*This is the second in an eight-part series, which I’ll publish during the month of March. Click for part one: theism.*
Religion is an integral part of every society in this world, and thus it comes as no surprise that religion often features so prominently in fantasy literature, wherein authors construct imaginary worlds that must balance the fantastic with the believable in a way few other genres have to deal with. The issue I want to explore is how various authors approach this most delicate of human subjects. They say one should never discuss religion with the barber, but as cyberspace doesn’t have a razor blade in hand, I shall take my chances here.
My capitalization of the term “God” will strike some as idiosyncratic, I’m sure, but I’ve tried to consistently capitalize only when the term applies to the Judea-Christian God of our world. Any similar god in another fantasy universe is written in lowercase, unless such a parallel to the real-world God is implied, necessary, or explicit.
A related form of the fantasy god to the theistic approach (spoken of in the first post) is the deist god, the watchmaker god who creates and then steps back and remains uninvolved in his creation afterwards. There are many obvious draws to such a deity in fantasy, and ironically they are some of the same reasons that would draw a writer to the type of monotheistic god described previously.
As I have already mentioned, Richard Dawkins says he reckons a relatively good argument could be made for a deist god. No doubt, the concept of an uninvolved god is appealing to many, and it also solves the dual problems of giving a fantasy world a non-contemporary understanding of science while avoiding any sort of moral questions that would arise from positing a personal god involved in his creation. The idea is summed up in the following phrase, something I’ve read variations on in several fantasy novels: “I don’t see why a being capable of creating the world would ever be interested in something so insignificant as me/my struggle/this war/etc.”
Another thing this does, of course, is bring in the question of God without necessarily bringing in religion, as deism is more of a philosophical than a religious position. It allows an author to present commentary on real-world religious issues while very clearly not directly attacking or proselytizing (or appearing to) any one religion. Obviously, when creating a theistic god as outlined in the earlier post, the author risks his readers equating his god with the God of the Bible. A deist approach risks no such thing.
There is an alternate reason for creating such a fantasy god, this time due to real-world religious concerns. Someone who is religious, who is a Christian, Jew, or Muslim (though I’ve never run across any of the latter two groups of writers doing this) may feel uncomfortable inserting God into a fantasy setting, as though suggesting that He may be fiction, as the atheist would claim. For someone in this position, creating a deist god avoids the obvious (for them) nonsense of polytheism or atheism while also not calling into question the nature or existence of the Christian God.
At the end of the day, the appeal of a deist god in fantasy lies primarily in the nature and focus on the story, much as is the case for the traditional theistic god, or the gods of a polytheistic world. This sort of monotheistic approach is much more suitable to the amoral and darker universes of traditional swords and sorcery than to the standard epic fantasy (though there are numerous examples otherwise). The author is able to avoid any sort of real religious discussion because god is unknown and unknowable, while at the same time he can still maintain a semblance or smattering of religion in the background, which is associated primarily—and unfairly, I would suggest—with the pre-modern mind-set.