This week’s question comes from reader James Cobb:
“I’ve been reading a lot about the mythology of Game Of Thrones this year, and I’ve been quite enamored with the religion of The Old Gods Of The Forest. Unlike the Faith Of The Seven with all their rules, the Old Gods’ religion is a lot freer and has more quiet contemplation. The Old Gods only seem to care about people praying to them in front of the sacred weirwood trees. The only things the Old Gods frown upon is kinslaying, incest, and the laws of hospitality. It also doesn’t seem that bigoted, e.g. homosexuality isn’t considered blasphemous. It’s the perfect religion for an open-minded guy who doesn’t like to follow a lot of rules. So, what fictional religion is your favorite?”
I’m probably stealing other people’s answer when I call dibs on Bokononism, the absurd religion at the center of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. The story of the religion is too complicated to go into here, but the central tenet of Bokononism is basically that Bokononism is bullshit—though those who believe the bullshit will find happiness. It’s all very Kurt Vonnegut, but even in its emptiness, Bokononism speaks truth about human nature and revels in the mysteries of the universe. For instance, Bokononists whisper, “Busy, busy, busy,” when they notice “how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is.” “Busy, busy, busy” still pops into my head regularly, as do some of Bokonon’s more amusing “calypsos,” i.e., festive rhyming verses of his teachings. My goal is to have Bokononism one day supplant what I learned in 12 years of Catholic schooling.
The nameless, vague religion in Adventure Time is one I can get behind. Like all of the show’s world-building, the religion in the Land Of Ooo happens in the background of Jake and Finn’s adventures. Denizens of Candy Kingdom exclaim, “Oh my glob!” but there’s also the occasional “oh my gob” and “oh my grosh.” Grob Gob Glob Grod is the cube-faced higher being from space. Are they/it gods? Or is there one god, the being of Prismo, the shadow figure who resides in the Time Room, grants wishes, and lives at the center of the multiverse? Then there’s the Cosmic Owl, the Party God, and Death. The gods/deities/wolf heads/lords of the Dead World make for a tapestry of religion closer to that of Graeco-Roman myth than anything else. That all of them are real characters, and that their immortal and superior status is only a periphery concern, makes their unknown religion all the better.
Hey, say what you like about the Movementarians, the cult that briefly takes over Springfield in the ninth-season Simpsons episode “The Joy Of Sect.” Sure, they’re an only barely disguised effort to bilk the ever-gullible Springfieldites out of their money. (To be fair, it’s all to build “one hell of a spaceship.”) And sure, their vague beliefs are mostly kludged together from Scientology and other high-pressure-sales religions. And, okay, yeah I’ll own up to it: They brainwash people, cheerfully. But no religion that digs The Prisoner—complete with their very own Rover—can be all bad, and you can’t deny that the Movementarians have one of the greatest religious marketing jingles of all time. Sing it with me now, folks: “Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na Leader! Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na Leader! Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na Leader! Leader! Leader! Batman! (D’oh!)”
I was all in on the first hours of Brutal Legend, Double Fine’s heavy metal adventure game, but once it became less about meeting deified metal icons and more about managing armies, it lost me completely. Still, the concept behind the mythology and the religions of Brutal Legend are so damn cool that I can’t help but respect it. It builds a dreary, fire-filled landscape from all the fantastical and occult imagery around heavy metal, presupposing that the music in our world is the stories of this ancient place being passed down to us. And not unlike the Abrahamic religions, the three factions within Brutal Legend’s universe spring from what’s essentially one creation myth. The differences between them are the figures within those myths they’re descended from, which shapes who they worship and model themselves after. It was a great way of establishing three unique sides for players to choose from in the multiplayer mode, but it also cleverly integrated, and created a fun mythological reasoning for, heavy metal’s many subgenres. I just wish I loved playing the game as much as I do the idea of it.
I’m a sucker for religions in tabletop roleplaying games, such as Dungeons & Dragons. It’s less about the tenets of the religions themselves, which mostly consist of the usual mythological pantheon of gods who oversee a handful of concepts (war, fire, good, evil, wallpaper paste). It’s the absolute literalism of divinity that exists in total opposition to how we practice our belief in the real world. It’s not without reason that a synonym for religion, as well as its primary virtue, is faith. In this life, a believer is often judged by the strength of their devotion in the absence of reward or even simple affirmation that their voice is being heard. God is an unanswerable question, an all-encompassing but invisible force that demands fealty specifically in the absence of proof. Not so in Dungeons & Dragons. Gods real interventionist forces in daily life, and if you’re in good enough standing with yours, they’ll let you summon a wall of whirling sword blades around your body. Job endured the Lord’s punishments as a test of the boundaries of his faith, but still, a lesser restoration spell to get rid of those boils would have been nice.
This is sort of a cop-out, but reading the question, I immediately thought of pretty much everything in Dune. One of the things the books do infinitely better than the handful of filmic adaptations is explore Frank Herbert’s obsession with religious texts. He treats them less as ironclad prophecy than as aesthetic things, relishing the iconography, ephemera, and publishing history of all these dusty tomes. The religions themselves are extrapolated from our own—there’s Buddislam, as well as a hybrid of Christianity and Buddhism, and strange insinuations that in this distant future the Jewish religion exists largely unaltered but completely in hiding. But the book’s most singular creation is the Bene Gesserit matriarchy of witches, who have covertly influenced the shape of history over the course of millennia by huffing psychedelic spice, controlling minds (with science!), and kicking people’s asses without moving. The story of these religions is the story of the Dune series, which is why they can’t really be extracted from one another. But we all know which one is the best. Say it with me: I must not fear…
This is probably a result of all those TV movies about cults I watched as a kid in the ’70s, but I would be an excellent candidate for the Meyerist Movement in Hulu’s The Path. After all, the cult—um, family—members live in a nice wooded upstate New York compound, where the menu may be vegetarian but the wine pours aplenty. The daily schedule appears to feature lots of meditation and crafts and yoga and things I should put on my to-do list anyway. Best of all, the Meyerists focus on self-improvement through their ladder’s steps or rungs or whatever, more than idolizing some nebulous all-encompassing creator. I would probably be more on the Aaron Paul healthy skeptic side than the Hugh Dancy fanatical zealot side, though; I’m not about to do one of those 50-mile walks with no money, get locked up in a solitary confinement room, or hang out with a snake. Even self-improvement has its limits.
First of all: Yes, you’re so right, all religions are fictional. You’re very clever. Now let’s get to my favorite fake religion, hands down—the Cthulhu Mythos cults. There are dozens of religious sects and cults in the universe created by H.P. Lovecraft, and as a kid I was completely obsessed with all of them. If you’re going to have a fictional religion, what better gods to worship than gigantic monsters from above and below? Whether it’s the Order Of Dagon, sacrificing lives and sanities to the big man Cthulhu himself, or one of the many Brotherhoods that worship outer god Nyarlathotep, or just a good old-fashioned witch coven, praising the mighty Shub-Niggurath, they’ve got everything you could want in a bonkers cult: black magic, demons, awe-inspiringly deranged gods, and a healthy bouquet of adjectives to describe them, all thanks to Lovecraft’s delightfully purple prose. You’re damn right I’m excited to play the video game.