Saturday, February 23, 2013

Taboo Subjects part 3: Religion

I own a lot of comic books.  Too many comic books, to be honest.  And out of this large collection there are only a few I re-read on a regular basis.  One is Alan Moore's Watchmen.

  Another is Warren Ellis' Planetary.

  And the third is Jim Starlin's Dreadstar.

The gist of the series, at least the run during the Epic Comics era, is about Vanth Dreadstar, the (almost) last survivor of the destruction of the Milky Way galaxy.  He arrives in another and is thrown into an intergalactic war between two empires.  One is a corrupt monarchy controlled by corporate forces who profit off of the endless war and do not wish to end it, the other (and this is why I bring this up) is a theocratic state out to convert the galaxy to their religion.  Dreadstar wishes to stop the war, to bring down both sides.  It is a pretty awesome series.  It could be argued the monarchy's side is a bit of an indictment on the American military industrial complex, although if it is Starlin does not focus overly much on it at all.  You do not see evil corporate bigwigs standing around plotting; that element of the series is just there in the distant background.  The real bad guys are the Church of The Instrumentality; they are seen in almost every issue or at least talked about, they are the primary force to be brought down.  The Instrumentality is obviously based on the Catholic church; it has Cardinals, inquisitors, the head of the church is called the Lord High Papal.

Jim Starlin is not the only guy who has done something like this.  Sci-fi author David Weber also used it for his series, the premise of which is way too complicated here to explain.  Essentially the humans are controlled by a church that has been designed to deliberately prevent them from creating or using a majority of technologies.  These are just two examples off the top of my head of the Catholic church being used as a model, I am certain there are others.

So, are these anti-Catholic?  Maybe.  I don’t know these men so I can’t speak for them.  And let’s be real, here.  The Catholic church does have a pretty infamous reputation.  If you look at the institution’s history they are guilty of some pretty gruesome crimes.  The Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition are just two examples of atrocities carried out in God’s name.  And if you look at recent history there are quite a few disturbing instances of priests (and in some cases, nuns) doing terrible things to children and the church in some cases either covering it up or protecting their people.  Then you add to that the church’s unwillingness to create female priests, its hardline stance on birth control, abortion, gay marriage.  Never mind that a great many mainstream religions hold the same attitudes; the Catholic church is the most visible.  In the face of all that the Catholic church looks like a pretty demented organization.  And hence it is easy to demonize them.

It is so easy, in fact, that a great many people forget the amount of good the church has done over the centuries.  I think like most things people more easily see the bad than the good in anything, be it a religion or country or even a person.  How many Americans mock France for surrendering to Germany in WWII?  Never mind how many other countries also surrendered.  Never mind how the United States pretty much were incapable of successfully prosecuting a war in a little country called Viet Nam and had to throw up their hands in frustration and walk away.

It was a draw!

Credit to those of you who get the above reference.

France gets a bum rap because people think it is funny to take the darkest chapter in their recent history and make it the only thing that matters.  Of course, I’m sure a lot of non-Americans do the same thing regarding the United States, ignoring all the charitable work my country does, the billions in economic aid given to dozens of countries annually or how swiftly we send relief to countries that suffer natural disasters.  I'm not saying my country or it's leaders are without flaws.  I'm just saying that like a great many other institutions it is easier to focus on the bad than the good.

Okay, this is getting really political and I apologize.  The point is, we tend to look for the worst and when writers are creating a fake religion perhaps it is just easy to pick an institution that many people are eager to see the worst in.  It is a literary shortcut.  Turning The Pope into a white skinned, nose-less monstrosity worshiping alien gods?

Yeah, a lot of people can get behind that.

But I think the other reason writers might use the Catholic church is it’s organizational structure.  The church is based on a very clear-cut hierarchy.  You have priests, bishops, cardinals, pope.  Everyone is assigned to a specific region.  This is not unlike how a kingdom might be parceled out, with knights, barons, dukes, king/queen.  So when making a church an evil organization you already have this structure already in place.

How is the Lutheran church organized?  I have no clue.  Seriously, I have none.  We have pastors.  Beyond that, I could not begin to tell you who they answer to or how they are assigned to churches.  The same goes for the Muslim religion.  How does a guy become a Mullah or Ayatollah?  I guess I could do some research and look into it, but that’s the thing; I would have to study.  Where the Catholic church is concerned it is pretty common knowledge how they are organized.  You wear black?  You’re at the low end.  Red, you are important.  Wear white and gold?  You’re The Man.

I was entertaining writing a fantasy novel and I wanted to create this new fictional religion.  And I was thinking that the different divisions were represented by colors.  Red denoted holy knights.  White were messengers/ambassadors, orange archivists/teachers, gold the treasurers.  And man, was it hard to do!  Trying to create a religion from scratch is tough work.  I kept looking at the Catholic structure longingly at times like that.

So those are two reasons why a writer might use the Catholics.  And it works.  If you are writing a book.  Because when you are writing a book you have potentially millions of readers and you can afford to offend a certain percentage of them.  Because honestly, you are always going to offend a certain percentage of readers when you are a writer; it comes with the territory.  But it doesn’t work if you are running a game because at most you will have double digit players.  And those players may be Catholics, and they might take offense to seeing their religion denigrated.  And the same goes for potential Muslims as well.  Is the principle bad guy a psychotic suicide bombing Jihadist?  Think twice about that.  Take a step back and reconsider how that might offend any potential Muslims in your game.  Does your plot involve religious extremists bombing abortion clinics?  Congratulations, you just combined both political and religious themes and will likely alienate at least two players, if not start a huge argument that will poison your game.

