Walking the Planes 5: A Theism 2

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Walking the Planes is a series of arti­cles in which I explore the phi­los­o­phy of the planes of exis­tence in Dungeons & Dragons from a per­sonal (retro-)perspective. Most of it will focus on the Planescape cam­paign set­ting, which was pub­lished between 1994 and 1998 and which is to date still the most detailed explo­ration of the planes in the game.

I was raised sec­u­lar, in a coun­try that is, at least in the pub­lic sphere and dom­i­nant self‐image, also most­ly sec­u­lar. This means that I grew up with­out the pres­ence of a God, though I knew that other peo­ple, includ­ing a minor­i­ty with­in my own fam­i­ly, believed there was one. I also knew that many reli­gious peo­ple organ­ise them­selves in church­es, which is where reli­gious stuff hap­pens. I wasn’t taught to think that these peo­ple were weird or bad, but I knew that they were some­how other. There was a Catholic church (St. Joseph’s) at the end of our street, but we prac­ti­cal­ly never set foot in it. That was not some­thing we did.

As I got older, this sec­u­lar­ism of mine was never severe­ly chal­lenged. I’ve had occa­sion­al peri­ods of long­ing for some kind of faith, not to men­tion a huge fas­ci­na­tion with the study of reli­gion — but the feel­ing just isn’t there. I usu­al­ly describe myself as agnos­tic, because there is some­thing about the not‐knowing that appeals to me, both spir­i­tu­al­ly and aes­thet­i­cal­ly. There is no God in my life, but part of me likes to think there is one, out there beyond the veil of time — if indeed ‘one­ness’ is rel­e­vant to such a being. Maybe it is an all‐ness or a many‐ness. It will come as no sur­prise that Pantheism has sound­ed attrac­tive to me at dif­fer­ent junc­tions, at least from a vague, aes­thet­ic per­spec­tive.

In the con­cep­tion of this col­umn I knew a dis­cus­sion of all the Planescape fac­tions would be a key fea­ture. Having intro­duced them in the pre­vi­ous ‘chap­ter,’ I felt it would be good to imme­di­ate­ly dive into the fray and shine a more pow­er­ful light on one of them. Before I start­ed, I already had some favourites in mind: The Bleak Cabal with its (poten­tial­ly) lib­er­at­ing nihilism, the ‘mind­ful­ness’ of The Transcendent Order. My least favourite pick was The Athar — fan­ta­sy athe­ists in a world where the Gods were quite uncon­tro­ver­sial­ly real; how does that even work? In other words: I just never real­ly got The Athar.

Maybe pre­cise­ly for that rea­son, I want to start with them any­way, to see what prej­u­dices lurk behind that dis­missal and to see what posi­tion the fac­tion func­tion­al­ly holds in the Planescape uni­verse.

So what are The Athar real­ly about? To quote A Player’s Guide to the Planes:

According to these folks, the great and feared pow­ers are liars! Those who claim to be the “gods” of the planes are just mor­tals like us. Yeah, they’re unbe­liev­ably pow­er­ful, but they’re not gods.

As men­tioned, the exis­tence of Gods is a given with­in the Planescape mul­ti­verse (and in Dungeons & Dragons in gen­er­al), though it needs to be said that in the setting’s guide­books they are rarely referred to as such. Instead, the term “pow­ers” is most often used, some­thing you should keep in the back of your head. The Athar, then, emphat­i­cal­ly believe that pow­ers, such as Zeus, Freyja, and Lolth, are not Gods. In other words, they make a rea­son­ably sub­tle dis­tinc­tion between pow­er­ful beings (with­in the men­tal and phys­i­cal bound­aries of the mul­ti­verse), and actu­al Gods.

The pow­ers are beings that derive power (heh) from the faith and wor­ship of their believ­ers — remem­ber that thought affects real­i­ty in the Planescape set­ting — and in return, they can grant mag­i­cal abil­i­ties to their priests, they look out for their fol­low­ers’ inter­ests when they see fit, etc. They gen­er­al­ly cast them­selves as Gods, and cer­tain­ly pos­sess pow­ers that ‘mere’ mor­tals would con­sid­er god­like. To The Athar, how­ev­er, power and might do not make one divine.

No, true divin­i­ty is some­thing that goes beyond the mun­dane, some­thing that reach­es beyond the bound­aries of known exis­tence. Now, for most reg­u­lar folks in your usual D&D fan­ta­sy world — say, the Forgotten Realms — trav­el­ling to other planes is quite beyond the pale in the first place. But remem­ber that The Athar are pla­nars, and as such sim­ply being or liv­ing on the Outer Planes isn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly spe­cial. The fact that most of the pow­ers have their home realm some­where on the Outer Planes might be sig­nif­i­cant to a prime1, but it’s hard­ly that spe­cial to some­one liv­ing in Sigil, for exam­ple. That entire city is a donut on top of an infi­nite spire — pla­nars are used to unusu­al stuff.

