content warnings religious intolerance, racism, sexism, anti-gay and anti-immigrant bigotry, war, slavery
Religion suffuses role-playing’s most basic structure: the adventuring party with a fighter, thief, wizard, and cleric. Fantasy mainstays like demons, dragons, heavens and hells, pantheons, diverse monsters, and magic originate in religious lore. The decisions people make without thinking about their cosmology carry ideological weight that validates some demographics and denies others—and not even just in terms of religious identity.
This article series is a toolkit to help creators and players of games and fiction build religious characters and organizations, portray them with fairness and respect, and draw on real-world lessons to craft fictional religions which sing. It descends from “May I play a character from another race?” and Less of a Question, More of a Comment, which both engendered lots of follow-up questions about religion specifically. It also builds on the foundation from Best Practices for Historical Gaming, which you should probably review before you read this joint; I’ll try not to repeat that article’s points too much, as many of its statements about history are equally true of religion. Like some of its predecessors, this article primarily addresses creators in positions of privilege, especially white privilege.
This article will have multiple parts. This first one focuses on safety-related issues: harmful tropes and common misconceptions which I encounter often as a cultural consultant in games and speculative fiction. Many characterizations and concepts which are science fiction and fantasy mainstays come packaged, consciously or unconsciously, with European Christian assumptions about what religion is and who practices it. In coming months we’ll go over best practices for depicting real-world religions; how to design and portray a religious character; and how to invent religions for your own game and fiction settings. However, just breaking free of said common misconceptions should already give you lots of ideas about how to craft interesting, distinctive fantasy religions.
If you often think about religion, these articles should help you organize and diversify your thoughts. If you don’t often think about religion, this article may be even more important, because you might not know how much your environment’s dominant religion affects your thinking about the real and fictional worlds where you live and play. You can still include those tenets, but please: know what they are, know they’re not the only things out there, and choose them actively instead of letting them infect your content as unexamined postulates. Moreover, everyone needs to understand that religious signifiers and religious intolerance aren’t just about religion, because religion is a vector for other forms of systemic oppression such as racism and classism.
I’ve broken this article into the following sections:
A discussion of our creative and identity-based goals in their order of priority;
A list of widely held, often unexamined assumptions about religion’s nature, and how we can broaden our understanding beyond them to acknowledge marginalized religions and create more diverse fictional ones;
A breakdown of several widespread stereotypes which combine religious identity with other identities to cause harm, and some suggestions as to how to deviate from them; and
A discussion of common concepts in gaming with religious origins, whose portrayal we can carefully modify to show those roots respect.
As with previous articles, our priorities are the following (stated in RPG terms, but adaptable to other media). This approach addresses harm reduction concentrically, starting small and immediate, ending with broad strokes: first the players’ experience at the table, then the experience of the real people the players could conceivably harm, then the world at large.
People from diverse backgrounds get to play at our table (or read our fiction, etc.) without feeling denigrated, threatened, or ridiculed.
Our depictions fortify their real-world analogues against misinformation and harmful stereotypes, both at the table and elsewhere.
We represent a broad diversity of identities, paying special attention to the forgotten and downtrodden.
If we succeed at those, we may attempt a fourth priority:
Our creativity erodes the power of those who use religious ideas to oppress others.
While this article relates to all four points, I want to start with the safety-related issues with the first two points. To accomplish those goals, we must first review what we hold true about the nature of religion.
Question Your Assumptions
What is a religion?
The least contentious answer I can muster is that religion is a form of shared culture which explains phenomena in the world through reference to structures, systems, or philosophies not immediately perceptible to the senses. That statement is so broad it’s nearly useless; but when we go looking for further qualifiers, we’ll have a hard time finding trustworthy generalizations. Nearly every common statement about religion runs into a contradiction somewhere across the human tapestry.
Almost all the axioms below come from European religious paradigms, most notably Christianity, which explicitly states some of them and implies others. When we assume they apply to all religions, we other and erase anyone whose practices deviate from them. I address much of this section toward those of us populating our own worlds with religions and religious concepts, invented and otherwise. When we design our own, why not diverge from some or all of them? When we make up metaphysical elements for a game set against real religion’s backdrop, how do our choices interact with the following?
Gods Are a Thing
Deities are a popular, but not universal, component of religion. Christianity, for example, conceives of an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent deity who created the universe, loves us, and wants us to behave a certain way. In so doing, Christianity traditionally sets itself as opposed to polytheistic religions which believe in lots of gods. Christian education often frames the religion’s early days in terms of the conflict between monotheistic Christianity and the Greek and Roman pagan pantheons, constructing a narrative in which a true god wins out over false ones. But I bet you already know it wasn’t so simple.
In some religions, gods don’t matter. They’re irrelevant to Theravāda Buddhism. Great Vehicle Buddhism acknowledges gods’ and spirits’ existence, but the only important ones either practice Buddhism or have become bodhisattvas or buddhas themselves; they become role models or even sometimes objects of veneration, but they’re basically equal in the eyes of Buddha’s Law. In Afro-Atlantic religion, the creator god is so remote and alien that no humans and few spirits communicate with him; most human religious interaction is with spirits, some of whom are powerful beings described variously as gods or as spirits with divine qualities.
