2011-07-11 : Hooray for Religion

C Luke Mula asks:

How much does your religious upbringing influence your designs? Or did you deal with everything you wanted to religion-wise in DitV?

I have a trilogy of religous games: kill puppies for satan, Dogs in the Vineyard, and Poison'd. Between the three of them I think I've said everything about my religious upbringing that I need to, yeah.

But there's a lot more for me to say about religion than just about my religious upbringing. It's nice to have my religious upbringing out of the way so I can approach the subject with a little more clarity. My thinking about religion has changed quite a bit over the past 5 years, and sooner or later I'm going to make a game about that.

Right now I'm inspired by Ron Edwards' three games about religion. His games reject belief as the core of religion, placing practice there instead, and I think that's both correct and compelling. Check 'em out if you haven't already.

On a related note, what do you think of the Book of Mormon musical (if you've seen it or listened to the soundtrack)?

I've heard only snippets of it. I'd like to go see it. I like pretty much everything those guys have done, and they're always very funny when they talk about Mormonism.

What about you, Luke? You're a kind of religious guy, yes? Do you deal with religion in your roleplaying?

Everybody else can answer too!

1. On 2011-07-11, Kit said:

Well, I will say that, given my particular Quaker/Jewish upbringing, the idea of religion being about practice more than belief is pretty sensible to me.

I don't think that religion, as such, is an issue I'm very interested in, in a role-playing context. Particular facets of it, sure: judgment vs. compassion, inclusive and exclusive communities and membership, these sorts of things, these I want to play games about.

For the Apocalypse World game we're trying to organize right now, I really want to play the Hocus, but I want to de-emphasize some of the obvious religious overtones. Sure, playing a snake-handling Hocus would be awesome, but I think that there's a lot of room for a rockstar Hocus, too. And you can hit some of the same issues about cults of personality and charismatic leadership.


2. On 2011-07-11, Chris G. said:

I've never designed a game, but I can tell you that my religious upbringing has affected how I approach play in games about religion, especially DitV.

I was raised Roman Catholic (very much no longer RC), and there, if you're a real RC and not an Easter/Xmas RC, the rules are the rules and you don't break, or bend, or try to reinterpret them. Whatever the Pope says goes, even if he summons the queen spider for consultation.

Playing DitV, I and my friends have noticed my tendency to play very straight and narrow characters. Whatever I, as the player, decide is doctrine as decided by the Temple Elders, well my character tries their darnedest to never stray even an inch from that line.

Anyway, I attribute this completely to by background in RC.


3. On 2011-07-11, Vincent said:

Chris, cool!

I'm curious what you did when circumstances demanded that you stray from the line. I hope it happened! That's the kind of moral trouble that Dogs in the Vineyard is supposed to dish out.


4. On 2011-07-11, Tom said:

So I picked up the Book of Mormon soundtrack.  It's a little difficult to judge the whole thing based just on the songs, but the songs are all pretty good.

The South Park boys do poke a lot of fun at various religions, but they also seem to have an appreciation for humanity's need to believe in something, even if that something seems a little dodgy.

But yeah, the songs are catchy and fun.


5. On 2011-07-11, Simon C said:

Religion is pretty much a non-issue for me. I was raised atheist and I live in New Zealand, which is largely secular. I don't super care about what people believe, but yeah, I totally care about what people do. I guess I'm kind of a behaviourist in that sense. I actually don't think it matters at all what people believe. The more fruitful avenue for analysis is people's actions.

I think that's maybe why I found Dogs really engaging (it's all about fixing problems with what people are doing), and Montsegur really difficult (it's all about beliefs, plus the Cathars have just about the worst religion ever).


6. On 2011-07-12, C Luke Mula said:

I've heard only snippets of it. I'd like to go see it. I like pretty much everything those guys have done, and they're always very funny when they talk about Mormonism.

I haven't seen the musical myself, but I have listened to the entire soundtrack via YouTube. Well, well worth it. Probably one of the best soundtracks I've ever heard for anything, ever.

Right now I'm inspired by Ron Edwards' three games about religion. His games reject belief as the core of religion, placing practice there instead, and I think that's both correct and compelling.

Yes, he has quite strong insights into religion. Rejecting belief as the core of religion, though, is like rejecting SIS as a core of roleplaying games. No, the actual content might not be the most important thing, but the components of belief and their relation to the practices are extremely important. You need both to really understand religion.

What I like about Ron's approach to making these games is that he's most interested in the disconnects between layers of religion (culture, institution, belief, observance), and his games are about constantly pitting two of these layers against each other. Compelling stuff indeed.

What about you, Luke? You're a kind of religious guy, yes? Do you deal with religion in your roleplaying?

Honestly, I've played about twenty hours' worth of video games in my entire life. I don't consider myself a gamer by any means. However, I'm extreeeeemely interested in game design and game theory (of all stripes), as it correlates directly with my main interest and field of study: faith design and faith theory.

As far as I'm concerned, "faith" is the equivalent of "roleplaying," but expressed through living instead of playing. Faith is about truly believing and engaging in religious beliefs and putting them into practice (the same way that the dice and clouds interact). The model of faith that I work from has so far been taken almost whole cloth from the Big Model, though I've systematically been repurposing it to be applicable to religion (and editing it where it breaks when applied to religion).

(And not to advertise, but if you want an idea of what I'm talking about, you can head here.)

As far as being religious, I don't have any emotional commitments to any particular religion. I love most of them, and I really enjoy practicing them when I get a chance.


