The Existential Horror of Non-Anthropocentric Morality in Fantasy Worlds

The new Diablo 4 cinematic had me looking into the lore of Diablo. I looked into it and it got me thinking about angels without God. This is a theme I have seen in much fantasy and fiction: Darksiders, Diablo, Good Omens, even Kill Six Billion Demons. God is always absent or dead or just never was. More interesting still, in so many of these worlds inspired by what is essentially Christian mythology, Christ is conspicuously absent. I am a Christian but I very much do view a lot of the mythos surrounding angels and demons to be mythology, both technically and in the sense that it was added to Christianity with fairly minimal textual support from Scripture and I thus view it as less than credible from a faith perspective.

From Kill Six Billion Demons

So a question that began to circle in my brain was: why remove Christ and God from these fantasy worlds which are so clearly inspired by Christianity?

For one thing, God's victory is assured and has already occurred in the Chrisitan view. The cosmic battle is essentially already won in Jesus Christ. Now that isn't the totality of it but trying to apply stats to God in a game world would lead to similar results and a similar question: Why hasn't God just won this thing already with his Infinite Power Level?

Also, we want to leave the door open for angels to be bad guys. If angels truly serve the absolute and pure good, embodied in God, then it is hard for them to be villains and it can become an odious story restriction in a fantasy world so centered on the battle of angels and demons where the usual story instinct is to show how both sides are flawed.

An interesting consequence of this is that Good and Evil typically take on a rather Dualistic split rather than evil being a corruption of good which I would say is the usual religious formulation. A question I thought of when learning about Diablo is that since in that setting humans are the offspring of an angel and a demon, why ought human beings automatically prefer the angels? If they are fairly even combatants in a war for the universe, what makes the good that the angels serve any better than the demons' evil? Really, the result seems obvious, human beings should choose their own side rather than angels or demons.

Its usually once this understanding has occurred that angels become far more menacing than demons. Their supposed good, the righteousness that they serve doesn't care about human wellbeing. It is an end unto itself and the wrath of heaven can just as easily wipe out rebellious humans as they squash demons. They have what I would call a Non-Anthropocentric Morality.

Our morality as human beings is usually Anthropocentric. It is the manner by which we are to behave in the world which best brings about wellbeing for humanity. Even Deontological morality typically assumes that its moral system is ultimately better for human beings just in a different way than Consequentialist morality.

I would say that the real inception of the wide-spread acceptance of this kind of morality for the Western world was found in the Chrisitan moral revolution, based on the idea of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ which is probably another reason that Jesus is typically absent from Chrisitan inspired fantasy worlds. Indeed, I would go so far as to say the Pharisees of Jesus' day represented a Non-Anthropocentric morality that he railed against. "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."

Anyway, this Non-Anthropocentric morality is really horrifying in a very existentialist way. It makes morality absurd. Why should human beings follow a way of Being that is fundamentally unconcerned with how we benefit from that mode of existence? Angels become an oppressive force holding mankind down in servitude to a master that neither cares if they live or die. Demons are at least selfish and honest about what they want. You know what to expect from a demon. You might convince a demon to leave you alone if you can show it is in its best interest. An angel is not selfish. It enacts with brutal surety a cold iron law that has no room for mercy.

They mirror the way in which human morality can become quickly abusive when ideology severs its roots in Anthropocentrism. Soviet Communism placed its Greater Good over the immediate good of its citizens, particularly those with any kind of money. Nazi Germany did something similar. Any time the good of human beings is subordinated beneath the Greater Good, you have the set up for a nightmare world of existential horror.

When you hand that philosophy into the palms of beings with divine power, you create true monsters. No demon in this sense can compare to the terrifying wrath of an angel.

Then the last taste of horror, that I think really hits me, is how do we decide what is moral? In a world where the cosmic forces of the universe say Good is what the Angels stand for and Evil is for Demons, how do mear humans decide what ought to be right and wrong? Do we just accept the factional morality, creating a third front in the cosmic battle for Humanity, and doom ourselves to constant warfare with the other two sides?

It seems regardless of what we choose there would only be more strife, more death, more unending war. I suppose that very kind of world is represented in Warhammer 40K to a certain extent. It also, strangely enough, does not seem like the kind of world I would like to live in.

That's the real horror: no right choices. It's not just a matter of making a complex choice, every choice is equally bad and none of them get us what we want. It is all pure absurdity: a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.


  1. I will never get tired of skeleton bike.

    Very good points here and some food for thought. Might do a response post - generation tables for fantasy christ-figures and attendant movements?

  2. Reminds me of Kult where both Astaroth and The Demiurge were big asses and humanity was not their creations, but instead the two powers equals. (Depending on the edition.)