Years back in my super hero game, The Vindicators, I had Earth attacked by this extra-dimensional empire known as The Tandians.  And part of the Tandian coalition was a group known as The Golden Papacy.  They were essentially a corrupt version of the Catholic church; I had the nuns wearing makeup and sexy habits, for example, and I think a couple priests were smoking a joint.  No one complained, no one objected, but looking back at that now I sometimes wonder if perhaps some of my players had been offended.  I should have given the religion a different name.  Sure, I could have used the word “nun” because Catholics aren’t the only ones who have them.  But instead of priests I could have used “pastor” or “minister”, terms more commonly ascribed to “protestant” religions, a term some people take offense to, by the way*.   And I certainly could have given the church a different name!  That church made only one appearance in my game, I never used it again.

So, what’s the solution if you want to have evil religious baddies in your game?  Simple: make a cult.  Really, cults are awesome for this sort of thing.  Cults are usually based around a single individual and they have a reputation for crazy.  Heck, there are two television series on the air right now, The Following and Cult, which are about crazy people inducing psychotics or sociopaths into doing bad things, or brainwashing others via a television broadcast.  During his Fantastic Four run Jonathan Hickman had a bad guy who was a cult leader working with Annihilus.  When it comes to bad guys everyone can get behind in regards to hating, cults are it.

But what if you are creating a sci-fi or fantasy religion and want some sort of structure?  Well, that is a bit tougher.  I think Star Trek, DS9 handled it pretty well with the Bajoran religion.  Only two ranks were ever featured; the vedeks, which were the priests, and the leader, the kai.  It did not feel at all Catholic.  Oh sure, you had a central authority figure, but overall the religion was, well, streamlined.  And yes, the colors red and orange were used in the costumes (which are both used in Catholic robes), but the costume designs themselves were alien.  In fact, there were little things that lent a nice air to the religion, like the fact the ear rings the Bajorans wore were actually part of their religion.  It was a nice little touch.

So you can go that route, make the religion simple and straightforward.  The other way to go is to make it horrifically complex and, well, alien.  Create religious artifacts, taboos, ceremonies that would confuse an outsider.  Heck, pick and choose elements from religions world wide.  Have the aliens pray towards the galactic core three times daily in much the way Muslims pray towards Mecca.  Have them literally practice cannibalism rather than in a figurative sense as Catholics do during communion.  It doesn't matter if you are borrowing from established religions as long as you are careful not to borrow too much from any one, that you cannot be accused of creating space Muslims or something. There are a great many faiths you can sample from world wide: Hindu, Hebrew, Shintoism.  Then there are ancient religions you can look at, like the Roman Vestal Virgins.

All well and good, you may say.  But what about players who want to run religious characters?  In Dungeons and Dragons this is almost always going to happen; what party is complete without a cleric, the magical field medic?  I was always playing a cleric in part because no one else wanted to.  So, where D & D is concerned religious characters are sort of a given.  But what about other games?  Can a religious character work in a modern or sci-fi setting?  Why not?  One of my players ran a character called Paladin, a holy knight taking orders straight from The Vatican, tasked with destroying supernatural evil.  The key is to insure the player understands that in running this character he is not being given free rein to spout some personal philosophy through his character.

And a character can be spiritual without being specifically religious.  Remember this guy?

Thoughtful, philosophical, reserved, willing to dispense wisdom to those prepared to listen, always taking the less violent route whenever possible, Obi Wan Kenobi is a warrior monk.  That doesn't stop him from being able to kick serious ass when the situation demands; it is just in his nature to look for nonviolent solutions to problems.  This is the right way to role play a spiritual character.

But if you are looking for the wrong way...

"Among my people there is a saying..." Gah.  I hate Chakotay, and by the last season of Star Trek, Voyager, so did actor Robert Beltran.  Chakotay was the generic native American, a mish-mash of beliefs culled from a dozen different unique cultures.  He was always dispensing folksy native American wisdom either through sayings or stories, pulling rituals out of his ass like animal spirit guides and prayer wheels.  Chakotay was offensive.  So, don't be that guy.  If you are going to play a character with deep seated beliefs from some culture then 1) know something about that culture and 2) don't throw it in people's faces all the time.

And this does bring me to Star Trek.  It fascinates me how the more widely spread religions are verboten, and yet it is okay to pretty much make up generic native American or alien ones.  Why aren't there Jews in space?  Or Muslims, or Hindus or Shintoists?  Why not a Baptist or Lutheran or a member of the Church of England?  It doesn't have to be a big thing with the character, but at the same time if a player would like it noted their character practices an Earth religion, by all means let them, provided they don't make it a big deal.  Why not have a ship's counselor a member of some faith?  Many of our modern military institutions have priests and pastors who are trained counselors who are on hand to aid soldiers in coping with various forms of stress.

So to sum up, religion is not something to be feared either as the source of villainy, a plot device or as a facet of a player's character, as long as players and GM alike are aware of the potential pitfalls.  Religion can be used to add an element of realism to a game, to help flesh out that third dimension.

*A quick side note: my Dad pointedly insisted “Lutheran” be etched on his Naval dog tags, pointing out he was protesting nothing other than the fact he was being called protestant.  That was a pretty gutsy move for an eighteen year old man to be making.  And The United States Navy acceded to his demand.

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