Some religions don’t conceive of deities’ identities as fixed and immutable. Even Catholicism describes one god in three parts as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Many Hindu religions share gods and religious figures with one another, but differ in identifying which is the supreme Godhead. Sometimes one figure is an aspect, consort, or subordinate of another figure, or one of many.
Pantheons of multiple deities are popular in fiction because they give player characters the opportunity to choose which one they serve or believe in; but that pantheon need not be so simple as “there are many gods of different things, and one of them is the boss.” Gods can be one another, or be different figures who merged into the same figure as the result of migration or cultural exchange. Complicate your relationships.
Souls Are a Thing
Christianity ascribes to each human a single, indivisible immortal soul which survives after their death to end up in Heaven, Hell, or somewhere in between; this model of one person, one soul often shows up in fictional cosmologies; but cleaving to it negates Haitian and Malinese models with two souls, Yorùbá models with four, Egyptian ones with five, or Chinese with three of one kind and seven of another. These models often describe different souls going different places upon death. Buddhism instead teaches the doctrine of anatta, commonly translated as “no soul” or “no self,” though based on the Shorter Discourse to Māluṅkyaputta, I think “soul/self doesn’t matter one way or another” more precise. How does your fiction’s cosmology hold up if different individuals think of souls in different ways? In a system in which magicians can trap souls in crystals, do single-soul and multiple-soul models function differently? Can you support all of them, or must you negate someone’s worldview? Are you okay with that?
Faith and Belief Are a Thing
Protestantism pushes hard on the Bible verse about justification by faith. Individual belief in this specific God, this specific Bible, and no one else’s features prominently in many churches; other characterizations of God, or worse yet belief in other gods and spirits, are heresy or idolatry. Sometimes, though, a religion doesn’t demand belief in its gods, spirits, organization, or even its tenets; they might be religions you do, rather than religions you think. Èṣù doesn’t really care whether you believe in him or not. He cares how you treat him. If you’re polite and respectful to him when he shows up, whether or not you believe in him, you’re gonna get good results. Afro-Atlantic religion primarily lives in the social sphere. Meditative Buddhism lives in thought and mindful practice.
If it doesn’t matter what’s true, what matters in a religion?
You Get One Religion, and the Others Are Wrong
As a corollary to the above, “we’re right and the rest of y’all are wrong” is a particularly (though hardly universally) Christian idea. It dovetails with Christianity’s concept of membership: there’s such a thing as a Christian, and it’s someone who formally joins a church community and supposedly believes all the right things. If you’re Christian, you can’t be the other things, and you certainly can’t think the other things. Not every religion agrees. Not even Christianity always agrees.
Membership and exclusivity tend to matter to large-scale, international religions which actively seek converts and influence. Certain Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim denominations fall into this category. As they expand through the world, though, these faiths often find themselves in complex symbiotic relationships with other religions, especially indigenous spirit-related traditions. Sometimes different religions occupy different niches in individuals’ lives, or appeal to different social classes or populations within the same society; in this situation, they may syncretize with one another, exchanging practices and ideas. Afro-Atlantic religionists adopted syncretic Catholic practices for the express purpose of deception, referring to Old World figures with the names of similar Christian saints in order to worship them unmolested.
The religions you create don’t have to hate or deny each other. Perhaps a religion recognizes other less efficient or righteous but similarly valid paths toward the same goal, as in Qur’ān II.lxii: “Surely the believers and the Jews, Nazareans [that is, Christians] and the Sabians [long story], whoever believes in God and the Last Day, and whosoever does right, shall have his reward with his Lord and will neither have fear nor regret.” Confucianism and Daoism in China have a complicated buddy-cop relationship in which they disagree with, mock, and finally work together with one another in a way that reminds me of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost characters in a film. Vaiṣṇavism calls the Buddha an avatar of Viṣṇu, while Buddhism considers Viṣṇu a guardian deity sworn to protect Sri Lankan Buddhists. Historical Mongols just collected all the religions they could and didn’t worry about the details.
Religion Opposes Science/Religions Care About Absolute Truth
You wouldn’t know it to listen to grown adults argue about evolution and climate crisis, but the idea that religion and science are arch-enemies is pretty young. Traditional spirit-workers and root doctors applied empirical methods to herbal medicine; they got lots of things wrong, but they also discovered concepts like inoculation and Cesarean sections earlier than they sometimes get credit for. Eminent scientists throughout history like Imhotep, Gregor Johann Mendel, and Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz were also people of the cloth. The Galileo affair of 1610 wasn’t a conflict of religion versus science so much as a conflict between Church-backed science and experimental science which challenged Church authority.
When you study religion, it’s useful to recognize that there are multiple forms of reality which we can consider as humans. Scientific reality is one. Social reality is another: something is real because it’s something we have to deal with in our social lives. Responsibility. Justice. That kind of thing. One of the cool things about being human is that via cognitive dissonance, we’re capable of maintaining multiple simultaneous distinct and sometimes even contradictory truths and worldviews in our heads.
