The Assassin's Creed games are interested in presenting a secular form of faith, suggesting that rationalism and faith can coexist despite their seemingly and sometimes contradictory elements.
This article contains spoilers of both Assassin's Creed and Assassin's Creed II
The Assassin’s Creed series follows the centuries old battle between the Knights Templar and the Assassins. But why do they fight? Why has this battle lasted for centuries? To answer this question, one has to look beyond the actions of both factions to what motivates them.The Assassins represent rationalism, humanism, and logic; the Templars represent leadership based on blind faith. The battle between the Assassins and the Templars is really an ideological battle between rationalism and faith. But while these two ideologies seem diametrically opposed, over the course of both games we see that the dividing line between them is far smaller than it first appears.
Assassins are Our Friends
In both games, Altaïr is used as a symbol for everything that the Assassins represent: he is atheistic, driven by rationality and curiosity and he is faithless, which is not to say that he doesn’t trust anything but that he doesn’t trust anything unknown. Throughout the game, his leader Al Mualim tries to convince him of the dangers of knowledge. He commands Altaïr to kill, expecting him to follow without question. But to Altaïr, a true Assassin who uses reason and logic to determine what is best for the common good, the denial of knowledge is practically heresy. So it is not surprising that Altaïr continues to question his master even after being warned not to. This questioning is eventually rewarded when Al Mualim is exposed as a Templar in disguise. Whereas most of the Assassin’s have blind faith in their master, Altaïr does not. The game discourages blind faith in anything, even one’s own leaders, a theme defined in the Assassin’s creed itself: nothing is true, everything is permitted.
While the first part of this creed seems more nihilistic than anything else, the Assassin's rejection of “truth” is perhaps better expressed as a rejection of blind faith. The Assassins are a humanistic society, and as such, they don’t accept as true anything that they haven’t seen for themselves and even then they understand that truth can be manipulated. The phrase is meant as an acknowledgment that no one person can know everything; it is meant to humble the speaker and encourage an open mind. The second part of the creed describes the means with which they should uphold this ideology: everything is permitted. Their belief in the common good trumps any law by the current government; they are assassins after all. But it’s interesting that this group of people so intent on the common good would flaunt the law so uncaringly. They’re essentially vigilantes, breaking the law to uphold justice like any good superhero. That’s why players are so willing to believe that this group of atheistic killers (traits normally associated with immorality) are the good guys. Despite their background they act like your typical hero.
The Templar’s Use of Faith
The Templars already have strong connotations of religious faith attached to their name. It’s an interesting name for the antagonists of the game because even though the in-game Templars aren’t associated with any specific religion or belief, much of the plot hinges on their willingness to exploit such beliefs.
They seek an end the Crusades, much like the Assassins do, but the peace that they seek is not necessarily in the best interests of the common man. They see the Piece of Eden, an ancient artifact that creates illusions and controls minds, as a means of accomplishing this goal. While we never get a full explanation of the motivations of the nine Templars that Altaïr kills, Al Mualim acts as the voice for their cause. He has a very pessimistic view of humanity and believes that peace and free will cannot exist together. The only route to peace is control, and he sees religion as the easiest means of attaining that control.
We see an example of what society under his rule might look like at the end of Assassin’s Creed. As Altaïr runs towards his master’s castle, the citizens of a nearby village come out to block his path. They praise Al Mualim, saying “he has led us to the light” and call upon him to “guide us, command us”. He has become their god. His motivations are purely selfish, and even though he talks of peace, his actions prove that all he really wants is power. One could argue that the other Templars really did want peace, but they would still create it by exploiting people’s faith in religion. Either way, it’s their willingness to create a world based on lies and manipulation that makes them the ideological enemy of the Assassins.
These battle lines between rationalism and faith become more clearly defined but also more subtlety realized in Assassin’s Creed 2. In this sequel we jump ahead in time to 15th century Italy and into the shoes of Ezio Auditore. Throughout the game, Ezio finds secret codex pages that are revealed to be Altaïr ’s ancient journal, and in these pages, Altaïr delineates what his brotherhood is all about.
Assassins and Religion
At the end of the first game, the immediate Templar threat has been dealt with so that they have no longer become a major concern for the Assassins. They are mentioned in Altaïr ’s journal, but for the most part, he has moved on to a new, greater ideological enemy: religion itself.
He compares the old pagan religions with what would be in his time more modern religions. He concludes that the older ones displayed a thirst for knowledge in their believers, that those religions attempted to “categorize study, explain, and understand how things work -- even if it was flawed”. But he has nothing but disdain for the modern religions:
Now we are asked to succumb to a far more simplified explanation. How naïve to believe there might be a single answer to every question. Every mystery. That there exists a lone divine light which rules over all. They say it is a light that brings truth and love. I say it is a light that blinds us -- and forces us to stumble about in ignorance . . . I long for a day when men will turn away from invisible monsters and once more embrace a more rational view of the world.
He sees proof against these monotheistic religions in nature, commenting on how survival demands the death of another. Finally, he describes how the Assassins are growing larger and the reasons for which these new recruits join:
Each tells a similar story -- of having discovered the first part of our creed: that nothing is true. Too often, though, the revelation undoes them. They lose their morality, certainty, security. Many are driven mad. We must guide them. Help them to heal. Their minds must not be filled with more fairy tales, but with knowledge instead. Let them have answers -- and let those answers be difficult and complex.