7. On 2011-07-12, Jaywalt said:

Not entirely coincidentally, the belief vs. practice thing is at the center of an ongoing debate in the study of Chinese religion (generally called the "orthopraxy/orthodoxy" debate), which centers on whether it matters if practitioners of Chinese religion believe in it or not. The traditional answer is no, it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you conduct the ritual properly (i.e. "orthopraxy"), but there are, of course, several much more complex answers than that. Christianity and Islam put so much emphasis on faith that it's sometimes important to remember that belief is not the core of all religious practices.


8. On 2011-07-12, Neon Fox said:

Christianity and Islam put so much emphasis on faith that it's sometimes important to remember that belief is not the core of all religious practices.

So back in the day, one of the reasons the Jews had problems in the Roman Empire was because the Romans were like, OK, once or twice a year you need to go to the temple, splash a little wine, maybe sacrifice a dove or something to the Deified Caesar.  And the Jews were like, Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me.  And the Romans looked at them sideways and said, Who said anything about having other gods?  You just have to go do the thing.  We don't care what you're thinking while you do it.  And all sorts of badness happened.

I'm not sure how that ties in, but it feels like it does.


9. On 2011-07-12, Vincent said:

It seems to me that religion has to make sense even when belief doesn't. Like, Mormonism doesn't disappear even though some of the beliefs Mormons hold are plain nonsense, and it doesn't disappear even though Mormons don't usually act on the nonsensical beliefs that they hold, and it doesn't even disappear when Mormons hold diverse and contradictory beliefs (which of course they do).

It seems to me that under scrutiny, belief evaporates anyway. We tell ourselves stories in our heads about why we've done what we've done, and how we think the world works, but they're just stories. We don't really have good access to our own decision-making, and religion has to make sense anyway.


10. On 2011-07-12, C Luke Mula said:

I'm going to edit your wording in your paragraphs a bit to make my point about beliefs being a core.

First off, Pentecostalism (which I grew up in) instead of Mormonism...

It seems to me that religion has to make sense even when practices don't. Like, Pentecostal Christianity doesn't disappear even though some of the practices Pentecostals have are plain nonsense, and it doesn't disappear even though Pentecostals don't always believe the nonsensical things they practice, and it doesn't even disappear when Pentecostals have diverse and contradictory practices (which of course they do).

Does that mean that practices evaporate and belief remains as the core?

And then relating religion to roleplaying games again...

It seems to me that roleplaying games have to make sense even when SIS doesn't. Like, D&D doesn't disappear even though some of the SIS that D&D gamers explore is plain nonsense, and it doesn't disappear even though D&D gamers don't usually explore all of its nonsensical SIS, and it doesn't even disappear when D&D gamers explore diverse and contradictory SIS (which of course they do).

It seems to me that under scrutiny, SIS evaporates anyway. We tell ourselves stories in our heads about why we've done what we've done, and how we think the game world works, but they're just stories. We don't really have good access to our own decision-making, and roleplaying has to make sense anyway.

Does any of this make the SIS unimportant to roleplaying?

Here's what I say: There is religion without apparent practice in just the same way that there is religion without apparent belief. It's more or less a matter of emphasis.

Also, do you see how the people practicing "without belief" actually must be holding beliefs as to why they're practicing what they're practicing? Yes, their beliefs may be completely naturalistic and may not reflect the symbols of the traditional religion at all, but they are still beliefs.

A final note about beliefs. Even if the beliefs aren't "real" or don't reflect reality in any way doesn't mean that they are not a significant part of religious experience. We all suspend disbelief in order to experience fiction, temporarily believing what we're reading or watching or playing, and that gives us a real experience of the fiction. That same suspension of disbelief is all that is needed for any religious experience.

Sorry if it seems I'm belaboring my point, but I know a lot of people who would be personally offended by the idea of equating religion with practices or observances, when much of what they do is simply engaging in beliefs with no obvious practices. Kind of like freeform has no obvious techniques, and the emphasis certainly is on SIS over them.

And if you couldn't tell yet, I really like this topic. Looking forward to what'll come out of this discussion!


11. On 2011-07-12, Vincent said:

I dunno! That seems pretty iffy to me. Without its practices, Mormonism DOES disappear, as far as I'm concerned. Maybe I'd feel differently if I had Mormon beliefs, but I don't.

In general I'm not excited about people's personal experiences, religious or otherwise. Roleplaying or otherwise!

And I guess that you don't know just how much I hate SIS as a term. I hate it with the hate of a thousand burning hates.


12. On 2011-07-12, C Luke Mula said:

Oh man I forgot about that! My apologies!

What if you replaced all uses of "SIS" with "the fiction"? Would that be better? I really only meant it in the way that you use the "clouds," but SIS definitely wasn't the best term for it.


13. On 2011-07-12, C Luke Mula said:

Oh and let me be clear that I'm not at all saying that the content of beliefs is important. The content may be interesting but it's definitely irrelevant to this topic.

What I am saying instead is that the components of beliefs and how they interact with each other and with the real world through people practicing them is important.


14. On 2011-07-12, David Berg said:

I'm sure we can reduce all "religious" actions to primal urges and needs if we want to, but I think it's much more interesting to include the whole tapestry of culture, practice, experience, and yes, belief.  Different beliefs provide reward experiences for different actions, leading to different motivations and further actions.

To remove belief is a handy simplification, but is less interesting to me.  If we're exclusively talking about what people do, "these people use giant leaves as rain shelters" is more interesting to me than "these people bow to the sun twice a day, who cares what they say about why".

That's opinion.  Here's a fact:

My orthodox Jewish friend strictly observes the sabbath, not using elevators, light switches, etc.  I asked her, "In the Torah, God never says a word about elevators.  Some rabbi came up with that.  He probably found some phrase that, if you take it overly literally, can be applied against elevators, but that seems like traditionalist garbage and neophobia to me.  Can't you just take your understanding of God's point and then act accordingly?"

