Allochthonia: Numen, Faith, Religion, and Lack Thereof

One of the persistent topics of discussion in the Babylon 5 threads has been annoyance about the depiction of religion in the alien societies of the series. The consensus is that Bab 5 isn’t unique: religion and faith are frequently handled poorly in fictional cultures. I’d certainly agree with that; I can’t think of many nuanced, subtle depictions in books, shows or movies.

A lot of the problem is that many writers have strong views on these are topics in real life and let their biases leak through. But the writers who don’t have strong views can be just as bad, because then there’s the temptation to use a kind of simplistic color-by-numbers approach, and end up with a single [happy and loving/restrictive and repressive] [monotheistic/polytheistic]* religion.

The problem is that real societies are big places full of people who think for themselves, ask awkward questions, and argue about the answers. A certain proportion of them spend a lot of time and energy thinking about the nature of the universe, and how people relate to it, and how the numinous§ fits into that matrix. And they come to varying conclusions, which they then talk to other people about. Then they wind up with a bunch of followers who turn the act of following into a tribal marker†. Bingo! Multiple rival religions.

There will also be a set of people who will look at the concept of the numinous and decide that they don’t buy any of it. If there’s heavy social pressure to pretend otherwise, many of those people may mouth the words and attend the services. But a certain proportion of them won’t, even under penalty of death.

This can create any number of flavors of society. Here are three a few that it can’t, at least without significant collateral changes to the wider social structures. And yet they’re not uncommon patterns in fiction.

  1. Everyone belongs to the same religion§, and/or professes the same faith§.

    See above about people thinking for themselves. People may all belong to the same religion if it is broad enough to accommodate pretty much every form of belief and unbelief. There’s an old joke about the Church of England that’s relevant here: what is the only belief that excludes one from membership in the C of E? The belief that one is not a member of the C of E.

    But note that belonging to the same religion is not the same as believing the same thing; the broader the tent, the more clumps and clusters it will hold.

    People may also all belong to the same religion if they’re compelled to do so by sufficient force. Think your classic repressive theocracy, where the penalty of apostasy is death. That’ll keep the vast majority of your population in the fold. But a global repressive theocracy will require enforcement, so expect a repressive and intrusive society. And again, people won’t really believe the same thing, or act like they do. They’ll keep the rules (mostly) and say the right things (in their outside voices). But their actions and their private conversation, particularly with an outsider, will give a different picture.

  2. No one has any faith or religion

    This is another fallback that I’ll only believe if the wider implications for the society are explored. If you have a species of alien that has no need or desire for religion, their collective behavior will be different than humans’, because our population includes people inclined to belief as well as ones not so inclined.

    How else will that difference show up? Will they be comparatively worse at pattern-matching (on the argument that belief in the numinous is the product of over-matching patterns)? Will they have no customs around wishing or hoping? Will they all find games of chance boring, because they instinctively calculate the odds of things and hold no statistically improbable hope of winning?

    (It should go without saying that a society of atheists will not be one without ethics, morals, or decency. The fact that it doesn’t is a sign of some seriously deficient imagination on the part of people who should know better.)

  3. Everyone tolerates everyone else’s religion and faith.

    Again, I’m going to need to see some significant differences in the species and the society it creates before I’ll wear this one with comfort. Humans, and human-like species, are both tribal and competitive. We turn any common ground into a form of self-identification, even if it’s a granfaloon. And then the tribes start large-scale dominance contests with each other.

    A society without religious conflict would have to undo one or both of those traits. So either it would not form the kind of strong associations we have, or it wouldn’t fight over them. I’d expect no nations from the former, and a lot less competition among the latter. In either case, you’re going to need to create a new economic system, because any capitalism beyond sole-trader level relies on both tribalism (company loyalty) and competition.

  4. Added: The gods aren’t gods, they’re just aliens (thanks, wonderer @7)

    This is AKA the Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology trope, though I don’t think Clarke meant his Law in that fashion.

    Look, if you’re going to write about gods, write about gods, not super-powerful aliens that people get fooled into worshiping. It’s hackneyed, tired, and usually just a cover for beating up on people you disagree with in real life.

  5. Added: Everyone who disagrees with the author’s personal views is wrong, wrong, wrongity wrong

    This can manifest in many ways. The three commonest are: all religions are evil; all atheists are evil; all religions except the in-world version of the author’s own are evil (the Hail Mary Sue problem). What these tropes have in common is that they’re the author’s own views coloring their ability to write balanced, realistic characters in a plausible world.