It is interesting that people are not joining the Assassins to become killers; they’re joining the Assassins because among them is a community that shares their newfound belief, or lack thereof. The Assassins are acting more like a relief center for those that lose faith in god than they are actual assassins because killing isn’t actually their main goal. Their main goal is ideological, to educate the populace with knowledge instead of faith; if that happens to demand the death of someone, well, they happen to be well equipped to handle it. Their title of “assassins” is actually a misnomer since killing isn’t their end game.
Fast forward to Ezio’s time, when Assassin’s Creed 2 actually takes place, and the Templars are once again a major threat. Because the games themselves revolve around the animosity between these two groups, it’s easy to assume that the Templars are the only sworn enemies of the Assassins. They are, of course, sworn enemies, but the Templars are just a small part of a larger whole. Their goals may be more selfish than the goals of most religions, but their means are the same: they encourage faith to gain power, while religion in general encourages faith as a means of salvation. The Assassins fight against the establishment of faith in whatever form it takes; the Templars are just an effective face to put on that vague enemy.
And yet, the Assassins are also practitioners of faith. They have faith that what they do really is best for the common good. In some instances, this idea can be immediately proven: they kill a murderer so that he cannot murder again, but the long term consequences of their political meddling are unknown. All they can do is hope is that it is all for the best.
The Assassin Faith
In codex pages, we read as Altaïr ponders his total trust in the Assassins; he understands the hypocritical nature of what they do, and it bothers him. One could even say that he has a crisis of faith. He writes, “Every moment is spent wrestling with these contradictions and in spite of all the years I’ve had to reflect, still I can find no suitable answer... And I fear that one many not exist”.
He resolves his crises by the end of his journal, but he does so like a proper faithful follower, not as one driven by logic. He simply accepts them:
Some days we speak of education, believing that knowledge will free us from immorality. But as I walk the streets and see slaves sent off to auction…When I see the husband hurl abuses and stones at his wife... And when I see children torn from their parents so that another man might profit ... On those days, I do not think dialogue will make a difference. On those days, I can think only of how the perpetrators need to die.
Altaïr sees the inherent flaw in using knowledge to combat immorality, that some people simply won’t listen, but his conviction that this is the best course of action remains unchanged. He knows that simply killing those who don’t listen won’t solve the underlying problem, but he doesn’t care. He will still kill the husband who beats his wife because he believes that the death of this person is best for everyone; if it is hypocritical, then so be it. With these words, Altaïr establishes the Assassins as a faith-based group at least as far as long-term goals are concerned. Their immediate actions are still determined by what is logically best. After reading this codex page, their every action seems to now carry the dark cloud of hypocrisy, and they’re no longer the obvious good guys. They seem to be just another ideological sect, but they’re really more than that.
The most interesting character in Assassin’s Creed 2 is actually a minor supporting character: Sister Teodora, leader of the Venetian Courtesans. She was sent to a nunnery at a young age but soon left to form La Rosa Della Virtù, a bordello staffed by former nuns. Despite her profession, she still considers herself a nun, and despite still considering herself a nun, she is an Assassin.
One could see her status as an Assassin as proof that the group in Ezio’s time has taken a more relaxed attitude towards those of faith. But Teodora’s beliefs do not actually conflict with the Assassins’. In fact, the opposite is true. The Assassins apply logic as far as it can go, using it to choose who to kill for the betterment of society, but they can’t predict the future. So ultimately they are committed to believing that their actions will have the intended outcome. The Assassins practice this secular form of faith, one unconcerned with anything supernatural, one that simply involves trust in an unknown. Teodora applies that very same practice to her religious faith. Instead of blindly accepting the established faith as true, she applies a rational mind to her religion and rejects the things about Catholicism that seem wrong. The result is her own church that combines the teachings of Catholicism that she agrees with (a belief in one god) with her own beliefs about the spiritual importance of sex.
Her bio describes her beliefs, “life in the cloisters was sterile and ‘earthly’, and that only in ‘partnership with another’ could one ‘truly enter the arms of God.’” Her logic applies to her immediate concerns and things yield a tangible result that can be felt, which she explains to Ezio in terms of what she sees as the beneficial outcomes of the brothel: “Men must know how to love in order to reach salvation. My girls and I provide that to our congregation”. She works towards the long-term goal of salvation for her congregation/customers, a goal that would not exist if not for her faith, but she goes about it in the most practical way that she can see. She fits in with the Assassins because she doesn’t follow faith blindly.
The Assassins fight not against faith in general but against the establishment of faith in a ruling body because established faith seeks to suppress knowledge in order to remain established. Teodora is proof that rationalism and faith can coexist, but she is shunned by the church and considered a heretic. The church requires blind faith and blind fellowship, the Templars would force such things if given power and that is what the Assassins fight against.
At end of Assassin’s Creed 2, Ezio becomes an official member of the Assassins. His induction takes place atop a high tower, and when it is over, his peers dive out the windows. Ezio’s first act as an Assassin is to follow them in their apparent suicide. But by this point, they have earned his total trust and he theirs. So he follows them out the window, performing an act that symbolizes the Assassins’ beliefs by mixing a new faith with rationality. This is an act that even Altaïr performed in the first Assassin's Creed in order to prove his dedication to himself: a leap of faith.