She said, "God's mind and will is unknowable to us.  We shouldn't try to deduce what He wants, we should follow what He literally told us to do as closely as we can manage.  My ancestors made a contract with God and I'm honoring that contract."

I asked, "But isn't the Torah written by humans?  It's already interpretation!"

She said, "No, it's the actual words of God as spoken in Hebrew, which is one of the 4 true realities that transcends the limited world of our experience.  God gave us every letter, all we humans did was put them on paper."

Back to my opinions:

If you're alone in your building on the sabbath and no one's around and you don't believe that using the elevator violates your contract with God... you use the elevator, right?


15. On 2011-07-12, C Luke Mula said:

If you're alone in your building on the sabbath and no one's around and you don't believe that using the elevator violates your contract with God... you use the elevator, right?

Right, but note that there's actually still a belief in play: the belief that it's best to not use the elevator on the Sabbath in the presence of disapproving Jews (or for that matter, probably not in the presence of anyone else, either).

Regardless of its content, this is still a belief. It may not relate to the belief of "my life is a representation of God to the world," but it could very well relate to the belief of "my life is a representation of Judaism to the world."


16. On 2011-07-12, David Berg said:

Perhaps.  I don't like to use the word "belief" for stuff that's logical and verifiable.  Getting disapproved of for breaking sabbath is testable in a way that breaking contracts with God is not.


17. On 2011-07-12, Ben Lehman said:

If you're alone in your building on the sabbath and no one's around and you don't believe that using the elevator violates your contract with God... you use the elevator, right?

Why would you? Curiosity?



18. On 2011-07-12, C Luke Mula said:

I don't like to use the word "belief" for stuff that's logical and verifiable. Getting disapproved of for breaking sabbath is testable in a way that breaking contracts with God is not.

Right, but it's still a belief, even if it's a particular type of belief (opinion, in this case).

And when it comes to actual instances of religious practice, the difference between opinion and illogical belief is irrelevant, in this case because the effects of the believed disapproval on our lives are verifiable in each instance.

And I accidentally had misread your "you use the elevator" as "you don't use the elevator," so now I have the same question as Ben.


19. On 2011-07-12, Josh W said:

Why not? Just because something is logical, doesn't mean it's not wrong:
Logical just means there's a system that puts it all together, (maybe proper axiom stuff, but probably just internal consistency), verifiable means that the tests you've thought of come out correct. We may have more comprehensive batteries of tests, and/or more rigorous standards of consistency, but it's still belief. It's still an idea a person has about the world that they have great confidence in, or enough confidence to stick to it to some extent.

About your lift question, bear in mind that people can also continue habits based on social norms; say every saturday you avoid the lifts, often with other Jewish people. That's an easier habit to stick with than checking whether there are other Jewish people around first. People can just do stuff they do for social reasons all the time rather than check if someone's looking.

If a social restriction is not contradicting or working against your principles and you can follow it without having to think much, then many people will just go for it.

I suspect that's why behavioural codes sometimes tend towards strictness; the most restrictive one wins!

Of course, that's excluding those people who have principles about taking on pointless restrictions..


20. On 2011-07-12, Josh W said:

On the main front, I haven't done religion properly in my game yet, our current mage game may be getting there, but what I find most interesting about religion is when people change to fit a religion, or a religion shifts around people, and I haven't played in a game with a nice religious reward cycle yet.

This is partially due to people I know being uninterested in the particular themes of games I've come across, on one side, and on the other side people going too heavily for people's real life buttons, in a way that seems trite.

Yet is the main thing though, I have a crazy game on the back burner about people being uploaded to computers and having to rebuild their personalities, which touches some of the same themes.


21. On 2011-07-12, Leftahead said:

I'm deeply ambivalent with the term 'faith' being used to describe any 'religion' that can bring to bear provable physical effects on the world.

Myself, I'm a 100% scientific rationalist; I am of the opinion that all religions are entirely made up by people, that there's nothing about us that existed before our conception or that lingers after our biological functions cease. But all of that's because I've never seen even a scintilla of evidence to support any of the supernatural claims made by any religion, anywhere, ever. And, probably most germane to this, that there's nothing unique about religious institutions that can't be replicated without the hokum, but that neurological tics of the brain and the difficulty of starting those social structures from scratch DO make it really hard.

But if you're a D&D cleric, well, shit, it's RIGHT THERE, isn't it? Any of those games where whatever passes for gods are physically manifest, you're not talking about faith any more, you're talking about GRACE, right? This is almost a running gag with my D&D pals: any divinely-inclined PCs I play get very offended if anyone starts talking about 'faith'. "Faith is for peasants. I am a holy warrior for Pelor and that's why he grew my arm back and I can reduce the most vile of undead to ashes by invoking his name. I have no need for FAITH."

Entirely coincidentally, I'm doing a careful re-reading of Dogs right now (I've frustratingly never gotten a chance to actually play it) and I have to say that the sliding scale for how manifest the King of Life becomes in the game is one of the finer touches. If it's low, then 'faith', what it means, and how its judged, is an issue that can drive lots of conflict. If it's high, then *grace*, and who has it, and the privilege it confers, moves to the fore.

I'm curious, though, you list 'Poisn'd' as one of your games dealing with religion, but I didn't read it that way at all (again, I haven't played it, so that may be the root of the problem, sorry!). Maybe because it's that I don't look too deeply for 'religious meaning' because I reject it out of hand in my own life? Dunno, but why do you say that, V? I presume it's the 'soul and sin' stuff? It's interesting to me that I read all that as just historical verisimilitude and window dressing as opposed to really being 'about' religion.

-Jim C.