    In my experience, the numerical majority of SF&F novels that fall into this trap tend toward the first of the three types: religions and religious organizations are portrayed as harmful, sinister, or downright deliberately evil. However, the instances of the other two are generally so obnoxious and loaded that they, as a class, are just as irritating despite their numerical disadvantage.

I’d be interested in assembling a list of SF & F authors and works who do religion, faith and the numinous particularly well or particularly badly. If people want to mention them in the comments, I’ll bring them up into the main body of the post. I’d also be interested in other tired tropes that turn up in genre fiction besides the three I’ve listed here.

What I am not interested in is an argument about religions in the real world, except as it casts useful and interesting light on the subject at hand, which is their role in cultural worldbuilding.

From discussion, The Good & The Bad:


Well done Oh, dear…
  • The Dragera books by Steven Brust (David Harmon @8)
  • Lois McMaster Bujold, particularly the Vorkosigan and Curse of Chalion series (Fade Manley @1)
  • The Dresden Files books by Jim Butcher (OtterB @107)
  • The Lost Fleet books by Jack Campbell (Serge @98)
  • Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide (mostly) by Orson Scott Card (albatross @17)
  • The Blue Hawk by Peter Dickinson (Abi @25)
  • The Riverworld series by Philip José Farmer (Steve G @10)
  • Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman (David Harmon @125)
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman (Terry Karney @18)
  • The Sandman books by Neil Gaiman (Abi)
  • The Symphony of the Ages series by Elizabeth Hayden (Kyndra @11)
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein (Braxis @44)
  • Dune by Frank Herbert (tykewriter @80)
  • The Chronicles of the Kencyrath by P.C. Hodgell (Deborah @110)
  • Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones (David Harmon @8)
  • Hellspark by Janet Kagan (OtterB @15)
  • The Valdemar series by Mercedes Lackey (David Harmon @8)
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (Sylvia @24)
  • The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin (Lila @5)
  • Pretty much everything by Madeline L’Engle (albatross @105)
  • The Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R. R. Martin (Sean K. @53)
  • Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon (OtterB @15)
  • Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Abi @50)
  • The Mote books by Niven and Pournelle (albatross @17)
  • The Heaven Tree Trilogy, by Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters (Kyndra @114)
  • The Discworld books, particularly Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett (Caroline @3)
  • The Mars series, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Braxis @55)
  • The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson (praisegod barebones @68)
  • The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (Terry Karney @18)
  • Contact, by Carl Sagan (Caroline @3)
  • The Merlin series (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment) by Mary Stewart (Jacque @116)
  • The Island in a Sea of Time and Change books by SM Stirling (albatross @17)
  • Babylon 5 by J Michael Straczynski, particularly G’Kar’s religion (Lenora Rose @2)
  • The Queen’s Thief series, by Megan Whalen Turner (Kee @66)
  • The Sulien books by Jo Walton (heresiarch @19)
  • Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells (OtterB @15)
  • The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, by Martha Wells (Lenora Rose @115)
  • Firefly, by Joss Whedon (Serge @51)
  • The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (Abi @4)
  • The Black Chalice by Marie Jakober (Lenora Rose @3)
  • Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay (heresiarch @19)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia (particularly The Last Battle) by C.S. Lewis (Abi @32)
  • The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis (praisegod barebones @62)
  • His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman (Abi @32)
  • Iain M Banks, Vernor Vinge, and Heinlein, all of whom simply omit it from their work (albatross @17)
  • Every Star Trek episode that explains gods as super-powerful aliens (wonderer @7)

§ A note on terms as I’m using them here. The numinous is a catch-all term for something beyond the observable phenomena of the universe and the rules that can be derived from them. Faith is the internal attitude of a person who believes in the numinous. And religion is a collection of people who share a set of rules and behaviors derived from the numinous. Note that although religions are, in this context, founded by people with it, faith is not necessarily a requirement for membership in a religion.
* delete as appropriate
† Within my own religious tradition, it happened within a very few years of the founder’s departure. Many of Paul’s letters to the various Christian communities are an attempt to keep them emotionally and theologically unified. It was, of course, a losing battle.

