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Author Topic: Is religion really that much of a mystery?  (Read 19970 times)
Kester Pelagius
Member

Posts: 508


« Reply #45 on: January 25, 2003, 01:40:17 PM »

Greetings clehrich,

Religion *could* encompass a myriad number of possibilities, yet not every religion need necessarily portray every possibility.  Just read some of the other Threads here at Forge touching upon this topic.   The ideas expressed in them show the vivid diverisity of human thought, and that is, when you get right down to it, what most religions are all about.  The diversity of human thought.

A religion could be a-political, or the core of a realms political intrigue.  The Monarch could be both the head of State and the de facto head of the Religion of State; but does that necessarily make such a kingdom a Theocracy?

And what about a Theocracy?  A Theocracy could exist where there is a de facto secular head of State, while the real power is wielded by a Hierophant or High Priestess!

That is how religions within the evivronment of the RPG should be thought of as.  They are, for lack of a better term, a Meta-NPC.  Yet so too are they background fixtures, but fixtures that can be installed or uninstalled at the Game Masters discretion.  And as with every NPC they have motivations and goals.


Quote from: clehrich
I think you have missed my point, at least.

<...>

My impression here is that you are concerned about the notion of an explicit standard.  Presumably, you worry that I'm suggesting we should formulate a "correct way" to do things.  This is precisely the opposite of my argument.


I wont argue with you there, seems like we're looking at the same page, but reading differing implied meanings out of the same sentences.



Quote from: clehrich
My point is this:
1. Religion is not definable, except as a heuristic device or an ideological claim.  There is, and can be, no right answer (barring revelation).  Thus in answer to your question, "Is the portrayal of "what is religion" merely a matter of approach to the subject matter?" I would reply, No: the portrayal of "what is religion" is merely a matter of battling ideologies among definers, and cannot have a valid conclusion.


Exactly.  Ergo the question: against whose ruler.

As to the rest.  Nope, not really.

Mysticism.  The Supernatural.  Magic.  Religion.  They are seperate words, yet often intertwined conceptually.  As to the "battling ideologies", that is a fine point, but it has to do only with the philosophy, or if you prefer theology, of religion.  Which, in the game world, is merely a minor facet of the Meta-NPC that could be a religion.

Why is the evil cult evil?

Why might Priestesses of Athena get to wield Spears?

Why might Necromancy be allowed to followers of Anubis?

The answer, pure and simple, is merely part of the explanitory 'flavor' that supplies the motivations and goals of the Meta-NPC construct, and those who follow it.


Quote from: clehrich
2. Therefore, there can be no correct standards of comparison or measurement.


That's a fine arguement, in theory.

However it establishes a absolute truism.  But how long can one remain true to the arguement that no correct standard exists?

Not long.

Game worlds need shades of gray.

Religion, within the context of any game world or novel should, by design, afford lots of shades of gray.  (Game designers can't provide answers for everything after all!)  Of course, in real life, we assume that everything is  perfectly clear to a religions communicants.  Problem is this basic assumption isn't correct.  Witness all the conflict between various sects.

Conflict, not necessarily as combat, but conflict in the room for disagreement; even dissention.  That is, after all, how we get splinter sects in real life.  But that is not necessarily what I mean here.   Unless you are using a Religion construct, as opposed to many smaller cults and religions within your fictional environment.


Quote from: clehrich
3. Therefore, when we evaluate and compare approaches to religion in RPGs, we must always make explicit what we are comparing to, i.e. what standard we are formulating for the purpose.  There is minimal value in debating such standards; the only question is whether a given approach meets a given standard.


Ah, but remember that 'truism'?  The one that established this was a moot point?

If we establish that 'religion is not definable' then that is the case.   In fact if it can't be defined then there can be no standard for comparison.  If we can not compare then...  *shrug*

If I may humbly suggest: Perhaps we should think of religions more as Meta-NPCs rather than distillates of absolute belief systems?

After all is not an expression of a standard of belief but one possible facet of what a religion might add to the game world?

Of course the interaction between Meta-NPCs with different stards is where conflict can, and often is, generated.  And a good thing too.  Else our game worlds would be very dull!

Quote from: clehrich
For example:
Quote
Is seperating the institution of "religion"-- as in a representative organization within the game world, viz. a cult or church or temple, with its associated hierarchy and individual set of standards-- from the expression of belief, morality, theology, and the associated ideological preconceptions impossible?

