Fantasy religions in games aren’t typically very nuanced. Whether they are stereotyped as righteous and pure crusaders of good or corrupt and evil cults, they are often depicted as being literally true–gods speak directly their followers, if not make actual appearances. Praying at an altar or shrine often confers some sort of real bonus or blessing, suggesting an actual source of power. At the very least, there generally isn’t much that outright contradicts what a given fantasy religion has to say about a world, sometimes because the fantasy religion is being used as a conduit to info-dump at the player. In the Dragon Age series, the Chantry starts out as a way to explain parts of the world of Thedas to the player, but the player is quickly and increasingly encouraged to challenge the Chantry’s teachings.
(Spoilers for DA:O, Awakening, DA2, and the Legacy DLC to follow.)
The Chantry and the Circle
The Chantry is Thedas’s version of Christianity, but with a female Jesus figure, named Andraste. Its major functions in the world during both Dragon Age: Origins (“Origins”) and Dragon Age 2 (“DA2”) are to 1. explain how magic works as well as the Fade, demons, and other related things, and 2. control mages using the Templar order, in accordance with the Chant of Light. There are other religions in Fereldan, namely the ancestor worship of the Dwarves and the Dalish elves’ polytheism, but–missionaries aside–they seem to be able to co-exist without outright contradicting each other.
In Origins, the Mage origin begins with the future Warden going through her Harrowing, which is a test all mages go through where they are sent into the Fade and have to prove they won’t be tempted by the demons that live there. This introduces a lot of worldbuilding to the player right off the bat: what the Fade is, how magic works, why there’s a Circle and why it’s overseen by the Chantry. The storyline with Jowan that follows introduces more concepts, including the Tranquil, blood magic, and phylacteries. Because of the Warden’s location, all of this information comes from the perspective of the Circle and the Chantry. Facts about the world–that Templars use phylacteries to track apostate mages–are mixed with the Chantry’s theories about the world–the role of demons, spirits, and the Fade–without any distinction between the two. At this point, to both the characters involved as well as the player, there isn’t a distinction. Even the game’s GUI helpfully sorts demons into their Chantry-given “sin” categories. In the beginning, it makes sense to accept the Chantry’s teachings at face value.
Characters who defy the Chantry
And yet, every mage companion in Origins, the Awakening expansion, and DA2 defies the Circle and the Chantry in some way, each one requiring the player to re-evaluate what they have been told about magic. The first mage the Warden meets outside of the Circle is Morrigan, a “Witch of the Wilds” and technically an apostate, showing the player that there are other ways for mages to live. Morrigan calls the Circle a prison, and a mage Warden can tell her she felt trapped there. And Morrigan is the first character to show that not everyone in Thedas believes in The Maker or accepts the Chantry’s teachings.
At first, Wynne is a model Circle mage. A senior enchanter who considers the Circle her home, she’s also a bit religious. But her storyline reveals her secret: she is, technically, an abomination. She lost her life saving a pupil while in the Fade, and now she is only being kept alive by a friendly spirit that has possessed her, though she has no idea why. She confesses to the Warden that she is worried about what she might become (a dangerous monster like most abominations, as seen in the fallen Circle quest). Here the Warden can come up with an explanation–maybe if she keeps her sense of self, then she’s not really an abomination?–but it’s one of the first signs that things are more complicated than the Chantry makes them out to be.
In Awakening, there’s Anders, who, much like a pet hamster I once had, escaped imprisonment regularly only to be dragged back to the Circle, and Velanna, a Dalish mage banished from her clan. Both mages defy the Chantry’s rule, and Anders’s companion quest even involves tracking down his phylactery so he can be free once and for all.
The conflict between the Chantry, the Circle, and the mages themselves is a major part of the plot of DA2. The characters act as windows into this conflict, starting with the player character and her family. Mage Hawke is an apostate, as is her sister, Bethany, and their now-deceased father, Malcolm. Aveline and her Templar husband are the first human beings Hawke meets in the game, and the tense confrontation that occurs sets up the conflict between mages and the Chantry–represented here by one of their soldiers, a Templar–right off the bat. At the beginning of the game, the characters are able to briefly put aside their differences in order to escape the Darkspawn, but once the Darkspawn are no longer a threat, the tension not only returns, but escalates over the course of the game’s three acts.
Anders returns as a companion in DA2, but he’s changed a lot since Amaranthine. He offered to host a spirit of Justice whose borrowed body was decaying (the same Justice from Awakening), but Justice changed into a spirit of Vengeance (this makes Anders the second Dragon Age companion who is an abomination). Anders and Justice, now one being, want all mages free from Chantry’s oppression, and are willing to act violently in order to achieve that end; during Act 2, he works to help mages escape the Circle, and at the end of Act 3 he blows up Kirkwall’s Chantry in order to prevent the kind Grand Cleric Elthina from presenting a compromise that, in Anders’s view, will only prolong mage oppression by making a lesser evil sound reasonable.
While all Dalish mages are technically considered apostates by the Chantry, Merrill takes things a step further by dealing in blood magic, and not being ashamed or regretful about it. To her, blood magic is just as neutral as other types or magic and can be used either for good or for evil. It’s the conversations between Merrill and Anders about blood magic, demons, and spirits that reveal an interesting nuance to Anders’s belief system. For example:
Anders: Maybe you don’t really understand the difference between spirits and demons.
Merrill: Did I ask you?