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147 Responses to Allochthonia: Numen, Faith, Religion, and Lack Thereof

  1. Fade Manley says:

    The first example that comes to mind of “does religions right” would be Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s a fairly low-key aspect in the Vorkosigan series, but it’s front and center in the Chalion series. In that setting, there are quite active, identifiable gods. There is an explicit singular type of miracle performed at funerals for everyone, showing which god took up the body. There are five gods, and everyone knows their titles and which is which…

    …and yet you still have serious arguments over whether the fifth god is truly a god or a demon, and the church has its well-meaning types and its corrupt ones and those to whom it’s just another a job, and there are those who dedicate their lives passionately to the gods and those who rage against the gods. Which only goes to show that “No, really, the whole ‘gods exist’ thing is very easy to prove and totally true” in a setting still doesn’t have to mean monolithic religions/belief/approaches.

  2. Lenora Rose says:

    Considering that i think in the long run, G’kar’s religion *is* well presented, even if it falls down so many other times (And even his religion looks sometimes overly simplistically drawn if you see one episode instead of the cumulative effect) , I think Babylon 5 is ahead of a number of shows or other SF.

    The other religious cliche I see a LOT is that there are Two religions. One Christian-like (Or at minimum Abrahamic), and one copies some form of paganism. One (usually but not necessarily the Christian Analogue) is currently in charge, and oppressive, and corrupt, and dictatorial, and the other is an underground movement, always persecuted and sometimes illegal, and *always* knows better, behaves better, and is more egalitarian. There will be pederast priests in the corrupt religion, but rarely, if ever, someone genuinely good all the way through, unless they’re a dupe who eventually converts.

    Of course, this is also done in historical fantasy, where there isn’t even the vague analogue excuse. (Marie Jakober’s The Black Chalice makes everything Christian EBIL in a way that bothered me in a time in my life when I thought myself more sympathetic with Wicca and paganism.) Or in many a book set in the real world; religions are painted as only their blackest or their brightest aspects too often, even when we have the examples of history to give a nuanced view.

    On another aspect: One thing I think helps in avoiding the “well, the gods show up, so of course everyone worships them the same” is to remember that one of the original definitions of atheism wasn’t refusal to believe in God — it was a person who looked at what God was professed to teach, and said, “this just makes me angry, because it’s unjust.” In a fictional world where the gods do show up, refusing to believe in the gods may well require actual madness. However, looking at their behaviour or their laws, and saying, “No. I won’t worship you because I don’t like what you do.” makes hella sense. I don’t see it often enough.

  3. Caroline says:

    My first thoughts:

    -Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson. Really groks the ways people might use religious frameworks to cope with a world totally out of their control. The solution to the central mystery, and the book’s ending, also deal with themes of the numinous, in a surprising but logical and believable way.

    -Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett. Strikes right at the faultlines between religion, faith, and the nature of the divine — with great insight into the way humans are human about those things. I generally love the way Discworld gods work.

    I would argue that the Discworld witches’ magic has a lot to do with faith and the numinous as well, although it understands those things in a much more humanistic sense — usually involving the witch herself, and her relationships to other people or places.

    “I don’t hold with paddlin’ with the occult,” said Granny firmly. “Once you start paddlin’ with the occult you start believing in spirits, and when you start believing in spirits you start believing in gods. And then you’re in trouble.”
    “But all them things exist,” said Nanny Ogg.
    “That’s no call to go around believing in them. It only encourages ‘em.” — Lords and Ladies

    -Contact, by Carl Sagan. I don’t think that the direct portrayals of religious figures, or direct religious arguments, are all that insightful; in general they strike me as rather stereotyped. However, the ending of the book really is insightful. (rot13’d for spoilers; decode at rot13.com) Vg’f nobhg ubj fbzrbar yvxr Ryyvr — n fpvragvfg, n pbasvezrq zngrevnyvfg — jbhyq qrny jvgu univat n znwbe eryvtvbhf rkcrevrapr. Fur pna’g rkcynva vg, fur pna’g fubj nal cebbs; fur bayl xabjf gung vg frrzrq irel erny gb ure, naq punatrq gur jnl fur guvaxf nobhg gur havirefr. Ohg fur’f fgvyy n fpvragvfg. Fb fur qribgrf urefrys gb frnepuvat sbe uneq rivqrapr gung jung fur rkcrevraprq vf erny.

  4. Lenora Rose @2:

    Ah, yes, the Evil Dominant Religion and the Plucky Little One trope. That’s related to Men Are Evil But Women Don’t Get Worse Than Misguided characterization. The author has a thumb on the scales. Drives me bats, because it always makes me root for the worst-treated character/religion/whatever. And then I hate the book, because “my team” loses.