When we’re doing science, our priority is the scientific method. Generally speaking, we don’t actually care about absolute truth. The great thing about science, the great thing about the scientific method, is that absolute truth isn’t on the table. It’s not part of the discussion, because the point isn’t “true,” the point is “provable”—with the classic meaning of “prove.” In science, everything can be tested, everything can be revised. We make decisions based not on what’s true, but based on what’s replicable and testable.
Here is an example from West African religion. Very often, when I describe an African ceremony to someone, I describe how possession works: a spirit arrives from Heaven or the spirit world, enters into someone, supplants their personality and sense of self, such that they don’t remember what’s happening to them. When Legba possesses Françoise, she’s not Françoise. He’s Legba, and I identify him as such. When I’m describing this to people, every now and then they say, hey, wait. Do you think people are actually getting possessed?
I’m like, what?
Like, really possessed by a spirit. Or are they just pretending?
I have a couple of responses in this situation, most commonly either “who cares?” or, slightly more productively, “what’s the difference?” For my purposes, that distinction—real or pretending?—isn’t meaningful, because possession is a social reality for me. It’s socially polite, prosocial, and useful for me to treat Legba as Legba. It’s socially polite, prosocial, and useful for the people in the ceremony, too. Legba’s existence isn’t scientifically verifiable, but Legba’s existence doesn’t scientifically matter. He matters socially. If I came up to a friend tomorrow and acted completely different than I do today, if I seemed to have none of my memories even though I have the same body, they’d have to interact with me as if I were a different person. It’d be a social reality for them. Same with possession.
It’s the same ability that allows us to comprehend the idea of a fictional canon … or the world of a role-playing game. Different categories of reality. Different standards. It’s fine to think of scientific reality, or religious reality, or whichever version of reality that matters most to you as paramount in a hierarchy of realities; but recognize that social reality takes precedence when Èṣù possesses someone in the room, and scientific reality takes precedence when we think about climate crisis.
To the examples above, Kit La Touche adds:
But if all these examples feel like they’re from far away, “weird” and “other”, try looking closer to home. Here’s an example for a white American Christian. At least all kinds of Christianity believe more or less in God, Jesus, judgment and resurrection, have clergy, and practice baptism and communion, right? Well, kinda not. There are exceptions to all of those, and one exception to all at once stands out: Quakerism (the Religious Society of Friends). Quakers have no credo, and even within the commonly held beliefs, “God” isn’t a given—more common is “that of God”, and good luck getting Quakers to agree on what that might mean (though the disagreement is sure to be very civil). And they have no clergy, no baptism, no communion. But they’re still Christian!
Now, let’s shift from assumptions about religion as a concept to assumptions about people in which religion is an ingredient.
Earlier, I described religion as a vector for other forms of oppression. I’ve been turning over the concept of intersections contained within stereotypes a good deal recently; I felt like I had a personal revelation about the topic back when Alex Roberts interviewed me for Backstory and we got to talking about gendering in Asian stereotypes. I don’t think religious stereotypes are necessarily more intersectional than other stereotypes, but the topic does make the phenomenon really clear and easy to consider. I’d like to go through some of the most common religion-related stereotypes I see in games and speculative fiction. People ask me all the time how to avoid tropes, but you can’t be sure you’re avoiding them if you don’t know them.
Also? Every single one of these stereotypes is easier to avoid if you have more than one person in the fiction from a given demographic.
The Ineffable Asian Mystic
Let’s start with one of my favorite least favorite stereotypes, the mystical Asian! An Asian mystic is an inscrutable, phlegmatic individual who appears as a supporting character in someone else’s narrative. They spout mystical aphorisms, often in broken and/or accented English, which encourage other characters to follow a confounding path toward enlightenment which will come with self-acceptance or self-denial or figuring out a riddle or whatever conceptual direction the story needs. Those aphorisms are flavored with a mishmash of half-remembered Asian religious traditions including Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and … well, it usually turns out actually to be Neoplatonism.
The mystic combines religious, racial, and gender stereotypes. The religious stereotype comes from Western mistranslations and misconceptions of Eastern religion and philosophy, which compress the grand dialogue of Hinduism to Buddhism to Jainism to Daoism to Confucianism to Shintō to Sikhism together with Islam and Zoroastrianism into bite-sized pieces which sound like Westerners failing to translate things correctly, or else just expressing Western philosophical concepts in creepy accents.
The accompanying gender stereotypes display the West’s tendency of the West to hyper-feminize and de-masculinize Asians of all genders, according to that classic Western gender binary you know and hate. The mystical Asian master is often a decrepit old man, implying a lack of male potency and virility. His recommendations and advice are all words, no substance, contrasting with the western European hero’s blunt practicality. In championing religion, he advocates self-denial and submission. He’s passive, weak, sidelined, and most useful when supporting a Normal Guy Hero.
I hate the term “mystical” in most Asian contexts because, religiously speaking, mysticism used to refer specifically to ecstatic religious experiences, not just anything ruddy mysterious. The word could accurately describe bhakti yoga, tantric Buddhism, or Korean spirit-channeling, but misses most of Asian religion. It’s not a slur, but … it’s like “honor”: someone brings it up, I wanna ask them what they mean by that, and when they tell me, Imma say, just say that instead.
