Late Reviews From Avalon: The Chaplain’s War

The Chaplain's War by [Torgersen, Brad R.]

I had the privilege of meeting Brad Torgersen for the first time at this year’s DragonCon. I had known him online for several years, and he was gracious enough to agree to blurb my book, All Things Huge and Hideous earlier this year. He was also very (needlessly) apologetic that the blurb had not worked out. (It was just a matter of bad timing; Brad had been deployed for a very long time, and my request came as he was finally getting to come home. A lesser man wouldn’t have even tried to help me out). But I appreciate Brad’s service even more than the blurb.

At the Baen Roadshow, Brad was also giving away copies of his debut novel, The Chaplain’s War, along with his soon-to-be-Dragon-Award-winning The Star-Wheeled Sky. Because I’m a rather obsessive person, I elected to take a copy of The Chaplain’s War, which Brad signed for me.

So on the flight home, The Chaplain’s War was my reading, and all I can say is, it wowed me. It reminded me of nothing so much as one of my early-adulthood favorites, Ender’s Game. Only it seemed to me to reach more deeply into a question that Orson Scott Card didn’t get to until the sequel Speaker For The Dead: How do you make peace?

The story itself is a bit reminiscent of Ender’s Game. It concerns humanity’s war with the mantis-cyborgs, a race much more technologically advanced, and controlling a much larger stellar empire. In fact, we learn early on that the mantes have already exterminated two other intelligent species, and there seems to be no reason that humanity would not become number three on their list. But that all changes when an alien Professor has a conversation with  Harrison Barlow, the Chaplain’s Assistant in a mantis POW camp. The mantes have no concept of God, and the Professor wishes to understand this strange idea that all three of the mantes’ victims have shared.

What follows is an intricate but action-packed story of humans and aliens working together and fighting against each other to survive. In fact, it occurs to me that this is Ender’s Game meets Enemy Mine. Interwoven through the story of Barlow’s capture by and eventually his diplomacy to the aliens is the story of how he became a soldier and a chaplain’s assistant in the first place.  It’s a story that masterfully blends questions of faith and honor together through a cast of beautifully real (and flawed) characters.

I can hardly wait to find time to get to The Star-Wheeled Sky and its eventual sequel. And I’m honored to count Brad Torgersen as a friend and supporter.

Ad Majorem Gloriam Dei

I hesitated to write this blog post. There were a number of reasons I didn’t want to write it. Part of me felt that it would be arrogant, or that it might come off as preachy. That I might be wrong. It involves some vulnerability, and it involves some risk. But in the end, it is true, and I felt called to do it. So here goes.

I don’t know any writer on the way up that hasn’t dealt with jealousy on some level. That hasn’t dealt with feelings of complete inadequacy, with the feeling that life was unfair. With the feeling that writers who broke out big did so unethically, or because of who they happened to know, or because of other people’s bad taste. I’m sure there are some of them: those who never really had to deal with rejection because their first novel was snapped up right away, and those genuinely good souls who are just virtuous enough to celebrate with others as much as they would for themselves. I wonder which of those two is rarer? I have no idea, but I dearly wish that I were one or the other of them.

We’re not supposed to talk about those feelings. And it’s GOOD that we’re not supposed to.  Those feelings may be inevitable, but they are made much, much worse when we speak from them or act upon them. We’re supposed to say success isn’t pie and that someone else’s success doesn’t mean your failure. Despite the fact that in some cases (such as competing for anthology slots) that’s exactly what it does mean. But it doesn’t matter. Ethically, morally, we should be glad for the success of others. Celebrate them. Lift them up.

I have failed at fighting these feelings a lot. I’ve struggled against them hard. I know I’ve done better than some and I know I’ve done worse than many. I won’t even speculate about “most” because honestly I have no damned idea how “most” people do. My failure is inexcusable. But it’s not unforgivable. Because that’s the nature of forgiveness: the inexcusable is what forgiveness is for.

Last week, I got some news. It has the potential to be utterly life-changing news. And it also has the potential to be nothing more than a high-level rejection. It’s good — unbelievably good — that I’ve risen this high. But I still have potential to fall all the way back down to where I’ll have to start all over again.

And talking about this? It makes me afraid. It makes me afraid because of stupid reasons, like superstition. If I talk about this, it won’t happen. Because of self-centered reasons. There are people out there who will be glad to see me fail. Because of paranoid reasons. There are people out there who might figure out how to sabotage me. And honestly? For moral reasons: Karma or God knows that I haven’t supported others like I should have. I deserve to fail.

But here’s the thing: I do deserve to fail. That’s not the end of it, though: as much and as little as I deserve to succeed, I deserve to fail. Because whether I succeed in this or fail in this, it really isn’t about deserving it. No one in this business deserves a career, deserves an award, deserves a publication. They get those things, or not. One of the pieces of advice that I value most highly , I got from the writer S.M. Stirling at DragonCon 2018. He said, “Most authors have no idea how they got where they are, and the role chance played in getting there.” I believe he is correct on this.

But if there’s been something I’ve appreciated as I’ve hacked my way up the great mountain of publication, it’s been those willing to talk about their failures, and what it’s done to them. In a sense, this blog post is about joining them, in the hopes that I will be helpful to others, as they have been helpful to me. One of those who deserves special mention is Steven Barnes, because of some recent posts on failure and success. Something he posted, and which I wish I could find now, but I can’t, talked about a recent failure of his: for a brief moment, he believed some lies. That he wasn’t good enough. That people were yanking him around just for giggles. And then he had to consciously remember who he was, what he had done, and what was important. And do the next good thing in front of him as a father, a husband, and as a writer.

