Keep the Faith
Updates: Things continue to unfold nicely for your favorite science fiction roleplaying columnist. While the secret project I mentioned in last month's column has unfortunately fallen through, other opportunities have presented themselves. I'll pass on details of these as soon as contracts are signed and writing begins. For now, you can rest assured that the industry has finally recognized my talents (and modesty!) and has finally offered me a chair at the Great Banquet that is roleplaying writing.
No more playing it safe. This column is the first of a two-part series discussing topics considered potentially incendiary: religion and politics. God knows I don't want to offend anyone, but these topics seemed far too ripe with possibilities to leave untouched. Besides, we're all adults here at RPGnet. I'm sure we can enter into reasoned debate on important matters of the day without resorting to reckless name-calling and flame wars, right?
Religion and science fiction have an odd relationship, but religion and roleplaying games have an even odder (if that's the word) one. Children of the Enlightenment that we are, we tend to view science and religion as belonging to different and probably contradictory spheres. At best, we believe in issuing a restraining order to prevent religion from coming within 30 feet of science at all times. Take a look at the section on religion in GURPS Traveller to see what I mean. Consequently, most science fiction doesn't take religion very seriously. Indeed, religion and religious people are often portrayed as villains (or at least obstacles) in SF. Having religious convictions and acting on them is often considered a sign of mental instability on par with believing in Orbital Mind-control Lasers.
There are plenty of exceptions, of course, and they're the ones in which I'm really interested. The Dune series immediately leaps to mind. The entire series is suffused with all manner of religious thinking, from meditations on free will and determinism to the need for messiahs. Dune even includes a little essay at the end of the book discussing the history and composition of the fictitious Orange Catholic Bible and its place in Paul Mua'dib's life. It's really a brilliant little essay and, every time I read it, it makes me wish I had access to a real OC Bible.
Last Unicorn Games has acquired the license to produce a roleplaying game based on the Dune novels. I'm very much looking forward to its release this Fall. One of many things I'd like to see is the extent to which the game captures any of the religious feeling present in the books. Given the centrality of religion to Dune, I think LUG would be remiss not to include information on how to use it in the game. For now, though, we'll just have to wait and see.
Interestingly, White Wolf's Trinity talks about religion a great deal. One of its Psi Orders, ISRA, is heavily influenced by Bahá'i both in its beliefs and in its terminology. Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church plays an important role in Shattered Europe. Many other faiths are also mentioned as having a significant presence in the year 2120. In general, Trinity treats religion as an integral part of many people's lives and as a motivator for their actions. This isn't to say that religion dominates Trinity's setting. White Wolf has instead painted a world much like our own, in which religion is still a factor in many people's lives and does so in a way that seems reasonable to me.
The same holds true for White Wolf's prequel to Trinity, Aberrant. Set more than a hundred years before the former game, Aberrant shows the world of 2008 when quantum-powered "novas" have altered the world forever. Besides all the other nice touches included in its setting (like superheroes whose powers actually affect the world), Aberrant includes plenty of references to how religion both traditional and otherwise view the novas and their powers. It's good stuff. While I don't completely agree with everything White Wolf has chosen to say on this topic, I do think it's nice to see the topic treated at all in a SF RPG setting.
Holistic Design's Fading Suns, on the other hand, adopts what I believe is akin to the traditional approach to religion in SF: Church hierarchy bad (mostly), individual believers good (maybe). This game's Universal Church of the Celestial Sun is, in my view, a rather caricatured vision of the medieval Church superimposed onto a far future space opera. Now, I like Fading Suns a great deal and look forward to reviewing the second edition of the main rules for you, but its Church is a little over the top for my tastes. I mean, seriously, flame-gun-wielding Inquisitors? I realize that the designers have tried to soften the image of the Church and present it as being "multi-faceted." I respect that and think some of their recent supplements have gone a long way toward promoting that aim. Still, I think it's safe to say that few Fading Suns campaigns do not regularly employ the Church as anti-technological fundamentalists intent on getting in the player characters' ways.