Instead, try …
… focusing on concrete and practical lessons, especially if you bring Asian religion into fiction. Sure, there’s stuff in Eastern scriptures you have to meditate on for decades or whatever, but they also abound in good advice you can apply to your life (and your stories!) right away. The Lǎozǐ is, before it’s anything else, a political manual which discusses the subtleties of statecraft in explicit, if pithy, terms; if your translation doesn’t capture that aspect, look for another translation or a reliable expert. Buddhist suttas show the utility of compassion and mindfulness in alleviating suffering. No one would have dwelt on these schools of thought if they’d been useless. You might even learn something you agree with.
The Islamist Terrorist
The mere idea of talking about this topic makes me tired. I feel like someone on television, on Fox News or wherever, is always talking about Islamist terrorism and what are we doing about Islamist terrorism. I feel like I’ve been in the same conversation about Islamist terrorism since 2001-09-11, my first day of high school, hearing reports about what happened at home in Manhattan as my family fled the city. I feel this way and I’m not even Muslim, I just have a lot of Muslim friends. Given my identities as a mestizo Filipino and a Jew, I find myself in all these conversations where I feel like people expect me to hate on Muslims in Mindanao or Palestine, and I don’t, and I don’t even understand the politics there that well.
I do know Islam doesn’t cause terrorism. 1.8 billion Muslims live in the world today. There aren’t even two hundred thousand terrorists in the world, and only a small number are Muslim; but even if we made the absurd assumption that every single terrorist of that 200K was Muslim, that would give Islam a 0.01% rate of return on spawning terrorists. Even if it’s orders of magnitude better than other religions at making terrorists, Islam is an abysmally bad terrorism generator.
I used to get in a lot of arguments about Islam and terrorism online, because I’m in a martial arts organization which leans right-wing. They’d say the “good muslims” need to disavow the “bad muslims” publicly and enthusiastically in order to validate their right to have a damn religion. I have a friend I’d tag into those threads like “ok Shah, this guy on the Internet says you gotta catch you some bad Muslims” and he’d be like “man I wish I could but I’m not Batman.”
Brown people and/or Muslims’ overrepresentation in popular media as terrorists and extremists causes us to co-identify brown and black skin, the religion of Islam, and violence. The blowback hits South Asians, Sikhs, Hindus, whoever fits the visual preconception. In the process, we perpetuate the idea that lighter-skinned people can’t be Muslims, and erase Muslims in the Philippines, China, eastern Europe, India, and Bangladesh.
Instead, try …
… not focusing on religious extremists from marginalized populations. We got a world full of white supremacists and Nazis y’all can fight in games and books, but even then, please don’t punch down at poor people or the mentally ill. There’s plenty of them in power to step to.
Foreign Patriarchy Man and Foreign Patriarchy Victim Lady
Another fun one from your favorite Internet arguments and ill-considered works of fiction: people like to denigrate gender and sexuality norms in Latin America, Asia, indigenous societies, Africa and its diaspora, and the Middle East as particularly backward and hidebound.
“You think gay rights are bad here? In Muslim countries like Turkey they …”
“You think there’s patriarchy and rape culture here? Well in those Catholic countries like Mexico they ….”
“Oh, it’s not a stereotype to talk about hardass Asian parents. My friend’s Confucian dad always yells at her to …”
If and when they deign to discuss why, Islam’s a backward religion or Confucianism requires patriarchy or Hinduism something something I don’t care. They don’t, after all. They’re co-identifying religion, race, and gender to excuse and normalize bigotry here at the expense of someone who can’t argue with them.
The patriarchy is a worldwide phenomenon. So is capitalism. So is rape culture. The Tale of Genji, the first novel ever written, is about rape culture. Yes, it’s pretty bad in a lot of other countries, sometimes worse than in the United States or France or Australia, but it’s real bad here too and hierarchies of evil are a waste of your time.
Instead, try …
… trusting folks from those cultures to handle their own business. If you belong to a certain community, then you have a singular insight into how oppressive dynamics play out within your own community. Don’t let that opportunity pass by. If you represent oppressors from other cultures, show us how that oppression crosses demographic lines—because it does—instead of binding it to their identity.
Witch Doctors, Like, in General
If you’re the kind of people who get described as a “tribe,” then you might have some witch doctors. “Witch doctor” is a sensationalist stereotype, a way to denigrate “primitive,” “uncivilized,” or “savage” traditional medicine practitioners as dangerous, superstitious crackpots for doing their best to keep people alive. I can’t believe I have to explain this, but medicine practitioners in low-technology environments still use empirical evidence and build their knowledge upon previously established theories. Much of what they use turns out not to be very effective by the standards of modern science, but they’re literally the predecessors of modern medicine. We’ve come a long way, but we came from somewhere.