22. On 2011-07-13, David Berg said:

What I was asking with the elevator is, absent a belief in a No Elevators contract with God, what are the remaining factors determining whether you use the elevator or not.

"Use it because I'm tired and sore and don't want to walk up the stairs," seems the most obvious one to me.  "Use it out of curiosity," could happen, I guess.

"Not use it out of habit," is probably a good place to look in the whole belief/practice/culture discussion.  I wonder how prevalent that is?  That someone really doesn't believe there will be any adverse consequences for using that nice knee-saving elevator, but doesn't use it anyway, because they're used to not using it.

And when it comes to actual instances of religious practice, the difference between opinion and illogical belief is irrelevant, in this case because the effects of the believed disapproval on our lives are verifiable in each instance.

Luke, how is, "I just broke my contract with God, He must be upset with me," verifiable?  What's to keep that from becoming rather, "or maybe I didn't / maybe He's not" or just not thinking about it at all?


23. On 2011-07-13, C Luke Mula said:

No, the "God is angry with me" part isn't verifiable. The "I feel horrible because of that belief and my behavior and mental states reflect that" is verifiable. That's the effects I'm referring to.

Which would end up being the same if The belief was instead that I was breaking my contract with my culture. Those effects on me would remain even if no one verifiably disapproves.


24. On 2011-07-13, David Berg said:

Let me see if I understand.  The unverified belief that "elevator = God is mad" puts me in a state in which I will naturally develop the verified belief that "elevator = I feel horrible", and thus I avoid the elevator to avoid feeling horrible.  Is that what you're saying?


25. On 2011-07-13, Chris Chinn said:

"Not use it out of habit," is probably a good place to look in the whole belief/practice/culture discussion. I wonder how prevalent that is?

I think it's a key place to look.  Consider how often something bad happens and even non-religious people go "Oh God!", "Jesus!", "Damn it!"

For a non-religious example, I live next to a McDonald's - it's right on the block... but I never eat there, and when I'm thinking I need to grab quick food, it never comes up on my radar.  It's not even that I'm super opposed to McDonald's - it's just that I live 3 blocks from Chinatown- and I'm used to eating there.  I've lived here 8 years and McD's isn't on my mental radar.

I'm sure for some folks, the elevator becomes the same way.


26. On 2011-07-14, C Luke Mula said:

Let me see if I understand. The unverified belief that "elevator = God is mad" puts me in a state in which I will naturally develop the verified belief that "elevator = I feel horrible", and thus I avoid the elevator to avoid feeling horrible. Is that what you're saying?

In a very, very basic way, yes.

And keep in mind that, even though the belief "I expect other Jews to disapprove" is eventually, directly verifiable, it is still a belief until the actual results have played out. Yes, we may be able to logically predict that reaction based on its consistency in the past, but it's still a belief we hold that they will react that way.

The reason it isn't all that different from the belief that "God will disapprove" is that there is a consistency to that reaction as well, though not directly verifiable. If people we greatly respect and, more importantly, greatly trust consistently tell us that God disapproves when we use the elevator, then what reason is there to believe otherwise?

And I'm not saying this is a good thing. I'm just saying it's a thing.


27. On 2011-07-14, Michael Pfaff said:

I've never had an imaginary friend.


28. On 2011-07-14, David Berg said:

So, a rabbi who I respect tells me I have a contract with God that forbids elevator use.  The rabbi tells me not to use elevators.

Let's say I use the elevator.  What determines whether I feel bad?  Obviously if believe that I have a contract with God, then I feel bad.  If I don't believe that, is there a good chance that I feel just fine?  Or do you think that chance is tiny compared to the overwhelming likelihood that I'll feel bad simply because I'm doing something my respected rabbi told me not to do?


29. On 2011-07-14, Josh W said:

But then you don't need one, as you have writing. So you can talk to yourself and see things from different positions via that conduit instead.

In the diaries of anne frank, she starts off writing to an imaginary friend, then shifts to writing to herself/no particular audience. I'm not sure that development is a coincidence.


30. On 2011-07-14, Josh W said:

Ah crap, comment 29 refers to comment 27.


31. On 2011-07-14, C Luke Mula said:


In the first instance, there is a belief about a contract with God.

In the second, there is a possible (though not guaranteed) belief about a contract with the rabbi.

So if you don't believe yourself to be accountable to any party for using the elevator, then there's no reason to feel guilty for it. But if you do feel accountable to either party (God or the rabbi), then there's plenty of reason to feel guilty about it.


32. On 2011-07-15, Vincent said:

David, Luke, I think that your starting position that different beliefs lead to different decisions or different experiences is not solid! I'm not going to grant it unargued and unexamined. It's not obvious to me at all, and in fact my suspicions about how our brains work point the other direction.


33. On 2011-07-15, C Luke Mula said:


Hmm... Would you mind explaining that a bit more? At this point I'm not convinced that we're using "beliefs" and "practices/observances" the same way at all (though I could be wrong).

And I completely understand if you don't want to get into this. I have a feeling it could turn into a discussion of semantics (which tend to quickly spiral into tedium).


34. On 2011-07-15, C Luke Mula said:

Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, I think I agree about practices being the important thing. Earlier I was treating them as these concrete things the have nothing directly to do with beliefs, but now I see that I was handling them wrong.

Practices/observances are the only things which make beliefs come alive; in other words, the belief really is useless unless something is done about it.

Heh, and I had been looking at Ron's "red game" and thinking, "How is this not about beliefs?!" Now I see that the focus is really on what you actually do about your beliefs, regardless of whether or not you have them.

And that was never really something I disagreed with. Sorry for mucking up the discussion with my nonsense.


35. On 2011-07-16, cc said:

There is a difference betwen "belief" in the sense of adherence to an ideological position about the nature of fundamental reality, and the "belief" in the sense of reasonable prediction about the rest of the world.

