So, today’s topic was something prompted by my wife. She said I should write up an article on religions in fantasy fiction, more specifically in how one can go about depicting atheism in a setting where magic and the gods may be demonstrably real. It’s not something you see in the genre very often, and I’m pretty sure that’s because of the tremendous amount of influence that Dungeons and Dragons exerted on fantasy writing for many years. Particularly in western European style fantasy, you are generally stuck with one of two things – a pagan religion culled from highly romanticized takes on the Greco-Roman, Norse and pre-Christian Celtic pantheons, or something that walks, talks and looks like the Catholic church. The former tends to be a lot more prevalent in high-fantasy settings where characters may actually interact with the gods throughout the course of the story, and the latter in lower fantasy pieces where magic is unknowable and dark and the church is there to demonstrate either the blind faith or the hypocrisy of the people who worship there (depending on how grimdark you want to go).
If the writer really wants to expand things beyond that scope, you might see an opposing pantheon, or dusky raiders from a desert nation who wield curved swords and smell of exotic spices, or some noble savages who use cherrypicked animism and totemic rituals from various North and Central American regions mashed together rather haphazardly. For the most part, though, religious conflict is usually interpantheon or between the forces of not-heaven and not-hell.
I’ll sort of preface this by saying that there are tons of exceptions to the rule, especially now as fantasy continues to evolve and grow. There have been a great many books that did a wonderful job of upending all of these tropes and playing with your expectations of them, and with the growth of the genre you might well find more of that than the stuff I’m talking about. I am, however, someone who grew up reading a lot of 80s and 90s fantasy fiction and even the really good stuff incorporated what I spoke of up top to varying degrees of success. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed reading it. I still go back and enjoy re-reading some of it. The various pantheons of antiquity are fascinating to read about and can instantly tell you quite a bit about the culture that grew around them. Totally-not-pope characters are intriguing and can offer a glimpse into the inner and surprisingly secular workings and politics of large, organized religions and how they shape the landscape around them. I don’t mean to bash them, only recognize that they absolutely swamped the genre from the golden age of the Shannara novels onward. The only time I take issue with it is when people steal religions without doing the footwork and research to make them work in a fictional setting, which is not only tremendously disrespectful but tends to make the actual story ring hollow.
But I digress.
How do you deal with atheism in a fantasy story?
There’s a few different ways I can think of. If you have one of the settings where there’s no direct and regular demonstration of divine power, I think atheism would crop up as it has in the real world. Some people, myself included, can’t do blind faith and need some kind of proof before believing in something. That carries over to fantasy societies. As much as we like to think about medieval Europe as being super hardcore Catholic (and later protestant), there are plenty of people who very blatantly didn’t believe and only gave lip service to maintain ties to Rome because so much of political power was enmeshed with the idea of divine right of kings. You can see that done well in Game of Thrones. I’ve spoken about it before but one of my absolute favorite things about GRRM’s setting is that there is no single default religion, and all the religions promise different things that can’t all be true. The nobility is, for the most part, using religion to control the peasantry and they completely spurn the other deities of the setting for not giving them that control and for appearing primitive. The Many-Faced God or the Old Gods would not align with their politics nearly as well as the Seven, and so those gods were either never adopted or were tossed aside in favor of something vaguer.
In a high magic setting, though, it gets trickier. The question I pose of myself is, if I was transported to a place where magic is very real and used on a daily basis and the gods walk the earth performing miracles, and I needed to rationalize continued atheism (or agnosticism, I suppose), how would I go about doing it? Because that’s how my characters would do it.