“Witch doctor” invites us to associate religion with race and culture, specifically savagery; and to imagine that the primitive human, whatever the fuck that is, has no capacity for empiricism or reason. They’re all over American comics, primarily as villains and antagonists with bones in their noses who like to cook white ladies. The witch doctor in Diablo III, brilliantly voiced by either Erica Luttrell (Sapphire!) or the venerable Carl Lumbly (Martian Manhunter!), is one of the few unqualifiedly compassionate, good people in an otherwise nightmarish world. They also run around in freaky masks waving shrunken heads, snakes, and sacrificial daggers while summoning undead minions.
Instead, try …
… investigating the traditional magical and medical practices of indigenous people somewhere and representing them with compassion and accuracy. Read about what kinds of poisonous or psychoactive creatures come from that region and whether they have medical applications. Pufferfish tetrodotoxin as a sedative? Bullet ant jaws to stitch up wounds? Penicillin? Again, worst case scenario, you learn something—and maybe if you get hurt in their neck of the woods, you know who to call.
Opiates of the Masses
Across societies and centuries, you’ll see intimations that ardent adherence to a religion is a lower-class signifier. The ancient Chinese philosopher Xúnzǐ wrote about how the upper classes need not believe there’s any substance to the religious rituals they perform to appease the masses. There are a few components to this. First of all, religious communities pool resources and create spaces where individuals can get their needs fulfilled: food, entertainment, social life, mental and physical healthcare. If you’re rich, you have other spaces where you can create or get those things. Second, religion often requires personal vulnerability; you have to admit there’s something bigger than you, whether it’s just your church community or a deity in general.
Here in the United States, we have a related pattern wherever successive waves of immigrants have continued to show up in the same area. The first European settlers arrive from someplace like France or Spain or England, they get the natives sick and shoot the ones who don’t die off, and they start acting like they’ve owned the place since the beginning of time. Then the next wave of settlers shows up and wants to live there too, and then there’s cultural conflict. Will Eisner comics like Dropsie Avenue detail this cycle. Religions get identified with immigrant identity when there’s a distinction in denomination there, and immigrants are major targets of violence right now. They get deported into war zones they just escaped. They get separated from children and everyone gets thrown in concentration camps. In the rest of mainstream society, they’re still mistrusted and derided as freeloaders or corrupters. Roman Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism get identified with immigration this way; religion thus becomes a signifier of the foreign, of the fact that you don’t belong here with the Protestants in charge. Conversion to that religion affords you a shot at model minority status, with all the blessings and curses it brings.
I want gaming and nerd culture to welcome and protect marginalized religionists, as well as atheists and skeptics who still face widespread distrust and exclusion from positions of power. What I don’t want to see is atheists who bind their skepticism to intellectual or cultural superiority at the expense of those without access to higher education or technical job training in fields like hard science. Elliott Ratzman, a social ethicist and professor of religious studies at Lawrence University, teaches courses on secularism, ethics, and modern religion. On the relationship of technocratic skepticism to power and privilege, he wrote,
Many outspoken atheists who show contempt for religion and religious people seem to be from STEM professions. I've also noticed a trend in which they hold scientific knowledge as the only legitimate form of knowledge, and disparage artistic, literary, emotional, and religious ways of experiencing the world. This is an impoverished way of understanding most humans and what matters most to them, the ways of life they hold most dear. Not that ways of life should be above critique, but the willful refusal to see the complexities of religions as human phenomena strikes me as a problem. As a pragmatist I take all claims and beliefs that “do work” for people as “innocent until proven guilty”; the STEM atheists seem to want to hold all claims and beliefs as “guilty until proven innocent.” This radical skepticism and demand for belief based on “pure reason” is a sort of scientism (or “Positivism”) that strikes me as the wrong way of understanding human culture. It might go without saying that those STEM atheists turn out to be, in many cases, overwhelmingly white, male, libertarian, and insensitive to abuses of power or the plight of the powerless. In a multicultural world, there is a way to be secular without being a smug bully.
Right now, nerd culture is a safe space for ardent atheists who love science. That’s a fundamentally good thing. When I was a kid getting in arguments with Narnia Clubs instructors telling me what to believe, I ran off to science fiction and fantasy novels to feel accepted. As I grew older, even as I developed some views which weren’t quite atheist, the acceptance I’d felt from other nerds for atheist views made me feel more, rather than less, confident expressing ideas which were neither atheist nor Catholic. Let’s keep that tradition going, following in the footsteps of Sir David Attenborough, not Richard Dawkins.
In all the above cases, religion becomes a way to throw shade at people safely when polite society won’t let you spit explicit bigotry. You can’t disagree with a race in many polite conversations, but you can sometimes get away with disagreeing with a religion. And hey, if you do, it’s not hating on a person! It’s an ideological debate! We’re in the marketplace of ideas, where nothing systemically oppressive ever happens. Maybe you’d never call immigrants stupid and superstitious, but you could talk about how Catholicism is idolatrous. Maybe you’d never call someone a savage, but you could harp on animal sacrifice or ceremonies involving drug use. Maybe you’d never make fun of Asian accents, but “Confucius say” or kung-fu movie jokes fly under people’s radar.
If you read the above and you thought, hey, that doesn’t seem so bad? It’s working. They got you.
