Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #16: Religion and Variation

A brief look about the world reveals that religion isn't consistent. Even today, while religion may seem consistent, any investigation will reveal huge disparities within the same group.

Religions transcend many boundaries. The ancient Greek city-states regularly warred against each other, but they shared a common language and they shared common gods. Despite their constant fighting, their religion and language united them. Europe provides an even more extreme example, where they barely had any language in common, as most people didn't speak Latin, but their religion still united them. Many religions literally claim a worldwide reach.

Most religions are not worldwide. They belong to a specific people or culture. For the most part, you are born into your religion. Your birth literally defines you. These religions don't merely act as a faith, they act as an identifier, a group marking where no other grouping exists. Religion and community are one, especially for minorities. Your religion may vary markedly from your rulers, your subjects, or your neighbors. Your religion may also be mostly similar, but you have your own particular gods, institutions, holy places, or stories.

Even though a religion is supposedly one group, regional variations abound. They way that one culture or region worships a god differs from another region. This variation is seen as normal, with uniformity seen as unusual. As the Christian church as shown, establishing uniformity is rather a difficult and divisive policy, with multiple council meetings sorting out exactly what Christians believed, but having limited power over any group who split away.

Bad continuity is the norm, not the exception.

As different societies are invade, are invaded, meet other, and move about, they take their gods with them, and they adopt other gods along with way. This mixes things up, creating quite the mish-mash of beliefs and relationships. In the course of years, some gods rise in popularity while others fade. Some gods can't find space in crowded cities, so they move in with other gods, forming an alliance. Other gods get toppled or redecorated, re-purposing their physical depiction into a new god while saving a substantial amount of money on the part of the temple.

Most religions never stop developing. Philosophers ask new questions. Travelers come along with foreign ideas perfect for cultural appropriation, or maybe too destabilizing, because they are too perfect for cultural appropriation. Gods speak to their worshipers, revealing new things. Somebody gets invaded, and are now forced to sacrifice to the winner's gods. The wheels of history never stop turning.

Even while religion changes, it offers continuity. Most religions don't change every few minutes. Most provide an experience that all generations share. This acts a a bedrock to their culture and their shared values. Religion provides everyone in a community a common understanding of the world, a common vision, a common understanding. Those tend to not change. Two thousand years after the ancient world, people still throw coins into fountains because that's what you do.

So while the religion in each area shows cultural changes over time, like a tree growing to fit into its own environment, the religion itself, in the present, will resist any effort to change it around. Like pulling own on the branch, its natural spring will seek to return it to a known shape. And also like a tree, you can prune it or graft something onto it, but moving those roots is nearly impossible. The only way to really fix the whole thing is to start a whole new religion.

New religions are the ultimate in variation. Whether it be a new god or a new understanding or a new paradigm, new means new, but it also means unknown. Both the people inside the religion need to learn it and answer all sorts of questions as they wrestle with implications, while outsiders won't understand it at all, and quite reasonably, don't even know how to start trusting it or understanding its motives.

Given variation, limiting variation is one of the biggest challenges of a new religion. All those stuffy, old, inflexible rules of the old religion helped keep its shape. Without that, the new religion grows wild, forming splinter groups, arguments turn friends into enemies, and lots gets said which can't be taken back. A charismatic leader may be able to form and hold the group coherent through his own vision, but on his death, even with succession, conflict can and will loom. Few religions survive this phase, usually bursting apart into fragments.

Given this, it's amazing that anybody believes anything at all, let alone sit down together and worship at the same time.

But sometimes, a new religion rolls around when everyone is upset at the old religion, one that doesn't work for people any more. As time and technology changes, as needs change, and as the world changes, people find themselves in need of something more appropriate, a religion that works for them rather than just offers a soulless performance of piety. In those cases, the old religion declines while the new one rises.

While change from one truth to another is often viewed as simple an easy in fantasy novels, in truth, it's not. That's where you'll find a story, from communities hanging on yet needing to change, to individuals struggling with new ideas, to others rejecting the new in favor of the old.

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