My gut reaction is that you’d have to treat magic as another science. This has become prevalent in a lot of steampunk works over the last decade, along with the cosmic horror thrillers of Charles Stross and the Cosmere novels by Brandon Sanderson. Magic generally has to adhere to laws. There are rules, even if they are never revealed to the reader, because if there isn’t internal consistency then it makes for poor writing and poor reading. If you can figure out those rules and create perimeters for the magic, you may have something that doesn’t adhere to the laws of physics but that is still measurable. You can experiment with it. You can use the scientific method to test hypotheses, modify them as more data becomes available. Sanderson in particular is a great example of this. If you sit down with a surgebinder from Roshar or a mistborn from Scadrial, you could run a variety of tests to figure out just how rapidly they burn through their power sources, exactly what that power allows them to do, and to assign classifications. The latter Mistborn novels have actually started to do this as the world moves from a decidedly dark age to a more enlightened Edwardian/Victorian era, and will presumably continue to do so as it modernizes in future books. In the Stormlight novels it’s a little vaguer because the power’s limits have largely been forgotten in the sands of time, but as it’s rediscovered and paired with what remains of the old religious texts, I imagine something very similar will occur.
As for the gods themselves, again you have options. In the Divine Cities novels by Robert Bennett, you have atheism enforced by one group that overthrew and slaughtered the gods once their technology had advanced to the point that it could war directly with divine powers on equal footing. In Discworld, Granny Weatherwax explains at length that no witch of any power would stoop to worshiping a god, because they’re essentially peers and coworkers. She might recognize that a deity is powerful, or even that s/he has more power than Granny does, but the relationship is such that she refuses to recognize any sort of divine right or that those powers are inherently worthy of worship. Respect yes, worship no. You might have characters who have seen the gods but don’t think they’re actually holy beings so much as another race with certain powers beyond the scope of what humans have immediately available to them. You could stretch this as far as an in-universe take on ancient aliens. “Whoa, these guys can turn sand into glass castles by staring at it really hard, that must have been really useful on whatever plane they came from originally but that doesn’t give them any right to 1/3 of my crop as a ritual sacrifice.”
The third option is to have gods as ascended mortals, which accounts for their personality flaws and foibles. This one is a personal favorite of mine and has been since I was a teenager, due to exposure to a lot of Japanese RPGs where godhood is generally attainable by either mass sacrifice or acts of extreme valor (guess which one the villains tend to take halfway through the game to ramp up the stakes) and to a big AD&D event called the Time of Troubles where the game changed its rules between editions and saw fit to represent this in the fiction by hiring a bunch of writers to write about a time when the god of gods turned most of the existing pantheon mortal, cast them down into the world and let them duke it out trying to return to their realms of power. Some made it back, others were brutally murdered and had their powers usurped by their killers, others still were irrevocably changed and had their domains scrambled. I like to think that if I had lived through something like that my reaction would have been “wow, these people are just really powerful human assholes and act exactly the same whether or not they have a divine glow around them, I refuse to acknowledge them as anything more than wizards – I’ll try not to piss them off but I’m not going to worship any of them.”
In my own book/series I’ve been working on it’s kind of a hybrid of the three, I had an established empire with its various gods that pretty much vanished overnight and the resulting geopolitical shockwaves of that saw tremendous infighting between its various colonies, some of whom cleave to orthodoxy and think that the gods simply abandoned the world due to so many blasphemers refusing to adhere to their laws, and some of whom had adopted a more scientific approach to magic after having been cut off from the old world for so long and in need of new powers and tools to survive on a dangerous new continent, and who have begun to turn the lens of that science on to their own history and start realizing that their gods may have simply been men and women of tremendous power who never saw fit to share how they ascended thousands of years prior. The trick, I’m finding, is not to be preachy about it. I’m a fairly cynical person who chooses not to worship anything, and I’m not particularly spiritual, but I find religion and mythology absolutely fascinating to study and watch. A lot of the morally grey area in my work comes from balancing the two, where the cynical atheist character might have a good point about the “gods” not being all that they seemed but that the priest he’s traveling with may argue that even if they didn’t adhere to the atheist’s definition of divinity that doesn’t meant they didn’t play a huge part in the advancement of civilization and the preservation of knowledge over the centuries. The fantasy equivalent to something like A Canticle for Leibowitz, a post apocalyptic look at the pros and cons of a theocracy and how they often serve as a beacon of knowledge in dark times and a beacon of regression in bright times.