Did You Know This Was Religious?
Let’s go over some common tropes and concepts from speculative fiction and games which could use an overhaul. Not every item below is unconscionable in its current form; but we could do better, and we could do better with scarce effort. Take these opportunities to show some compassion to people who don’t get much.
A story from Haiti: Long ago, when Jesus Christ lay in his tomb, two Haitian soldiers (just roll with it) waited outside. Those soldiers eavesdropped when God the Father descended from Heaven to speak the words that resurrected his son as the first zombie. The soldiers remembered those words and passed them down from generation to generation over thousands of years until finally they came to a conjurer in the Haitian backcountry. He told this story to an American scholar, and she told the story to me.
Pretty sure this guy knew there were no Haitian soldiers guarding Jesus’s tomb. Not the point, though.
The word “zombie” descends from the Kreyol “zonbi,” which descends from the Kongolese “nzambi,” denoting a god or spirit. In different languages’ and regions’ usage, it might refer to anyone from God Almighty down to the lowest and most easily manipulated spirit. Even in Haitian vodou, the term has a couple of different usages. One type of zombie is a spirit without social connections to other people, a community, their ancestors, their descendants, et cetera. Conjurers may manipulate such a spirit easily. The other, better known, type is a human being who has been thoroughly poisoned to place them in a suggestible state. A herbalist knocks such an individual out and renders them comatose with a neurotoxin; in the olden days, such an individual might be mistaken for dead and buried. Afterwards, the herbalist recovers the “cadaver” and “reanimates” them with intoxicants that leave them pliable to suggestion. There’s some spellcraft involved in this process as well. A zombie who ceases to consume intoxicants returns to their cogent state. Traditionally and properly, this procedure would only be visited as a punishment upon an individual who had rendered themself apostate to their community: that is, a living person who had willfully made their own spirit into a zombie.
In 1915, Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan deployed the United States Marines to conquer Haiti, because *checks notes* we were worried the Germans were gonna do it first. In school, did you learn how the Marines seized control of the government’s higher functions and occupied all positions of power on the island? Did you hear about how they kept control of Haitians by literally enslaving the populace and terrorizing them with violence? Because all of that happened, and the United States remained in control of Haiti for the next two decades. During this time period, when the Marines weren’t getting drunk and visiting racist atrocities on the locals, they occasionally listened to some stories. Many of them came home with mangled stories of zombies, the walking dead.
We have zombie stories because the United States violently invaded and oppressed Haiti for a really long time. The nicest things I can say about that period are that we kept order through violence and fear, and built infrastructure using slave labor. Modern zombie media takes a concept with serious significance in Haitian religion, willfully misinterprets it, and recasts it as whatever interesting threat we need it to be at the time. It certainly doesn’t make Haitians any money; indeed, when it does circle back to African religion, it makes people more sensationalistically afraid of vodou. It’s one of the grandest instances of cultural appropriation that’s ever happened.
Instead, try …
… breaking down what you want out of a zombie story and focusing on the cultural influences associated with it.
If you actually want to tell a story about the zonbi of vodou, that’s great, but it’s difficult. You’ve got to research a sensitive topic that’s risky and potentially harmful to its originators. It’ll probably have to be your story’s main focus.
If you want hordes of fiendish corpse-munchers, what about ghouls? Ghouls are Middle Eastern grave-robbing humanoids which aren’t really from religious sources. Their original form is way closer to the modern fiction zombie, anyway. Ghouls aren’t a religious thing, at least not to the same degree; they come from 1001 Nights. You could also research local monsters with those predilections—but make sure you do right by their cultures of origin, instead of reskinning zombies without modifying their substance.
Voodoo, Santería, Obeah, and Afro-Atlantic Religions
We sometimes hear these terms—voodoo, obeah, santería—described as systems of black magic … and, uh, also Black magic. Awkward. We hear about them when a superstitious person in fiction decides to curse someone, give themself super powers, or the like. For example, in season 2 of Marvel and Netflix’s Luke Cage, the supervillain Bushmaster strengthens himself and protects himself against harm with a dangerous herbal concoction with Obeah roots (pun intended). This creative choice isn’t terrible, really, but we don’t really get a positive African herbalist unless you count Nightshade, who’s tipping over the edge into evil by the end of the season. All in all, African magic comes off as pretty negative, and the “good” parts of it get absorbed into conventional medicine. There’s a history to that trend.
The truth of the matter is that all of these things are Afro-Atlantic religions which have associated systems of spellcraft that combine botany, chemistry, and magic to create both beneficial and harmful (but mostly beneficial) effects. Africans, free and captive, in the Americas reinvented their religious traditions based on what they remembered and brought with them from the Old World. The pantheons of West Africa broke apart and recombined into new theogonies and identities, different but equally valid.
Instead, try …
… representing them as religions, not just spells and curses. You can start by using these religions’ proper names. Santería is more properly called Lukumí. Voodoo is an acceptable term for the religion in the American South, but it’s more properly vodou in Haiti and vodun in Dahomey. Obeah is fine. Another Marvel show, Freeform’s Cloak and Dagger, takes place in New Orleans and depicts their voodoo tradition with grace and accuracy. You can learn more about these traditions in the work of Jacob K Olúpọ̀nà, Yvonne Chireau, or Mambo Vye Zo Komande Lamenfo. I could go on. There’s lots of good books on this topic.
