The setting: A pre-industrial fantasy setting where magic is probably available, but not necessarily (outside the god's capabilities anyway). There are known to be different Gods, with different personalities, in charge of different aspects of human life. These Gods can physically affect the world in certain ways and in some cases, this might negatively impact some people while positively affecting others.

Some Gods are not happy with only the aspect they currently control, and they have different temperaments. For instance, there generally is a God who grants power and is a God of chaos or destruction. For obvious reasons, worshipping this God is not a highly regarded trait - but there are even some rivalries between "good-natured" Gods.

How might a society work which grants "Freedom of Religion" (by today's standards - even Aztecs would not be allowed to sacrifice people) to its members? Can such a thing exist? Keep in mind that even some "good-natured" Gods are in conflict with other "good-natured" Gods, so what societal laws might there be for keeping the balance in comparison to today's laws?

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    $\begingroup$ Have you read any of Terry Pratchett's books at all? I think you'd find it quite applies. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jan 13 '16 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ I have not.. but it sounds like I should $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Jan 13 '16 at 19:33
  • $\begingroup$ If someone is an Aztec and volunteers to be sacrificed, is this okay? Sacrificing them, I mean. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Jan 13 '16 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ If the gods can be irrefutably shown to be demonstrably affecting the world, then I would say they fall into the purvey of science and facts, rather than religion and faith. Kind of a different animal at that point. $\endgroup$ – DCShannon Jan 14 '16 at 4:02
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    $\begingroup$ If the god is real and exists, is it really a religion anymore? $\endgroup$ – DA. Jan 14 '16 at 8:33

Probably in a "You can worship whatever god you want how you need to, just so long as it doesn't affect someone else's freedom."

This would annoy the Aztecs, but the rest of the people would be happy with not being ritually murdered.

The interesting question isn't really how this would affect the people, but what the gods would do about it.

For instance, if I'm a chaos god that likes offerings of the still beating hearts of my worshiper's enemies, I'm not going to be to happy with some lowly humans telling people they can't.
And unless some other god is willing to step in and stop me, I have the power to do things to get what I want.

If I'm a jealous god that doesn't want anyone else worshiped, then what might I do to the priests and followers of other gods?

You'd almost need a freedom of religion law among the gods themselves, and some way to enforce it, which could be another source of contention among even the good-natured gods.

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    $\begingroup$ Even then, having a god that doesn't play by the rules would make for an interesting story. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Jan 13 '16 at 18:58
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    $\begingroup$ The idea of "THE RULES" comes up in a few different fantasies (such as Terry Pratchett's disk-world series) and even in some myths (like Ovid's Metamorphoses). $\endgroup$ – PipperChip Jan 13 '16 at 18:59
  • $\begingroup$ The first two paragraphs are effectively the American style of freedom of religion (or at least the ideal anyway). $\endgroup$ – nhgrif Jan 14 '16 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ @nhgrif Yeah, I wasn't really sure on how to improve on it, and to me it's the less interesting part anyway. Seeing a god brought up on trial for messing with another gods followers. Or even maybe have a human sue a god for smiting him because he was praying to another god... And of course you have all the hijinx that the Greek gods got up to. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Jan 14 '16 at 14:33
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    $\begingroup$ Basically, there should be a god of justice to police the other gods. $\endgroup$ – svavil Jan 14 '16 at 22:30

The obvious example that comes to mind would be Forgotten Realms (D&D) ...they have A LOT of gods and they vary in how they treat the world and their followers.

It is easy to imagine a city in Forgotten Realms, maybe Waterdeep (a large metropolis) where there are no laws regarding worship.

People are free to worship any deity they choose and the deities can fall anywhere on the 9 point alignment axis.

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It is important at this point to differentiate between legal freedom and complete freedom.

Much like the second amendment and freedom of speech, you are protected from government punishment based solely on what you say...but as pointed out, that does not protect you from the implications of obnoxious things you might say and how other people feel about your opinions.

I would suggest that freedom of religion in this sort of world would work much the same way. Sure you are free to worship the chaotic evil god of murder if you want to...but doing so in public could end very very poorly for you, even if it is not the government that is making things end that way.

Odds are there would be cultural norms for a given city where a certain set of gods is preferred, there would be a second layer of gods that while not common are not overtly frowned upon (maybe foreign deities or the deities of minority races) and then there would be the third layer of hated, feared, evil deities that are only worshipped in secret. You may not have the city guard executing mid-night raids but you could very well have mobs that take matters into their own hands...which the government may or may not tolerate.


