Monday, July 31, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #19: Uniting and Dividing

Religion is a unique institution because it can cross international boundaries, cultures, languages, races, and time. Religion takes disparate people and gives them commonality, a shared way of interpreting the world. I don't know any other institution that does this so effectively, even empires.

At the same time, many religions reinforce boundaries. Local religions, or religions belonging to a specific people, increase distinctions between themselves and others. In this sense, religions become divisional, seeking to distinct identity rather than intermingle with others.

Religions both unite and divide.

Most religions divide. These religions are the core of a group's identity. Their purpose is to show who's in and who's out, who understand and who doesn't. That doesn't mean that an outsider cannot join into the religion, but that outside must first learn. That outside must become an insider. In this way, all the insiders know that they belong to one group, one ethic, one set of values, one set of laws, one set of traditions. Because everyone is inside these circles, assumptions can be made about behaviors and norms, reducing the cultural burden of operating. Division means that any group gets an idea of who 'us' actually is and what 'us' actually means. Exclusion means that you know who is on your team.

For an outsider to seek to become an insider is an odd thing. Who would want to leave their own insider status behind? Even if the person is sincere, the work ahead of them will be substantial, if not daunting because the process makes no sense to the insider.

However, when a group of people begins conquering others, they find themselves in the opposite position. Through force, they have incorporated others into their group, into their team. Once included, the enforcement of norms must come. It become obvious, then, that the conquered must learn to speak and operate among the gods of the winners. They are outsiders who want to be insiders again, or at least give the impression that they want to be insiders.

If the conquered resist too fiercely, then the winners must seek to break the cultural unity of the conquered. The losers must come to altars of the winners, forcing them to acknowledge the winning gods, and therefore forcing them to acknowledge the superiority of the winners.

In many cases, the winners just go straight for knocking down the altars of the losers. Break the religion first, then work on the niceties.

Over time, the gods of the winners become known. Their stories become known. These stories give a common vocabulary to all people, no matter their language. A knowledge of religion gives everyone an idea of the ideals and ethics are of their age. Religion then becomes a unifying factor, helping to make interaction more predictable. And how do people know who know? People do all the right public rituals, showing off their religious knowledge, showing that they understand.

Ever see a politician who messes up a traditional moment? People get upset. People at the top are expected to know the religious rituals and uphold them. This is a proxy for their desire to uphold the laws and keep their responsibilities. Following rituals declares to the people, "I find our common unity important."

When rulers break with religion, that causes trouble. Everyone becomes the outsider, nobody gets to be the insider, and nobody knows what anything means. It's no wonder that rulers who change around religion don't last long in office. Few rulers are dumb enough to pee on the third rail.

A classic fantasy trope of a religion that divides is a dark cult. These people meet in secret, worshiping some dark god that normal people wouldn't approve of. When they're eventually discovered going about their dark worship, people get murderously upset, and pretty soon revolution starts. By default, dark cults are closed because those inside will get power while those outside will get conquered.

A prophet is a person who both unites and divides. He waltzes into town to tear down those in power, those who do not deserve their place, while he unites the outsiders, those pushed aside, into a new and stronger political group.

The classic paladin also unites and divides, although on a more interpersonal level. By being purer and better than everyone, he winds up more alienating, more alienated. Nobody can meet his measure, so people divide from him. Meanwhile, a paladin seeks to unite those of good character, to bring them together into a force capable of opposing evil. He may even rally people to older says, forgotten because of some conqueror, ready to reassert itself, to unify the old believes while dividing from their conquerors.

Consider the idea of a rightful ruler. Many fantasies work on this idea, yet who decides who rules? This idea of a rightful ruler boils down to a religious idea, the goal to have your insider in office who you understand, and get rid of the blasphemous person who isn't rightful and who doesn't understand.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy