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.

HOLY SHIT!! DOUGLAS ADAMS WAS RIGHT ALL ALONG!!!

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. 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.

n00bilator

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.

–Stabby

 

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.

Finding Your Religion: Some Thoughts On Creating Spec-Fiction Religions

 

I’ve been a follower of Christ and a science-fiction and fantasy writer for roughly the same amount of time, although I hope I’ve been a better Christian than I have been a writer (after all, I still haven’t sold a whole book!) A long time ago at Wiscon, I introduced, while on a panel on religion in fantasy, the ideas of Demand and Consequence. Roughly, I said that a religion’s Demand was measured by what actions a person must take to please the Divine, while the Consequence is what happens as a result of pleasing or angering the Divine. So, for example, Orthodox Judaism would be a fairly high-Demand religion. You follow all the laws. You observe the Sabbaths. You minimize your associations with outsiders. My own religion, Christianity, would be high-Consequence, possibly the highest: eternal paradise or eternal damnation, and you only get one shot at it.

(Of course it would go without saying that individual followers might perceive this spectrum very differently. I do know those who claim to be Christian who deny the existence of Hell, despite scriptural statements to the contrary, and would expect to find similar differences of theology in all major, and probably most minor, faiths.)

But it has recently occurred to me that the concept of Demand needs some work. After all, is Christianity high, or low-Demand? Jesus says that “if any man come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” That’s about the hardest thing that can be demanded, but most of us do not get martyred for Christ. Even many of the Catholic saints didn’t. On the other hand, Jesus also says that God will forgive any sin, for the asking. So it occurs to me that we need another quality to measure, between Demand and Consequence. What is the cost to a person to make up for failing the demand? I will call this quality Penance. Christianity, so far, would be a High-Demand, Low-Penance, High-Consequence religion.

But the different religions might also be considered in terms of what consequence simply not following the religion. I shall call this quality Allegiance. Christianity and Islam would be high-Allegiance religions. Not belonging to them is interpreted as a rejection of God. Buddhism, however, would be low-allegiance. Your actions are what make you enlightened or not, regardless of whether you’re actually “believing in” the Buddha or his theology.

On the Consequence side of things, there are also difficulties to work out. For one thing, Consequence may be perceived radically differently by those in different cultures or simply by different individuals. To me, Hinduism appears to be a fairly low-consequence religion. After all, if you believe in reincarnation, and you fail the demands of your religion in this life, you can always try again. However, given that fundamentalist Hindus are even now engaged in persecuting Muslims and Christians in India, I am going to have to assume that I am missing some vital piece of this religion, at least to some of its followers.

More crucially, though, the idea of Hinduism raises another point: does the religion teach that souls have multiple earthly lives, or one? That matters greatly to Consequence, enough so that perhaps a religion should be classed as a Repeating or Non-Repeating religion.

Another thing that considering Hinduism brings up is its habit of syncretism, or adopting the practices and prophets of other faiths. Hinduism, the ancient Greek faith, and Baha’i would be examples of faiths that tend toward syncretism, while the Abrahamic faiths specifically forbid it.

Finally, another quality that should be included is what I might call Zeal. How much pressure do followers of the religion find themselves under to spread the faith, and make others abide by its tenets?

So far, I have kept my examples restricted to real-world religions, and have only done so in a limited fashion. While you could use these scales to quantify and compare real-world religions, I don’t think that’s very useful, and would likely lead to a whole lot of acrimonious debate around the details that the devil is in.

But I think that as we examine SF-nal and Fantasy faiths that it’s interesting to look at some of the contrasts that show up.

One of my favorite Fantasy religions is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Quinatarianism (along with its Quadrene heresy). Quintarianism is Low-demand and low-consequence. It’s possible to offend the gods, but you really have to work at it. Damnation isn’t so much Hell as being condemned to fade into nothingness as a ghost. Low-penance and low-allegiance follow from the low-demand, here. It’s a non-repeating religion that is non-syncretistic. It’s zeal is fairly moderate. The Quadrenes are about the same but with much higher zeal, but this is understandable, since the major point of contention is whether the “fifth god” of the Quintarians is in fact a god or a demon lord. The Quadrenes believe that the Quintarians are devil worshipers, and since demons CAN be proven to exist in this world, their fear is somewhat justified. Quintarianism and Quadrenism feel like fully thought-out religions, with developed theologies, that assume their followers are more or less ordinarily reasonable people.