In Dungeons & Dragons, a dervish is a character class or kit who specializes in dance-like combat using multiple weapons, usually double scimitars. In Pathfinder there’s a similar subclass who’s a bard. I’m not 100% where the inspiration came from, but I think it’s a couple places by way of orientalism.
First, there are actual dervishes. The term comes from Persian “darvīsh,” indicating a mendicant Ṣufī holy man who has taken a vow of poverty. Brotherhoods of dervishes sometimes practiced ecstatic mysteries—remember mysticism earlier? yeah this is actually mystical frreal—in which they chant prayers while performing some focusing craft or activity. The most famous of these is whirling, a counterclockwise spinning dance performed by the Mevlevi Order, giving rise to our phrase “whirling dervish.” Contrary to common usage, a whirling dervish is the diametric opposite of violent, although I guess if you got a bunch of them to hold weapons while they whirled that might be pretty unsafe, although they wouldn’t because they’re Ṣufī mystics and violence is not really Their Thing. So where did these violent dervishes come from?
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Sayid Maxamed Cabdille Xasan led the “Dervish Movement” of Ṣufī rebels against the British occupation of Somalia. They did not whirl as far as I can tell, preferring more accessible Somali folkdance and tunes to get limber and psych themselves up for a fight. When they killed people, generally it was with bullets rather than anything involving spinning or even blades. The conflict between the British colonizers and the local dervishes looked a lot like certain other conflicts you may have studied in which a giant empire fights determined though underequipped local guerrillas: in spite of inflicting loss after loss upon the dervishes, England took twenty years to stamp them out, and the conflict might have kept going had the Sayid himself not succumbed to disease in 1921. Subsequently the British applied the label “dervish” to Muslim fighters who didn’t even want the title, such as the Sudanese Ansar, who at least were Ṣufī even though their leader disavowed the name “Dervish.”
So I’m not certain where the dancing sword guy came from. Maybe the Middle Eastern dance called the ardah influenced it, although based on this video the Saudi variant seems to involve muskets and selfie sticks as well (and looks really really fun). I’m imagining the conversation went something like
dnd writer a: hey it would be cool if we had a class that fights with two swords
dnd writer b: you mean a ranger?
a: no like … with scimitars
b: yeah that’s a ranger
a: i mean with *scimitars*
b: … oh like a muslim fighting guy?
a: yeah what would one of those be called?
b: *glancing down at british military history book* a dervish?
a: so a “whirling dervish” must be a muslim fighting guy who spins around while holding swords. i am a genius
Instead, try …
… drawing from martial arts with real relationships to dance, rather than colonizers’ half-memories of their enemies and victims. Many of those styles come from West Africa or the African diaspora. Senegalese wrestling and Hausa dambe start with traditional music, dance, and boasting before going into combat. Martiniquais danmyé and Brazilian capoeira are completely integrated dance-fights.
If you want something with weapons, you could check out Georgian khridoli, often practiced to music, with associated war dances. You might have seen Nidar Singh’s demonstrations of the brutal Sikh hand-to-hand techniques, using fluid stances and steps which are extremely dance-like. Elsewhere in India there’s chhau, a dance-theater form with devotional applications which was used in drilling soldiers. The Malayali art of kalaripayattu was often studied alongside kathakali dance-drama.
None of these things are dervishes, but they actually hew closer to the dancing fighting person without describing a religious order persecuted in the West, China, and India because they’re Muslims, and in the Middle East because certain leaders say they’re the wrong kind of Muslims.
Jewish Sacred Symbols: Golems and Phylacteries
These two are pretty straightforward. A golem is a specific kind of Jewish magical automaton which a rabbi creates using purity of purpose specifically to protect a Jewish community. Contrary to popular belief, you cannot just make an animated monster out of corpses to guard your castle or follow you into a dungeon and say it’s a golem.
Jessica Price also pointed out that the phylactery also shows up in creepy form in D&D as the reservoir of a lich’s magical power. This creepy misuse of a word which normally refers to a sacred amulet containing Hebrew texts winds up coding liches as Jewish villains. Similar, non-evil amulets exist throughout the world—see also the Brazilian patuá, Congolese nkisi, Islamic taʿwīdh, and West African gris-gris.
Instead, try …
Calling it anything other than a golem! Robot. Construct. Automaton. Frankenstein’s monster. Living statue. Your cup runneth over.
Likewise: calling it anything other than a phylactery! Amulet works. Or you could make up a dramatic name of your own for each lich’s amulet, like “Fetid Reservoir of Nightmares” or “Evil Murder Cube” or “Corruperware.”