Now that is amazing, for two reasons: one, because it’s the testimony of a man who has not, even through the kind of success I would (not really!) kill for, lost sight of what is truly important. Secondly, despite that success, he admits that he has not become immune to failure and the bad feelings it brings. He can DEAL with them, but he isn’t IMMUNE to them.

Right now, I am doing everything I know how to for this opportunity to succeed. And right now, there’s just nothing I can do except 1) Wait and find other good things to do, and b) pray like crazy and ask others to do so for me. I’m praying for this like I’ve prayed for nothing else in my life except for my marriage and my children. I want it very, very badly.

Now, I know exactly what the right thing to say is. The right attitude to have. The right thing to say is very old: it’s in the oldest book of the Bible. It’s what Job said: “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

You know, it’s going to be devastating if I don’t get this. But so what? Job was devastated too. And he had far more reason to be.

But this is where I stake my faith. But not, and this must be clearly understood, upon whether I get good news or not. No, I stake my faith on the Lord, who promises that all things work out for good for those who love Him. But I’m still going to pray for what I want, and trust that eventually, that I will receive, that I will find, and that the door will be opened. This is where I pray and what I pray for. I know a lot of people would like to see me succeed. There may be some who would like to see me fail. Oh, well. If that’s what you find pleasure in, then I’m afraid I can tell you from personal experience that it’s a truly awful thing enjoy.

I suppose I’m a little afraid of what people’s reactions will be to say that I’m praying for this. Will they say, “If you get good news, will you say it’s because you prayed?” Hey, I don’t know how prayer “works.” I’ll be too busy being happy about it t even ask that question. Will people say, “Are you trying to butter God up?” No. At least I really hope not. God isn’t, in my experience, very butterable, although if you think that would work, I think you have a weird view of God. I’m also, I suppose, afraid that as much as I’m trying to do what’s right, I might still be wrong.

No, I’m staking my faith on just saying this. Because I can’t really lose: this victory is now won. This is the moment where I can say, before I know the outcome, that I trust (as best I can) God with it. If I get this, I will be overjoyed at the blessing, and God is glorified. It means I really enter the conversation that is literature, and on a whole new level, and I am blessed.

And if I don’t get it? Well then, though it will hurt like poison, then I have at least had this conversation. And that’s a different blessing. And I learned just a couple of days ago that more people are listening to it than I sometimes think possible. And along with John Milton, who is damned good company for a writer, I remember they also serve who only stand and wait. I may not be able to speak with much grace if that happens. I’ll be badly hurt. But I will have done this, ad majorem gloriam Dei. That’s what’s really important, and what’s right, even if I might forget it for a time. I pray that I will not, and that God gives me the grace be His witness in success and in failure.

Anthology Give-Away! Holy C.O.W!

Hey, want to win an anthology with a bunch of awesome stories, including my latest, “Day Of Atonement?”

Holy C.O.W. Anthology Volume One: SFStories from the Center Of the World

Just enter at this link, right here, on Amazon!

And now, a teaser:

Rabban Shimon and Rabban Hillel each took hold of one of the thick doors leading inward and pulled it aside. Yossef entered.

            The room was just as unimpressive on the inside as it had been on the outside. It was no larger than a small house, from which all furnishings had been removed. In the northwest corner, a steep staircase descended into thick darkness. The only thing in it was a wooden table, tall but only about a cubit square. On the table lay a perfectly ordinary knife. Across from him, looking slightly stricken, was Matthias, and standing by him, the Bishop of Jerusalem, with his Chief Elder.

            The Bishop, a thin, spare man with a curiously rounded face, bowed slightly from the waist. “Peace be with you, Rabban Hillel and the followers of the Law. I greet you in the name of Iyesos Christos, the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach, and of St. Nicodemus the Rav Nakdimon.”

            The Nasi returned the bow. “Peace be with you, Bishop Konstantinos and the followers of Y’shua. I greet you in the name of the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, the God of Ya’akov, and of the Elder Gamli’el of blessed memory. Give thanks to the God of gods.”

            “His mercy endures forever,” the Bishop answered. “Today, September 30th, in the Year of Our Lord 635, we present for ordeal before the throne of the Father, Matthias, a novice whom we would ordain a priest of Iyesos Christos.”

            “And today, on the 9th Tishrei, the year 4395, we present for the ordeal before the throne of the Most High, Yossef, whom we would ordain a Rabbi to teach the Law. Let His Will be revealed as it has been since the time of Y’shua, and the time of Moshe.” And he withdrew from his robes a box of acacia wood, polished with age. From it, he drew two stones.

            Yossef swayed where he stood, and he thought he heard Matthias gasp. Surely the Urim and Thummim had been lost in the time of captivity. He dared not speak, but stared at Hillel. But it was Bishop Konstantinos who spoke. “They are not the ancient relics of Israel,” he said kindly. “But they serve the purpose. As once we cast lots to determine the successor to our Lord’s betrayer, so we now cast them, that we may know the Will of God concerning you.”

            Yossef’s vision darkened and his breath quickened. This was the secret of ordination, then? No wonder they kept it a secret! He felt as though he were in a dream. God is present in this room, he thought. It was too big to take in.

            “We ask the Will of God concerning these men.” The words and the action cut across Yossef’s reverie. Konstantinos and Hillel cast their lots into the wooden table. The rattle of them echoed off the walls. Yossef stared. They were inscribed with ancient letters whose meanings he could not guess at. The Bishop and the Nasi gazed at them for a long moment. “The Will of God is that the disobedient should perish,” said the Nasi, and his voice was dead in the air.

            “This is the Will of God,” echoed the Bishop.

            The disobedient should..? What did that mean? Yossef turned to ask, but the men had the stones in their hands again, and the Bishop intoned, “We ask the Lord to reveal the disobedient.” The lots spun through the air as one and rattled in their tray. They gazed upon the stones. “The disobedient is the Jew, Yossef.”