I may well have a reasonable prediction that other people will look askance at me if I use (or admit to using) the lift on thr Sabath.  But if I really internalise the ideological argument on which that beleif rests, then the opinion of others doesn't matter; I will regard myself as having violated the Sabbath, and hold myself accountable.

There is a real difference bwteen these two meanings of "belief", and it's one of the reasons I hate the word.  People say shit like, oh global warming is just a belief, when it is in fact a reasonable prediction.  But then they can treat this "belief" as being on par with belief that Mayan calendars say the world will end in 2012.  Yet, one of these is a reasonable prediction, and the other isn't.

Hence the argument abouty the contract with the rabbi is misplaced.  The rabbi is merely a vehicle for the greater understanding of god,on th one hand, and social convention on the other.  At no point is a contract with the rabbi, as distinct from with god, acknowleged by the believer.  Now you may argue that this is not True, but it doesn't matter, because it too is what is believed.

Different ideological beliefs in the firm sense do matter in that they do change the way people percieve or interpret the world.  On the other hand, it is certainly the case that societies that nominally subscribe to a belief are not exclusively made up of people who are fully committed to that ideological position, but instead include sizable numbers who just do what is socially required of them, and whose expectations of how the world works are in line with the prevailing orthodoxy.

And in fact, it's only those people who engage with the ideological level who can be said to have a true understanding of their own beliefs.  Many people will grow up and die mouthing socially acceptable platitudes - only the priests and the heretics will really know their stuff.


36. On 2011-07-16, David Berg said:

No need to leave it unexamined, Vincent.  Here's an examination:

Here are two beliefs:

1) I believe that we each have a perfect person out there for us.  When we meet them, we should stay with them forever.

2) I believe that everyone is capable of falling in and out of love with everyone else, and who we should stay with depends on factors that evolve and change frequently.

Now here's two reactions to a break-up (experience, action):

A) I cannot let them break up with me.  At all costs, I must get them back.  I start doing whatever I think will get them back.

B) This sucks, I thought we were a great match, but I guess we aren't.  I do my best to pursue other options.

My experience indicates that, all else being equal, 1 is more likely to lead to A and 2 is more likely to lead to B.


37. On 2011-07-16, Josh W said:


I'll check if I understand you, are you saying that there are those beliefs that are predictions of the world, and those beliefs that are internal values?

Eg I belive that people will be unimpressed by my not using a lift, because they wanted to talk to me in the lift and that other people will be unimpressed if I do use it, because it breaks the sabbath in their opinion.
But I also believe it's better not to do it, not as any particular prediction, but because I think it's just better to be not doing it than to be doing it.

So the former is an estimation of consequences, and the latter is a statement of goals.

So people have a value structure that means they place that "not-breaking-of-the-sabbath" system, and it's perpetuation, as an end in itself. They just don't want to do things that break the sabbath in their eyes, and they want to do things that don't?

Or are you saying something different? About absurd vs justified beliefs?

To some extent I think talking about beliefs can be a bit like going "so you say", in a sense it's obvious, but the emphasis is on the falability of the statement, belief vs reality.

My perspective is that treating something as "just a belief" can be a way of saying, "I will treat this as having existence only as something in your head". In other words assuming by default that the possible gap between thought and the world has opened up. "Fine, it's a belief, but I won't give the idea any more credit than that."  Pretty rude really.

"Just a theory" is exactly the same mechanism.

Now here's the problem, if we go "yeah whatever, beliefs are just along for the ride, a reflection of our drives and habits to justify them against criticism" I think we run the risk of ignoring those times, those moments of conscience, when beliefs really do matter.

Now for a lot of people a lot of the time, (including me) there is no such thing, they go go along with stories that make them feel nice about their habbits and mostly run on routine.Other people are almost pathologically beset by moments of conscience, in consciously assesing the matchup between their stated beliefs and their actions. And in my experience, they either become part time philosophers, religious, or get very neurotic and indecisive.

For a lot of other people, either their beliefs and their actions match up, or they just don't care enough about the gap to do anything about it. Even in the last situation, people will be confronted by stuff, frequently in fiction aiming in an "artistic statement" direction, that destabalises that gap for a bit, and you go "crap, what the hell am I doing? I need to rework this thing I do" or "this makes me feel unsteady and confused, I feel the need to talk about my beliefs".

The other big way I see this happen is when people are forced to make choices that their habits don't apply to, and as other people won't give them advice, they have to pull something out of the bag from their beliefs, only to find they don't really match up.

As you can see, reading between the lines, I think narrativist RPGs are bloody good for poking at the gap between belief and behaviour, I'd hate to see a de-emphasis of belief by designers mess that up.


38. On 2011-07-16, Vincent said:

David: my suspicion is that, over the years, micro-scale versions of A lead to 1 and micro-scale versions of B lead to 2, and then that ultimately neither 1 nor 2 encompass or account for their holders' actual decision making.


39. On 2011-07-16, Vincent said:

More to the point of religion: even people who "believe" that God is always watching them act differently when they think no one's watching them, and even people who "believe" that when innocent babies die they go to heaven are sad when a baby dies. This is because our beliefs are a thin skin over a much deeper and more substantial human practicality.

The difference between a religious sane person and a religious nutjob isn't in their beliefs, which may be identical, but in the fact that the nutjob is nuts.

That's what I think, anyway.


40. On 2011-07-16, Josh W said:

Vincent, on second thoughts, I don't think I need to convince you!

I take it you've felt this way for a while?

Ironically then, you're lack of belief in the significance of beliefs has not stopped you making games that deal with them quite effectively.


