This is Faith in Play #70: Holy War, for September 2023.
I heard someone make a comment about religious issues in a war-based video game, and it brought to mind Nebuchadnezzar and Darius the Mede. In the ancient world, almost every nation had its own gods, and when they went to war it was often as much about whose gods were more powerful as it was about who had the better armies and weapons. Yet the outcomes of these battles were different in ways that were religiously significant.
Most Bible students are aware of the deportations, first of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians and later of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians. Later when the Medo-Persian Empire brought down Babylon and Cyrus and Darius became rulers of the known world, Judah was returned to its homeland, which was not unique of Judah–the new empire had the policy that conquered peoples should live in their own lands as subjects of the new rulers.
Part of the motivation behind deportation was the attempt to obliterate religions. The conquerors took the attitude that since they had defeated their conquests, it demonstrated that their own gods were more powerful than those of the conquered nations. Gods were thought to be connected to their territories–the Philistines worshiped Dagon because they lived in Dagon’s land. Their defeat was to mean that they were to be taken away, that the defeated Dagon would lose his worshipers, who were no longer permitted to live in his land or worship him.
There is some logic to this, from a religious perspective. The war has demonstrated that our gods are better than your gods, and from this point forward you are to honor our gods and not your gods. On a more practical level, if you are forcibly converted to our religion you are less likely to rebel against our rulership. We destroyed Dagon, and just as we are taking all the gold and gems from the palaces and temples we conquered, we are also taking away from the defeated gods that which is of greatest value to them, their worshipers, whom we are giving to our gods who gave us this victory. Would you prefer to be a worshipper or a sacrifice?
Something of that attitude still exists among certain sects of Islam, who maintain that people who are conquered either must adhere to their specific variety of that faith, or be killed. In fairness, not all Mohammedans hold this view, and in fact medieval Islamic cities had more religious freedom than most European countries of the time. The attitude in Europe was often that refusal to embrace the faith dictated by the monarch was treason. Law-abiding citizens abided by the law that decreed what they were to believe about God. England’s King James I (famed of the Bible named for him) jailed Baptist theologian Thomas Helwys for writing that because Jesus was the only mediator between God and man, the government could not dictate a man’s religion.
Once we see the logic of forcible conversion, it is surprising that the Medes and Persians differed from it. They had their own gods, and undoubtedly they believed that their gods were the greater because they had delivered victory to them. However, they had conquered the conquerors, and in a sense were liberating the captives. They hadn’t defeated Dagon; they had defeated the gods who had defeated Dagon. Perhaps, too, they had a better appreciation for their own skill, that although they were grateful to their own gods for whatever assistance may have been given, they were also aware that the skills of their warriors, from the generals organizing the attacks to the soldiers on the front lines, had been major factors in the victories. The gods on each side helped their sides, but the power of those gods was perhaps not decisive.
Given that much logic, it made sense for Cyrus and Darius to return all those deportees to the lands of their gods, and support their efforts to restore the worship of those gods, in the process having them pray for the welfare and success of Cyrus and Darius and the other rulers of the empire. Note that the war is still connected to religious worship: the victors are permitting the losers to continue worshipping their own gods on condition that in doing so they solicit the support of those gods for the victors.
Our game worlds are usually filled with many religions, but in some ways they don’t matter to the events of the game. Our characters and their factions generally all get along with each other like modern agnostic church-goers. Our modernist attitude is often, “This is what I believe, but it’s entirely possible that I’m completely wrong and you’re absolutely right, so we’re not going to fight about it.” The attitude of our ancestors was that what you believed mattered. The difference between them was whether what you believed mattered because our gods demanded that you stop supporting your gods and give your allegiance to ours, versus whether what you believe might also be true and our gods are happy to have your gods persuaded to help our agenda.
The question, then, is what are the attitudes of the religious leaders in your game worlds–both those who are leaders in the religions and those who are leaders of nations who believe the gods of their religions have placed them in power? Will they cooperate amicably with those who worship and obey other gods, or will this be a point of contention creating a rift between them?
The practices of the Medes and Persians demonstrate that one can disagree about religion, and have groups who hold widely disparate views live together. The Romans adopted this, licensing the religions of most nations such that it was legal to practice them, and only persecuting persons who adhered to unlawful beliefs. On the other hand, conflicts between religious groups who each believe that they are right and everyone else must agree with them is not entirely gone from the world today.
The religious and indeed the political landscape of your world is going to be impacted by how you handle this issue.