Reprise: Do Gods Need Religion?

I originally wrote this for an early RPG Blog Carnival on the subject of gods and religion. It all came down to one question: were the two necessarily mutually dependent?

I’ve always been partial to chicken-and-egg questions, particularly within the context of invented worlds. And I always come back to this one: Do gods and religions require each other? Can you have a religion without a god, or a god without a religion? In a world of active gods, can a religion based around a god that doesn’t exist survive, let alone flourish?

I haven’t seen too many people thinking about this in fantasy worlds. Yes, I’ve seen worlds in which the closest you get to a god is a creator-thing that nobody’s heard a word from in a thousand years, or people who believe that their societies are somehow “above” religion. (Which is silly, but that’s beside the point.) But with most fantasy authors, it’s one of several possibilities: The god(s) really do(es) exist, and the religion is their will (or at worst co-opted by some other very real and very vocal god); the religion is a sham used to control the ignorant populace in some way; or the religion began as a duty to guard something or keep something out and in time blossomed into the form it’s in now, most likely forgetting its original purpose in the process. And yes, the latter do not need gods, but they still end up being either evil or a potentially fatal mistake.

But why is this necessary?

What of gods so obscure that none remember to pray to them? Or holidays coopted by other religions so long ago that nobody remembers what they originally were? Has anyone ever found a force of nature to be so powerful and so seemingly capricious that it inspires worship and attempts at placation, and is seen as a god in its own right? Might there be a god who doesn’t do his job, but gets worshiped anyway? Do people worship concepts that do not have their own gods? Do such concepts even exist?

Even assuming a real god and a religion knowingly built around him, there’s still a lot of ways in which the religion and the god can be separated. Through whom (if anyone) does he actually speak? Does he have time to pay attention to every little branch of his church? What portion of the ceremonies for his religion were actually his idea? For that matter, how much of the code of conduct was actually his idea? And what about his congregationers; do all of them really believe he exists, or if he’s proven real that he would take the time to help them? Or are they there to try to find out, to be with a family member or friend, to feel the community, to give an appearance of piety?

And what happens when there’s a miscommunication, or a misunderstanding? Even when one can count on the written word, passing down information to future generations is like a game of Telephone. Something’s going to change en route, and the main question is going to be whether it’s a little detail nobody’s going to miss, or vitally important.

Speaking of the appearance of piety, what happened to the gray area when it comes to how “right” a religion is? I often see people dealing with some tenet of a religion being twisted by time and Telephone by repudiating it entirely, and this stance being narratively encouraged. Is it really optimal to throw the baby out with the bathwater? What’s the fun in worlds that encourage these sorts of extremes?

And none of these require an intervening god, or are clearly going to fail in the absence thereof. Still skeptical? I’m going to spend a little while writing about gods, and about religion, but not simultaneously. Think it’s doable? Let’s find out.

1 comment

  1. Bill says:

    I once ran a game in which a deity was speaking directly to the players because their religion had become so corrupt not even the deity could fix it. For a very long time the player was convinced the character suffered from mental illness.

    One take that I am partial to is that the gods need the worshippers for their offerings, and the worshippers need the god for the crops to grow / season to change / what have you.

    If you haven’t read it, Terry Pratchet’s _Small Gods_ is a great (fun) take on the issue, and Neil Gaiman’s _American Gods_ is a very serious take on the same.

Leave a Reply