In this respect, Fading Suns is no more guilty than most of us. We all think religion is wonderful and cool when it consists of Mother Theresa helping the poor and sick in Calcutta. The moment it believes in something that actually requires us to go against the grain, to change our behavior based on our beliefs, that's too much. The Spanish Inquisition will come and get you if you're not careful. Belief is for small-minded bigots who think the Earth is flat and want to burn you at the stake. Science fiction is, I think, especially guilty of this, based as it is on high technology and other gizmos we assume to be opposed to faith.
The problem seems to be that science fiction (and roleplaying by extension) doesn't have a very good historical memory. Most of its store of religious history consists solely of crusades, witch-hunts, and other forms of persecution. While no one (well, no one except a serious zealot) can deny that organized religion has a lot to answer for in terms of its past conduct, it seems to me that only a lazy imagination will assume religions will act the same way in the future. And the future is science fiction's bread and butter. Too many future histories read like "repeats" of the past. Sure, historical patterns exist, but they're patterns, not actual events. I feel it's a simply laziness that creates a future in which a monolithic and tyrannical Church terrorizes those who stand in its way. Science fiction should present us with better than that and so should SF RPGs.
A related problem is that SF, when it treats religion well, tends to do so only in the case of "spirituality." That is, organized religion is the true Bad Guy, not religious sentiment. Even the Dune novels present no real religious structure to preach the word of the OC Bible. Instead, citizens of the Imperium seem simply to read the OC Bible and meditate on its wisdom. While Herbert mentions a companion liturgical text, I don't recall any evidence that people in Dune actually worship in any form. That's too bad. I'd really like to see a well-conceived future religion, complete with the external actions of worship.
Star Trek is a perfect example of this spirituality problem. The 24th century seems replete with "deeply spiritual peoples with rich cultural heritages." Just about every race in Star Trek is deeply spiritual except humans. While the Klingons venerate Kahless the Unforgettable and the Bajorans the Prophets, humans seem devoid of any kind of religious belief at all. The Original Series was peppered with occasional Biblical citations and hints of religiosity, but not much else. The later series give no indication that anyone other than aliens have an concern with the transcendent. Even then, religion in Star Trek usually boils down to what a southern Californian might hold to be religion.
Despite my general dislike of the series, Babylon 5 did a generally better job of handling religion in humans (I still dislike the alien faiths). Even here, there's minimal evidence that anyone in Babylon 5 regularly participates in the rituals of an organized religion or that his beliefs affect the way he interacts with the world. It's all well and good to say prayers for your dead father, but what about a concern over the morality of war? What about being unwilling to do "whatever it takes" to achieve one's goals, however noble? Babylon 5 had a great opportunity to use religion as a springboard for some fascinating inner conflict. Instead, the show seemed more interested in goofy Centauri polytheism and the crystal-worshipping Minbari. Too bad.
Even the Force of Star Wars is a very watered down vision of religion in my eyes. True, the Jedi Code clearly does regulate one's actions. Listening to the Force does affect one's daily life. I appreciate this. I also understand that Lucas wanted the Force to be as "generic" as possible, thereby getting at the core truths of all religions without being identified with a single one. Still, I often hope for more.
As the 20th century draws to a close, we remain suspicious of religion, as if it were a threat to free thought or to scientific enquiry. We forget that much of what we now know as science has its origins in religion, from Arabic scientists to Christian scholastics to Greek mathematicians. Does the ascendancy of science and technology necessarily mean the end of organized religion? Most SF would seem to think so. So many SF futures consist of worlds where religious belief, if it exists at all, is personal and private. There are no large faiths to which millions adhere. More importantly, no one allows his beliefs in something greater than himself to influence his actions. To do otherwise would veer close to "imposing one's belief on others," one of the late 20th century's few remaining sins.
In the end, my biggest beef is that science fiction fails to realize the dramatic value that religion and religious belief provide. Clashes of ideals and firmly-held beliefs are the stuff of great drama. Why not tap into this resource? So many men and women throughout history have been inspired by (or even against) religious beliefs in their achievement of great things. Why should the future be any different? Indeed, wouldn't it be a far more interesting future if people continued (as they undoubtedly will) to be inspired by a belief in something other than self-aggrandizement and passing goals? I think so, but then I am notoriously outside the mainstream. It's my hope more game companies will realize this and use it to the advantage of their SF RPGs.