To be blunt, The Athar con­sid­er the pow­ers to be frauds. The fact that gods and reli­gions in Planescape hoard wealth and fol­low­ers is sus­pi­cious:

[Why should] a power need to bribe his priests with gold, [why should he] require the belief of wor­shipers to feed his immor­tal­i­ty, if he were real­ly a god. Surely divine beings, if they exist­ed, fol­lowed dif­fer­ent rules than the mor­tals of the planes. They’d be stronger, yes, like the pow­ers are. Yet deities ought to pos­sess fewer weak­ness­es, too — they shouldn’t need faith as men need­ed food, and they should ably sup­port their priests through divine means, rather than strip­ping poor mor­tals’ hard‐earned jink.
(The Factol’s Manifesto, p. 8)

They’re not as spe­cial as they pre­tend to be. This is con­firmed by the fact that the pow­ers can die — the proof is on the Astral Plane, where the corpses of dead ‘gods’ float in the sil­ver void — and in that mor­tals may, in excep­tion­al cir­cum­stances become pow­ers them­selves. The lat­ter is the core belief of The Believers of the Source (a.k.a. The Godsmen), anoth­er Planescape fac­tion. As such, The Athar are not quite Planescape’s athe­ists, in the sense that they have no clear over­ar­ch­ing con­vic­tion about whether or not there exists a truly divine and numi­nous deity (or mul­ti­ple). They are, how­ev­er, skep­tics, in that they do not accept the claims of divin­i­ty made by the pow­ers and their fol­low­ers.

Their skep­ti­cism is not appre­ci­at­ed by the major­i­ty of the other fac­tions in Planescape, and of course even less by the fol­low­ers and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the pow­ers. In the his­to­ry of the set­ting, The Athar have been attacked and per­se­cut­ed from var­i­ous sides. In that respect, The Athar are sim­i­lar to organ­ised forms of athe­ism and skep­ti­cism in the real world: a minor­i­ty wag­ing a philo­soph­i­cal war for the minds of the peo­ple.

Interestingly, the Planescape books intro­duce a pow­er­ful sec­ond line of belief for The Athar: the con­vic­tion that any true god would always be beyond the under­stand­ing of mor­tals. As Factol Terrance, the leader of The Athar, relates to a man who was begin­ning to lose his faith:

I pitied the poor berk. ‘Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that divin­i­ty does not exist. Who knows what might lie beyond the veil of our lim­it­ed aware­ness? What might the vis­age of that mys­tery look like? Perhaps mere mor­tals can­not fath­om it. But, I assure you, this divin­i­ty bears lit­tle resem­blance to the pow­ers who cavort here in the Great Ring.’ I almost told him that, as a priest of this Great Unknown divin­i­ty, I still have access to spells, as any other priest has. But that is a dark I don’t reveal light­ly. And, I didn’t want to influ­ence him any more than I already had. He had a choice to make.
(The Factol’s Manifesto, p.8)

In that respect, it turns out that I am actu­al­ly quite close to The Athar in terms of my visions on the divine. I believe in its exis­tence on some level, but have expe­ri­enced no con­crete rev­e­la­tion of any­thing that I would con­sid­er divine in the way that I imag­ine reli­gious peo­ple some­times do. I admit that I’m run­ning the risk of reduc­ing reli­gion to a mat­ter of expe­ri­ence and con­vic­tion here, which is not at all what I want to do. In the real world, as in Planescape, reli­gion is also philo­soph­i­cal, rit­u­al, social, and polit­i­cal. All the same, this lack of expe­ri­ence and con­vic­tion is the main rea­son why I’ve never felt par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious.

A key dif­fer­ence between myself and The Athar is that the lat­ter are described as peo­ple who have lost their faith, where­as I never had one to begin with. This makes sense, as the world of D&D and Planescape is one where reli­gion and the exis­tence of divine beings is the default way of view­ing the world, as it was for the greater part of real human his­to­ry, and still is, numer­i­cal­ly speak­ing.

Perhaps this is why I found The Athar bor­ing as a teen: I had never imag­ined being any­thing other than an athe­ist, so fan­ta­sy athe­ists felt all too famil­iar in a set­ting that I val­ued for its unfa­mil­iar­i­ty. Reflecting on it now that I am able to place my own world­views (and their ori­gins) in per­spec­tive, I see that there is more behind it. The Athar are not the fan­ta­sy equiv­a­lent of peo­ple like me, who were raised sec­u­lar, but of peo­ple who, through great strug­gle, have detached them­selves from the reli­gious estab­lish­ment.

I main­ly see the value of The Athar as a thought exper­i­ment — like all Planescape fac­tions are, in a way — what would it be like to be a skep­tic in a world where proof of the exis­tence of the ‘gods’ is right there in front of you? Extrapolated to the real world, we may think about what it would be like to be con­front­ed with immense­ly pow­er­ful beings from, say, outer space. Are they mon­sters, hor­rors, Gods? Would we wor­ship and sup­pli­cate them? Would we deny their divin­i­ty? How do we as human beings define divin­i­ty, and to what degree does it even mat­ter? I’m not sure myself, but I do know that Planescape helped me artic­u­late some of my intel­lec­tu­al ten­den­cies in this regard.

  1. a per­son from the Prime Material Plane, i.e. not a pla­nar []

Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.