            What? No, that couldn’t be!

            “The disobedient is Yossef,” the Nasi repeated, and he looked old and shaken. “Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”

            “Rabban Hillel,” breathed Yossef. “What have I..?”

            The older man gripped his upper arm with surprising strength. “You must be silent, Yossef. This is the Will of Adonai, which you swore to obey.” Yossef stood as if paralyzed. He had sworn. Sworn to obey the Will. Sworn by the Name.

            Bishop Konstantinos approached the table. To Yossef’s distant surprise, he left the stones on the table.

            He picked up the knife.

            Moving swiftly, he pressed its hilt into Matthias’ hand.  “Do it quickly, son.”

            Matthias’ face was a mirror of Yossef’s own. “Father, I don’t understand.”

            “This is the ordeal of ordination. You have sworn by Christ to do the Will of God as it is revealed to you. Do it quickly.”

The Mirror In The Man

Tolstoy opened up Anna Karenina with the observation that happy families are all alike; that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But he got it exactly backwards. Only happy families are glorious in their uniqueness, because they’re the ones who are actually growing and producing individuals. It’s the unhappy families who are all alike, locked in a kind of spiritual trench warfare against themselves.

But it’s not surprising that Tolstoy got it backwards: that’s the instinctive thing to do when you’re looking in a mirror. Happy families look alike to those trapped in unhappy families for the same reason that rich people all look happy to the poor: poverty is so overwhelming that they can’t imagine being rich and still being miserable. Unhappy families look different because the words and the drama change while remaining monotonously the same. It is always the same people upset about the same things that they will never let go. From outside, it may look new: from inside, it always feels like, “not this again!” I remember the endless fights between my grandmother and grandfather. It was always a different issue but always, always the same: he was never doing what she wanted him to, or listening to her. And it was impossible for him to because what she was saying was never exactly what she was thinking, so why should he have even tried?

And the reason for this is that when God gives us a family, he gives us, in a sense, a mirror: another person who sees us from the outside and displays our virtues and our flaws to us. In fact, there’s two types of mirroring going on, and it’s hard to say which one is more intense, the active or the passive.

The active mirroring is easy to define: it’s when the people around you criticize you and react to your actions. They tell you they don’t like the things you love doing, or they do like the things you hate doing. When you do wrong, they let you know you’re wrong. And sometimes even when you do right, they let you know you’re wrong. They’re mirrors, and what’s more, distorted mirrors, but with some semblance of truth.

The passive mirroring is more subtle, but also more constant. We all have things we hate about ourselves. And because we’re all human, our family members will share some of those traits, reflecting them back at us. Talking too much. Slurping food. Hogging the biggest share of dessert. Passive-aggressively ignoring chores.

And our instinct in both cases is usually to smash the mirror for what we see in it. To attack and attack until the mirror shows us only what we want to see. This leads to knuckles cut to ribbons, and our image being smashed. It is far harder to do what we must: to change ourselves in response to that which we hate to see.

Of course, in any family, you’re not the only mirror, nor the only person. Sometimes, you also will be attacked for what your family members see in you. And while you may have to stop the attack, it’s vital to remember that they’re really not attacking you. They’re attacking the mirror, and trying to destroy the terrible image of themselves that they cannot bear. Because if they can make it your fault, it doesn’t have to be theirs anymore.

Oh, God, protect us in our families from our urge to break mirrors that have done nothing but show us as we are.


No Ordinary People: The Weight Of Glory And What C.S. Lewis Can Teach Us About Notre Dame

From “The Weight Of Glory,” by C.S. Lewis

“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor.

The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.

It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people.

You have never talked to a mere mortal.

Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.

But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn.

We must play.

But our merriment must be of that kind… which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.

And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.

Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

I was thinking similar thoughts to this as I considered the destruction of the Notre Dame cathedral over the past two days. The loss of that incredible piece of art is simply unfathomable. And I was very glad to hear that the loss is not as bad as first reports led me to believe. I will be very glad if it is confirmed that the cause of the destruction was indeed accident, because I hope no one would wish to commit such a terrible act, or that those who do wish it would be prevented.

The Notre Dame Cathedral, like any incredible work of art, is not a person. In some ways, in fact, it is more than a person, because it has added to, inspired, and provided comfort for people in ways that another person simply cannot do. What art does is not what people do. If people could do what art does for people, then we would have no need for art. So it is not wrong to mourn the loss, nor to be shocked and saddened by it. Hardly any person could mean what great art means to so many people.

And yet, in the end, the Notre Dame Cathedral is so much less than a person. It is unique, and complex, and storied, and ancient. But speaking as an educated man, I know that it is less, not more complex than a single human being. Speaking as a Christian, I am bound to profess that not all the works of art on the planet can be equal to the story of a single unique human soul wrought by the Creator. And as Lewis reminds us, its ancientry is nothing measured against eternity.

The real tragedy is not that Notre Dame has burned. Not even if it burned to the foundations and was lost as utterly as the Library Of Alexandria. The real tragedy is that all of us not only assent to, but actively participate in, burning and destroying each other’s souls every day. Social media is only the most obvious battlefield.

I do not think that in our fallen world we can do otherwise. Scripture itself tells us that the body is the temple of the Holy Ghost. So many of our temples are desecrated, by others and by themselves. Some of us seem determined to burn ourselves down. Our problem is that we live amid an embarrassment of riches: there are eight billion of us, and so many die, or worse, every day, that we can only notice the loss of those that are especially “valuable” (God, what a blasphemy) to the majority or to those in power. Or those who are close to us. Notre Dame we can notice: there is only one of it.