By contrast, we have Robert Jordan’s Children of the Light. This religion is Low-demand (there don’t seem to be any commandments of the Light) seemingly Low-consequence and Low-Allegiance, or at least no spiritual penalty is ever described for violating or ignoring the Light. It’s a repeating religion, but non-syncretistic. However, it’s incredibly high Zeal, as the Children of the Light have been for centuries trying to spread their faith and subdue their enemies (and have apparently succeeded only in taking over a nation about the size of Belgium). And so we are left with the question of why the zeal is so high. The Children are portrayed as essentially religious bigots who merely think themselves morally superior to everyone. And thus it feels as though this is merely the author’s own dislike of the overtly religious. Heinlein’s approach to the Martian language felt very similar in A Stranger In A Strange Land, when Michael Valentine Smith overturns all human religion by introducing the Martian language as the ultimate spiritual principle: (Low-demand, high-consequence, low-zeal, syncretistic and low-allegiance) Heinlein disliked existing religions, and invented one he, and many readers of the time, liked, which as a bonus, was absolutely provable.

My only conclusion from all this is that to create a real-feeling religion, the elements must be balanced coherently. Why, for example, have a high-zeal religion when there is low demand, consequence, and allegiance? But it raises some interesting questions for me as a writer. Like Heinlein, most authors today prefer to cast their religions as low-demand, low-consequence, low-zeal, and low-allegiance, to avoid the charge of religious bigotry. But if the religion is worth following, like Heinlein’s, the consequence HAS to be at least PERCEIVED as high at some point, or why does it succeed? Hinduism and Buddhism may be low-consequence in comparison with, say, Islam, but only in comparison, otherwise, why would people devote their lives to them? Also, is it possible to create a high-consequence, high-zeal religion that doesn’t feel like bigotry? Bujold portrays the Quadrenes as bigots and inquisitors, and yet, if they are right, their Quintarian foes are actively helping demons eat souls in the guise of piety. If true, that would be monstrous, and the Quadrenes would be the heroes. Could this be done in earnest, or is it impossible? It is a question that interests me, and I look forward to authors capable of taking up the challenge, even as I seek to do so myself.

The Word: Faith and Hope and Charity: The Churches of Science-Fiction

Note: Another of my columns for Sci-Phi Journal. Time to get back to blogging!

Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. I Corinthians 13:13.

Every era has its popular villains. In the classical age, sorceresses and evil gods were popular foes of brave heroes. During the Cold War, faceless governments of fascists and communists (often interchangeably) provided the necessary cannon-fodder. However, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent popularity of soft socialism, the two favorite antagonists for our heroes in contemporary fiction are evil capitalist corporations, and tyrannical, mind-controlling religious establishments.

Of course, there has never been any shortage of books in which religion itself has been held up, often through sloppy but dedicated straw-manning, as the refuge of the evil and the stupid. Heinlein was dismissive of “shamans,” Arthur Clarke pictured humanity’s next step to be a brave new atheism immediately succeeded by a transcendent “godhood” of our own, and Philip Pullman made God into a bloodthirsty, soul-destroying tyrant. And of course, the villains are far too often the evil church leaders: Nehemiah Scudder, and the bishops of the Church of the Final Atonement. Religion has never been more terrifying than when it acts collectively and in power, especially in the power of the state, as Frank Herbert rightly warns us, portraying a Fremen “religion” that is a great swindle, perpetrated upon a simple but passionate people by eugenicists of great power.

But the ecclesiastical power is merely the power of the people assembled, which is what, after all the original ekklesia meant: assembly, the same word the Athenians used to designate their democratic body. And if the church ought to be founded on faith and hope and charity – or, more accurately, love, which is a better translation of the Greek agape than the King James’ rendering of the Latin caritate into ‘charity’ is – then perhaps it is worth examining some more favorable portrayals of the Church in science-fiction and fantasy.

