and it means that you’ll have a higher degree of dedication to authenticity than somebody who’s taking inspiration from something like Catholicism or Wicca and just using it for a magic system.
Mike: Right. And I think some people will probably listen to this and wonder why it’s okay to use Catholic themes and not Wicca. Honestly, there’s lots of examples of Catholic inspired spec fic that is also problematic, but some of the best Catholic inspired stories that delve heavily into religion, and magic, and that sort of thing are taking a very in-depth and educated approach to actual Catholic lore about demons and priests and exorcisms and that sort of thing. So they’re taking it seriously. If you’re taking Wicca or another real world religion seriously and going by their descriptions of rituals and everything, you’re in much better territory than if you just slap on the label and what you would find at a tourist store for Wicca paraphernalia. That’s when you get into trouble, because you’re not actually respecting the religion, you’re simply using it as decoration for your own. We’re wearing our social justice paladin hats right now. [laughter]
Oren: I never take that off.
Chris: Excuse me, I’m a social justice bard, okay?
Mike: We’re talking about religion. Why are you here? [laughter]
Oren:You’re not a divine caster!
Mike: Social justice clerics and paladins only, Christine.
Oren: What about social justice favored souls?
Mike: That’s fair, if we’re adding splatbooks.
Oren: I’m pretty sure there’s a divine bard somewhere in D&D. I’m pretty sure we could find a bar that cast divine magic. All right. That’s your homework, listeners. If you know of a D&D expansion book that has a bard that casts divine magic, send it to me because I want to know now.
Speaking of which, since we have just a few more minutes, this is something to remember. If you are going to have divine magic in your fantasy system, but you’re also going to have magic that’s not divine – you’ve decided to do that – make them different. Don’t just do the D&D thing of “This magic is flavored with divine and this magic is flavored with arcane, but they are exactly the same.”
Mike: They even share a whole bunch of spells and spell lists.
Oren: It’s like, “I’m a priest casting flame strike. I’m a sorcerer casting flame strike, but it’s the same.” Make them actually different, okay, because otherwise why not just make all of your magic come from one place.
Mike: And with that, I think we are out of time. If you have any questions or comments for us, we’d be happy to read them on a future podcast. You can email us at [email protected]
Chris: And, if you want to thank us for our podcasts, you can give us a good review on iTunes, or if we’ve helped you with any of the work that you’ve done or any of your projects, you can also support us on Patreon.
Oren: And if you want to email us, it should actually be [email protected]
Mike: What did I say?
Oren: You said [email protected]odcast.
Mike: Oh no![closing theme plays]
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