Welcome, 40K fans, to a series of articles I am writing about some of the deeper aspects of Warhammer 40,000.
These articles are a thought exercise, and by writing them I hope to improve my thinking about 40K and its fiction (and maybe about much more). Topics in this series will be wide-ranging and will not shy away from moral or philosophical issues that some may consider sensitive or even controversial. I would rather risk the conversation, so while you or I may not agree, I look forward to hearing why. Consider yourself warned for lore spoilers as well. Also, check the Tactics Corner for more great articles on gaming in 40K!
The Religious Cliche
The Imperium of Man in 40K is a complex problem to figure out. It can be pulled apart from many different directions, and most of them have merit in some way or another. Often, I see people only really touch the low-hanging fruit-equivalent of critical ideas when it comes to analyzing the Imperium’s simulated human problems. One of the big areas that I want to address now is the Imperium as a metaphor for the tyranny and backwards thinking of religion in general.
Considering the world we live in, it is very en vogue to dismissively point a finger at religion as a relic of a lesser, bygone age of human stupidity, and to look at those who still hold to a religious lifestyle as idiots. In the face of scientific achievement, why would people waste their time on religious ideology? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone to give up on all of that superstition so we can move on?
Let’s be honest, because there are a lot of good arguments for that perspective. To borrow a religious phrase, “You have to give the devil his due.” Having just come out of university education in the humanities, the faults and excesses of religion and religious thinking are now almost a sad cliche to me as they are represented in media and popular fiction. There are some very good reasons (represented by the worst part of some religions) that people want reason and logic to play a bigger role in our decision-making process as a continually more interconnected global society. There’s also some great evidence for the benefits that scientific thinking has for society as a whole.
In fact (to bring this back to 40K), the entire notion of the Imperial Truth was built upon this idea – that we can live on logic and science and by embracing those things fully we can bring humanity further than we could if we were still shackled by the manacles of belief and religious thinking. The problem with logic, as is explored in the failure of the Imperial Truth during the Horus Heresy (or by moral atrocities of the “Greater Good” philosophy of the T’au) is that you can justify a wide range of terrible and amoral things in the pursuit of logic. Even now, in modern society, we are still debating how logic could create an overarching human ethic that tells us the proper way to live. Modern western logical thinking about morality has a strong root in religious thinking and morality, and modern-day materialist philosophers who have come out of the West haven’t been able to divorce themselves from how their understanding of morality is connected to a western religious ethic.
The Subjective Lie of Right and Wrong
Logic and science can describe a cause-effect pattern of how things operate in the world, but we haven’t advanced far enough for the scientific method to tell us the proper way to act in the world. The more we split ourselves into us vs. them groups and consider a (to borrow a phrase) a “greater good” for humanity, the easier it becomes to embrace things like eugenics as the best way to filter out what is good and bad. Even saying that makes my skin crawl, and likely does for many people. What’s the use of an effort meant to weed out what is good and undesirable in people if you can’t trust the ethic that guides that effort? There have been some pretty awful ethics that have tried to justify that sort of process in the past and even uncomfortably recently.
After all, good and evil are not so easy to categorize in the world of reason, and lacking a prevailing ethic, a moral relativist view or a straight materialistic perspective of living in the world simply boils the issue down to good and evil to being matters of perspective. If that were the case, then why do so many of our narratives (40K and 30K narratives included) focus on the noble, moral few standing up against the cruelty of the many? We’ve told this story over and over again in fables inside and outside of religious literature and prose for thousands of years. Why is this question important? If enough people see something a minority considers ‘evil’ as part of their perspective, then doesn’t that perspective merit acceptance by the minority?
I don’t accept good and evil as matters of perspective. While good is pretty hard to nail down in a way we can all agree on, evil isn’t as hard in most cases to categorize or witness, and if evil exists then what isn’t evil must be good, and while we can be grateful that what evil isn’t includes a lot of things, there are a lot of things that evil is, and that’s not what most of us want to be.
The Other Side of the Religious Moon
If we are still trying to be honest, however, we can’t ignore the good role that religion has played in lives over the centuries, or rest the blame for human cruelty solely on the shoulders of religion or God. Most people have just been trying to get by, and have been aiming at a higher way of living with varying degrees of success. Not many people catalog the profound acts of love, goodness, charity, compassion, friendship, understanding, and service that the highest ideals of religion teach and very often still accomplish. Instead there is a focus on how often people fail to live up to those high ideals, and I think that to a certain extent that is fair, but it does not tell the whole story. Closer examination sees that religion is more than just pyres, crusades, persecution, and dogma, though it has often included those things. In that same honest evaluation, reason has had its own pyres, gas chambers, gulags, firing squads, and persecutions. The great experiments with reason in the 20th century demonstrated that for all its benefits, logic can also be terribly efficient at the administration of catastrophic tragedy. What is the constant between reason and religion? Humanity. People. Us.