Faith: Faith is used by both the foes of religion and, less excusably, its adherents as an excuse for believing in what is manifestly false. This is not the result or the aim of real faith, but its perversion, just as refusing to accept data that contradicts a long-held theory is a perversion of science. True faith as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, “is the substance of things hoped for: the evidence of things not seen.” I will discuss two examples of this. The first is portrayed in Dan Simmons’ brilliant work, Hyperion. The priest, father Paul Dure, first lured into the temptation of falsifying data to “prove” his Catholic faith, goes on to become the Pope who launches ships to bring help to mankind after their last, desperate war with their own artificial intelligences. The second, and far more visceral, is Mary Doria Russell’s tale of Father Emilio Sandoz, who goes to Alpha Centauri to meet the beings there, and who is mutilated and raped viciously by them. In both cases, the men involved go through unimaginable pain. Both despair. And yet, both come back from the edge of that despair because of their faith. It is not a simplistic faith that God will always do what we recognize as good, but a faith that the good that does not exist must be accomplished in spite of great pain, in spite of impossibility, when that good seems utterly unreal, because their faith in it is the evidence for it.

Hope: Closely akin to faith is the concept of hope. In S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time series, the people of Nantucket find themselves swept back into the year 1250 B.C. Many of the island’s Christians initially fall under the sway of Pastor Deubel (whose name, in a Germanic linguistic pun, means, appropriately, Devil) who preaches that the islanders must commit suicide in despair, lest their appearance in the past prevent the birth of Christ in their new future. Rather than trust God and hope for the best, Deubel decides to burn the town of Nantucket.
When I first read this, I assumed that Stirling was using Deubel as an excuse to bash on religion, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the island’s leading priest, Father Gomez, pities Deubel’s followers. When the islanders decide to punish the fanatics by shipping them off to Inagua to mine needed salt, Gomez volunteers to follow them, hoping that by his own preaching, his fellow Christians may be restored to a state of hope in God’s goodness, rather than fearing His weakness.

Love and Charity: Lois McMaster Bujold is one of my favorite authors for this, as she sees so clearly that love is central to the human experience. It is, perhaps, no surprise that the Quintarian religion that she invents for her realm of Chalion turns out to be a true haven for the rejected. Quintarianism reveres five gods: The Father, the Mother, the Son, the Daughter, and the Bastard. While the Bastard is often feared as “the master of all disasters out of season,” he is not an evil deity, some excuse for Bujold to proclaim, monistically, that good and evil are all one. But the Bastard does show that what appears to be evil can often be a prelude to a good unimaginable to a human perspective. And the Quintarian church is a haven for those who do not fit easily into Chalionese society: bastards, by nature of their split parentage, and homosexuals, who could not marry the opposite sex, can find a place in the service of the Bastard.
My favorite portrayal of love expressed in the Church by a science-fiction author, however, is that of S.M. Stirling, in his character of Sister Marya Sokolowska in his alternate history series of the Draka. The Draka, as he portray them, found an anti-America in South Africa after the American Revolution. Founded by slaveholding loyalists, the Draka settle Africa and carry industrial slavery on straight through World War II, in which they conquer and enslave all of Eurasia.
Sold as a slave to a Draka master, Sister Marya, a Polish nun, has watched the other members of her order die, one by one. Again and again, she masters her anger and her fear to show the love of Christ to her fellow slaves, and, as much as she can, to her masters. In the end, she stands ready to sacrifice her soul by triggering a bomb that will deny the Draka a chance to interrogate her and an American spy that she has hidden.
What I find all these characters have in common is to remind us that faith and love and charity are difficult. They are not the rewards of ease, and practicing them does not come without real cost. But what is bought with that cost is the real freedom to act morally.

What He Taught

I was having lunch with a Jewish friend of mine the other day, a man whose personal integrity and ethics I highly respect. We argue all the time. He asked a question that threw into sharp relief what my faith often looks like from the outside. As best I can reproduce it, the conversation went like this. “I have never understood why you [Christians] make the cross the center of your faith.” I replied, “And what should we make the center of our faith?” Without hesitation, he answered, “What Jesus taught while he was alive.” He went on to contrast this Christian attitude that he perceived toward the moment of Christ’s death with his observation that in the Jewish tradition it is actions, and only actions, that matter as far as a person’s righteousness is concerned.