We know we must do better than this. The barest vestige of moral sense demands it. But it is beyond us. To do otherwise than as we do would be to be perfect. It is, in fact, not enough to do “better.” Ten times better, or a hundred, would still leave countless eternal souls burned and destroyed. Would still leave us walking amid the suffering shells of living cathedrals. But this alone should awake us to the terror of our state. To make us cry out for a Savior who can reconcile us to the God whose eternal children we daily destroy.

I suppose that this is why I wrote this. I am under no illusion that a blog post will stop human suffering, nor cause our species as a whole to stop doing what we do so well. But waking up one person? Well, maybe.

Postscript Note: I realize, of course, that not all readers will share my faith. Discussion is invited. Trolling is not, and will be removed or simply not allowed. Thank you.

The Myth Of The Myth Of Religion: A Fisking

There are many good and intelligent atheists, among whom I count many friends. Some have attacked my religion with skillful arguments. This is not one of them. Rules for the fisking: Just to switch it up (and because I forgot my own conventions) the fisked article is in bold, and my responses are in italics.

There are at least 4,200 religions in the world today, and countless more have been lost to history.

Yeah, especially since to get that count you have to count every single different denomination of, e.g. Christianity as a “different religion,” even though the vast majority of their adherents would consider the vast majority of them to be variants of the same religion. I’m going to guess that’s true for a lot of the non-Christian religions as well, because you’ve already demonstrated that neither intellectual rigor nor honesty are features of your position. Most people don’t manage that by their first sentence.  

It’s obvious there’s a 0% chance all of them are the true word of God. Some thinkers have speculated that each religion is at least a little divinely inspired and holds a piece of the puzzle left to us by God to put together. But the only way to come to that conclusion is to ignore huge tracts of doctrine in each religion.

Hey, that’s one of three things in this drivel that actually makes sense.

Ultimately, none of them are compatible. If any religion is true, there’s only one.

What, NONE of them? Swiss Reformed Christianity can’t be the true religion if Dutch Reformed Christianity is? Wow, I was never told that. Filthy Genevan heretics!

This means at least over 6 billion people alive today believe in a religion that was written 100% by human beings and 0% dictated by the creator of the universe.

Wait, what? How did we get to this place? Why isn’t it theoretically possible that one religion IS, in part or in whole, dictated by the creator of the universe, and there’s some variants that are kinda distorted, and then there’s some others that are just made up? I mean, seriously, you just went from an actually accurate summation, to an indefensible particular, to something that in no way follows from what you said. Do you seriously not understand that? Or do you just trust that no one will notice?

A belief system written by human beings that has no bearing on the factual nature of reality is mythology.

And for a definition of mythology, we have: Wikipedia!! The final source for all your theological/philosophical needs. Not only that, but your definition doesn’t even match with theirs! Which is a lot more complex and includes: “the collected myths of a group of people, but may also mean the study of such myths,” with cited folklorists describing myth as “a sacred narrative that explains how the world and humanity evolved into their present form,” and “ideology in narrative form.” Notice how none of them render judgment on the truth or falsehood of the narrative?
So, basically, the way you go about “showing” that religion is a collection of lies is to lie about lies? Are you under the impression that a lie about a lie constitutes truth?

The cold, hard truth of reality is that the vast majority of the people alive today believe in mythology and dogmatically refuse to even consider the possibility that’s true.

Yes, you’ve definitely established your credentials as someone who can be trusted to determine “the cold, hard truth of reality.”

So if you believe in religion, there’s automatically a 99% chance you believe in mythology.

Wait, what?? You said only one could be true. 1% of about 4200 is about 42.


If you refuse to question your beliefs, there’s no way for you to know if they’re true, which increases the chance that you believe in mythology to 99.9%.

Whoa, hold on. This mathematics is really blowing my mind. So, back when I believed in one religion out of (according to you) over 4200, there was a 1% chance I’d hit on the right religion, and didn’t believe in mythology. Despite the fact that (you said) only one could be true. But NOW, if I refuse to examine those beliefs, there are only about 4. Or do you mean that if I DO question my beliefs, I increase my chances of hitting one of those 42 by a factor of 10?
Or are you just making up numbers in nice round factors of ten because it’s easier than math?

This number is increased to 99.99%

So now we’re close to “one.” Which is what you said would be the only possible number of “true” religions. Oh, I get it! This is what the true religion will look like! Pencils everyone! Write this down! I’ll test Christianity!

if your religion contains any of the following:

1: Human sacrifices

Well, it was only the one time. Not like it was a habit or anything. And it was a volunteer. Who was also God. Otherwise, it’s specifically forbidden. Do any religions really still have this as a feature? Because I’d think people would comment on that more.

2: Moral values that reflect the needs and wants of a specific primitive culture

Nope, pretty much all primitive cultures. And sophisticated modern ones. So, are you saying that specific primitive cultures can’t have true religions? Or that sophisticated modern cultures automatically have better moral values? Wow, that’s awfully insulting to a whole lot of people in the world.

3: Instructions to hurt, kill or look down on other people

No, all that’s pretty specifically forbidden, too. I guess Christianity can’t be the One True Religion. Or, wait, does that mean it still can? I’m sorry, I’m still pretty hung up on 42 = 4 = 1.

4: Reasons to look down on yourself

Well, on the one hand, I’m a sinner, and on the other, I was important enough for God to die for. So, not really.

5: A pyramid-shaped authority structure

A really flat pyramid: on one level, me and all the other Christians. Infinitely far above us, Christ. I guess it depends on whether your grasp of solid geometry is as shaky as your grasp of basic arithmetic?

6: Scientifically inaccurate statements

Well, how accurate do they have to be to count? Technically Newton’s Law of Gravity is “scientifically inaccurate” since Einstein came along, but we still teach it in schools, for the very good reason that it’s close enough to accurate to be useful to the people it’s being taught to. I’ll be very surprised if you see where I’m going with this.