    That’s the reason I can’t reread The Mists of Avalon.

    One thing I think helps in avoiding the “well, the gods show up, so of course everyone worships them the same”

    I know it’s not your point, but I think the attitude you express there also requires a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the numinous. The real numinous, to the people who believe in it, is bigger than the brains we’re using to parse it. So it ends up being the elephant to the blind men. A dozen people can have the same experience and come to a score of different conclusions about it.

    My own theory about atheism, by the way, is that there are people who are, by their character, interested in or attuned to the numinous. And then there are people who simply are not. And I suspect the ratio of the two hasn’t changed throughout history. The difference now is that it’s OK (in some places) for people who are not interested in the numinous to be open about it instead of going along with religion because of social pressure.

    And, in case it’s not clear from my phrasing there, I think that’s a good thing.

  5. Lila says:

    The Telling by Ursula K. LeGuin. It feels to me like a thought experiment in which the author, an atheist and the child of two anthropologists, attempts to construct a religion she does not find distasteful (imagine a religion that is descriptive rather than prescriptive, and is propagated by telling stories). Of course, LeGuin also being a hell of a storyteller, it’s MUCH more complicated than that.

  6. Caroline @3:

    I remember being really bugged by Spin, actually; I felt that the group he made Diane join was a pretty unfair caricature of religion. But it’s been a while since I’ve read it (partly because of that lasting impression). I could have got the wrong end of the stick.

  7. wonderer says:

    My first thought was Bujold’s Chalion series as well. Fade Manley mentioned much of what impressed me about the representation of the religion, but here’s one more thought: I love the way “gods interfering with humans” part is handled. There are rules about what gods can and can’t do in the human world, how they can and cannot affect things. They’re quite limited, but at the same time, what they are able to do can cause huge problems for the “chosen one”. It’s a form of rigorous worldbuilding that I really admire.

    Tired trope to add to your list: The gods are really aliens, and anyone who thinks they are gods and wants to worship them is misguided/ill-informed. This one is particularly prevalent in Star Trek, except for DS9 to some extent.

  8. David Harmon says:

    I’d toss in Dark Lord of Dirkholme, as a case where “gods are real”. Also Lackey’s Valdemar, for that matter. But In both cases, it brings up another issue: An overly-present god is in danger of turning into a Sufficiently Powerful Alien (Brust does this slowly but explicitly in Dragaera). But… if that SPA fills the role of a god, in all respects indicated by tradition, what’s actually the difference? This is something that comes up in my own bit of Lucien’s Library, the ideas for a series that I’ve never actually written down. Suppose you have an SPA that really can and does look out for their followers, that’s concerned for the condition of humanity (and/or other species, and/or the surrounding world). Suppose it can accept worship and do something-or-other with it, for its own benefit or ours. Optionally: immortal or nearly so, able to negotiate with or overrule physical law, genuinely wiser and more moral than any human could hope to be. Possibly bound to humanity in some fashion, so that it “has to” look out for us, rather than treating us as chattel.

    At what point do we say “wherever that being may have come from, it is genuinely a god”?

  9. David Harmon says:

    P.S.: Bonus points for trafficking in souls….

  10. SteveG says:

    Dianetics is a work of fiction presenting a religion with sufficient realism and detail to fool large swathes of humanity into thinking it’s real.

    Also, the Riverworld series, by Philip Jose Farmer, presents people of many religions in an alien setting, without presuming that they will all get along. There is favoritism, but IIRC it’s not evident until well into the series. It’s an alien culture populated by human actors, with human faith of many stripes.

  11. Kyndra says:

    Elizabeth Hayden -Symphony of the Ages (Rhapsody, Destiny etc.) does a pretty good job of having believable practitioners of the two main religions. The religions themselves are not atypical. One is vaguely druidic (at least in the modern reconstruction of druidism as a wonderful “green” religion) and the other is also earth related in that it worships various elements (fire, etc.). The various followers of the two are both believably human and consistent to their assigned beliefs without being mere puppets. They are willing to reinterpret their beliefs to suit their ambitions for instance but they also believe enough that when they start to get in trouble for their playing with the rules they believe that too…

  12. Serge Broom says:

    Abi @ 4… My own theory about atheism, by the way, is that there are people who are, by their character, interested in or attuned to the numinous. And then there are people who simply are not.