I do not know if my friend realized that I had heard this before, from non-Christians, prominently atheists, who will very often say that Jesus was a good man, whose teachings should be followed. This is always followed up by the observation that Christians in particular do a very poor job of following His commandments.

I would like to start my response to this by admitting that I believe one of the greatest failures of the Church, both as an institution and as a fellowship — more, as a matter of my own personal conduct — is our failure to follow Christ as he taught us to live. I am not going to waste time with excuses, but speak plainly: In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Church visibly choked on its own success. Its cultural dominance tempted it quite successfully to condemn unpopular sins and refuse to forgive such sinners, while at the same time ignoring popular sins and concealing them, or what was worse: preaching that they were no sin at all. The Church will therefore have to answer for all those who rejected Christ, not because they were offended by His teachings, but because they were offended by the Church’s refusal to obey them, and with Thomas Jefferson, “I shudder when I think that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”

However, that historical fact has no bearing on another historical fact, and that is the matter of what Jesus actually did teach. And while Jesus taught us many hard lessons in personal conduct in the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, his teachings also include the following:

“And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must… be killed and after three days rise again. And He said this plainly.” Mark 8:31-32.

“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” Mark 9:31.

“And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.” Luke 12:8-9.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent His Son not into the world to condemn the world, but that through Him the world might be saved.” John 3:16-17

“Verily, verily I say unto you, before Abraham was, I AM,” John 8:58

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6.

The problem that Christians have is that we focus, perhaps, too much on the identity of Christ, and we forget that surrounding His identity, and pointing us toward Him are all Jesus’ commandments to us. We want a relationship with Jesus the man, and with Jesus the God, but we wish to ignore the commands of Jesus the Lord, with the authority to demand we change our behavior.

Non-Christians who criticize Christians for this, on the other hand, have both the opposite and the same problem. They acknowledge the authority of Christ when he preaches commandments to do righteousness, but they ignore that alongside those teachings, and intimately bound up in them are the commands to follow him and trust in His sacrifice. They ignore that the commands to change our behavior all come from and point to Christ’s mission to save humanity by His death and resurrection. And of course, as C. S. Lewis was famous for pointing out, either Christ is who He said He was, and we must all follow all of what he said, or he is a lunatic, on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg, and we need not trouble ourselves about any of what He said. And on a personal level, while I am aware of many other men who claimed identity with God, I know of no other who has gone on to be a great moral teacher. On the contrary, they were eccentric at best, and most often genuine monsters.

Jesus always knew that Christians would do badly in following him, and complained about it to His disciples: “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not follow my teachings?” The question to non-Christians would perhaps be better phrased, “Why do you insist my disciples follow my teachings when you deny the ones you don’t like?”
If there is anything that the two groups have in common, it is that the Gospel of Half of Christ is very attractive to them: Christians want to get to the center without troubling themselves about the commands that surround it. Non-Christians want to stay at the edge and ignore the teachings at the center. Both are wrong.

If the New Testament documents are worthy of any respect, then the same man who said “whatsoever you do unto the least of these, you do also to me” also said “I am the resurrection and the life.” The problem with both Christians and non-Christian admirers of Jesus is that both of them want only a part of what Jesus taught, but Jesus himself demands a wholehearted following. And since none of us is capable of such a wholehearted following, the true Gospel of Christ is this: that the Father stands ready to welcome the Prodigal Son because He loves him. That the Son poured out His life for His weaker brothers and sisters that they, too, may stand in the Father’s embrace. But to turn away from the Son is to turn away from the Father, and walk away from the embrace. And this a Christian cannot do. We must indeed, as my friend said, follow what Jesus taught. But following it leads us, step by step, to the Cross.

 

 

A Report on the Curious Culture and Religion of the Acirema

As we approach the anniversary of a certain election, I have chosen another column to reprint.

A Report on the Curious Culture and Religion of the Acirema

by

An Alien Visitor

As told to

G. Scott Huggins

Dear Sirs, Mesdames, Glooquot[1],and  Mechaniqa[2]:

I submit herewith my xenological report on the most curious culture to inhabit planet 73SXB1089, called in the major local language, Dirt. The most powerful economic and military culture on the planet is that of the Acirema, who have evolved a religio-political system that I believe to be unprecedented in the known galaxy.

