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Religion plus finesse, minus finesse

The government of Zwangzug is officially secular, though religious groups are allowed to petition the government for relaxation of drug laws in special cases when otherwise-illegal drugs are considered integral parts of worship services.

Due to the discrete and distinct nature of the many utopian city-states that preceded the establishment of the state, followers of any given religion frequently live near their fellow believers and members of religious communities remain very unevenly distributed throughout the country. Followers of Judaism and Shinto, for instance, are particularly concentrated in Trink.

Christians are most often found in the east, ranging from the liberal members of the Lutheran Church - Arlington Synod in the northeast (although the synod is based out of Arlington, its jurisdiction extends throughout Zwangzug) to denominations of the southeast. The latter, despite being outnumbered, have become more well-known for their confrontational attitudes towards concepts as far-ranging as the theory of evolution, Harry Potter novels, and homosexual rights, all of which are commonly accepted throughout the society. Pastor Archibald Hammers, of Bassabook, is the leader of Concerned Citizens for Our God, and is as such more likely to be writing the strongly-worded letter of protest that Bryan Cartwright (a pastor in a Zwischen megachurch) quotes memorable bits out of.

In the southwest, a diverse variety of religions are (relative to the rest of the country) most popular. Islam and Hinduism are the most prevalent, with Sikhism, Jainism, and the Bahá'í Faith having fewer adherents. Nevertheless, the nation's population is over eleven billion, so even relatively minor faiths may in fact have a fairly large number of followers. Hinduism is the most prevalent religion in the Namiri region. The triquetra has become a popular symbol of the interlocking forces of creation, preservation, and destruction, represented in Hinduism by the trimurti.

Some long-standing religions on Zwangzug are not attested abroad. The traditional religion of the Picksall Islands, in which devotees worship astronomical bodies, is one example. In addition, The Way of Tispac--although not always considered a religion--began in Zwangzug.

Filling the broad range between traditional beliefs and none at all comes what's half-seriously known as "organized atheism". The drastic increase in popularity of many sects is difficult to attribute, but one possibility is that the nature of fluid time means that the increase has not been as fast as it might appear.

Many of these organizations have very complex worship services, hymns, and sermons. It is often difficult to tell whether the practitioners of the "faiths" under discussion actually believe what they profess, or if it is an exceptionally elaborate parody. The nation's sense of humor, if such a concept can be actually said to exist, is so dry as to make such distinction extremely difficult, and it is most likely that the levels of belief vary widely among members of the same group. Pastafarianism and Frisbeetarianism are the best examples of these. The census category "Religious: Other" also includes groups dedicated to the worship of what others see as simple fictional characters: for example, the Jedi religion or more prevalent Ketrianism. The Order of Violet also has a few sparse members.

Followers of Margaret are very few and far between. The Zwangzug branch of Margaretism is barely organized, but is said to value good Works more than faith alone.

Finally, there is the Church of Caissa, the theology of which imitates Christianity in that a supreme deity became incarnate and died in order to atone for the sins of humanity. The chief difference is the lack of a resurrection, prompting more than one scholar to question how the faith ever got off the ground. (Following Erin Splinter's election as Composite Minister, and our attempts to select secularism "243.2" for the Nth time, someone on the Issues Editing team decided this should enable the religion field after all. So this being listed as our "national religion" is more a statement of Caissa's uniquely Zwangzugian worshipers, rather than it being a state religion per se.)

The Way of Tispac

Auguste Tispac (c. 1694-1761) spent most of his life in the city of Nimmsk, which would now be part of eastern Zwangzug had it not been abandoned in the mid-1800s. Reliable statistics are extremely difficult to obtain, although the most common statistics hold that roughly a tenth of the country's population currently identifies with his philosophy in some form or another.

Consensus holds that Tispac's first allusion to what would become the principles of The Way was in "On the Administration of Justice" (1719), a political tract. (As he aged, his works would become increasingly metaphysical.) In Justice, he wrote:

" is clear that those who commit crime do so for diverse reasons, with diverse intents. And it is just as clear that the State must concern itself with those who act in malice, for their crime is truly odious. Yet there are also those whose vice is so pitiable that it corrupts not only their victims, but themselves as well."

Later, he concludes:

"There is therefore no use in punishing these malcontents, for they will be summarily brought to ruin by their own errancy".

Critical to Tispac's worldview is the distinction between those whose wrongdoing hurts themselves, and those who benefit by causing harm to others. From his perspective, and that of those who follow his teachings, it is the latter that are cause for concern. But while the young Tispac seems to leave the punishment to those who benefit at others' expense to civil authorities, his view was to evolve into a supernatural one.

In a 1725 letter to a Calvinist minister, Tispac takes issue with that denomination's teaching.

"If God does exist-of which you have not convinced me-He would not create people knowing that they are doomed to infinite suffering, for such is not compatible with the benevolence of God."