    What apparently made my wife-to-be decide I was special is when I wrote to her and, commenting about my kitty, I said in awe “She’s a living creature.”

  13. Serge Broom says:

    Another trope of faulty worldbuilding is that the culture has one Nation.

  14. Serge Broom says:

    (Darn… Forogt to check on the follow-up comment box.)

  15. OtterB says:

    I also thought early of Bujold’s Chalion as a place that got it right.

    Other places where I like the religious portions of the worldbuilding: Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion. I like that there are multiple gods but that the adherents of each are generally respectful of each others’ differences.

    Janet Kagan’s Hellspark. Most of her look at conflicting cultures centers around language, but religion also shows up as a place where well-intentioned people from different cultures can come into conflict through unexplored assumptions.

    Martha Wells’s Wheel of the Infinite. Someone is disrupting a religious rite that has important real-life consequences. With Wells’s usual complex culture and worldbuilding.

    Trope I get tired of: The priest/shaman/whatever is a liar and a con man, and all believers are bamboozled sheep.

  16. A lot of the 19th century conversion novels that are discussed on the Little Professor blog follow a variant of the cliche Lenora Rose points out. That is: There’s really only one religion that matters; any other religions are completely empty, corrupt, or delusional. (Some books along these lines have also been appearing my my new online books queue lately, as I’ve been going through a large set of submissions on Catholic-Protestant controversy.)

    I don’t tend to hear mature converts talk like this. Even when they adopt a new faith, they often write about what appealed to them about their former world-view, and it’s not unusual for them to continue to talk about what’s good in their former beliefs, or about their former coreligionists.

    In less thoughtful religious fiction (and non-fiction), the author’s favored religion becomes a sort of Mary Sue: something that every good and wise character must invariably rearrange their life around, with any possible rival treated either as worthless or utterly evil. Which isn’t any more believable or appealing for religions than for characters.

    I do like Bujold’s Chalion gods, though. One of the things I like about them is that, even when they’re shown as benevolent, they’re not tame (as CS Lewis might say). As wonderer points out, life is definitely not easy for their chosen ones, and you get a good sense of why that is. (And it’s at least as much about the different perspectives of divine and human natures, and the refusal of the gods to be puppets, as it is about any limitations of the gods.)

  17. albatross says:

    SM Stirling seems to do a more-or-less plausible job of this in his _Island in a Sea of Time_ books and his Change books.

    In the Change books, the civilization is entirely derived from existing civilization, but after an inexplicable and impossible-to-recover-from disaster. Places with freedom of religion have some level of diversity of it (more or less depending on the society), places with little or no diversity tend not to have much in the way of freedom of religion. (Though the Mackenzies have freedom of religion and not all that much diversity, other than the weird Tolkien-Wicca hybrid of the Rangers.)

    In the Nantucket (Island) books, the American civilization is derived from US civilization, and the Republic of Nantucket ends up with a sort of semi-official Christian church that’s more-or-less interdenominational, with a smattering of Jews, atheists, agnostics, etc. (It’s clear that Ian, Marian, and Walker are not religious, for example.) The religions of the other civilizations are shown with a lot less nuance–I’d have expected more diversity of belief among Swindapa’s people, for example.

    Before he ran it into the ground, Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide universe had an interesting take on religion–planets were overwhelmingly settled by a dominant religion, but religious minorities had rights that had to be respected, or the religious and secular authorities on the planet would suffer genuine and serious consequences. I have the impression that the assumption behind this was that this was the only way they knew how to avoid religious wars between humans. (But we only see a few planets, so maybe there are planets which are much more mixed.) And the storyline involving OCD on Path was amazingly clever and interesting and unnerving. (Warning: I found the end of Speaker for the Dead, and all of Children of the Mind, to be painfully awful. Either his story fell apart, or I completely missed what he was trying to do.)

    Niven and Pournelle’s Mote universe has what seems like plausible religions. There’s a state church (something between Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Church of England) which is high-prestige, but there is also a lot of religious diversity among the colony worlds, and among the individuals in the stories. There are characters for whom religion is important (Father Hardy, Horace Bury, even Captain Blaine at one point), and many others for whom it doesn’t appear to be (Renner, Buckman). We see religious fanatics and moderates and fallen away types among the Mormon colonists at the beginning of The Gripping Hand, and there’s a mostly-failed cult on New Scotland created by the effect of the Mote lighting up before the story began.