7: Magical beings, powers or events that no longer exist

No, all the magical beings and powers described in the Bible still exist. Somewhere. As far as “events” go, are you aware that an “event” is something that happens for a finite amount of time, having a beginning and an end? (Merriam-Webster def. 4) Every scientific experiment consists of “events that no longer exist.”

Some people have speculated that it doesn’t matter what religion you believe in as long as you believe in something that gives you meaning, instructions and peace. But believing in something that isn’t real is the definition of insanity.

It really isn’t, according to Merriam-Webster. Definition 3b might stretch that way. Oh, I forgot! Our source for the truth of all assertions is Wikipedia! But wait:

“[a term] that describe[s] a spectrum of individual and group behaviors that are characterized by certain abnormal mental or behavioral patterns.”

So I guess not.

It’s not okay to be insane just because you like it because it holds you and society back.

From what?

Believing in mythology is counterproductive if for no other reason than it’s a waste of time. It keeps you busy going through meaningless motions while ignoring real world issues that have real consequences to you and the rest of mankind. Your life and everyone else’s would be improved by you focusing on real problems.

According to you. But since that whole 42 = 4 = 1 issue, I don’t really want you prioritizing my issues, much less the world’s

To this, you might reply, “But how can we know how to live without religion?” Remember that most of the world doesn’t believe in religion; they believe in mythology. 

Except for the 42 real ones. Or the four real ones. Or the one real one. Whichever.

So the real question is, “How can we know how to live without mythology?” If mythology is just a belief system made up by humans, and you’ve spent your whole life living according to those rules, you already know the answer. We can make up our own ethics, and in fact, that’s what we’ve been doing all along.

We sure can. And some people’s ethics have been very good, and some of them have been very bad. 

We just haven’t been honest with ourselves about it.

As honest as someone who pretends that Swiss Reformed and Dutch Reformed Christianity are as different as Shinto and Orthodox Judaism, for example?

If taking personal responsibility for your own ethics sounds scary or haphazard, consider that mythologies can contain horrible rules that can lead you to hurt yourself or others, which makes it all the more imperative you question your beliefs.

In which case they are no more or less likely to contain “horrible rules that can lead you to hurt yourself or others” than a religion or a mythology is… except that you don’t have the benefit of having had those rules reviewed and interpreted by possibly millions of people over hundreds of years. So your quality control sucks.

This is especially true if you absolutely insist on believing one of our religions is the divine truth. Everyone wants to believe that their religion is the right one, but at least 6 billion people are dead wrong in their faith.

Only if you insist on dividing religion into 4200 parts because Wikipedia says so.

Statistically, you’re probably one of them.

Yeah, you lost the right to the use of the word “statistically” back up there where you were randomly assigning powers of ten to things because reasons.

The only way you or anyone else can find the right religion is to scrutinize yours objectively.

And it’s the second thing that actually makes sense, assuming we allow the caveat that humans are famously not good at doing that. But it’s a useful discipline to attempt, that’s for sure. Of course, you also have to scrutinize a LACK of religion objectively, or as close to that as you can. Will you? Or do you just assume that you’ve done it by virtue of being an atheist?

This may sound like heresy, but it’s probably not a coincidence that you were created with the capacity for reason, skepticism, doubt, and logic. For the billions of people who believe in mythology, it’s a necessity. If your religion can stand the test of truth, there’s no danger in putting yours to it. If your religion can’t stand the test of truth, objectivity is the only way you’ll ever free yourself.

Well, a lot of heretics have agreed with that. Real challengers of orthodoxy, like, you know, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Your quest for truth isn’t just about you. Most religions encourage you to convert nonbelievers,

Most actually different religions, or most of the 4200 you got from Wikipedia?

and even without actively proselytizing on the street corner, you passively send out the message that people should join your faith just by living according to it.

Okay. But by that argument, you’re actively leading people away from eternal life, or nirvana, or inner peace by living as an atheist, not to mention that you’re proselytizing that right here, so I’ll expect you to objectively own that.

If you believe in one of the religions that are mythology, you’re leading unwitting victims into a trap.

And if you don’t believe in the true religion, you’re leading people to Hell. Or at least back to samsara.

If enough people in one area buy into mythology, one way or another, their beliefs are going to determine social norms and even laws. This has a harsh real-world impact on people who don’t believe in that particular brand of mythology.

Oh, noes! The brave tough-minded atheists might get their feelings hurt! Or do you mean that you might be marginalized and persecuted by the bad, bad theists? Because that never happens to religious people in officially atheist regimes like the Soviet Union or Communist China. Oh, wait.

Another danger of spreading mythology is that some people will inevitably latch onto the most violent, oppressive, absurd rules within that belief system and use them to justifying hurting other people.

You mean like atheist communists did in the Soviet Union, China and Cambodia? Yes, that would be bad.

So before you go spreading the good word, it’s imperative that you make sure it passes the most rigorous test of truth, not just for your sake but for all of ours.

And to your credit, you make sense for the last time in the essay. But you really should start with applying that principle to the basics of arithmetic. Here’s your starting point: 42 ≠ 1.

Presenting, Dear Stabby: A Spiritual Advice Column.

By Stabigail Van Burnin

Host’s Note: Like a certain other author who managed access to an older and more personal format of such advice, I cannot provide any information as to how I obtained access to the following entries. Let’s just say they come from someplace that I will refer to descriptively as the Darker Web. I leave interpretation to the readers, and apologies to C.S. Lewis.

Dear Stabby: While researching ways to influence my patients, I came upon the following advice. The source is above reproach, but ancient, and I thought that since here you were running an internet advice column of all things, you might be able to tell me whether this was obsolete or of any practical use.


