The Unexpected Heir
Church of Asthorn
The Church of Asthorn is the dominant religion in Romathia, Vaestia, Carthe, Corelmire, and Zunstaria, and parts of Fjorfall and Yesham. It is tolerated as a minority religion in the Albernecht Empire, although the Empire does not recognize the head of the church, maintaining that followers of Asthorn within its borders may follow the same religion, but are a separate organization. The upper classes of the Empire all follow its own religion, and the Church of Asthorn has been unable to establish a foothold within the Empire or convert any significant nobles. The center of the Church's authority is The Thorn, a towering construct in the Realm of the Pure in Romathia.
The Church is monotheistic, worshipping the deity Asthorn and the teachings of his Prophets. Depending on the sect of the worshipper, some Prophets are viewed as more favourable or influential than others – only the Twenty-Seven are held in high regard universally. In addition, various regions generally prefer local Prophets among contemporaries. This is particularly pronounced in Zunstaria, where the Prophet Zunstar is seen as second only to the Twenty-Seven. Briefly, a sect known as the Black Dawn included Zunstar as a twenty-eighth original Prophet. This sect was declared heretical, and the Inquisition was sent on a Purification to convert or eliminate its followers.
The religious beliefs of the Church are mainly determined by the Holy Writings, the records of the Prophets, and again, different sects have varying beliefs on which of the Writings are truly the divine word. Beliefs are also based on Edicts written by the sitting Purity, although Edicts are not seen as part of the divine word. In fact, sometimes a Purity will issue an Edict as a dissent to a previous Purity's Edict. As the Edicts are commands of the Church, rather than direct words of Asthorn, this is not seen as hypocritical, and only certain very extreme scholars believe adherence to an Edict, or the lack thereof, can influence one's ascension to the afterlife.
The Church believes in an afterlife, where the most pious live with Asthorn himself and his followers. Different sects have varying beliefs based on who has access to this afterlife, although most hold that there are different parts of the afterlife accessible to different groups. The Church does name saints, and has the rare distinction of naming living saints, not just the dead. Although this practice is uncommon, there are many historical examples, and several currently living saints. Priests of the Church of Asthorn cannot be named saints; the Church holds that service in the clergy will reward the highest honours in the afterlife, and depending on sect, saints are thought to be either equal or lesser in stature than the clergy.
The will of the Church is enforced by the Inquisition. Their brutal efficiency is known (and feared) worldwide. Those with heretical beliefs generally live in constant terror of the Inquisition, and even the most devout and proper followers of Asthorn have a healthy fear of them. When a Purification is declared by the Purity, the Inquisition is responsible for mercilessly carrying out the Church's will. For some Purifications, including those aimed at the Postdeists outside the borders of Church-controlled land, volunteer armies are also recruited.
The Church has much power over the Six Kingdoms and other nations adherent to its religion, although less than it would like. There are also several Bishoprics and two Archbishoprics which answer only to the Church throughout the world, ruled over by Prince-Bishops and High Archbishops respectively.
The head of the Church, the Purity, is chosen from among the Council of Virtues upon the death of a previous Purity. The Council is also responsible for choosing the successors to the Bishoprics and Archbishoprics around the world; while the priests chosen for the Bishoprics are generally chosen from among the Bishops of that land's dioceses, the High Archbishops are chosen from among the Council of Virtues. This is stated to be because the Purity and the Council have absolute authority, while the world's Archbishops are sullied by their sectarian squabbles. In actuality, it is normally used to reward long-serving Virtues who have pleased the Purity. There have been occasions in the past, however, where a Purity has granted an Archbishopric to an influential rival to remove them from contention as the next Purity. This does, of course, put a political enemy in control of a large nation, and is therefore quite uncommon.
There are several sects of the Church, mainly divided based on their beliefs regarding the nature of divinity, although these theological differences are often used as excuses for political quarrels between powerful priests. The Purity and the Council of Virtues are considered not to belong to any particular sect, and in theory do not show any favouritism towards one sect or another. In practice, these individuals do of course hold their own beliefs, whether out of a true pious nature or convenience. Although they are forbidden from speaking publicly on issues contested between sects, with the exception of declaring a belief heretical, in practice they show favouritism to those sects whose interests align with them.
The current Purity and several on the Council belong to the Dodecaseptarian sect, sometimes referred to as Twenty-Seveners or, derogatorily, Dodos. The Dodecaseptarians believe that the only humans granted a measure of divinity by Asthorn were the Twenty-Seven, the original Prophets. The rest of humanity is considered solely mundane, with no element of divinity whatsoever. In their eyes, divinity is only granted after death, upon ascension to the afterlife. Of course, this is only granted to true believers. They are seen as one of the more socially conservative branches of the Church.