Anders: Spirits were the first children of the Maker, but He turned his back on them to dote on His mortal creations.
Anders: The ones who resented this became demons, driven to take everything mortals had and gain back the Maker’s favor.
Merrill: Your “Maker” is a story you humans use to explain the world.
Merrill: We have our own stories. I don’t need to borrow yours.
Anders: Do Dalish honestly not recognize the difference between demons and beneficial spirits?
Merrill: We’ve never thought of the Fade as the home of our gods.
Merrill: It is another realm, another people’s home. No different or more foreign than, say, Orzammar.
Varric: You can say that again.
Anders: But have you never studied the types of demons? They break down very clearly into different sins—
Merrill: Spirits differ from each other, just as you and Hawke and Isabela are all human.
Merrill: More or less…
Anders rejects the oppression of mages because it is unjust, but he accepts the Chantry’s teachings about blood magic and spirits because he can use them to explain his own negative experiences with Justice/Vengeance. But Merrill shows that there’s another way to explain the way things are without buying into the Chantry’s stories. Although, the fact that Justice’s entire nature changed once he joined with Anders supports Merrill’s explanation of the nature of spirits rather than the Chantry’s insistence that spirits can be categorized by their dominant nature, which doesn’t change. In another conversation between the two, Merrill says, “Anders… There’s no such thing as a good spirit. There never was. All spirits are dangerous. I understood that. I’m sorry that you didn’t.”
Alternate explanations for “miracles”
There’s no proof in either DA:O or DA2 that anything the Chantry says about the world is absolutely true, without any alternative explanation available. The biggest example is the Gauntlet in the quest for Andraste’s ashes. If the player has Oghren in the party during the Gauntlet, he points out that the “ghosts” in the gauntlet aren’t necessarily a divine miracle–the lyrium in the stone of the mountains has been known by the dwarves to “remember”, to record memories and play them back like a spectral hologram when people are near. In Awakening, the player can see this for themselves during the Deep Roads segment, where the stone’s recorded memories of a devastating final battle play out as the characters wander the abandoned corridors. As for the healing power of the ashes themselves, it’s speculated that Andraste was actually a powerful mage, which would explain many of her accomplishments.
In the Dragon Age games, prayer never accomplishes anything detectable. Early on in Origins, part of the Redcliffe quest involves convincing a Chantry priestess to bless the warriors. Even the priestess states that saying a few words or offering a token of protection won’t do anything, but she can be convinced to do it anyway for the sake of the villagers’ morale. Importantly, there isn’t anything in the games so far that would suggest that the Maker himself exists at all.
While the origins of the darkspawn aren’t clear, there are a few things known about them for sure: 1. The Old Gods, slumbering within the Deep Roads, call the darkspawn to them; 2. Once the darkspawn reaches one of the Old Gods, it awakens, and a Blight begins; 3. Both of these things are caused by the taint the darkspawn carry. The events of Awakening show that, contrary to the Chantry’s teachings that the darkspawn are purely, irredeemably evil, when given resistance to the taint (via Grey Warden blood), darkspawn become sentient, thinking, and able to resist the call of the Old Gods (meaning that if all or even most darkspawn were given this resistance, there would be no more Blights). The fact that the Chantry is wrong about the nature of darkspawn and that the darkspawn might actually be able to be cured, ending the Blights without actually having to resort to killing every single darkspawn, is what separates Dragon Age from other fantasy worlds with “evil” races, making things a bit more complicated than they appear at first.
What does it all mean?
The arc of the Dragon Age series seems to be moving toward proving the Chantry wrong and freeing mages from oppression. So far, the series has introduced the Chantry and immediately provided challenge after challenge to the Chantry’s doctrine, culminating in Anders blowing up Kirkwall’s Chantry, igniting Circle rebellions, and possibly starting a holy war. Mages will be an important part of the series’ overarching story of ending the Blights for good, which may involve liberating not only mages from the Chantry’s oppression but Darkspawn from the call of the Old Gods.
Additionally, all of this means that Thedas is the rare fantasy world that is not only atheist-friendly, but seems to have an atheist sensibility. The Chantry is a fairly realistic depiction of a religion in a quasi-medieval setting–its stories and teachings are based on some truth (for example, Andraste was a real person), but its explanations for why the world is the way it is aren’t necessarily true, and its directions for how to live a good life aren’t the only way to live. Chantry beliefs are a way to explain how the world works since the people of this world don’t have access to science. As we learn more about the world, it’s possible that we will find out that the Chantry has been wrong all along.
Admittedly, the Legacy DLC offers some support for the truth of what the Chantry has to say about mages (I began working on this post long before Legacy was released). In Legacy, Hawke discovers Corypheus, an ancient Tevinter-Magister-turned-Darkspawn who is a first-hand witness to the corruption of the Golden City by Tevinter mages. This seems to confirm that the Golden City was real, and is now the Black City seen in the middle of the Fade, and that the origin of the Darkspawn is just as the Chantry teaches. What is troublesome about this, as Dee points out in this post (and the comments), is that it lends legitimacy to the Chantry’s oppression of mages because magic is a gift from the evil Old Gods (the same Old Gods who call the darkspawn to them and, once released, become an Archdemon and start a Blight). And if the Chantry turns out to be justified in oppressing mages, then that is a narrative that is completely at odds with the mature exploration of oppression as a concept in DA2. However, I suspect that things are more complicated than they appear to be at the moment.