On “acceptable” religious chauvinism

Something occured to me lately, and it relates somewhat to Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocaplyse, but the scope of the topic is also broader than that game. It always seems as though there is some group within society that, while entirely legitimate and sincere in purpose, are subject to a degree of chauvinistic contempt that, despite the premise of liberal society seeming to emphasize pluralism and tolerance, can be afforded “acceptable” targets. Islam is a familiar example for many people in the sense that the usual pretences to tolerance and understanding sometimes fly out the window when discussing Muslims, who are frequently blamed for the terrorism committed by a minority of the faith. But even there, there is also a tendency of discourse where the opposite is the case. In fact, I notice that the three Abrahamic faiths tend to get somewhat fair dues overall in Western culture. Alternative religious paths are often dismissed, mocked, viewed as symptoms of delusion and pathology, and they’re treated like fanciful and eccentric follies at best and like downright cults at worst. Of course, this is not the only way paganism is often depicted. There are plenty of romantic depictions of pre-Christian Greeks and Vikings, and I can’t say I’m complaining about those at least too much, and I would argue that Satanism is overall represented worse than paganism in popular culture, but it sometimes still seems that polytheism, when not depicted in the essentially Christianized form seen in lots of fantasy fiction, can be depicted as essentially barbarous and its re-emergence as a distinctly negative thing.

A tweet from a user on Twitter named Jorge APB proved to be illuminating in this regard when discussing Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. We should remember that Apocalypse is a game in the SMT series that positions the gods and forces of polytheism, called the Divine Powers, against humanity and the forces of Law and Chaos, which are each framed as exclusively monotheistic. At some point in the game’s story, some of the Divine Powers massacre the inhabitants of the Kinshicho Underground District. This unit is led by Quetzalcoatl, who in the game calls himself “the True Sun God” and demands that humans sacrifice themselves to him so that he might regain his “throne”. This, of course, has some major problems. As Jorge points out via an encyclopedia of mythology, Quetzalcoatl accepted offerings of fruit and flowers, not human sacrifice, and he certainly was not “the true sun god” – he was a god of many things, but not necessarily the sun. This game’s Quetzalcoatl was not written as a bloodthristy sun god because Quetzalcoatl actually was a bloodthirsty sun god, rather he was written that way because that’s what the story demanded in advance. The story and the roles contained within it were established first before the characters were defined, and in this way the story defined the identities of the mythological characters out of existence. Thus we see Quetzalcoatl go from a god who took offerings of flowers to a god who took offerings of human life so he could be king.

It’s actually pretty telling that the explicitly polytheistic faction, defined separately from the forces of Law and Chaos, is defined with probably the least moral nuance of almost any faction in the series and is treated as more cartoonishly evil than previous ones. You know, there’s another example of a fictional media I can think of that depicts pre-Christian polytheism, or rather Mesoamerican indigenous religion in particular, in terms of an exclusive evil and savage religious worldview. I am of course referring to Mel Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalypto, which is set in a pseudo-historical rendition of Mayan civilization in which the protagonist is captured and brought for sacrifice in a time of civilizational decline. The film presents Mayan civilization as being devoted human sacrifice to the extent that they captured civilians at random for sacrifice, when in reality, although the Mayans certainly did practice human sacrifice, they usually sacrificed prisoners of war from the nobles and never abducated sacrificial victims from villages. The film shows Mayans practicing mass sacrifice (usually attributed instead to the Aztecs), despite there being no evidence of Mayan mass graves. The film depicts the Mayans as inured in the widespread practice of slavery, holding large numbers of slaves even though there’s no evidence that large numbers of slaves were held in Mayan cities. The film’s setting in 1502 has little to do with any actual Mayan collapse, and instead exists to situate Mayan decline and decadence as a prelude to the necessary salvation of colonial Christianity.

The treatment of Mayan civilization in Apocalyto is something that did not go unnoticed by critics, historians, and archaeologists, and there were critical voices that pointed to the many problems of the way Mayans were depicted in the movie, especially only a decade or so after the a genocidal civil war in Guatemala in which indigenous Mayans were targeted for extermination off the back of xenophobic narratives in which the Maya were presented as bloodthirsty savages. But, take stock. Can you imagine Hollywood making a movie depicting the atrocities of Christian crusades against the Cathars for the sake of maintaining the power of the Catholic Church? Or about how people who continued to worship Odin in places like Sweden were executed during the Middle Ages? Or the Inquisition that was carried out in Goa? For some reason, I doubt we will see those movies, because Christianity, contrary to some perceptions, has not yet entered the status where you can make movies specifically to highlight the atrocities of Christian power. Or perhaps, alternatively, it is because it is easier to convey grandiose narratives of “progress” by highlighting archetypal constructions of regression and degeneracy that stand in opposition to the march of reason and progress from the lens of secular, post-Enlightenment society. It could be one of many reasons, insofar as the dynamic is constructed and set either way.

Scene from Apocalypto

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