After reading the first Song of Ice and Fire book, I wondered why there wasn’t much religious strife in Westeros. Spoiler: I stopped being concerned on that front pretty quickly. The next four books brim with religious conflict, which is in tune with what seems to me GRRM’s good understanding of the medieval world. GRRM rightly gets lots of plaudits for the intricate political machinations of his power players. Likewise, he seems to get a lot of what is terrible about the middle ages beyond even the savagery, the terrible material conditions, the plight of the common folk, the extra burdens on women and outcasts. He doesn’t shy away from showing the bizarre moral system that even the “good” characters espouse, the paradoxical fear of both the unknown and of knowledge, the reliance on omens and rumours. Because of this, it is tempting to call ASOIAF “realist.” But there are some glaring problems with that — the dragons for one.
Another twist to the realism — and one which, to me, is much more interesting than the dragons — is that one of the religions on Westeros seems to be more correct than the others. That in itself is maybe unsurprising. After all, that’s how most people see the world we live in, as well. What is surprising and exciting to me is that this religion — the Red Priests’ belief in R’hllor — isn’t very sympathetic, nor is it practiced by any particularly sympathetic character. If anything, the reverse is true. Part of what makes Davos so likeable, for example, is his refusal to go along with R’hllor worship. And yet, if the religion is correct, that’s not only not a politically smart stance, it’s the wrong one.
Appeals to R’hllor clearly matter — they have been used to break the defence of Storm’s End, kill Renly, save Mance Ryder’s life, aid in navigation, and correctly predict the future. Whereas turning away from R’hllor carries negative consequences, as suggested at the Battle of the Blackwater. At the same time, R’hllor-ism is kind of an unsavoury religion with fire-worship and human sacrifice. And everyone associated with it is either a poser (Florent, most obviously, but also Stannis, Thoros, others) or a pathological fanatic (Melisandre, the Queen, the priest on Victarion’s ship).
I think it was Bertrand Russell’s quote that went “If the universe has a purpose, there is no reason to suppose that purpose has anything to do with our own”. And for me as well, the question of how a person would react if the desires of a God ran counter to what we think is sensible seems like a great thing for fiction to explore (yeah, I know, Story of Isaac and all). So I may be over-interpreting what GRRM is doing here (after all, other magic also seems to work occasionally, and the Weirwoods also may have powers) but I would really like for him to go in the direction that I’ve claimed he is already going in. See what happens if R’hllor is the only correct God to worship, but R’hllorism is a terrible religion that decent people don’t want to take part in.