Well of course almost any religious believer would say that the God or gods he believes in DO affect the world. So how is what you are suggesting different from real life?

(a) There is no question or ambiguity? The gods come down from Mount Olympus on fiery chariots and throw lightning bolts and their enemies, and there is no way that anyone who is not blind could say that this was not done by the gods? And they do this often enough that pretty much everyone in the world sees it regularly? (As opposed to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which say that God usually works in more subtle ways, and that "blatant" miracles are relatively rare so that most people only know about them by reading scripture, lives of saints, etc, not personal experience.)

(b) There are multiple competing gods? Like in Graceo-Roman polytheism. (Modern Hinduism has many gods of course, but I don't know enough about Hinduism to say if the believe the gods compete and fight like the Greek gods.)

I can see how (a) and/or (b) could put a strain on freedom of religion. In the real world, an atheist might be annoyed at Christian prayers, but he presumably is not literally afraid that the Christian prayers will result in God bringing down some judgement on him, because he doesn't believe there is a God to do so. But if the existence of these gods was undeniable, then knowing that my neighbor who worships the cow god is praying for judgement on all those who eat beef, I would not dismiss his prayers as vain appeals to an imaginary god. I'd have a real fear that his god would respond and do me harm.

In the real world, if someone worships a different god than mine, I generally believe that his prayers and rituals are just a waste of time. They don't do me any direct harm. (Barring special cases, like he kidnaps me to offer me as a human sacrifice.) But in your proposed scenario, he very well might do me harm. So in the real world, it makes good rational sense to say, let everyone worship in his own way, and attempt to persuade others that his way is best if he so chooses, and see what works out. But in your scenario, you can't just "live and let live". It's not that they're worshipping a false god, it's that they're worshipping a very real god who is inimical to me.

To the extent that the gods compete, I think freedom of religion would become very difficult to sustain. It would be too impractical. Like, I have no problem being tolerant of people with different skin colors or languages or favorite foods. But I do have a problem with being tolerant of people who steal and kill.

If the gods do not compete, if they're all friendly to each other and tell their followers to respect each other, than all this goes away, and freedom of religion becomes like accepting that some people like pizza and some like tacos. There's no reason why I should care if your tastes are different from mine.

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    $\begingroup$ In Graceo-Roman polytheism, (or fiction based on it). The gods didn't get along but they had a pecking order. Which kind of resolves this. $\endgroup$ – Jeremy French Jan 14 '16 at 17:55

I don't think the concept of 'freedom' can exist at all in a world that contains gods. Just because your country tells you you can eat meat on a Sunday doesn't mean you won't get fried by a divine lightning bolt after doing so. The Gods effectively control the executive branch of government, doling out punishments and rewards as they see fit. Without any checks and balances, their control will overshadow all other governments, making any human institution just a figurehead. That's why many kings of old said they ruled by 'divine right': Christians aren't supposed to swear loyalty to anyone but God, but since the king works for God, it's kind of the same.

Based on this, any people in your world should be considered citizens of a dictatorship. Or, I guess an oligarchy since there's a bunch of gods. The main idea is that whatever 'freedoms' the humans have are based on what the gods let them do. That includes religion.

However, I will say that religion in this case can be considered a form of bribery: butter up to the higher-ups and you might get some extra benefits. Thus, some factions may force people to worship certain gods, just like gangsters try to influence government by forcing people in their neighborhoods to vote a certain way. But again, this all depends on how well the gods are paying attention.

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    $\begingroup$ You are supposing that the gods want that kind of control. A god may be a benevolent creature that lets people do what they want, and after they die, check up the tabs of what they did and send them to the appropriate place. Really, we have so many examples of working mythologies with active gods from several authors that I can't really agree with this answer in any form. Don't suppose that all gods of the OP's works adhere to your form of thinking, please. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Jan 14 '16 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ @ThalesPereira I'm not assuming the gods will do anything. I'm just saying people can't have true freedom if the gods don't have to play by the rules. It doesn't matter how benevolent your slaveowner is, as long as he owns you you will always be a slave. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Jan 14 '16 at 14:08
  • $\begingroup$ "The Gods effectively control the executive branch of government, doling out punishments and rewards as they see fit". You are assuming they want that control, and you are assuming they are slave owners. Why they can just treat mortals as most of other gods in thousands of works of fiction do? The people from Middle-earth, Greyhawk, Arton, etc doesn't seem like slaves to me. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Jan 14 '16 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ @ThalesPereira By "as they see fit" I thought I was implying they could see fit to not punish anyone. And the people of Middle-Earth were constantly harassed by the servants of Melkor (a god), until the Valar (also gods) sent their own servants to set things straight. Also, you seem to think that slaveowners and dictators are necessarily bad; all I'm saying is that when they exist, freedom is an illusion. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Jan 14 '16 at 14:24

