The First Requirement of Religion

A religion needs people more than it needs a god.

Consider the importance to many of today’s religions of names. Most of them have at least a few big ones: major prophets, people who were said to have entered into covenants with their creators, people who set forth systems of ideas, ones who did things so utterly impressive that those around them felt they had to be divine. But at the base of every religion, whether they are remembered or not, are people, and these people can leave an indelible mark on how the religion works, spreads, and shapes itself.

Just as a religion can’t begin without people, it can’t carry on without them. Religion is belief, first and foremost; when there are none left to believe, the religion is no more. Similarly, the kind of people a religion appeals to will determine how it spreads and where it flourishes. Scholars are likely to disdain a religion that disdains book-learning, but favor one that advocates the spread of knowledge, for instance. The poor may prefer to believe in a god who values people by what they do, but higher classes will likely prefer a god who values people by what they were born into. Therefore, a religion’s spread will be determined by its traits, particularly those that appeal to the kinds of people in a given area.

There might even be adaptation to account for these differences. Varying treatments of the same god could result in different levels of success among different people—you might not be able to convince a farming community to pray to a war god for chances to earn renown in battle, but those same people may fervently pray to the same god to keep his glorious wars somewhere else. Or they might reinterpret the god’s domain so that they can entreat him for things more on their level. “Make our blades sharp, steel our hearts for the fight ahead, let our enemies fall in swarms—bless us your servants as we make war upon the locusts!” So in different regions with different populations, the religion may itself emphasize different aspects, adapting to the people it seeks to serve.

Speaking of carrying on, what about the effects of the prohibitions and exhortations of a religion? Some of these are common sense—for instance, a religion that requires complete celibacy from every worshiper will have a very hard time swelling the ranks in more ways than one. (On the other hand, you’d have the opposite effect with a religion that puts a lot of weight on extremely regular fertility rituals.) And lauding those who fight and die for the faith will, logically enough, result in a lot of fighting and deaths; useful if you need to defend it anyway, but counterproductive in peacetime. But consider other factors. How persistently the faithful are supposed to proselytize, for instance, can have interesting effects: too strong and you scare your potential converts away, too light and nobody figures out you’re recruiting. Or, for that matter, difficulty of being inducted into the faith or getting to learn the “true mysteries”; making it a challenge can make it seem more like a badge of honor and therefore worth it, but too much difficulty might scare off anyone short of the fanatical.

But in all these circumstances, it is people who are making the difference; without them, would there even be a religion to write about?

(More RPG Blog Carnival, of course!)

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