Fake CSLewis1

Dear n00bilator,

It’s hard to tell whether you’re more interested in being a demon or a troll from the tone of your question. Either way, you plainly need help, because what you’ve managed to do is call attention to your execrable research skills.

This quote is not, in fact, by the esteemed but vanished Under-Secretary Screwtape, but by one of his many imitators, which you would know if you had ever bothered to look at one of those “ancient” repositories of knowledge those of us in the business call “books.”

Nevertheless, in context (which means “understood correctly with all the other knowledge you should have,” n00bilator) the quote is nevertheless good advice for any demon in the process of leading humans astray. The problem lies in isolating the context and in the general sloppiness of human languages.

I draw your attention to the key terms in the quote. They are “fixated,” and “politics.” Firstly, keeping a human “fixated” on anything requires a great deal of careful balancing, with two possible and undesired outcomes. The most likely, but least dangerous, is that you will expend endless and wearying effort trying to keep the wretched creature’s naturally wandering attention on the incredibly tedious business of human power struggles. On the other hand, and far worse: should the creature possess any actual talent for such things, you may have inadvertently encouraged your human to become an expert and acquire skills at the use of power, which he will attempt to use for his own ends, or worse, for those of his fellow human. What you must do is to encourage your human to become a dabbler: one who feels passionately, and does nothing except scream endless abuse against his fellow humans. This odious activity can be excused by giving it the label “activism.”

Closely related to the first point is what is meant by “politics?” The danger, as I pointed out above, is that “politics” can have two meanings. Its true and robust meaning is the understanding and use of power. This can be gained by shrewd observation, and the careful study of economics, history, and law. That is what we must never forget and what you must never allow the humans to discover. Instead, they should be encouraged to think of politics as a kind of social warfare in which battles are to be won by having the purest and most righteous feelings, and expressing them in the most extreme terms possible, for the object of securing immediate and symbolic victories. They should think of every defeat as a glorious triumph over a subhuman foe, and every defeat as a threat to their very lives and offspring. In this way, we encourage them to make the twin goads of hatred and fear the gods around which they arrange their every act. We make the political personal and vital to them.

So it is obvious that when the author says, “keep them fixated on politics” he is correct in that we want to encourage the inhabitants of these democratic republics to behave as little microtyrants over their fellow men: to imagine that they should be able to rule over them at every whim of feeling, and to feel justified in being terrorized at every imagined setback. But we must never confuse that with humans who actually study and learn about the use of power, and devote their lives to mastering it. If they did so, they might rediscover impartiality, which we are finally extirpating from their minds. They might rediscover something approximating evenhanded justice. Better to keep that sort away from politics altogether!

I would also caution you about the false dichotomy expressed at the end of the passage. “Be sure the patient continues to believe that the problem is ‘out there’ in the ‘broken system’ rather than recognizing there is a problem in himself.” As if their puerile systems were not ACTUALLY broken! Of course, there are better and worse systems just as there are better and worse men. If the problem is ACTUALLY in a system, it does us no good to focus their attention on it! No, the core principle is to always push them away from the truth. In bad systems, we want men always trying to improve themselves, and in bad men, we want them always trying to improve the system. Which one they are loudest about improving should give you a fair idea of which one they feel the worst about.



The Heinlein Hypocrisy Part I: What Words Mean

A late post is still a post.

“God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent — it says so right here on the label. If you have a mind capable of believing all three of these divine attributes simultaneously, I have a wonderful bargain for you. No checks, please. Cash and in small bills.” (Robert Heinlein, Time Enough For Love, New York: Ace Books, 1987, p. 247.)

As a science-fiction reader, I find that Heinlein is absolutely one of my favorite atheists. I find his theology as fascinating and infuriating as his novels: often insightful, occasionally brilliant, and then suddenly descending into downright nincompoopery. The above quote is a perfect example of the latter.

Leaving aside for the moment that only the Western and Middle-Eastern monotheistic religions have come close to assigning the above attributes to God, even for Christianity (which is pretty plainly Heinlein’s target) my search of the NIV Bible for those terms returned precisely zero hits for any of them. So… what label would this be? However, to avoid argument, let’s stipulate that whether it’s stated or not, it’s pretty much believed to be true.

First off, there’s no actual argument, or even insight, here. This is what C.S. Lewis calls “flippancy” in the Screwtape Letters; the assumption that a joke or a point has been made. It works when you’re playing to an audience that pretty much agrees with you already, and at no other time. Why Heinlein thinks these things are mutually contradictory, I can’t say, since he hasn’t deigned to tell us. But I think I have a pretty shrewd idea. Unfortunately, it’s pretty tiresome, and it’s old.

I suspect that Heinlein’s reasoning would roughly run thusly: that a God who was omnipotent is a contradiction in terms, or at least in the observable universe, since God pretty plainly allows many things to happen that He cannot approve of without being very definitely not benevolent. Unless of course, He does not know of these things. Since He does allow them, He must be less than omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent.

The problem of course is that Heinlein, who would doubtless call bullshit (as well he should) on anyone using engineering terms, or military terms outside their professionally-known meanings, has only a tyro’s grasp of theology, which, as it doesn’t interest him anyway, Heinlein does not care about. I see this often in discussions with atheists. They’re not interested in how these terms have always been defined or discussed by thousands of years of faithful Christians or Jews. They’ve seen a flaw, and by Christ (or not) they’re going to point it out.

I shouldn’t really have to say, but apparently I do, that omnipotence means that God can do anything doable. It is no argument against it that He cannot accomplish paradox, such as the old saw about making a rock so big He can’t lift it. Likewise, God is not less than omniscient for not knowing things that do not exist (such as who is going to heaven based on choices that they literally have not made), any more than a mathematician is “humbled” by a five-year-old who asks him what color the number seven is. Finally, God is not open to the charge of failing in omnibenevolence if he visits punishment on the unjust, or allows other agents to commit injustice, if He indeed does have both the power to correct injustices and the wisdom to know what justice is. “Omnibenevolence” does not mean that God is good to all people at all times, still less that those people would always perceive the good being done to them accurately.

