There was a quick discussion on Twitter today about the question of whether or not it's reasonable to roleplay an atheist in World of Warcraft. The general thinking goes: magic is real, and we have tons of eyewitness testimony of the existence of beings such as C'Thun and Yogg-Saron, so it's not reasonable to roleplay a character who just outright denies the existence of these beings.
First, let me quickly dismiss the question of magic. Magic is irrelevant to theism in (many) fantasy settings. Unless the world has been explicitly written to define magic as being provided in some way by that world's deities, which to the best of my knowledge is not the case in World of Warcraft, there are various nontheistic explanations for the existance and use of magic.
Now as to the beings themselves, the matter really boils down to an objective definition of what is and is not a god. And the simple fact is that there isn't one. Even if there is one in the world "bible" — by which I mean the writer's guidelines that set forth the rules of the world to ensure internal consistency — that definition by no means needs to be accepted by characters within the world. This is the biggest problem for theism (and the basis of one of the most very basic forms of atheism) in the real world: if you can't define deity in such a way that we can even agree on what we're talking about, let alone devise logical and experimental tests to determine whether something meets the definition, then there's no sense wasting time talking about it.
Lhivera met C'Thun, and she helped kill him. As a character, she's detached, cold (no pun intended), and logical, thoughtful, skeptical, slow to anger and reluctant to kill unnecessarily, but ruthless when she deems it necessary. It's perfectly within her nature to kill C'Thun and start thinking along these lines:
- Nothing he did while we fought him seemed beyond the realm of understanding. The difference between his abilities and mine is a difference of degree, not of kind.
- My own power continues to grow. Were I as old as C'Thun, I might well be as powerful and might well possess similar knowledge.
- I am not a god. Becoming more powerful would not change my nature; I would still not be a god.
- Was C'Thun truly a god? Or was he just a very old and powerful but completely natural being?
And it seems to me that, given her personality, she would be inclined toward the latter answer.
In Azeroth, unlike the real world, the question is not "do these beings exist," as they clearly do. The question is rather, "do I really consider these beings to be gods?" In the real world, if a being appeared in public, claimed to be a god, and worked what appeared to be miracles, the first question we should be asking is not, "how many times shall I kiss your feet, O Glorious One," but rather, "how is he or she doing that, and is there a way to stop it?" It would require truly extraordinary evidence backed by an awful lot of science before it would be reasonable to conclude that the person was what he or she claimed to be, rather than a confidence artist with extraordinary abilities and/or technology. There would be many people who would fall down on their knees without question, but there would also be some who would be more inclined to say, "give us enough time and the right resources, and we can figure out how to do those things."
Azeroth is no different. One character will look at the corpse of C'Thun and see the remains of a god; another will quietly roll her eyes at the description and see the remains of a very old, very powerful, but very natural and mortal foe.