Atheism in The Age of Kings

Mark Vuletic

This is just a little curiosity for those interested in atheism and popular culture.

If you know anything at all about RTS gaming, you are aware of Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.1 For those of you who aren't gamers, Age of Kings is a real-time strategy computer game stressing warfare between medieval civilizations, from the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the conquest of South America. It is one of those rare games that actually does something positive for society, by getting people interested in history; in my own case, the game prompted me to read a ton of books on legendary historical figures like William Wallace and El Cid, which in turn led to even more books on medieval history and society. And to think, I had no idea who the Byzantines were when I started the game.

Anyway, as one might expect from a medieval-themed game, Age of Kings has a lot of religion in it. Players can train monks to heal wounded units and convert enemies, or build monasteries to research technologies like faith and block printing. Monks can also pick up holy relics scattered around the map and place them in monasteries to generate revenue. Some scenarios revolve around these relics, and entire campaigns are interlaced with religious themes (like when the player assumes the role of Saladin or Joan of Arc).

Imagine my surprise when the expansion pack (Age of Conquerors) introduced atheism as a technology for one of the new civilizations, the Huns. Check out this technology tree screenshot:

Atheism tech

Cool, huh? Of course, some of the details are a little bit mysterious, including the moral dubiousness of the technology itself: it makes it more difficult for anyone to win a religious or cultural victory, and makes it cheaper to recruit spies and induce others to treason:

Research atheism

Spies and treason! Ouch! What was the programmers' reasoning behind this? I would like to think they are suggesting that atheism is so wonderful that everyone wants to come over to our side, but somehow I doubt that's it. For that matter, why did they even decide the Huns should have atheism as a technology? Here's a shot from the manual, which goes into a little bit of history for each civilization, unit, and technology:

Atheism tech description

Now, this doesn't make a whole lot of sense for modern atheists: paganism and atheism are completely different things. It may be, of course, that those who didn't believe in the gods prevalent in a given society were called "atheists" by the majority; there is a common belief that when Christianity first appeared on the scene in the Roman Empire, Christians were accused of atheism just because they rejected the pagan gods. Once the Christians took power, the usage presumably was reversed. It is difficult to find confirmation of this belief, but it is enough of a commonplace that perhaps the game designers shared it.2 Then again, if this is why Ensemble Studios decided to give the pagan Huns an "atheism" technology, one wonders why they didn't do the same for the Mongols, the Goths, and the Vikings. So, I don't understand exactly what was going on in the programmers' minds.

But this is one of the good things about the game: it stimulates interest in such things. Playing through the campaigns, you develop an interest in seeing whether things really went that way in history. And as far as I am concerned, anything that might get people thinking about atheism is a good thing. Aside from that, it is all in good fun.


1 The game was developed by the now-defunct Ensemble Studios. An HD version currently is available through Steam.

2 Aside from a tiny mention of a single case in Cassius Dio's Roman History, there appears to be no non-Christian source that repeats the claim. Christians and Jews were accused of all sorts of other things, from superstition to baby-eating, but the word "atheism" is much rarer than I would have expected.

A couple of reader responses

(01 September 2008) Keegan writes:

Two things, both of which are fairly intertwined.

The first is that the advantage atheism gives is due to the fact that, being atheists, they can send atheist spies forth and not worry about conversions, religious sympathy towards the enemy, etc.—things that might be cause for more gold to be required to keep a spy's loyalty. Also, being atheists, they can find the skeptics hidden amongst the courts of their enemies much easier and convert them to their cause—after all, with no god to cross, there's only secular retribution to face if caught, instead of the fires of hell and whatnot.

The second is that I think the designers were thinking of a lack of actual faith or even structure that the Huns in particular tended towards. Some of them were lightly pagan/animistic, but quite a few (the majority) quite frankly didn't care about religion. The Vikings, on the other hand, were either devout pagans or newly converted Christians. The Goths and the Mongols were both heavily animistic. The Huns alone lacked any real religion, informal or otherwise.

Just my take on it. 'course, it could also be that they just slapped something on that doesn't actually have any real reasoning behind it just because it sounded cool—the Celtic unique unit is a Woad Raider, after all, and the Celts didn't have Woad Raiders. That'd be the Picts, the people the Celts spent centuries trying to kill (and vice versa).

(7 December 2008) Dark Jedi writes:

The Huns traveled extensively before encountering the Roman empire. By that point that had lost touch with much of their initial religion and had adopted little if any of the religion of cultures they encountered. While their veneration of some things could be considered paganistic or animistic, as a culture they were probably the closest thing to atheists at that time in history. Preferring to deal with the world as it was instead of praying for a solution they could fix themselves.

As for why atheism would make spies and traitors easier to get, lack of faith. In a time when most people saw the religious leaders as the embodiment of their Lord on Earth, and their King as the anointed from Heaven, people tended to accept faith over country. As a result, people's loyalty was not so much to their country as to what they perceived their God wanted by appointing specific people to power. Atheism means that people who lacked religious faith, or who were more corrupt than religious, could be more easily swayed to accepting money or power in exchange for assisting a rival.


First published: 2008
Last updated: 13 Nov 2014

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