Posted by: Sean | September 8, 2008

Theme Week: Religion: “It’s worse than you think.” Believing for Unbelievers.

It’s not a pet peeves column here, but I’ll begin with one anyway: I hate the way most ‘evil’ religious characters are played. Most good ones, too, but I’m only talking about evil ones to begin with. The reasons why can be summed up in a completely unrelated quote.

“It’s worse than you think. I believe in it.”

So were the words of Tony Blair, beautifully chosen, to refute the question asked of him by an angry protestor. “Why are you lying to us about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction?” “It’s worse than you think. I believe it.”

Now as it was, there were no WMD. Besides the point here, and we’re not a political ‘blog anyway. (Although… hey, Jess! What do you think of Theme Week: Politics later on? Think we should petition Blogatelle for it?) The point is the lovely phrase there. It’s worse than you think. I believe it.

I myself do not believe. If you ask me, there is no God, no afterlife, no element of the divine. But, and I wish to stress this as much as I can, if you are playing a religious person in World of Warcraft, remember this: Religious people believe. It’s such a simple truth that I am perpetually amazed how many people forget it, mostly (I suspect,) non-believers like myself.

Every time I see an ‘evil’ priest character who uses their faith as nothing more than a smokescreen, I wonder if these players have ever actually known any priests… even horrible ones. Every sadistic Inquisitor whose hatred seems all encompassing forces me to bite back these words. So let me say them again: Religious people believe.

That’s what makes it worse.

See, what’s getting me is not so much the implication that there are horrible priests out there whose faith is a sham but enjoy the power of office they have. There are. Nor is it the idea that there are horrifyingly sadistic people motivated or at least covered by the auspices of religion. There are. But to me, playing these types usually smacks of cynicism – It seems to come from a perception that religious people really are like this. The reality is, of course, far, far worse. At least these types are mostly visible, a deviation from the accepted norm. They play into the No True Scotsman fallacy. “Sure, that priest is a manipulative freak who uses his position to blackmail his parish, obtaining money, power and sex from this. But that’s because he’s not a real Christian.” (Or Jew, or Muslim, or Buddhist. No religion is immune to this logic.)

No, the truth is far scarier – They believe.

Jess likes to call the classic case the Well Intentioned Extremist. I prefer a less flattering label: The Abortion-Clinic Bomber Mentality, or ACBM. (Any similarity in acronym to the Intercontilental Ballistic Missile is purely coincidental.) Either way, the point is the same: The person believes that they are blessed by God in their actions, that something is truly damning, and (and here’s the key point,) that any sensible person should see this. This is what makes them horrifying – They don’t see themselves as unusual, but as the norm. Everyone else is just too scared to do what is needed, or is deluded by outside forces, or corrupt.

And here, then, is the root of my dislike – Playing an unrelentingly sadistic zealot isn’t that scary, even though that’s the intention. But imagine sitting down with that self-same zealot, the one who can in shocking moments do things of absolute horror, and then hear them sincerely and truthfully talk about the need for compassion in dealing with ones enemies. And that they believe it. That they see no contradiction between torturing a captured Forsaken until they’re screaming for mercy, and the need to be compassionate to that exact same captive. See that? Now that’s scary. There’s no comprehension there, no way that you can dismiss them as No True Scotsman, or insane, or any other cop-out. You’re forced to accept that this is a very lucid, sane person, who can be kind, sensitive, and even quite intentionally funny at other moments, can perform truly horrifying deeds and see them as absolutely normal. The ruthless Scarlet Inquisitor believes, wholeheartedly and sincerely, in respect, compassion, and tenacity.

See? They believe. That’s what makes it worse.

I’m also generally unhappy with how good religious characters get played, and for two reasons. The first is a fairly simple one; why is it that nearly every religious character you’ll ever find in World of Warcraft is a priest, paladin, shaman or druid? Is every person who ever gets religion called into the priesthood? Do they have no laypeople in Azeroth? Surely there must be some warrior out there who kisses his holy symbol before going into battle, some rogue who still begs for forgiveness every holy day, maybe even some warlock who cries himself to sleep at night as childhood days in church refuse to go away.

But the bigger one is again the issue of belief, this time on both sides of the coin. One thing I never really sense from most priests in World of Warcraft is a sense of, well, urgency. A sense that their holy struggle means something. How many priests have you played with who express not only disappointment but worry at the sinful actions of their comrades? And yet, this kind of thing should be crucial to them. This is not an optional life choice! This is about the higher powers, the need to become closer to the Holy Light/Elune/your ancestors! It is important!

You don’t have to play this with histrionics and over-the-top play. One of my favorite religious characters in all media is Father Mulcahy, from M*A*S*H. (The TV show version.) He’s sincere. He believes. He’s an honest priest – Even though he gambles with the doctors. Of course he does. If they won’t go to church, he’ll go to them. He’s never tried to stop the alcohol through the place; why risk a riot? But he despairs of the drunkenness. But he preaches quietly. He is desperate to make a difference and clearly goes to bed each night worrying he’s making none.

That is a priest. That’s a believer. There is the best damn man you’ll find on the whole show, a lot of the time. And he’s believable because he believes, truly believes.

And he doubts. Even if he never doubts the existence of God, he sometimes doubts God’s benevolence. Lord knows he’s got enough chance to see the horror God allows to happen. And you know what? Every believer doubts. Even the scary-zealous ones do.

I don’t see enough doubt, either. Priests I’ve played with, for the most part, tend to be vaguely pious, yet not urgent. They’re content to save themselves, and don’t doubt that they’re saved.

Not only is this unrealistic, it’s boring. Believers believe. And belief is always framed in doubt.

Perhaps appropriately, I’d like to finish this post by begging forgiveness. It is, I admit, a rambling, somewhat disordered thesis. Belief is a nebulous thing, difficult to touch, hard to pin down. And yet it is so absolutely essential to playing anyone religious that I think it should be up-front with our theme week. So if I can exhort you to anything, let it be this: If you’re going to play someone religious, then don’t be content to save yourself. Know that you are obligated to save every soul you can. Maybe this is literal, and you really believe in hell. (I could see a trollish priest believing this.) Maybe it’s metaphorical, and you just know how much better their life could be if they’d open themselves to the Light. If you’re playing a darker priest or paladin, maybe it’s knowing that their people will never be free until the demons or scourge are gone. But see it as a holy mission. See it in loftier terms.

And doubt. Know that what you’re advocating is something you can’t see, something you can’t pin down and point to as absolute fact. No religious person ever escapes doubt.

Above all, believe.


  1. Well said – Not all non-religious types (or at least, their players) should ignore faith. But not all religious types should necessarily follow theirs, either.

    A Warrior can pray for strength in battle.

    A Paladin’s faith could be shaken.

    A Rogue might be agnostic.

    A Warlock might ask for forgiveness from the Light with every dark summoning, and every soul theft. (How’s that for a fun twist?)

    Many roleplayers often seem to lose sight of the fact that they need to create character depth and realism. Religion is a good way to improve it.

    (Oh, and Shepherd Book’s doubt in the “Out of Gas” episode of Firefly is a perfect example of a priest/paladin/whatever who has doubts about their faith/God.)

  2. My troll priest is envisioned as a liberal- he sees good in other people’s faiths, and is actually as interested in learning about others faiths as he is in converting them. It’s an interesting streatch, for me, a Christian, to roleplay a polytheist.

    My troll warior believes in shamanism and hates voodo.

    My human warlock respects the Church of the Holy Light, but ultimately sees preists and paladins as simply another sort of mage. Nevertheless, he is a noble, and will do his religious duty.

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