1. No, it's not impossible.  How could it be --- you've just done so.


So I did.  *smiles*

As for the division break down into categories, not really.  Not that your examples aren't accurate.  In fact if they could work, and if you like them then I say use them!

However what I was saying is that we should perhaps think of religion as the end product of a recipe.  It is a cake, brownies, a soup, the fruit cake you inherited from your great great great aunt that you keep in the back of your freezer.  In other words a "religion" is the sum of its parts.  Remove any one of the ingrediants from the mix and it ceases to be what it was and becomes something else altogether.

Or, if you prefer, religion is a gem with many facets.  And, like any gem, you can only see so many facets at any given time.  But that does not mean that the facets cease to be, nor that every gem stone need be cut in quite the same way.
Which is what makes recipes such wonderful things.  You can always subtitute one spice for another, or increase one spice to overpower or subdue another spice that your pallate doesn't not particularlly care for.

So, too, it is with how a religion can be created for use in a fictionaly environment.

Why the splitting of hairs?

Because without conflict there can be no adventure.  Without obstacles to overcome there is no reason for players to roll up a character, much less explore the game world.  Problem is, what we aren't taking into account, is that much of the adventures are driven by the behind the scenes machinations of Meta-NPCs.  Or usually are.

Thus if the evil cult is evil because that is what the player character's in party Priest says it is then, for most, that is good enough reason to start an campaign to (insert adventure goal here) from/against said cult.

Of course it's all in the detail.

So, do we really need a in-game explanation of what is good and evil, right and wrong, and etcetera?

After all we *could* substitute many other words here: superstition, preternatural, magic, mysticism, and etcetera...  However what is at issue here seems to really be the conception of religion.
 

Kind Regards,

Kester Pelagius
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"The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis." -Dante Alighieri
clehrich
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Posts: 1557


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« Reply #46 on: January 25, 2003, 02:34:58 PM »

Kester,

I think I'm not making myself clear.  When I say that religion is not definable, I mean that we, now, here, outside of a game, cannot formulate a fully successful and comprehensive definition of religion, unless we make arbitrary decisions about which forms of religious behavior are more and less important.  In order to compare and evaluate forms of religion within a game world (or the real world, for that matter), we must make such arbitrary decisions, and that should be done explicitly.  If, for example, you want to construct religions within a given game-world such that institutions are primary, then the only question for the rest of us to deal with is whether your constructions (rules, history, background, whatever) successfully prioritize institutions.  There's no value in debating whether you have made a good choice, because there's no standard to compare such choices against.

For example:
Quote
when you get right down to it, what most religions are all about [is] The diversity of human thought.

You have now made a decision about your standards of comparison.  But that is not a "correct" decision, by definition.  If you want to formulate religiosity in your game-world such that "diversity of human thought" is the central issue, go for it --- but don't think that your choice is either correct (by any standard other than your own vision) or unobjectionable.  Suppose I argued, hypothetically, that my definition of religion is based on a specific religion which has an exclusive perspective; that is, I say that accepting Jesus as one's personal Savior is religion, and anything that does not do this is not religion.  You may well think this is a bigoted definition, but it is not an invalid one just because it is limited.

Quote

clehrich wrote:
Quote
My point is this:
1. Religion is not definable, except as a heuristic device or an ideological claim. There is, and can be, no right answer (barring revelation). Thus in answer to your question, "Is the portrayal of "what is religion" merely a matter of approach to the subject matter?" I would reply, No: the portrayal of "what is religion" is merely a matter of battling ideologies among definers, and cannot have a valid conclusion.

Exactly. Ergo the question: against whose ruler.

Exactly.  You have to construct the ruler --- each one of us does.  And in order to debate the issue, we have to make clear that we're constructing such rulers, and furthermore we have to recognize that these rulers limit the possibilities arbitrarily.

Quote
As to the "battling ideologies", that is a fine point, but it has to do only with the philosophy, or if you prefer theology, of religion. Which, in the game world, is merely a minor facet of the Meta-NPC that could be a religion.

What I mean about battling ideologies is our battling ideologies, not those in the game, or of the religions we construct.  If I say that religion is basically about faith, for example, and you say that religion is basically about social structure, then we have formulated two different ideologies with respect to religion.  There isn't any way to settle who's right; the only thing to do is to debate whether your construction has or has not adequately represented your ideology.