IMHO, both concepts of "religion" and "god" in such a world would be very different to what we imagine/know as such. To worship, for example, would be less about faith and belief (on an unseen/indirectly experienced higher being) and more about allegiance (towards a very visible individual).

The legal system of societies developing in such a world would also be very different, with some societies being tied to the worship of/allegiance towards one or several gods, other societies giving their citizen complete freedom and responsibility over their choice of gods, and others simply not taking any stance.

It would depend a lot on how strong the relationship can become between an individual and a god, and the nature of the gods themselves. For example, in a "Gods Need Prayer Badly" scenario, the gods would be as interested in maintaining a strong following as the people would be in keeping this god's favor. Other scenarios would put the people more or less at the mercy of the gods' whim, although god-challenging heroes may be a possibility.

Of course, some people may take a third option, and flat out refuse to worship any visible, moody, aspect-limited, one-among-many, flawed "god", only willing to offer their souls to a believed One Supreme Being that would be above all gods and all creation. Maybe.


Simple: The gods might care about their power over the people, but not about being worshipped by them. In that case, those gods would probably treat us similar to like we treat wild animals: As long as they don't get in our way, we mostly don't care about them. Some we like to watch, others we more or less ignore. Sometimes we take a few exemplars to study them, or put them in zoos, or use them for other purposes (we of course also eat them sometimes; I guess that would not apply to your gods — but then, gods that want human sacrifice are not unheard of, so so why not also gods that eat humans). But otherwise, the animals are mostly affected by us indirectly (but still often massively), by our actions affecting their environment.


The trick is to keep your head down and hope that you don't come to the notice of the gods.

A good read is Ovid. He introduces some rules like:

no god may undo what another god has done

The general theme of the book is that if the gods notice you, you've had it. Jupiter likes nymphs who are willing to put out, if they won't, he turns them into something. Juno (Jupiter's wife) turns them into something if they put out. The only way out of this is to swear off sex forever (Diana) and get the protection of another god, or just hope that none of them ever notice you exist.

You're free to worship whoever you like, and whoever you like had better be the local god. Fervently enough that the other people can see you doing it but not so fervently that any of the gods actually notice you.

Freedom to do what you must to preserve your own skin, preferably in the same shape it currently is.

As the great Pterry said,

May you live in interesting times


Freedom of religion would be in existence by definition.

There would be no debate as to which gods exist, and which gods don't. They would all exert too much influence for their existence to be controversial. The study of their culture, behaviour, powers, etc. would no longer be considered religion and instead will form a major part of various sciences (like physics, psychology) and social sciences (like political science, anthropology), etc. We would also have new philosophical subjects like morality to be considered sciences, because there may be a universal consensus on what laws one must obey (if any) to be considered morally right, and what the consequences are to morally wrong actions.

If there do exist some controversial points - for example, how bad-tempered is the God of Anger in emergency situations - then people would predict answers using scientific methods (hypotheses, then experiments, and then theories/facts) rather than personal opinions.

Some limited differences of opinion would always be there, but that is present even among the scientists of today.

  • $\begingroup$ I find this a strange outlook, in the way that a dog might be practicing science in the way he acts towards his owner. The dog studies the owner his whole life, learning what his owner likes (what the dog gets rewarded for), as well as what he dislikes. And sometimes when the owner is in a good mood, good things seem to come out of nowhere. The dog's favorite hypothesis is begging for food. Sure, works sometimes, but not always, and when a guest comes over they may find it annoying in which case the dog has to go outside. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Jan 14 '16 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Double The dog is not capable of making a successful attempt at developing theories that can predict the owner. However, it is still able to decide what is likely and what is not. So it is still making an attempt to study its situation scientifically. Ofcourse, scientific thinking is usually associated with humans, but it is the same concept. $\endgroup$ – ghosts_in_the_code Jan 14 '16 at 17:32

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