This yields multiple insights, firstly Tispac's agnosticism at that point in time. He never advocated The Way as a religion, rather as a self-evident truth; the burden of proof he places on his correspondent suggests that he did not yet view the existence of a deity as obvious (but did regard any hypothetical God as benevolent by definition).

Perhaps more important in the evolution of The Way is the Tispac's rejection of Calvinism as overly fatalistic. The Way cannot be easily pigeonholed on a spectrum with free will on one end and determinism on the other: rather, it embraces elements of both philosophies. Humans are always free to choose between multiple possible opportunities, and it is meaningful to speak of what would have been had they chosen differently. However, the choices they make will influence their later future in ways not easily discernible.

The philosophy of The Way is most fully articulated in "Reflections on the Right" (1743). As the title would suggest, it deals with right- and wrongdoing, critical elements in The Way's understanding of existence.

Doing right, Tispac asserts, can be done in one of two ways. Some fortunate people derive pleasure from helping others. This virtue is indeed its own reward, and there is no need to consider the action further. However, other people's assistance of others comes at a cost to themselves, be that of time, energy, or simple monetary donations. In "Reflections", Tispac expounds The Way's tenet that that "cost" is not so clear-cut. In fact, he writes, those who put others' interests ahead of their own will be repaid in the future. Correspondingly, those who benefit at others' expense will be punished.

The philosophy contained there was enough to attract followers and establish The Way. It seems, however, that some of Tispac's followers misinterpreted his teachings. Many of his further letters would clarify points of contention.

For instance, Gustav Salm was an infamous criminal (and in all probability, murderer) who managed to evade arrest. As the record of wrongdoing attributed to him skyrocketed, he became more and more of a wanted man. Finally, Salm was killed in 1752, by a group of followers of The Way. Rather than praising their pursuit of justice, however, Tispac was indignant.

"You do not understand the truth that I have set before you. The recompense of wrong is something that will be done. How it is done, no man can know how: it is the work of a higher force. But you pervert true justice when you substitute your mockery for that which is ordained."

Human ignorance in regards to the dispensation of justice is nothing new. Previously, Tispac had explained:
"Indeed there are many blessings in my life: my health, my home, my work. Yet I cannot name one and say, This is the result of such an action, nor can I describe a hardship that befell me and understand what I did to deserve it. I do not doubt that such a choice existed, but it is impossible for my finite mind to comprehend what links to what."

Tispac's last major publication was "Emulation of the Saintly" (1757). There, he returns to those "fortunate souls" who derive genuine pleasure from helping others-an attitude that he had long envied. Biographies of several such individuals lead, disappointingly, to "no common element that can be observed among them, save this: that each seemed to take true joy in giving aid".

At the time of his death, Tispac was working on a project that has been retroactively titled "Dialogues among the Virtues". Unsurprisingly, personifications of various virtues discuss their various strengths and weaknesses. Most relevant in the context of The Way are Justice's conversations. Here, specifically, Justice is addressing Love:

"Mortals believe that You are always at work in their lives, yet their squabbles are petty and their passions ephemeral. Myself they regard as distant and coldhearted. Yet you belong among the heavens, while I ensure their fates."

The essence of The Way can be very succintly summarized: selfishness is rewarded and selflessness punished by forces beyond human understanding. This is accepted as true by all followers of The Way. They understand this truth to be universal, applying to those who are not aware of, or do not follow, The Way as much as those who do. The belief is also understood to be self-evident, not requiring divine intervention to teach humans. Tispac is not revered as a prophet, much less a god, but this is often misinterpreted by those who do not follow The Way.

Most followers of The Way do not consider it a religion, and many do not profess belief in a deity. However, some do: there is nothing in the teachings of The Way that would contradict the existence of, for instance, a deistic creator god. Other followers consider themselves simultaneously members of theistic religions, and believe in those religions' deities.

However, not all followers of The Way agree on the process by which supernatural justice is meted out. Many simply accept it as the work of an impersonal "higher force". But others personify Justice as an individual or virtue, such as that to which Tispac alluded in the Dialogues. The traditional image of a woman with a balance scale is frequently used to symbolically represent Justice among followers of The Way: some of them ascribe more literal meaning to it than others.

There is little organization to The Way: it has no universally recognized leaders or worship services. Nevertheless, there are several notable associations comprised of followers of The Way. The Brothers and Sisters of Charity is a volunteer organization historically comprised of followers of The Way, although it is now open to all individuals. Members are expected to live austere, simple lifestyles: most live in communities with others. (Those who do not are integrated into normal society; The Way generally dismisses hermitism as superfluous.)