For example, when you say that battling ideologies (now in the game-world, not ours) "is merely a minor facet," you have just formulated an ideological statement about what religion is or should be.  And I'm saying that such a statement is not "accurate" or "correct" or obvious --- it's just the way you have chosen to do things.  For you to claim that your de-prioritization of ideological conflict is necessarily accurate is, for example, to say that any Marxist interpretation of religion is necessarily stupid from the outset.


Quote

clehrich wrote:
Quote

3. Therefore, when we evaluate and compare approaches to religion in RPGs, we must always make explicit what we are comparing to, i.e. what standard we are formulating for the purpose. There is minimal value in debating such standards; the only question is whether a given approach meets a given standard.

If we establish that 'religion is not definable' then that is the case. In fact if it can't be defined then there can be no standard for comparison. If we can not compare then... *shrug*

I'm not saying we can't compare religions.  We can't help it --- when I say "Chinese religion" I am making a comparison, because the English word "religion" does not exist among non-English speakers.  So what I'm doing is saying, "These behaviors that I observe among this group of Chinese people seem a lot like what I think religion is, so I'm going to call it Chinese religion."

What is essential about comparison, though, is that it has a third term.  If I say X is like Y, or X is not-like Y, I have just said a truism, almost a tautology.  For example, "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is like Hamlet" is a truism.  You can always find something similar (and different).  Go to an extreme: "Hamlet is like DNA."  Well, sure --- they both exist on Earth, for example.  

So what we always have to say is X is/isn't like Y with respect to Z.  The result is that you have to make Z explicit; you can't leave it implicit, and you have to recognize that there isn't a "correct" Z.  I can happily say, "Shi'ite Islam is/isn't like Thai Buddhism," but I can only say something meaningful if I say that the one is or is not like the other with respect to something explicit.

Quote
However what I was saying is that we should perhaps think of religion as the end product of a recipe. It is a cake, brownies, a soup, the fruit cake you inherited from your great great great aunt that you keep in the back of your freezer. In other words a "religion" is the sum of its parts. Remove any one of the ingrediants from the mix and it ceases to be what it was and becomes something else altogether.

Yes, of course you can define it so; I suspect that in some sense you probably should, for the purpose of constructing something that will "feel" like religion to your players.  But when you say "sum of its parts," I really don't think you're going to sit down and lay out every one of the possible parts, even in general terms.  I think you will begin prioritizing, perhaps unconsciously, such that some potential facets (to use your gem analogy) will be emphasized and others will be downplayed, possibly eliminated.  Are you going to lay out some gods, some basic moral precepts, some institutions, and so forth?  Sounds like it.  Are you going to lay out the details of a textual-analytical tradition based on fine-grained interpretation of some core text in an alien language?  I doubt it --- but why not?  This is not a particularly uncommon facet of religion.  How did you decide that this was not important?

And that's what I'm trying to get at.  You're making priority choices, decisions about what is and is not important for religion in an RPG.  To do so, you presumably have (1) some goal in mind, and (2) some set of prioritized elements.  What I want to know is what 1 and 2 are.  There's no point in debating whether they are good lists or bad, unless we want to agree on some particular comparative standard.  

But I think most RPGs work with both 1 and 2 deeply submerged, not at all conscious.  I think most RPG designers of religions (I'm talking about classic fantasy, mostly, but it could be expanded) have a certain set of fairly unexamined notions of what religion is "really like," and what effect they'd like that set of notions to have in their game world.  And they think that this set of notions is so obvious, they never really examine them, nor are they willing (when challenged) to consider the possibility that they have just made arbitrary ideological choices.

Think of it this way: In these various threads about religion, one question that has come up is whether it is appropriate to simulate (in some sense or other) religion in an RPG, since after all to do so is likely to tick off some of the potential readership.  I agree totally, but I don't think this is a problem with a solution.  You can't represent the vast totality of human religiosity in an RPG --- there simply isn't space.  So you have to make choices about what sort of religion you want to create.  And when you make those choices, you automatically exclude people.  

The only possible solution, it seems to me, is to say, "We have chosen to make the following entirely debatable choices about what religion is in this game-world.  If that set of choices offends you, we apologize, and we suggest you try another game --- you won't like this one."  But in order to do this, you have to recognize the choices, and that recognition seems to me largely lacking in most RPGs.

Quote
After all we *could* substitute many other words here: superstition, preternatural, magic, mysticism, and etcetera... However what is at issue here seems to really be the conception of religion.

