[GUEST POST] James L. Sutter on Atheism in Fantasy


James L. Sutter is the author of the novel Death’s Heretic and co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game campaign setting. His short stories have appeared in such publications as Escape Pod, Starship Sofa, Apex Magazine, and the #1 Amazon bestseller Machine of Death, and his anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published stories of SF luminaries with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, James has written numerous roleplaying game supplements and is the Fiction Editor for Paizo Publishing. For more information, check out jameslsutter.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameslsutter.

Faithless: Atheism in Fantasy

Faith is a tricky subject–tricky enough that many fantasy novels and roleplaying games skim right past it. Some stories ignore it all together (can you name the gods of Middle-earth without consulting The Silmarillion?), while others use gods as little more than names for priests and holy warriors to yell in battle. When authors do include gods as central pillars of their fantasy worlds, it’s often as squabbling, anthropomorphic beings that take a direct interest in mortal proceedings, not unlike the gods of Greek or Norse mythology. Yet the philosophical and theological questions that might arise from such a situation–is faith with empirical evidence still faith? how do worshipers deal with tragedy when they can confront their god about it directly?–are something I rarely see addressed.


For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of faith is its absence. In our own world, most of the atheists I know reject the idea of divine beings due to a devotion to empiricism–they simply don’t see enough hard, scientific data to justify belief in a god. Yet what happens to atheism if that data is made obvious, such as in a world where any priest can work miracles, and divine revelations are available upon request?

These issues are at the heart of my new novel, Death’s Heretic, set in the world of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. In Golarion, as that world is called, gods and their adherents are everywhere. As in many fantasy games, Pathfinder’s deities have their own personalities and motivations, and actively assist their worshipers through faith healing and other powerful divine magic, thus making their combined tenets the backbone of most societies. There is, however, one nation in the world that actively rejects the gods–Rahadoum, a desert nation so torn by historical holy wars that its people got fed up and outlawed religion altogether.

My protagonist, Salim, comes from this nation. Originally a priest-hunter from the Pure Legion, the police force intended to keep Rahadoum clean of religion and its practitioners, Salim made a series of questionable decisions that culminated in him being bound to serve the goddess of death against his will. It’s through his lens, colored by spite and regret, that I get to explore the idea of fantasy atheism.

As Salim is quick to point out, there are many different takes on godlessness in his world. While there are a few on Golarion who deny the existence of gods altogether, such claims are hard to maintain in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence. Denying the existence of gods is like denying the existence of elephants: sure, they’re rare, but refusing to believe in them won’t keep them from trampling you.

Instead, Salim’s people acknowledge the gods’ existence, but reject the idea that deities deserve to be worshiped. The gods are powerful, and can offer both great rewards and terrible punishments–yet as Salim is quick to point out, there are many powerful mortals who can do the same, wizards and warlords who can raise you up or destroy everything you love. You might fear or admire people more powerful than you, and maybe even bow to their laws, but would you worship them? To a Rahadoumi, pledging your immortal soul to a god in exchange for power and protection is indentured servitude, plain and simple. Salim’s people see their atheism as the noblest form of independence, and though their nation is often forced to deal with devastating plagues, famine, and other issues that a god’s aegis could protect them from, they remain steadfast in their self-reliance, viewing religion as slavery that persists even after death.

As much of the book takes place away from Rahadoum, with Salim being the odd man out in his god-rejecting views, we also get a chance to see his opinions on the differences between someone born into an atheist society and someone who rejects faith later in life. Salim puts forth the observation that those who choose atheism as adults are often defined by their rejection. They rail loudly against religion in order to constantly reaffirm their conviction and win over others, trying to regain a lost sense of confidence and solidarity. Their pasts still follow them around like ghosts. In contrast, he then describes the more passive Rahadoumi worldview:

“The gods are real, it’s true, and powerful–but so are the great whales off the island of Nuat, whose flukes can stave in a frigate. Stay out of their way, and you’ll be safe enough. Being Rahadoumi isn’t about attacking the gods or questioning their existence. It’s about the freedom to live as you see fit, with no creatures from another world passing edicts on who or what you can be.”

Obviously, Salim’s is just one viewpoint, and one that’s contentious even in his own world. Just as few people on Earth can agree exactly on what atheism means, there are undoubtedly myriad interpretations of what it might mean in a fantasy setting. So what other fantasy works address the concept of atheism? How do they deal with it?

4 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] James L. Sutter on Atheism in Fantasy”

  1. Does Terry Pratchett’s Feet of Clay counts? There is a golem who declares himself as an atheist. Luckily for him as a golem he is lighting-resistant (the gods do not like atheists on Discworld very much).

  2. I see atheism in science fiction far more than in fantasy.

     

    But in movies, however, its a diifferent kettle of fish. I’ve noticed a strange tendency toward atheists in mythological movies.  

     

    Troy, the Wolfgang Petersen, has a lot of overt atheism, and much to my chagrin, for a story that in the original myth is FULL of Gods, has none.

    Clash of the Titans, the 2010 remake, again, has characters who defy the gods or deny their existence. Perhaps that is more anti-religion than atheism.

     

    And now there is Immortals.  Even with a putative son of a God (although its never explicitly said), and Gods as main characters, the amount of disbelief in the Gods in this movie is amazing and inexplicable. One character even says, in  a post modernist mode, that the “gods as best understood as metaphors”.  I was greatly annoyed.

     

     

  3. In NK Jemisin’s recently released “The Kingdom of Gods” (Inheritance Trilogy book 3) a sector of mortal society has come to atheism after millenia of the gods interference in the mortal realm. Their type of atheism isn’t that they don’t believe the gods exist – they are part and parcel of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – they frame their atheism in a refusal to worship the gods and partake of the benefits of that worship. That is, they’ve had a guts full of the gods dictating how mortals shall live and are intent on making their own way without that god-like/magical interference. They want control over their own lives.

    Jemisin’s books certainly answer your questions in the first paragraph, and in great detail. Faith, the lack thereof, and all its iterations, are central tenets.

  4. We explored much the same territory in R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen, in which the goddess that is at the heart of the dark elves’ matriarchal theocracy suddenly goes silent, no longer granting prayers/spells or communicating in any way with her high priests. The series tackled a lot of big questions, including the responsibility that a god(dess) has to his/her followers, if any. One of the characters actually converts to a different goddess at the prospect of oblivion after death if Lolth never returns. In other words, if you aren’t going to reward me in the afterlife, I’ll find someone else who will.

    Fantasy is the perfect proving ground for these kinds of questions.

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