The institution of the God-King is, of course, well documented and known to us all, the hallmark of a thousand primitive cultures. What sets the Acirema apart is their particular variant upon this theme: in their common religion, the central ceremony is the election, every four years, of a God-President. This is a very complicated process, and affects every aspect of Acirema life. The Acirema religion is atypical in many ways, the chief being: 1) The religion has aspects of both monism and dualism. 2) The religion relies on both faith and magic. 3) They deny that they share the same religion. 4) They deny that it is a religion at all.

Overview:

The Acirema overwhelmingly belong to one of two sects. They have many names among themselves, and among each other, both self-glorifying (for their own sect) and pejorative (for the other). However, the two names that seem to be most in use are the Tarcomed and the Pog. The two sects claim to be as different from one another as possible, but for at least the past few decades their actions have grown more and more indistinguishable, to the point that only experts can tell them apart. The two sects themselves, however, vehemently deny this, so it is instructive to look at the major similarities.

Dualism:

Both sides, every four Dirt years, throw all of the efforts of their disciples into electing the next God-President, which is always one of two Chosen Prophets, one from each sect. Yet both sides have agreed that no God-President shall be elected more than twice, regardless of how well he performs the office. It is an article of faith that this would lead to corruption, as if eight years were not long enough a time to be corrupted. The disciples preach to the masses, who are at least nominal followers of the sects themselves, in order to encourage them to participate in the voting ceremony. The devotion of the masses does lie in some doubt, as it has been many years, if ever, that even half have participated in the actual ceremony. Yet even those who decline to participate in the ceremony itself (which is surprisingly prosaic and unmystical, being simply a matter of counting votes and then multiplying them by a formula based on place of habitation) devote quite a bit of time to watching and listening to the disciples, and chanting formulas in support or dissent of the two sects’ Chosen Prophets. Each side is certain that only their Chosen Prophet, as God-President, can save Acirema from poverty, war, corruption, and tyranny, while the election of the other Chosen Prophet will bring about all these things. So in this sense, the religion is dualistic, with the true believers of each sect certain that the other’s Chosen Prophet will be a God-President of Evil and Darkness.

Monism:

However, once in office, the current God-President is praised (by the disciples of his own sect) for all good things that may happen within the realm of Acirema, while he is universally reviled (by the disciples of the other sect) for all possible bad things. Even those who claim to follow neither sect generally attribute the good or the bad to the decisions and the character of the God-President, whoever he may be. In this sense, therefore, the religion of the Acirema is monistic, as everything that takes place is an aspect of his rule. The chief priests, who go about instilling this belief in the worshippers, are called the “media,” not because they mediate between the people and their God-President, but because they are the only mediators of His decisions and statements to them.

Faith and Magic:

It would be natural to assume that the Acirema might fear and revere their God-President’s power simply because it is vast and unlimited like that of any tyrant, but a short review of their Law (which is indeed fairly well-enforced, though not commonly well-understood or thoroughly read) reveals that this is not so, and that the power attributed to him is entirely based on superstition and faith. The best example of such faith is the miraculous control that they attribute to the God-President over the economy. Yet a cursory review of their Law will show that the God-President has very little power over their sprawling economy, not even the power to make laws. That power is vested in a temple which, every two years they fill with what appears to be a college of wizards (also divided into Tarcomed and Pog sects), who try to influence the economy by what I can only describe as legislemancy: a series of written spells designed to make those who have elected them richer, and those who support their opponents poorer. The spells are so arcane that even many of the wizards no longer know their contents, let alone their eventual consequences. The practice does have this advantage for them, however: since no consequence of the legislemancy can ever be known for sure, there is no effect that cannot be successfully claimed as a triumph for one sect or the other. It is therefore understandable (and one of the last remaining signs of sanity in Acirema culture) that the people’s distrust of these wizards is such that the Acirema have given their temple a name that can mean both the opposite of progress and indiscriminate sexual intercourse (proving that for all their other faults, the Acirema are skilled wordsmiths and ironists). In recent years, the sectarian wizardry has grown more and more oppositional, and the result, of course is that very little gets accomplished. This seems to have been designed into the system by the authors of the Law, who were quite obviously wiser than the current Acirema. This congress, as they call it, however, serves only to reinforce their faith in the power of the God-President.