Yes, I'm afraid that it is.  If you have a specific conception of religion, and stick to it, you have an ideology which you are putting forward.  If you believe that the ideology you put forth is not ideology but truth, then you are evangelizing.  I don't think anyone here wants to be in that position.  There is certainly a potential place for proselytizing in RPGs, as M.J. has pointed out, but it needs to be explicit.  If you start out by saying, "This is an explicitly Christian game, with the following basic theological positions; like it or lump it," then you're fine with me.  But if you say, "We're not evangelizing at all, because in our game religion can be anything, but the central part of it is faith (or whatever)," then you're either honestly confused or a hypocrite.  That's what I want to avoid.
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Chris Lehrich
M. J. Young
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Posts: 2198


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« Reply #47 on: January 26, 2003, 08:17:40 PM »

Quote from: Fang 'Le Joueur' Langford
Sorry, the 'pervasiveness' of religion is purely a subjective measure.  I have many days were there would be no religion in my human experience, save for those I've trained myself to have.  I must assume that an atheist has these not at all; I'd hardly call that "pervasive."


Perhaps my definition of "religion" is too broad to fit the RPG use of the term; however, it may also shed some light on the disagreement here.

As I understand the term, "religion" is that fundamental set of beliefs by which you attempt to understand the essential meaning of life--whether it has such meaning or not, as you understand it. Note that this is not about religious experience or religious practice. I see the former as influencing religion and the latter as stemming from it.

By this definition, religion is inherently pervasive. Also, atheism is a religion. It is the belief in a specific understanding of reality which is inherently unprovable (the non-existence of God), and so taken on faith as a foundation for understanding the nature of reality and the meaning of life. In that sense, the atheist's religion is as pervasive as anyone else's.

It might be that the ordinary agnostic (the one who maintains that he himself does not know whether God exists, not the one whose religion asserts that such a thing is inherently undiscoverable by any means) does not find religion pervading his life; on the other hand, he might be agnostic precisely because he does find religion pervading his life and does not know how to interpret that.

I would also note that the difference between supernatural religions and atheism is merely the supernatural factor, but when we say that religion pervades the lives of the believers, it is not generally the supernatural aspects of the religion that do so--that is, most believers in supernatural religions do not experience the supernatural aspects thereof constantly. It is more the belief structure that pervades their lives, including its ethical and moral influences, its ritual demands, and its personal obligations. For the atheist these are less demanding, but it must be conceded that an atheist's moral and ethical views and practices are built on a foundation that denies supernatural certification and so has some other basis for any restrictions on conduct, such as social contract or self-interest.

Religious experience is not pervasive, even among religious people; nor is religious practice, in the ritual sense.

Yes, I recognize that there is a certain degree to which my definition of religion is a truism, that if the statement "everyone is religious" only means "everyone has unproved fundamental beliefs about reality" then it's obviously true and not terribly useful. But I think if we're going to say that religion is or is not pervasive, we need to know what we mean by that.

--M. J. Young
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Le Joueur
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Posts: 1367


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« Reply #48 on: January 26, 2003, 09:46:56 PM »

Okay, M. J. and everyone,

Before I respond to this mess, I need to clarify a few things.

First, I was responding to the following sentence: "However, though we may realize it or not, religion is a pervasive part of our human experience."  Let me decode what I hear; 'even if you don't realize [blank], you experience [blank].'  To me, that's oxymoronic; you can't experience something unrealized.

Second, and much more complicated, some time after I posted what is quoted here, Kester added an addendum with the intention of obviating confusion.  I believe it has only had the opposite effect.

There are some fundamental misunderstandings attached to what I wrote that further the difficulty; I'm somewhat leery of dumping quips all over a long quote, I don't have any other way of revealing that this isn't an argument but two people speaking past one and another.

Onward...

Quote from: M. J. Young
Quote from: Fang 'Le Joueur' Langford
Sorry, the 'pervasiveness' of religion is purely a subjective measure.  I have many days were there would be no religion in my human experience, save for those I've trained myself to have.  I must assume that an atheist has these not at all; I'd hardly call that "pervasive."

Perhaps my definition of "religion" is too broad to fit the RPG use of the term; however, it may also shed some light on the disagreement here.

As I understand the term, "religion" is that fundamental set of beliefs by which you attempt to understand the essential meaning of life--whether it has such meaning or not, as you understand it. Note that this is not about religious experience or religious practice. I see the former as influencing religion and the latter as stemming from it.