Prāṇa, Qì, and Ki
In Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, monks get their super powers from ki, which is a reservoir of spiritual energy. Functionally, they’re magic points. They could have called them anything, but they used a Japanese term, because Japan is associated with martial arts. However, the archetype of the unarmored, unarmed fighting monk is from China. Specifically, it comes from the Shàolín Monastery, a Chán Buddhist stronghold renowned for practicing meditation through both unarmed and armed combat techniques. Shàolín boxers were well reputed, but Shàolín’s most famous fighting systems taught the quarterstaff and the monk’s spade, which were thought to be the weapons most useful to mendicant monks.
But the Chinese word for this is 氣, pronounced “qì” in Mandarin or “hei” in Cantonese. Only Min Chinese and various no-longer-spoken forms of Chinese pronounce it “ki,” and the writers of Dungeons and Dragons are unlikely to have standardized to either of those.
A Japanese warrior monk looks like this:
Note his samurai armor made of metal, wood, and silk; the heavy sword at his belt called a tachi; and his signature weapon, the glaive. Monks were renowned for their zealous devotion to Buddhism and, uh, violence. Later in history, during the Warring States Period, Japanese warrior monks decided they really liked matchlock muskets, and at that point many of them looked like this:
So if the D&D monk were based in Japan, where we get ki from, they would wear sturdy metal armor and be proficient in the glaive—as well as the musket, in a campaign set later. They’re not, though. Instead we have an awkward pairing of a Japanese term with a Chinese concept—odd especially in English, a language in which “qì” (or, well, “chi”) is in more common circulation as a borrowing than “ki.” I know there’s probably a reason for this involving previous editions of D&D or something. I know someone out there is probably thinking “but uh well they want to make it more pan-Asian!” Yeah. I still don’t like cultural conflation, especially when it comes to martial arts.
I prefer to translate this term as “breath,” because that’s the literal meaning of “ki” and “qì.” They both hearken back to the Sanskrit term प्राण “prāṇa.” The Chinese character has some steam 气 (also pronounced “qì” or “ki”) rising off of some rice 米, for reasons which are either phonetic or ideographic or possibly both. The breath model of energistics comes from Vedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine, and conceives of various functions of the body as the product of the motion of different kinds of breath through channels in the body called meridians, which connect pressure points or vital points to one another. I could go on.
The breath model is just that—a useful model—and the people who use it these days don’t think it’s “scientifically real” any more than they think an atom actually looks like Ernest Rutherford’s model, ⚛️. It has lots of helpful applications in fields like massage and martial arts; in the latter case, it’s useful for things like targeting, or visualizing the motion of energy through the body to hit harder. However, because the meaning has drifted towards the D&D definition … here, I’ll just copy it out.
Monks make careful study of a magical energy that most monastic traditions call ki. This energy is an element of the magic that suffuses the multiverse—specifically, the element that flows through living bodies. Monks harness this power within themselves to create magical effects and exceed their bodies’ physical capabilities, and some of their special attacks can hinder the flow of ki in their opponents. Using this energy, monks channel uncanny speed and strength into their unarmed strikes. As they gain experience, their martial training and their mastery of ki gives them more power over their bodies and the bodies of their foes.
So we got a few problems here. This description places ki into the realm of magic, which really only describes a handful of the things it was traditionally understood to do—it’s mostly just a description of how your body works. It also orientalizes us. If we’re using an Asian term and an Asian concept, then a monk is, in some ways, inherently Asian. We’re pointing back to that mystical Asian stereotype, and mixing the martial arts in there too. This isn’t a stereotype we need to codify as a character class or a metamagical concept.
Instead, try …
… first, checking if there’s an appropriate term from the language in which you’re writing. Picking out certain terms to keep in their untranslated forms designates them as weird and foreign, creating orientalist dynamics. When I write in English, I prefer “breath” or “spirit” to talk about this concept. If your work actually breaks down what a foreign term means, it can be viable to leave it untranslated out of respect to differences in definition between the words “qì” and “breath.” But if you don’t define it yourself, you have no guarantee an unfamiliar reader won’t go looking for definitions and find something off-center like the D&D definition above. However, there’s a more fundamental issue which comes from calling this character class a monk in the first place. “A monk is an unarmed combatant with a reservoir of magical body power” unavoidably associates the prototypical monk with China. Using “ki” instead of “qì” types them as prototypically pan-Asian, which is even less appropriate; I would prefer either to lean way into the Shàolín model, or to divorce the character class entirely from Asian signifiers.
The complex breakdown of how we might overhaul RPGs’ takes on martial arts needs to be its own article, but the quickest immediate fix for your monk is to choose a resource for each character which matches their own martial and cultural paradigm. A Greek boxer or wrestler could use pneuma, a a capoeira player could use axé, or a mau rākau practitioner could use mana. Each of these terms diverges from qì’s strict definition, but I think that’s cool: what does it mean that for a Māori monk, their spiritual reservoir also carries social weight? As usual when you stray into culture-specific territory, research own-voices descriptions of the concepts and take your cues from real people from those groups.
Thank you for following me through a dense and intense topic. I get to talk about race in games all the time, but if anything, religion’s even more of my wheelhouse. If you liked this article and you wanna hear more about how to depict religions in games, roll up religious characters, and make up your own religions, please back me on Patreon! Mad respect to my backers who made this possible.