The Unitarians believe humanity, as created by Asthorn, has a share of the deity's divinity, and that all humans are born with two natures, mainly mundane but with a small amount of divinity granted at birth. They teach that all humans can enter the afterlife, making them popular among the poor and penitent. Unitarians are one of the most widespread sects, and can vary from somewhat liberal to extremely conservative in social matters from region to region.
The Generationalists are a splinter group of the Unitarians. While they believe that all humans have an element of the divine, they strongly oppose the idea that all humans are equally divine. The Generationalists believe the first humans possessed the most divinity, with a diminishing amount granted to each following generation. They teach that those for whom Asthorn has a divine purpose have a larger amount of divinity than others. Typically, Generationalists are quite conservative socially.
The Isolationists have several superficial similarities to the Generationalists, although the two groups are frequently at odds. Isolationists also believe that divinity is granted at birth, and to those for whom Asthorn has a purpose; they differ, however, in their belief that others are entirely mundane. Isolationists do not recognize any saints, and have some of the most restrictive beliefs about the afterlife, believing only the clergy have access to any but the outermost layer. An extremely socially conservative faction.
The Quasideists believe that all humans are, by nature, entirely divine, as they are creations of Asthorn. They believe that, fundamentally, humans differ little in nature from the deity who created them in his image. Therefore, all humans are destined for the afterlife, although actions that go against Asthorn's teachings can lead to one's exclusion from the afterlife. Quasideists hold the rare belief that those who do not follow the Church of Asthorn can enter the afterlife if they lead virtuous lives, and that this applies both to those who have no knowledge of the Church, and to those who follow other beliefs. Depending on their beliefs on what can cause a human to forfeit the afterlife, Quasideists can range from highly conservative to relatively liberal.
Consecrationists believe that humans are born mundane, but Asthorn has granted divinity to the clergy, which can be passed on. They believe that the clergy are above all rulers of man, as only the priesthood is granted eternal power. Typically socially conservative.
Solars are nearly exclusively found in Corelmire. Their beliefs center around Asthorn residing within the Sun, and the world being a divine creation. Many of their beliefs are taken from the Sunrise religion, including attributing several properties of their Sun God to Asthorn. They are some of the most socially liberal followers of Asthorn, both due to their beliefs emphasizing harmony with the natural world over moral purity, and the cultures of the nations on Corelmire being more carefree and less puritanical than the continents to their east.
There do exist other sects, but none significant enough to warrant mention.
Postdeists believe that Asthorn is no longer actively involved in the affairs of the world, having either moved on or lost interest. These beliefs did not sit well with the Church, and Postdeists were branded heretics; to this day, those who follow their teachings are burned at the stake by the Church. Postdeists are unique among the heresies, however, for surviving the Purification declared upon them and establishing a new homeland. To this day, the descendants of this exodus live in several kingdoms in Yesham, even ruling one. Several subsequent Purifications of varying success have been declared to strike them, but they have persisted, and view themselves as a separate religion from the Church, being completely divergent from its teachings and authority.
Hesterians believed that a Prophet of the Twenty-Seven had a wife, Hester, and children. As the Church forbids the priesthood from marriage and the siring of children, the Purity issued an Edict dismissing their beliefs. When the Hesterians disputed this Edict, they were branded heretic amd a Purification was declared. They are mainly a belief of antiquity, as any Holy Writings supporting their beliefs are locked away in The Thorn's special library. Those small communities who follow these beliefs do so in secret, or outside the Asthornic world.
The Black Dawn was a sect from Zunstaria who based their beliefs on one of the Holy Writings of Zunstar which prophesied the end of the world. The Black Dawn believed him to be the most important Prophet since the Twenty-Seven, going so far as to declare him the twenty-eighth original Prophet. The Church declared a Purification and viciously eliminated them. Those who escaped or were exiled have settled in small communities throughout the world beyond of the reach of the Church, including in the Albernecht Empire and Yvethi Merchant League, both of which are known for their tolerance of religious minorities.
The Unmarked were a group protesting against the Church granting blessings in exchange for payment. A Purification was called against them, as the Purity at the time was one of the many powerful priests they were protesting against. This Purification was noted as one of the bloodiest, as the Unmarked and their sympathizers were widespread due to outrage at some of the blessings which had been granted. It was also used as an excuse to remove political rivals of those in power, of course, whether they were truly Unmarked sympathizers or not.