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