Witchcraft

It seems Pat Robertson recently brought up the silly “D&D is Satanic” meme, again. It’s accompanied with the usual fainting over players allegedly learning black magic.

For the people who are actually worried about witches going around hexing people, I have one point to make: People like you probably carry the bulk of the blame for witchcraft gaining any sort of popularity. I think it’s ironic. Dungeons & Dragons, Harry Potter, and all the fantasy franchises out there treat magic as fictional. It’s just entertaining escapism. Just like any other hobby, there are people who turn it into an unhealthy obsession, but they’re not the norm. I don’t play fantasy games out of some delusion that it’s a road to magical powers, I play because they’re fun.

There’s no seduction beyond that of any other hobby. There’s no magic to be learned, just game rules about fictional game objects. You could change the genre and replace fireball hurling wizards with military demolition crews, psychic aliens, superheroes, Tron-style computer programs, or whatever and keep the “crunch” of the game. Magic is just part of the flavor of fantasy game settings, just like kryptonite is a part of the DC comic setting. It’s a storytelling game that follows certain literary tropes about fictional magic and game design principles.

Let’s do one genre change: Fantasy Football. Players build their dream teams, make decisions about plays, and crunch the player statistics to determine the game’s outcome. They don’t invoke the spirits of the real football players or anything silly like that, they just have an abstracted representation the player on the board. I imagine there’s plenty of systems with rules for creating entirely fictional football players that only exist within the game. In the end, there’s no significant effect on the real world beyond the players being entertained and the need to clean up the table after they’re done.

That’s pretty much what a pure “dungeon crawl” D&D adventure is like. Strategy, tactics, and character builds are emphasized while story is minimal. Some players prefer complex stories, and in those cases, it’s more like collaborative writing. The Dungeon Master (or Game Master, for most other tabletop role playing games) is in control of the antagonists, supporting characters, the sets (hence he’s called the Dungeon Master), the props, the backstory, and acts as the referee. (It’s a demanding job.) The other players each have control over a protagonist in the adventuring party. They make decisions about their characters’ actions and how they react to other characters and situations. If all goes well, the heroic characters cooperate, overcome obstacles, face some nail-biting risks, right wrongs, defeat the villains, and save the fictional world. In the real world, the players just have a fun experience they can reminisce about. It’s fun in part because it can deviate from scripts, whether it’s the DM pulling out unexpected or ad hoc plot twists, players going off the rails by out-thinking the villains, or even just a decisive event coming down to an exceptionally lucky or unlucky roll of the die.

There’s no real world power involved in any of this, so there’s no seduction for the power hungry. Associating witchcraft purely with fantasy fiction and gaming robs it of that.

Fundamentalist Christians who believe witchcraft is real, however, provide it with a seductive allure by treating it as if it were practical. If you keep hammering impressionable people with assertions that it’s real, forbidden, and that it’s dangerous enough to be worth concerted efforts to destroy the books, you’re going to make it more attractive to some of the people who believe you. They may fall into unhealthy obsession in the process of devising rationalizations for the essentially random successes and failures that follow any superstitious activity. Reacting to their witchcraft with horror only reinforces their delusion via the Gadfly Corollary: If you’re worried, that can lead lazy thinkers to believing that they’re being effective threats. The best preventative measure is critical thinking, but frankly, I don’t think critical thinking is an ally to religion, either, since I file that under superstition for the same reasons as witchcraft.

In another bit of irony, many of the fundamentalists who preach the dangers of witchcraft have a heavy overlap with those who essentially favor witchcraft in the form of praying for people to be cursed or mind controlled by their god. It’s a double-standard and a sign of profound moral confusion about what it means to wield power. The morality of an action doesn’t depend on who’s doing it. It depends on the benefits, risks, intentions, desires, and costs to the people affected by the action. The idea that a being can harm others because he has some inherent authority to do so is a perverse rejection of morality in favor of selfishness and caprice. This moral vacuum also makes the way for sectarian violence when one religion or denomination declares another’s prayers to be witchcraft and war breaks out over whose deity arbitrarily merits special exception from moral principles instead of seeking out a more rational, consistent, and universal moral standard.

Much worse than some gullible person wasting money on powerless trinkets from a voodoo store, there are places in the world where the belief in witchcraft still leads to old, familiar horrors. Child “witches” are abandoned, shunned, beaten, and murdered because the community believes that witchcraft is real. The idea of witchcraft effectively gives people carte blanche to accuse anyone whenever something bad happens in the community. Or whenever they just don’t like somebody. Naturally, witch hunts are fertile ground for bigots who are given an additional flimsy excuse to hurt anyone who’s unpopular for being different. Anyone who voices compassion for the victims or even asks for calm reasoning about the issue becomes a suspect. This is as much a feature as it is a bug, and many privileged people want to perpetuate such superstitions for their selfish gain. Salem is still with us in the 21st century. It doesn’t help that there are American preachers who’d renounce such horror while in front of a first world audience but send missionaries to sing praise for the rationales behind them.

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One response to “Witchcraft

  1. Good descriptions Bronze Dog. One of the main things I liked about role-playing such as Dungeons & Dragons was the progression of the character(s) I was playing. Whatever was the character’s forte: fighting, stealthy operation or wielding magic of sorcerous or divine nature, as experience is gained through entertaining play, the character becomes better at it and can join in grander adventures, greater tests of their growing abilities.

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