Yes, I admit it. Occasionally, I get a bit addicted to a computer game. The latest is Civilization IV. I've been around since the first incarnation of this game, way back in 1991 and will opine to anyone who listens that Civ 2 was the best by far. But the new version has an interesting dynamic that the previous ones avoided - religion. Now, in Civ 4 you can discover and adopt religions. The manual contains a disclaimer saying that they don't want to offend anyone and, I can say, they haven't offended me. What they have done is produced a neutral opinion of the pros and cons of religion (judging by the game effects) that I found quite interesting.
There are seven religions, including Islam, Christianity, Taoism and Hinduism. They are all treated exactly the same in the game (ie you don't get suicide bombers by adopting Islam or crusaders by being Christian) except they arise roughly in historical order. Nor is there any link between particular religions and nations. I'm currently presiding over a Buddhist England. The Spanish are Jewish which is a nice historical inversion.
The first effect of religion is to make people happier. Building temples and churches puts a smile on everyone's face. When you adopt a policy of having a secular state, then the more different religions you have in your cities, the happier people are. Thus, in the opinion of the game designers, not only is freedom of religion a good thing, but the more of them you have, the better. Without religion, your people will be positively miserable. Less positively, having no state religion is good for science.
In international relations, the effects are what you'd expect. You get on best with countries with the same religion as you. Needless to say, this reflects the real world where the propensity towards keeping the peace among co-religionists is at least as great the desire to go and biff the infidels. The old 'religion causes wars' canard is belied by the number of wars that religion prevents by giving different nations a common cause.
If a religion is founded on your territory, you get significant financial advantages from the pilgrimage potential. You also get the chance to produce some great holy people who are definitely a good thing for your society. Finally, the game allows you to adopt either a pacific or militaristic religious policy. Again, this reflects the reality whereby religion is used to justify many different viewpoints.
In all, I'd say the designers of Civ 4 have made quite a good job of intergrating religion into their game. They have concluded that religion is not only a central part of human history, but also that it was essential to our development in good ways and sometimes, in bad.
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