    1. I'm not familiar with Kult but this is a theme I have seen in plenty of settings so it makes sense.

  3. I like this thinking a lot, and I like "terrible angels" settings.

    I think one big reason fantasy lit and RPGs use pagan gods is that aspiring heroes have a lot more room to operate when the gods aren't omnipotent and may be in opposition to each other. In Homer, humans are small compared with the gods, but with endurance, valor, and guile they may just get through and achieve their own goals. In Arthurian lit, where God and Christ are just behind the veil, the quest for the Grail is just a big rat maze to test knightly virtue. The knights' own goals are nearly irrelevant, and ideally they have no goals but virtue. Their free will is just an opportunity to be tempted into having sex or killing a downed foe and thus spoiling their virtue. It can work for Christian literary projects, but it's problematic for RPGs that need a sense of player freedom.

    I think the best approach to a Christian setting would be a little more Gnostic. The Trinity have retreated from the world and don't interfere with much power.

    Such a setting would raise the prospect of Satanic characters, though. As a believing Christian, would you be comfortable with that? I'm curious.

    1. I agree with your diagnosis of fantasy settings using pagan gods. It does make a lot of sense. RPGs have different demands than literature.

      I think you can incorporate Christianity into your fantasy world, but I think the key would be that evil gets to make an appearance but cosmic good is far more rare. As a lot of people believe in real life, God is working through human beings to enact good in the world. Its also true to life that it seems absolute evil can rear its head while something truly noble and good is far more rare.

      I'm cool with Satanic characters. I've played a 5e warlock that had Satan as their patron. RPGs aren't real life. I actually find the idea of playing such a character to be fairly interesting. How can Faust escape his bargain and reclaim his soul? I find it to be a very interesting idea and one that honestly circles all the way back around to being quite Christian again.

    2. As a Christian, I find the concept of a Faustian bargain kinda funny. If the demon is excessively legalistic, and Faust was previously a Christian, then you have a case of "selling" something (i.e. your soul) that isn't actually yours. Defraud the devil!

      One thing that might be fun in a Christian setting is going around to pagan areas evangelizing by just completely upstaging and destroying idols. The challenge is getting to the idol in the first place, but once you do, you have to whole force of Creation and its Creator behind you and you can just blast the shit out of it (or chop it down with an axe or something). This could also apply to wizards (since there are quite a lot of them in the bible and christian folklore, see Simon Magus, Witch of Endor, Balaam), where they have extensive networks of followers or powerful worldly patrons but their actual magic can be dispelled with Faith In God (TM).

      It probably wouldn't fit very neatly into OSR though, since the general feel would be either the PCs winning meteorically with diplomacy and God or dying nobly (i.e. horribly and without resisting, but with some miracles thrown in).

    3. The Faustian bargain is interesting to me especially since in Dr. Faust, it would seem that there is nothing really binding about his deal. He cold repent at any time before the end and have been saved. He just waits too long. Or my idea is actually that Faust was saved because the demons said if he repented then they would tear him apart. In the play the last we see of Faust was him being dragged towards a portal into hell but then people find his body torn to shreds the next day, indicating to me that Faust actually was saved and then the demons did exactly what they said they would.

      I could see idol smashing as a thing in like a low magic swords and sorcery setting where warring tribes smash each others idols upon a military victory. You could have a quest for an idol smashing heist. If the idol actually has some kind of magic, then destroying it could be a way to sever a caster's power source or something.

  4. while this might not be either the time or place but there were fundamental differences between soviet russia and nazi germany. for soviets it was not individual good vs collective good but the ownership of the means of production. it is quite similar to agrarian reform.

    nazi morality on the other hand was very conventional except that whole sections of society were excluded from the human race.

    1. You are right about the appropriateness of the place: however I feel I have to respond because the huge amounts of government mandated murder would appear to be in conflict with what you are saying. They both took innocent people and killed them to further their own vision of a utopian future. This is the definition of pursuing the Greater Good over the individual good of the their inhabitants. Agrarian reform need not include killing land-owning peasants thus causing mass starvation. There is no place in conventional morality for the taking and executing of political prisoners. Plus the basis of who got to be apart of the human race or not was once again based on their idea of a utopian future.

  5. Speaking to the throughline of the article.

    Moorcock's manichean conflict of Law vs Chaos is definitely one of Non-Anthropocentric moralities, hence the true role of the Eternal Champion is fight for a usually Anthrocentric Balance in order to defend the wellbeing and at times the very existence of humanity.

    However, each instance of the Eternal Champion will have their own take on fighting for the Balance depending on the context and their own worldview, which can end up in some surprising and disturbing places.

    Both D&D and Warhammer 40K, take Moorcock's Law vs Chaos duality and run with it in their own ways.

    1. I totally agree. The Law vs Chaos duality is definitely Non-Anthropocentric. Really in my mind the only thing for adventurers in that kind of setting is to find a good middle ground. I ran a DCC campaign inspired by Warhammer that played with the idea that monsters and monstrous people come from the extremes of Law and Chaos. You go from the rampaging demons and the murderous barbarians of Chaos to Technocratic clockwork clerics and heretic burning Inquisitors of Law.


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