41. On 2011-07-17, cc said:

Josh, what I'm saying is basically your first section: that there is a distinction between beliefs as moral or ideological positions and beliefs as understandings of the world.  It gets very confusing when these two are both referred to with the same word.

The problem is that religion as such contains both kinds of "belief".  For example the well known argument about whether god made the world in six days.  It could be that a person regards that claim as merely a statement about how the world works; from that position, its not hard to say, ok that was just a metaphor, they were not six literal days, as new (geological) information came to light.  Other people believe this ins the fullblown ideological sense; its a statement of truth and cannot be contradicted.  Theres no easy way to predict how a person exposed to these claims will choose to take them, and different people reading the same text come to different conclusions.

And in both cases, social reinforcement plays a significant role, so there is a difference between the position taken on this topic adopted by a person living today, with all the scientific evidence we have available, and someone who believed that position a few hundred years ago.  Or between someone who grows up in a sect that affirms one of the these positions or the other.


42. On 2011-07-17, David Berg said:

Vincent, I completely agree with your suspicions!  I just think that isn't the entire equation.  If you've never had an A or a B, a 1 or 2 may determine whether you go A or B that first time.  (I think it's common for people to have beliefs concerning stuff they've never encountered.)  But after that, once the ball is rolling, then yeah, there's more causality in the opposite direction.

As for your second post, I do think it's plausible that nutjobs really believe stuff that sane people just "believe", but I certainly have no evidence of that.


43. On 2011-07-18, cc said:

I'm not really convinced by the nutjob argument.  I mean, I think most people, including most religious people, would look at people like the stylites, whe spent years sitting on a pillar, as probably being mentally disturbed to some degree.  And I would pretty much agree with that.  But then on the other hand you get fairly broad movements like the flagellants in the C14th, and a mass outbreak of clinical insanity seems a pretty weak explanation for that sort of phenomenon.


44. On 2011-07-18, C Luke Mula said:

@Vincent, David

Yeah, I definitely agree as well about the actual causality of beliefs and decisions being different than we intuitively grasp it to be.


It seems like it's a similar issue as "free will." For instance, there doesn't seem to be any indication scientifically or philosophically that our choices can be, in any real sense of the word, "free." Whether everything is determined or whether indeterministic events are thrown in the mix, our choices are never really free.

But "free will" definitely describes our own personal experience of choosing. We very much seem to ourselves to be free agents making uncaused decisions, and all of our talk of "free will" is still valid to the extent that it speaks to our experiences. Yes, our understanding of the mechanisms of free will have to change, but that doesn't mean that we stop making choices in the way that we've been making them.

It think the same is true of beliefs. No, the mechanisms of beliefs and actions don't seem to be what we intuitively think they are, but that doesn't mean that our talk of beliefs and actions are invalid because of it. We still definitely seem to ourselves (and even to others) to hold beliefs and act on those beliefs.


45. On 2011-07-18, Michael Pfaff said:

The difference between "belief" in real world stuff, and "belief" in god is that the latter is belief _without evidence_.

As it stands, there is zero evidence for a god. There is evidence for gravity.

I believe in gravity because there is evidence to suggest gravity as a real thing.

Sam Harris on "free will":


46. On 2011-08-12, Simon R said:

I really enjoy playing happy, generous and genuinely religious characters, the quietly faithful. Playing zealots is fun, but a little more straightforward and less of a challenge.

I think religious belief can have a small but measurable effect on decisions, but that might be correlation rather than causation. The shorter a decision window, the less likely it is belief will affect behaviour - it's more likely to affect longer terms. It's certain that belief can affect the pool of people you might marry, for example.


47. On 2011-08-31, Chris Chinn said:

The steps of deconversion listed in this post seem pretty on point for this discussion:

It's pretty interesting to note that the practices are the last step, I'm guessing because they're the outward ones that can be policed/pressured by the community, and therefore, will have the largest social costs.


48. On 2011-08-31, Vincent said:

49. On 2011-09-01, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

Dave is spot on. You can't express "belief" to someone. You can only assure them that you feel it, and we're terrible at self-reporting that kind of thing. It's not admissible evidence for anything, other than that it's what you want to say.

More to the point of religion: even people who "believe" that God is always watching them act differently when they think no one's watching them, and even people who "believe" that when innocent babies die they go to heaven are sad when a baby dies. This is because our beliefs are a thin skin over a much deeper and more substantial human practicality.

The difference between a religious sane person and a religious nutjob isn't in their beliefs, which may be identical, but in the fact that the nutjob is nuts.

Well, or the nutjob lives in a social environment where acting a particular kind of nuts is social currency. That is, you have a reason to proclaim belief in something invisible and intangible and claim it's real, but visible and intangible things are not.

So, here's a thing: religion is poetry about the grandeur of the Universe, right? Sometimes people make statues, or dance, or literally recite poems. Sometimes you dress in a way reminds you of a poem, sometimes you do math that you infer from the poem. You might do that to reassure your ancestors that you're not fucking up, or you might do it because you hope to appease a god who has thrown a hurricane at you. But really it's because the Universe is so big you're trying to get your mind around it.

But ultimately, it's the stuff you do ? morally or ritually ? that is the religion. Not the part where you have a special feeling, or at least want to. That feeling is the reason you do it, not the result. If you feel the need to express a result as saying how special your feeling is, it tends to sound like you're still trying to convince yourself.

(PS: it looks like I didn't post this, after all! It's just sittin' here!)


50. On 2011-09-02, Dennis K said:

Oh man.  Religion is basically one of my FAVORITE PARTS of roleplaying!  All those little details that get swept under the rug in most games form the central core of a lot of my characters:  What does it *mean* to be someone who honestly and fervently believes in a value system oriented towards knowledge, say, rather than good and evil?  What does it *mean* to worship a god of strength?  Of fertility?  Of secrets?  How does that secret-worshipping person introduce themselves in casual conversation, what do they wear, what are their taboos?