Identity of Practice:

Both sects have therefore given to the God-President more and more power, seemingly unaware of the fact that the power they give to the God-President that they support carries over to the one they oppose. Both sects encourage their God-President to fight the other sect to the uttermost, both beseech him to wield the full force of the Law without mercy over the other sect, and both call upon him to see that he extends the force of the Law and his powers of government so that more and more of their money will be taken and spent by the government.  So in this way, we may see that the religion they practice is truly the same.

Denial of Faith:

One must be careful, however, when traveling among them, never to refer to their religion as such, for both sects will violently deny that it is a religion at all. While much variance on the matter exists within each sect, the Tarcomed are most likely to deny that such a thing as God exists, which may account for their devotion to (or hatred for) the current God-President, as they have no other deity in which to repose their trust. However, even more curious are the Pog, who generally profess to worship another, and far older god. A review of the local literature revealed that this alleged god supposedly came to Earth as a man, and preached love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, all of which are markedly absent from Acirema religious debate, aside from the fact that both sects do claim to possess these qualities, while believing their opponents lack them entirely. However, as neither the Pog nor the Tarcomed spend even a quarter of the time discussing or practicing the tenets of this minor “religion” as they do their major one, we may safely discount this quaint folkway as having any real effect upon their actions or beliefs.

Conclusion:

The Acirema are, for now, in a very strange and possibly dangerous religious phase of their culture. There is some evidence that in the past, a saner approach to politics, and we may assume, religion, took place, in which the Acirema recognized that policies rather than superstition and sectarian purity were more likely to affect their economic and diplomatic fortunes, but few, if any of that generation survive today, and since age is not well-respected among the Acirema, any testimony from them can be dismissed as “reactionary” and “out-of-touch.” We may only hope that their children may be as much wiser than the current Acirema as their ancestors were, and hope for more fruitful contact at a later time.

[1] Untranslatable gender

[2] Intelligent machines

His Kingdom Endures Forever

Another column I wrote about a year ago. It is always easier to argue against a part of an idea than it is to argue against all of it.

There is a popular and growing disdain for the concept of an afterlife today. Among agnostics and atheists, it is seen as pure wishful thinking, lampooned as “pie in the sky when you die,” a nostrum intended to keep the poor and the ignorant enslaved to the will of the religious elite. That this phrase was popularized by a communist who intended to harness the poor and ignorant to his revolution is either forgotten, or else embraced as “liberating,” as though dying for a secular cause you’ll never experience is somehow more meaningful and less absurd than dying for a religious one you would.

In the postmodern age, we see that even among some Christians, a desire for an afterlife is seen as somehow dishonorable and mercenary. As though somehow it is “pay” for “being good,” which truly virtuous people would do without reward. Thus, it is argued, Christians (or anyone) who believe in an afterlife are really just admitting their own moral failings. I must admit that, as a Christian, this argument fails to move me, seeing that the whole basis for faith in Christ is a recognition that everyone fails at morality.

I find it an interesting paradox, therefore, that in so many fantasy works that explicitly address the question of what it means to be good, the idea of an afterlife inevitably occurs. If it does not at the beginning, then it does at the end. Almost as if it were a secret that cannot help but come out whenever we discuss what it means to do right at the cost of our own lives.

Of course, the classic threat that is leveled at our SFF heroes is always “submit, or die.”  Lois McMaster Bujold, in her Chalion cycle, begins The Curse of Chalion with the tale of Lupe dy Cazaril, a Chalionese nobleman recently freed from the slavery into which he was betrayed. Although Cazaril at first dares death to save his young pupil, a Chalionese girl threatened with a forced marriage, he finds himself quickly caught up in a the service of gods who ask him to die not once, but three times to save Chalion from a curse brought about by the desperate pride of two men long dead. Cazaril does this at the risk, not only of his death, but of his damnation. And damnation becomes a theme throughout this cycle of Bujold’s work, just as reunion with the gods does. The entire second work, A Paladin of Souls turns on saving the soul of a damned ghost. To do this, Dowager Queen Ista must walk into danger only on the word of her patron god.