The Enlightened Followers are a more controversial organization. They place high value on the mind, as it allows people to choose the paths their futures will take. Therefore, Enlightened Followers are forbidden from "corrupting" their mind with mind-altering substances. (In light of Zwangzug's recent drug policies, the histories of several members of the government's regulatory commissions have been extensively researched, but no connections to the Enlightened Followers have been uncovered as of yet.) Some of the Enlightened Followers also disdain modern medicine, believing even common medications are spiritually unsound and/or that enduring physical pain will stave off future trauma.

Some followers of The Way also consider themselves believers in religious faiths. Frequently, they will note commonalities between their religious teachings and The Way. For instance, the Hindu view of karma has clear analogues within The Way, while the Christian beatitudes' implications of eventual recompense for current status are similarly linked to The Way's teachings. Although Tispac codified The Way into its modern form, its followers generally agree that many people follow The Way without being aware of it. Influential religious leaders are prime examples.

The Way has attracted criticism since early in its history. Salome Chantos wrote in 1759 of "the new heretics, who hide behind superstition rather than admit that they have no soul". The most fundamental criticisms of The Way's teaching are normally variations on this theme: followers are not truly altruists, but rather act to secure reward or avoid punishment. Other critics simply note The Way's seeming falsehood in particular cases, whether in their own lives or those of others. Existentialist Celeste Thayer vividly depicted the process of losing faith in The Way in "Remembering To Stand" (1914).

A rumored if unlikely critic of The Way is Scrippy, a slimeblob from Alpha Centauri who stars in the 2009 animated film Illegal Alien. After making contact with Earth, Scrippy commits increasingly greater infractions of "The Law" of his species as he develops better relationships with humans. Speculation about any deeper meaning is rampant but unconfirmed.

Other criticism of The Way is directed at specific actions rather than the philosophy that motivates them; the Enlightened Followers are especially prominent in this regard. Concern is most widespread for the physical and mental health of children whose families follow The Way.

The core principle of Ketrianism is belief in the Ellimist, as described by Katherine Applegate, who Ketrians revere as a prophet. Her Ellimist Chronicles, generally regarded as a novel, is Ketrianism scripture. In their theology, the Ellimist, originally a Ketran named Toomin, or Azure Level, Seven Spar, Extension Two, Down-Messenger, Forty One, took on the minds of multitudes as he strove to do good in the galaxy and defeat his archrival Crayak. Devout Ketrians believe that after death, they too will merge with this being. Since the Ellimist, in the Chronicles, mentions evolution and praises the diversity of species, Ketrianism has no opposition to scientific theory. Therefore, Ketrians are able to integrate successfully into the secular Zwangzug society.

Ketrians strive to live by the Five Laws, the first "Lift for all" and the second "Take no sentient life". Much research is done in attempting to figure out the other three with little success.

All worship is done virtually, on Internet servers. There are no set times for them, so they are organized by "Wise Ones", who moderate discussion and lead prayer. Messages typed during worship are referred to as memms. Music is an integral part of the worship service: the Ellimist is believed to have used music to generate creativity that led him to defeat one of his enemies, Father. The Azure Cycle, composed by Brett Thane, is widely considered the most epic piece of music in Ketrian culture.

Like most religions, Ketrianism has had its share of religious strife. The one schism occurred between what its proponents regard as the traditional interpretation, and what its proponents consider a complete narrative.

Beyond the Chronicles, Applegate wrote other works in which the Ellimist was referenced: the Animorphs books are regarded as apocryphal by the more conservative group. Liberals, believing them to be equally valid, debated their worth. Their strongest argument was the mention of the Animorphs (the term used for the protagonists of the series) in the prologue of the Chronicles, but the conservatives (who the liberals derogatorily refer to as "Happy Accidents") refused to budge. Eventually, the jaded liberals split.

A more "modern" dilemma is more active within the liberals, that of time travel. The Animorphs books mention the Time Matrix, a weapon said to be created by the Ellimist that is not referenced in the Chronicles. Some, who call themselves hypermoderns, believe it is their duty to find it and use it. The majority believe it is not their place to interfere with the space-time continuum. As the liberals take on conservative roles, and former conservatives defect to hypermodernism, the long-term effects are still up in the air.

Through painstaking astronomy, Ketrians have calculated when Earth and Ket (the planet they believe Ketrans to originate from) are at their minimum distance from each other. These days are celebrated as Dance Bys. Some liberals observe the death of one of the Animorphs (the event mentioned in the prologue and epilogue of the Chronicles) as a holiday half-seriously, claiming it proves that the Animorphs books should be included in Ketrian canon.

Liberal Wise One Elena Schuster provoked controversy with her 2007 expression of solidarity for the "organized atheist" structures popular in the nation. "Belief," she said, "is no prerequisite for religion. The sense of camaraderie and cultural inspiration that it provides is a crucial part of human existence. The supernatural is not necessary for providing such force." Unsurprisingly, this has not improved Schuster's image among her siblings in faith, and leaders of the conservative wing have been quick to distance themselves from her. Still, Ketrians is now classified as "Religious: Other" in census records.