Jews and elevators on the Sabbath remind me of the Amish folks.  I think that while some Jews would agree with your friend who says "we should do what G-d literally tells us to as close as humanly possible," others, like the Amish, might say:

hey, we should think REALLY HARD about every new technology we come across before just incorporating it willy-nilly into our everyday lives. In fact, let's just hold off on most of it and only use what our oldest, most experienced, most responsible folks think is really necessary.

For some Jews, observing the Sabbath might be less about following a set of rules handed down by an authority and more about reminding themselves to stay connected to the simplest things in life- eating, breathing, walking, worshipping, and being with people you love.  Sure you could probably do all these things and still take the elevator, but walking up the stairs is good practice for when you might have to make harder decisions in life.  It's like working out, but instead of your muscles you're bulking up your soul.

I think Vincent is on to something about religious belief not historically playing a big part in religious practice.  That's much more of a recent thing.  As my favorite professor Dr. Rein would say, "Nowadays people hold beliefs.  Before the twentieth century, people were held by them."  For most of human history, religious practices and beliefs informed most of our ideas and actions- the concept of openly admitting to not believing in the same stuff as other people?  That was the working definition of madness.  Still kinda is, it's just that the beliefs that currently pass for sane are less well articulated, rarely self-identified, and far more contradictory.

Whether in modern times, post-apocalyptic future dreams, or imagined past eras, I find religious stuff to be great drama, great roleplay fodder, and always worth bringing up in game.

Also, am a committed, practicing Christian.  For what it's worth.


51. On 2011-09-02, David Berg said:

Hey, yeah!  Having a real option to NOT believe might be a historically recent thing.  Good point.

Man, the opposite is hard for me to roleplay, though...

Your point about practice, and about keeping attention and emphasis on the important things in life, makes WAY more sense to me than what my orthodox Jewish friends have told me.  I was actually kinda hoping they'd say something like that.  But who knows, maybe the only reason they didn't is because it's obvious to them...


52. On 2011-09-02, David Berg said:

A big question for me:

Let's say I'm born in 1300 in France.  Or some time and place where the church is a big deal for pretty much everyone, so much so that I pay them a substantial portion of my meager living.

Now let's say I'm smart, and observant, and curious.  I see all my friends going hungry because they're giving money to religious authorities who claim they should be paid because of metaphysical reasons that I can't see or touch.

What are the chances that I might stop paying?  If I did stop paying, what are the chances that some combo of rational skepticism, self-justification, and desperate fear, what are the chances that I go, "Those metaphysics aren't real!  I'm NOT going to Hell!  Hell isn't real!  Maybe God isn't real!"

700 years later, the range of what seems plausible to me (everyone did that; no one did that) is vast.  Does anyone have more confidence in one direction or the other?


53. On 2011-09-02, cc said:

One monastic commentator during the Hundred Years War did remark that there were bandits riding around extorting and robbing and openly proclaiming that "there is no god", i.e. that they were not in fact going to be punished for their sins post mortem after all.

I think the sense that everyone was personally religious in these times and places is basically wrong.  There was neither a language nor a logic of skepticism available, and there was a heavy social premium for at least maintaining the facade of belief, but not everyone was persuaded.  There were repeated outbreaks of anti-clericalism that eventually manifested fully in the French revolution, where the priests were described as "crows" - clad in black and preying on the weak.  So I think there was a real body of tacit resentment that circulated in medieval europe, which manifested in several forms: heresy, reformism, monasticism and simple skepticism.

Thus, it's certainly possible, and we probably underestimate how often it happened, but there were heavy social pressures to do other things than simply outright reject what was after all the only narrative about who we are and where we came from available.


54. On 2011-09-04, Dennis K said:

Okay, so France in 1300:  I'm absolutely godawful with European history, but let's try to make a go of it.

So you've got the Holy Roman Empire, right? That's where the Pope of the day usually chills, out in the Vatican.  There's a serious bit of overlap between church and state- the Holy in Holy Roman Empire isn't there for shits and giggles, after all.  There's been a couple of bitchin' Crusades, lots of power and prestige for the Popes- the leaders of the nations were basically just 'marshals for the Pope's army', or so says Wikipedia.

But that was like a hundred years ago.  Meanwhile in France, some bishops get into a tiff over the borders of their diocese or something so the King sends one of em to jail.  The Pope is all "This is a church matter, don't bring your petty sovereignty into this" and King Philippe of France was all "We ain't nobody's bitch, son" and straight up capped the Pope's ass.  For reals, yo.  For extra bonus points, there's enough French priests in the papal conclave that the next pope is French, and guess what?  He decides to stay in Avignon, France, and just declare that the new Vatican.

Where does this put the average Jacques?  Well, for starters the pope is now right in your fucking backyard giving the holy middle finger to the Holy Roman Empire.  The new French pope is French like you, and he's setting up his papal court based on France's royal court. You know, the same fuckers who think that their divinely ordained royal blood makes them immune to English longbowmen in about a hundred years.  But that hasn't happened yet, so the French nobility are basically the be-all and end-all of French life- what they say goes because old God Himself personally gave them the big thumbs up.  Who are you going to complain to, the Pope who the fucking French installed after they busted a cap in the old Pope?  When they pass around the collection plate and you don't even own the land you farm on, do you really have the balls to keep your hands in your own pockets and think nobody's going to notice?  Or do you pay lip service to the new alliance between the French court and the head of the most powerful religious authority in the known world?