The idea that the Imperium is solely a caricature of religion, and that religion only is fundamentally responsible for the death, ignorance, and oppression of all societies across history only grazes the edges of what is a wider human problem. I would posit that anyone who is looking at the Imperium and 40K solely as a religious parody hasn’t really been paying attention. We have to have our eyes open and consider both dangerous extremes of thought and which ones we are susceptible to falling in line with.
Having a Secular Cake and Eating It, Too
Remember that the Imperium was established as a secular ideology that committed acts of genocide and slaugther across a 200-year galactic campaign to exterminate religion and belief in the name of enlightenment and scientific truth.
“There have been other consts incurred by the [Imperial Truth] which have undermined the Emperor’s dream of Imperium. Many billions of lives were lost in the purges required to maintain it. Ancient civilizations, directly descended from Old Earth, who carried with them across the cosmos the torch of religions deemed anathema in this enlightened age were simply murdered for their beliefs. Tens of thousands of cities were burned, cultures were put to the sword, and worlds were annihilated in the name of the Truth.”Horus Heresy Book 8: Malevolence, Page 10
This can be easily paralleled to the Soviet Union and the communist uprising that deemed it prudent to eliminate religion entirely and set up a system of state atheism.
“The Soviet policy of state atheism (gosateizm), albeit inconsistently applied, remains a major goal of official ideology. Massive state resources have been expended not only to prevent the implanting of religious belief in nonbelievers but also to eradicate ‘prerevolutionary remnants’ already existing. The regime is not merely passively committed to a godless polity but takes an aggressive stance of official forced atheization. Thus a major task of the police apparatus is the persecution of forms of religious practice. Not surprisingly, the Committee for State Security (KGB) is reported to have a division dealing specifically with ‘churchmen and sectarians.’ “Protest for Religious Rights in the USSR: Characteristics and Consequences, page 426
This system encouraged the mockery, persecution, confiscation of wealth/property, forced labor of believers/clergy, and ultimate destruction of religious traditions across eastern Europe and Asia, and resulted in the death and/or gulag enslavement of millions of real people. 40K is as much a parody of rampant religiosity as it is a reminder that you don’t need a deity in order to rationalize the deaths of all those who won’t do what you want (or what you think is best), and that the logical ends don’t justify the means. With the right ‘why,’ any ‘how’ can be justified. 40K fiction has (deliberately or not) looked at the histories of religion and reason and once again pushed the scale up so big that we almost lose sight of the forest for the trees.
So, 40K fiction is simultaneously wagging a finger at the worst tendencies of religious malfeasance in the 41st millennium and is pointing in condemnation at the atrocities of human reason in the 20th century using the 31st millennium as a metaphor – all at a transhuman scale. Religion and reason are mere scapegoats to a more fundamental human reality which is that with the right (or wrong) ideology you can push the boundaries of known suffering to heretofore unknown frontiers, and the only thing you need is people. Religion and reason can each have their own destructive dogmas. It is prudent to think over these moral questions before we eventually do get big enough to create the horror at what is now a fictionally, comically obscene scale.
Good, Evil, and You
Whether you are a religious or a secular thinker (or both), take a minute and do a gut check. Take a moment the next time you read a story in the Grimdark simulation and ask yourself what parts of whatever is going on that you don’t like or consider amoral you see yourself supporting or ignoring. Better yet, imagine yourself as the one doing the day-to-day maintenance of the destructive dogma you are figuratively propping up. After all, you have something in common with all secular and religious killers throughout history – you are human. Regular people are the tools wielded by demagogues and tyrants to enforce their wills, after all. There’s relatively little separating you from the people from history you spit on as despots, dimwits, and dupes.
So, I think if we are considering these things properly, we are looking at how we relate to the worst aspects of both extremes. While we collectively struggle to figure out the proper way to act in the world (much like we do in the moral simulations of these novels), let’s not ignore one part of the parody here in favor of the other, especially the part that makes you the most uncomfortable.
On a Lighter Note
So, we’ve exhausted or outraged ourselves considering the surface level of this heavy topic, so why don’t we end thinking about something wholesome and worthwhile?
I’ve had an incredibly stressful year so far, but one of the things I keep coming back to is how much I’m looking forward to BattleHaven this year. Sarah, who runs the show, is an incredible host to me and my wife. We are fed well, play tons of games, enjoy the scenery, and get to soak in all the best things about being a Wargamer. What better place to discuss topics such as this than at BattleHaven?
As it turns our, Sarah has a couple spots left to fill, so if you are interested at all in going, then get in touch with her at BattleHavenEvents@gmail.com. If you mention that Captain Morgan sent you, she’ll knock $100.00 off your trip package.
An Ongoing Conversation
If you found this interesting, please check out my page Captain Morgan’s Librarius. This is the space where I test these ideas in their first drafts, and also talk about all the other parts of the hobby that I enjoy from painting, community, gaming, and all the rest. It’s also the best place to converse with me about this and many other topics in 40K. Likes and shares are appreciated. I hope you enjoyed this week’s read, and I’ll see you again next time!
And remember, Frontline Gaming sells gaming products at a discount, every day in their webcart!