The dishonesty and ignorance here is for someone like Heinlein to insist on the absolute definitions of amateur or non-believers while ignoring or discounting those whose vocation it has been to discuss and study such things. To condemn religion as a game for fools by insisting that God doesn’t meet these definitions according to your interpretation of them is both ignorant and unfair. What, after all, would it look like if I criticized Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress for flinging goods Earthward by catapult as scientifically ridiculous… because I insisted that “catapult” must describe a machine that uses knotted ropes and stressed wood for its tension power, rather than a thirty-kilometer long, fusion-powered, magnetic mass driver? It would be like suing Nabisco for false advertising because one of their Fig Newtons doesn’t weigh 0.22 pounds in Earth’s gravity.

To such a discourtesy and to such ignorance, I imagine Heinlein would have told me to go to hell, and I would most assuredly deserve the invitation. And so does he, when he uses arguments that are just as specious and delivered from such an ignorant place. It is wise for us to remember that we cannot use such simple definitions, of course, and that theology requires some complex thought. But we must at least be willing to engage with that thought, or our theology – or our atheology – will be disastrously wrong as Heinlein’s.

The Antitheist’s Nightmare


For Sunday, another column I wrote for SciPhi Journal, with apologies to Bertrand Russell

The eminent antitheist and essayist Dr. Brussels dreamed that he died and found himself, against all expectation, at a pair of immense gates that shone like great pearls. He was shocked and rather apprehensive as he was met by a being that looked astonishingly human, like a king, with wings twice as long as he was tall.

“I see that I must be ill and hallucinating, or having an end-of-life experience,” he said. “For nothing else could explain the anthropomorphic delusion I am currently suffering.”

“You are not ill, but you are having an ‘end-of-life experience,’ said the being. “It is called Heaven.”

“Heaven could hardly exist,” Brussels replied, “And if it did, it certainly would not look at all like a mere Human conception.”

The being smiled. “Heaven can look as It pleases, though Its reality is indeed far deeper than any one species of the Creation could fathom, at least at first. You are expected.”

“But how could I be expected in Heaven?”

“That is hardly for me to judge, man,” said the being. “I am to take you to the Eternal.” And in no very long time, he was led through the glories of the Celestial City, where, to his great surprise, Brussels found himself standing in the Presence.

“My child,” said The Eternal. “You have come at last.”

“You cannot possibly judge me. Amid all the planets of all the stars of all the galaxies of the Universe, how could you possibly know who I am, let alone presume to judge my motivations, my circumstances, and my actions?”

“My dear child,” said The Eternal. “No one has yet mentioned judgment. But you devoted your life to the study of the Universe. How is it that you do not understand what “infinite” means? How could I possibly not know all about you? Is My time limited?”

“Of course I know what ‘infinite’ means,” said Dr. Brussels. “But I can hardly be expected to have spent much time upon speculation about Your attributes. My study was the facts of the Universe that were proven, and not about Your existence, which was entirely unproven.”

The Eternal replied, “And did your studies not teach you that the Universe I created had a beginning and was likely to have an end? And surely you learned that your own life had a beginning and an end: that was much more provable. You believed that because of your small size and short life, I could not possibly take any interest in you, and yet you devoted that almost nonexistent life to the study of the lifespan of a Thing that was also limited, but merely much larger. Did you think this a wise use of the time I had granted you?”

“Well,” he sputtered, “But You did not give me adequate proof of Your existence to make me think that studying You was likely to be of value.”

“I see,” smiled the Eternal. “And the fact that the vast majority of your fellow-humans spent a great deal of time on that very endeavor suggested nothing to you?”

“It suggested only that the ignorant love ignorance, for surely even You must agree that humans agree to believe things that are manifestly untrue,” Dr. Brussels riposted.

“Of course, child. You are correct. Tell Me, what sort of evidence would you have found acceptable?”

Feeling a little surer of himself, Dr. Brussels replied, “Any sort of physical evidence of your existence.”

“So you wanted Me, a Being larger than the Universe, to appear inside it?”

“Ah, but surely You could have made Yourself smaller, if You were indeed Infinitely capable.”

“So you believe I could have made myself small enough for you to perceive, but not that I could have paid attention to you? I could indeed have done so, and have,” replied the Eternal. “But then would you not have said that my small size proved Me an impostor?”

“Well,” said Dr. Brussels, “But You could have demonstrated Your power.”

“So, I might have come to Earth, perhaps disguised as a Human, and done miraculous works?” smiled the Infinite. “Or as a pillar of smoke and flame? If only there were records of such an event available for a learned man such as yourself to peruse.”

Dr. Brussels felt himself blushing at the trap he had nearly fallen into. “Records are hardly any use to a scientist concerned with truth!” he stated. “Only that which has been proven is acceptable.”

“I see. Then surely you, Dr. Brussels, performed every experiment of Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, not to mention others we could both name, simply to make sure they were true. I am surprised, however, that you ever had time for anything else.”

“Of course I trusted the testimony of the great experts in my field,” Dr. Brussels said.

“But you did not trust the testimony of Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus?”

“Of course not. Their methodology was flawed and their results untrustworthy.”

“Ah. So the lived experience of scientists about science was trustworthy, even to the extent of trusting them to point out the flaws of less capable scientists. But you could not trust the writings of theologians about theology because you had not shared their experiences directly, and they disagreed with one another.”

“But why,” asked Dr. Brussels, “could You not simply be with us all the time?”

