Hoo-boy. I’d like to acknowledge two things right off the bat. One, there is going to be some imprecision in terminology in this post because I am not making a philosophical argument about theism or atheism and so I’m not concerned with fine points of atheist vs. agnostic vs. whatever. That has its place but not here. Two, I realize that I’m punching myself in the lungs with this one because it is so broad a topic but I’m going to try and keep it relevant to game/world-design.
With a paragraph of disclaimers out of the way… Here’s my struggle: it’s quite difficult to write a history of a fantasy world where the world and its people were created by divine powers when you don’t believe in divine powers and want your world to have a deep archeological/anthropological history.
A basic example comes to mind with my core home-brew world. As I started considering its history backward from the current “present day” of the campaign and considering how it arrived there, I started to do research into historical periods like the bronze age and the late Neolithic periods in Europe and the Near East. This of course led down a rabbit hole of things like dog and horse domestication, agriculture, the evolution of religious practice, etc. And as a history nerd, I loved this. I loved reading it and learning about it.
The problem though is that it is wasted time when considering the world from a perspective where the gods are much more creatively active in the world. If the gods taught people to farm in an active way and gave them the tools to farm in an active way… then the slow on-ramp of technological development is invalidated. If a god is visualized with a steel spear as his symbol then he probably simply gave his followers the technology to create steel spears instead of the gradual development of wood/bone/stone, copper, bronze, iron, and then steel.
If dragons are direct creations of the gods… then you don’t really have much of a fossil record of creatures evolving into dragons.
If history is cosmologically “short” and derived from Creators then a lot of what exists and is understood in the modern world simply makes no sense.
Now, I realize that there are some ways out of this trap beyond just, “accept it.” History could be longer and still originate with gods. Some development and change could still be innate in the human condition while still tracing origins back to the gods. Especially gods which are not built on the premise of the big three “O’s” (omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent).
There is also room for regression and rebirth in such stories where the mortal realms suffer downturns which require regrowth of civilization (an idea I’m currently toying with) but these still have issues around, “the gods did it.”
I find it intellectually difficult to synthesize a world/history where abundant miracles stand side-by-side with deep time and human advancement as agents of human development. It is part of why Young Earth Creationism comes across as so intellectually dishonest (along with other, bigger reasons).
So, yeah, approaching fantasy world design with a “young creation” lens is very difficult for me as I consider the world through a deep time lens. And the biggest obstacle seems to be active divine forces. In a world where you have tangent interactions with the gods vs. simple faith in the gods, you end up with very different developmental outcomes.
This issue goes hand in hand with my “the world is always so much bigger than you think it is” and “history is always so much more interconnected than you think it is” problems with world design. I just have a childish need to keep asking, “Why?” and “How does that make sense?” that don’t interact well with the more limited needs of typical fantasy world design.