If Cazaril is not especially religious at the beginning of his tale, Frodo the Hobbit and Harry Potter the wizard are even less so. Both characters face, however, the growing power of a malevolent force that wishes to dominate their worlds. While the characters are extremely different, Frodo being completely unknown in his world before encountering the One Ring, while Harry is a prophesied hero practically at his birth, they have this similarity: both are forced to choose whether they will accept the role of opposing a deadly foe at the cost of their own lives. And the reward for both of them, revealed at the end of the last volume, is Heaven. The fact that Harry chooses to turn his back on Heaven (and the penalty for Voldemort’s determination to live forever at the expense of others is, make no mistake, a form of Hell) is irrelevant. He has seen Heaven, and can be confident he will find his way back.

I would contend that these authors have seen clearly a necessary truth: that the belief in an objective moral code that can demand our lives in its service cannot be separated from the belief in an afterlife. The alternative to this is not moral rectitude, but a dreadful moral injustice, in which the good are enslaved to the evil. It makes God (or whatever the source of the moral code is) into a moral vampire, demanding the hard road of virtue while returning nothing.

A comparison may be useful here. In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga, the only afterlife is Hell, which is maintained by an evil God (“The Authority”) who has pulled the wool over the eyes of the universe. Essentially, this “God” is the imagined God of Satan in Paradise Lost:[1]not a Creator, but simply an immensely powerful being who opportunistically identified itself as “God” to all who came after. Hell is maintained for no other reason than Divine sadism, and by the time of the novel, the angel Metatron is trying to take over the position of “God” from the senile and dying deity, maintaining the monstrous tyranny of Heaven. The protagonists are humans who lead a revolution against these evil god-kings.

I find it fascinating where Pullman went in setting this up. When, in the first volume, The Golden Compass, we meet the parents of the main protagonist, a girl named Lyra, her parents (whom she does not know, as they have more important things to do than raise a child) are engaged in experiments to understand the nature of the universe, which they can only do, it seems, by cutting out the souls of children. This they do without qualm.

By The Amber Spyglass, we are asked to believe that these same people who would torture and kill children to attain their ends are sacrificing themselves heroically in combat to overthrow the evil Metatron. I suppose we ought to congratulate Pullman on his honesty: at least his anti-theistic messiah figures were honest enough to start out by killing children. Most of the ones in the real world are too cowardly to show their willingness to do this until they have already attained power.

At the end of the novel, Lyra breathlessly declares her intention to begin building “the Republic of Heaven,” to replace the shattered kingdom. But this Republic of Heaven will have no permanent inhabitants, it having been revealed that infinite existence was only possible, for some reason, in Hell. Lyra’s “heaven” is temporary, powerless, and cannot even contain the boy she has grown to love.

Pullman’s point, in the end, seems to be that his humans are free because they have discovered the truth: that Christianity is a lie. Well and good, I suppose, but the truth revealed is a terribly depressing one: that humans are free only to die. It truly is a Satanic conclusion: that it is better to reign and die than to serve in Heaven. He makes no argument as to why this is superior, he simply establishes on his own Author-ity that this is the case.

I would argue that we find it difficult to separate the idea of Heaven from the idea of a transcendent moral code because the two are fundamentally indissoluble, as Tolkien, Rowling, and Bujold instinctively grasp. They are repelled from separating the two for much the same reason that Pullman is attracted to destroying both: because they believe that an objective and powerful moral code is essential to human freedom, while Pullman believes that such a code destroys it. Each author has built a world on his on this foundation, and the consequences for the human condition are plain. Which world we would choose to inhabit is, as always, a choice for the reader. I believe Pullman would argue that the overwhelming advantage of living in his world is that it most closely resembles the real one. To that, I can only reply, along with C.S. Lewis’s Puddleglum, “in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing when you come to think of it.”

[1] “That we were formd then saist thou? and the work
Of secondarie hands, by task transferd
From Father to his Son? strange point and new!
Doctrin which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? rememberst thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d
By our own quick’ning power…”