“I believe you would have discovered that the answer to that question in the records to which I earlier referred. I withdrew because humans did not want My company as much as they wanted to discover truth in their own way, regardless of how harmful that could be, both to themselves and others. And now that I have withdrawn, humans ask where I Am. What would you have Me do, child?”

“You could at least, if you are so powerful, present Yourself to those who are honest and would be amenable to reason individually, so that they might have a chance of knowing you!” snapped Dr. Brussels.

“Of course, I could, child,” replied the Infinite. “And it would need to be personal, direct, and in a similar manner, so that those enlightened men you describe would know that it was from Me, and would have cause to humble themselves, and follow.”

“Yes!” cried Brussels. “So why don’t you do that?”

And he awoke in his home.

“Strange, the delusions that will overtake even the most serious and scientific minds,” he muttered.

The Word: The God Of Large And Small

Another theology column that I originally wrote for Sci-Phi Journal.

In his short story, “The Theologian’s Nightmare,” (Fact and Fiction 1961) the philosopher, astronomer and atheist Bertrand Russell presents the absurd tale of Dr. Thaddeus, who dreams himself into a Heaven staffed with great alien minds who have never heard of the “parasites” called man, who infest the planets of an ordinary star in a commonplace galaxy. They are mildly amused that one of these parasites suffers the delusion that its race is the acme of creation.

I cannot help admiring Dr. Russell’s intelligence, or his elegant skewering of the ego of humankind. In fact, as a Christian I have to admit that (especially) our overinflated egos have often deserved such skewering. That sentiment is hardly out of place in the Bible. Indeed, one might say it is the entire point of God’s speech in the Book of Job. And yet, as an attempt to show the absurdity of humanity’s desire for a connection with its Creator, I have to wonder at the failure of imagination that posits a God too big to care for Its creation. Humanity as such is simply beneath Its notice. It is like Clarke’s Overmind, which I discussed in my last column. Like Russell’s, Clarke’s evolving god is too big to love (in fact, it is implied that it must be), too big to be grateful. It is a monstrous Beyond Good And Evil that eats its children like Saturn, so that it may be increased and glorified.

But an astronomer and a philosopher of all people should be well aware that size itself is no argument for complexity, let alone wonder. And while it makes perfect sense that the love of a god (let alone the love of God) might be incomprehensibly more than we can ever imagine, and might at times be strikingly – even shockingly – alien in its highest expressions, surely it can never be less. That strikes at the root of all human experience and all logic. Surely, that which is more includes that which is less. It does not exclude it. A baby can understand love only in that it is snuggled and is dry and is fed. It knows nothing of a love poem or heroic deeds in the name of love. It would find them alien and possibly even frightening if it were give them. But as an adult, I can still enjoy being snuggled and being fed, and I can certainly understand how to give these things to my children.

One of my favorite authors, who understands this beautifully, is Lois McMaster Bujold, who is the best since Dan Simmons (and perhaps C.S. Lewis) at conveying a God who is both big enough to create worlds, and small enough to love those who inhabit them. Her land of Chalion and its Five Gods is astonishingly well realized. Through her protagonists, Cazaril and Ista, Bujold draws for us broken and real humans, who abandon their gods, curse their gods, and suffer greatly. And like those of us who choose to follow our God, these men and women are faced with a terrible choice: to keep faith and do what is right when the cost seems disastrous, or to run away and save themselves. Bujold’s gods cannot compel their humans (just as, I would argue, God cannot compel a free choice, but that is beyond the scope of this piece) and the cost of that free will hurts Ista terribly. In Paladin of Souls, brought face-to-face with the god called the Bastard she cries: “Where were the gods the night Teidez [her son] died?” He answers:
“The Son of Autumn dispatched many men in answer to your prayers, sweet Ista. They turned aside upon their roads, and did not arrive. For He could not bend their wills, nor their steps. And so they scattered to the winds as leaves do.”
Bujold portrays gods who yearn for their children to arrive home safely at the end of their lives, and are heartsick at each soul that is lost:
“The Father of Winter favored her with a grave nod. ‘What parents would not wait as anxiously by their door, looking again and again up the road, when their child was due home from a long and dangerous journey? You have waited by that door yourself, both fruitfully and in vain. Multiply that anguish by ten thousands and pity me, sweet Ista. For my great-souled child is very late, and lost upon his road.”

But at the same time that she understands God’s love for His children, she also understands the fearful demand of the duty God lays on us to one another. Even better than she does in the Chalion books, Bujold portrays this in her science-fiction novel Falling Free, when engineer Leo Graf is thrust into the position of the only man who is willing and able to save the quaddies – children who, being genetically engineered to work in space, have two extra arms in place of their legs – from a Company that no longer needs them, and plans to have them quietly euthanized. When his supervisor washes his hands of the problem, saying he has done all one man can do to save the quaddies in the face of the company’s power, Leo also faces the choice, and grasps its full import:
“’I’m not sure… what one human being can do. I’ve never pushed myself to the limit. I thought I had, but I realize now I hadn’t. My self-tests were always carefully non-destructive.’ This test was a higher order of magnitude altogether. This Tester, perhaps, scorned the merely humanly possible. Leo tried to remember how long it had been since he’d prayed, or even believed. Never, he decided, like this. He’d never
needed like this before…”

The challenge that any attempt to criticize God must meet, and that so many of them fail to grasp, is a full understanding of the scope and power of an omnipotent God. It must understand that the same God that is credited with designing the galactic voids and the superclusters is also the God of gluons and quarks. That the same God who arranged for the long dance of evolution can care just as much about the dance of a father with his daughter at her wedding. This does not mean that we deny that terrible things happen: they do. We, the creation, have much to do with whether or not they happen. What it does mean is that we are obligated to understand that God is big enough to be there at the end of the roads of galaxies, and that He is small enough to open the door for a single human.