You could try and be smart and observant and curious and shit, but only the rich and the clergy get to go to university, and once you're in there you're getting the official line right down the throat because they're glorified seminaries until the 1400s and you *know* how the Church gets about heresy and dissenters.  You could try and science your way out of it, but the scientific method doesn't come around for another couple hundred years *at least*.  I mean shit, doctors haven't even figured out to wash their hands between patients yet (that's another fifty years or so).

...Yeah, this stuff eventually led to the French Revolution, where the average Jacques got fucking tired of being poor and starving while the royals yukked it up in Versailles.  The Popes also got so spoiled in France that they did a nice lovely downward slide till the Protestant Reformation, and we all know how that works out.

Life wasn't any less complex back then, you just didn't really have the option of publicly denying the official party line.  Written disagreements are, as cc says, recorded as reforms when accepted and heresies when not so accepted, but Heavy Social Pressures are all up ins.


55. On 2011-09-06, David Berg said:

Nice!  I love those summaries.  Can we bring that back to belief?  Forget whether Jacques denies God in public; does he do it in his own head?


56. On 2011-09-18, Amphiprison said:

Maybe. Sometimes.  See, Jacques isn't exactly consistent; that's part of why Christianity is so big on sin, repentance, confession, and absolution.  From day to day, even hour to hour, depending on his circumstances and mood, Jacques' faith might be boltered or rocked by various events in his life.  When a person who wasn't even Jewish kept faith in their God even when that God destroyed that person's family, livelihood, and physical health just to see what would happen, the Jews were so impressed they incorporated it into their religious texts.  They even gave the guy a whole book!  Big friggin deal even back then.

Sorry. Jacques.  Maybe. Sometimes.  Little things have an effect.  Maybe Jacques curses God on his deathbed as he's dying of the plague and his grandkids are there to hear it.  They're mortified, they never forget no matter how much their parents try to tell them old Papa Jacques was out of his mind with plague-fever.  The parents assure the kids that he's in Heaven, that God was pretty OK with his last-minute blasphemy.  Those kids grow up with this little niggling idea in the back of their head that God's kind of scabbing on his promises- the priest says only those who accept God will go to Heaven, but Papa Jacques suddenly rejected God before death and our parents assure us he's in Heaven- somebody's bullshitting us.

When they flee their hometown to Avignon and see how the Pope really lives, like a royal in his courts, and how they turn away the masses at the gates so His Holiness doesn't catch plague (I'm making history up a bit at this point, bear with me), maybe this tears it for one or more of the grandkids and they go all-out anti-Church during the French Revolution, setting cathedrals on fire and the whole nine yards.

These are just a few kids, sure.  But if a religious institution alienates enough of its congregants and this story becomes common enough, you have the French Revolution, the Protestant Reformation, the Sufi movement in Islam, the Unitarians, and the like.

To bring it all back to roleplaying games: What *does* Jacques believe in his own head, and where does he draw the line?  What kind of divine powers are out there, and how do they tell?  Are they *really* omniscient/omnipotent?  Gods in epic myth and modern fantasy just really don't seem to act that way- and if they're not, the God-person relationship becomes *much* more complicated and interesting.

That's where I like to poke about- as Jacques, wondering whether I'll be damned for this unfaithfulness, or this, or... this.  There's just no real way for Jacques to know for sure.  He still can't read the Bible cause he doesn't know Latin- that's only for (male) clergy these days.  He only knows what the priests tell him about God's expectations.

You might say it doesn't matter. You might say that if Jacques practices his Christianity publicly, and even when he thinks he's not being watched, then he might as well believe it.  You might be a determinist then, and that's a whole other can of worms.  For the sake of having an interesting, complex story with potential drama and meaning, I prefer to play games where it counts to have faith, deep down inside.  Where the truly faithful are going to walk across that raging river because they're willing to bet their lives that their god exists and will grant them the power to walk across the waves.  What makes them do that?  Damned if I know for sure.


57. On 2011-09-19, cc said:

I guess I was coming from a slightly different angle.  Essentially,I'm suggesting that the middle ages wasn't like living in a town in the Bible Belt today.  Religious matters were in a sense less important and more mundane, even if by comparison to the modern world they were more socially extensive.

There are condemnations, for example, of people flirting, drinking and playing dice in the churches during sermons.  So you have a scenario in which the front end, where the great and the good sit, is all staid and respectful, and at the back its got more of a tavern atmosphere.  Similarly people wearing their sunday best weren't doing so to impress god, but to impress their neighbours.  When Drake, IIRC, returned from one of his adventures while the service was being delivered, there were first whispered rumours and then a general exodus to the quayside.

All of which means that religious observance as such didn't necessarily translate hugely into reverence for religion or the church.  I think it would be quite possible for people to go through all these motions and never "take jesus into their heart" as they say.  And this the clergy knew, which was why they made such a big deal of lurid illustrations of hell.

Porbably most people regard themselves as christian, hold to most of the tenets of faith without thinking about them too hard.  But is that much different to the sort of lax practice that is fairly common today?  I'm not sure that it is.  And so I think there is quite a lot of room for people to hold themselves at quite a distance, intellectually, from the faith.  Maybe they just personally don't have that much exposure to it, or because they have more immediate things to worry about, or because overarching theories of that type don't grab them, or because they experience the priesthood as hypocritical and venal.  Those grapsing landlord priests weren't necessarily much good at actually preaching, and many of the lesser ranks couldn't read the bible themselves either.

So I don't theink the range of responses is necessarily hugely different to today.  The difference is mostly that there's nothing else to replace it with; there is no non-religious way of understanding the world.  So even if there are rejectionist skeptics, they occur as isolated individuals, with no way of spreading their argument or viewpoint, and so they have little or no impact, and leave no record.


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