I'm not sure why this comes up both here and in private messages, but I've never said anything about religious experiences.  I spoke of human experiences of religion only.  I see a church, I have an experience of someone else's religion.  This has little to do with "religious experiences."  It has everything to do with the oxymoron I listed; sometimes to me 'the cross' is just two lines that intersect (if no one points out that it has religious connotations, there is no religion in my human experience).

Quote from: M. J. Young
By this definition, religion is inherently pervasive. Also, atheism is a religion. It is the belief in a specific understanding of reality which is inherently unprovable (the non-existence of God), and so taken on faith as a foundation for understanding the nature of reality and the meaning of life. In that sense, the atheist's religion is as pervasive as anyone else's.

It might be that the ordinary agnostic (the one who maintains that he himself does not know whether God exists, not the one whose religion asserts that such a thing is inherently undiscoverable by any means) does not find religion pervading his life; on the other hand, he might be agnostic precisely because he does find religion pervading his life and does not know how to interpret that.

I'm sorry, but this kind of reasoning as much says that sex and food are more pervasive.  Religion I can wholly be ignorant of, thus it is outside of my experience, my human experience, like this agnostic.

There seems to be this idea that I said religion is only there if you look for it.  I don't see it so black and white; what I am saying is that I can go for days without being reminded that religion is there.  "Pervasive," as I read it, means this is not possible.

Quote from: M. J. Young
I would also note that the difference between supernatural religions and atheism is merely the supernatural factor, but when we say that religion pervades the lives of the believers, it is not generally the supernatural aspects of the religion that do so--that is, most believers in supernatural religions do not experience the supernatural aspects thereof constantly. It is more the belief structure that pervades their lives, including its ethical and moral influences, its ritual demands, and its personal obligations. For the atheist these are less demanding, but it must be conceded that an atheist's moral and ethical views and practices are built on a foundation that denies supernatural certification and so has some other basis for any restrictions on conduct, such as social contract or self-interest.

Religious experience is not pervasive, even among religious people; nor is religious practice, in the ritual sense.

Yes, I recognize that there is a certain degree to which my definition of religion is a truism, that if the statement "everyone is religious" only means "everyone has unproved fundamental beliefs about reality" then it's obviously true and not terribly useful. But I think if we're going to say that religion is or is not pervasive, we need to know what we mean by that.

And what I "mean by that" is that religion is not necessary in every game; little else is relevant in this forum.  Even more importantly, I've been suggesting that religion can be handled as a secondary concern, less important than being influential in most character's activities, yet more than just color.

Okay, what about the 'argument?'  What I'm saying is that religions don't 'stick their noses' into every one of the experiences I have; therefore it doesn't pervade all of my human experiences.  I think I'm hearing that M. J. believes that religious orientation (according to his rather easy standards) occurs in most people's perceptions.  The reason this isn't an argument is that I'm speaking objectively about things presented to a person's view and he's talking about how the person views things.  That's why I said the perception of religion in things was subjective; subjectively you could see religion in everything, but you don't have to.

Bringing this back to the realm of role-playing gaming is a little more difficult, because, like many of these threads, we've gotten mired down in concerns relative to the real world.  (These aren't game characters we're talking about after all are they?)  I've seen many of these thread run all over the place, but the one things I haven't really seen is an underlying disagreement spoken.

We disagree about the importance of presentation of religion in games.

Be very careful reading that statement; I'm not talking about how important it is to present religion in games correctly, but how important it is to present them at all.  On the one hand, if it is important to present them, then it almost goes without saying that they should be presented well.  On the other, if it isn't important, then it doesn't really matter how poorly OAD&D presents Wotan.  I personally believe that there is no 'universal truth' about this importance; I believe it is highly relative and should be different in each game.

I'm tired of people using an 'either-or' mentality tripping over people who argue that in some games, some presentation is enough.  I've even been chewed out for seeming to imply that every post on a thread about religion in games should disclaim that it is about games that center on religious themes.  That isn't what I've been saying; I've been arguing against the implication that 'there is only one way to do religion in gaming.'  Even if you accept that you must start the thread with a disclaimer, I should think that people could preface their opinions with what 'degree of importance' their supposition is targeted for, especially if it isn't in line with the threads disclaimer.  (Like how a game about monster-bashing doesn't really need a serious treatment of the religion that functions mostly as color or legitimization of 'more power to the healers.')

Without this focus on the discussion, you basically get five pages of people stating their subjective opinions both on religion in general (like how pervasive it is) and what rankles them in presentations of religion in gaming (and argument over 'what is the right way').

The real mystery to me is why we can't just disagree.

Fang Langford
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