    One thing I notice about all these guys is that they’re all some flavor of right wing. I don’t know if Stirling or Niven are religious, but Pournelle and Card definitely are, and it makes sense to me that people who are more religious would include religion as an important part of the story that matters to people and whole civilizations.

    By contrast, I think Banks and Heinlein simply have/had a hard time taking religion seriously enough for it to generally play much of a role in their civilizations, except as a curiosity or a bit of scenery. Similarly, it’s a kind of empty spot in Vinge’s writing, I think–in The Peace War, religion simply never comes up among any of the characters except Willi, who still has some residual of whatever he learned in the Ndelante Ali, but it doesn’t seem to inform his decisions or change much of his behavior or anything. Pham Nuwen in Deepness helped make up a religion to further his grand plans. The Spiders had religious strife as an important part of their storyline, but other than Hrunk, I don’t remember anyone religious/trad being portrayed especially positively, and much of that storyline amounts to evil fundamentalists vs apparently nonreligious (or maybe just less religious) good guys.

    There’s another trope there w.r.t. religion, which was very common in all the Star Trek shows I watched as an adult–TNG, Voyager, and DS9. In all three, *alien* religions were often treated with considerable respect and made into things of interest (though more in the sense of tourist attractions than anything the viewer or most of the characters not of that species are expected to get anything out of), but human religions were seldom or never mentioned. I’m not sure if this is simply an attempt to avoid getting current religions tangled up into the show (that is, maybe you don’t want 100,000 angry letters next week for having one of your alien characters laugh uncontrollably at the Catholic character’s explanation of transubstantiation), and how much is reflecting the writers’ outlook, in which religion may just not be very important for their lives.

  18. Terry Karney says:

    I would argue that Gaiman, in “American Gods” does this. It’s different, because the players are Gods. Perhaps small Gods, but Gods nonetheless.

    I don’t know quite what to make of Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow” and “Children of God”. Mostly because she is examining human religion (and her own struggles with it). I can only say the first one took me ages to read (for values of ages relative to my normal speed) because about every fifty pages I had to put it down and suck my breath back in from the baseball bat she’d just stuffed into my gut.

  19. heresiarch says:

    The Sulien books by Jo Walton have the absolute best Christian analogue I’ve ever seen (from my non-Christian perspective); Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium’s Christianity analogue, in my humble, misses just about everything about Christianity that makes it what it is.

  20. heresiarch says:

    abi @ 4: “My own theory about atheism, by the way, is that there are people who are, by their character, interested in or attuned to the numinous.”

    I would describe myself as someone who is both an atheist and also very interested in the numinous. It’s just that as far as I’m concerned, reality is itself numinous. (I guess I’m using a slightly different definition of numinous than you.)

    @ 6: “I remember being really bugged by Spin, actually; I felt that the group he made Diane join was a pretty unfair caricature of religion.”

    Agreed. Diane is not in general well-treated by that book, I feel.

    Terry Karney @ 18: “I don’t know quite what to make of Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow” and “Children of God”.”

    I thought of her books too, and reached the same conclusion: she’s writing about Catholicism in an alien context, not about an alien religion.

  21. Terry Karney says:

    re Brust and Draegaera: The interesting thing to me is that for all the Gods appear to be more alien than “god” there is also a set of uber rules, which govern. The essence of people is permanent (barring Morganti, or other such interference), and so there is something which is still numinous, and they know it. So the effect is to place the real “supernatural” at a remove, without actually taking it away.

    His rules and rituals for witchcraft also touch the numinous.

    re Niven: To the best of my knowledge Larry isn’t religious. I can’t be certain, but in 30 years of acquaintance, and a very close relationship with one of his dear friends, it’s never come up, so I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it but I’d give long odds.

    heresiarch: I’m not sure that I’d say she was doing it in an Alien Context, the entire question of religion takes place among the humans. There is a sense that both races have some sort of religious sense, but we don’t get to see it.

    What I got from it, actually, was an exploration of the ways in which Judaism and Catholicism intersect.

  22. Terry Karney says:

    I forgot to say, the second of them didn’t work for me, while the first was, as I said, a steady string of body blows. My housemate says the first was only so-so for her, but the second was really affecting.

    I’m catholic, she’s not. I considered orders, she used to be a congregational minister.

  23. Lenora Rose says:

    Terry Karney: I found the Sparrow a powerful book, though it has some serious flaws once you step back at a remove and really think about some of the set-up (Among the humans; she did very well with the aliens overall.) Children of God flat did not work for me, because as far as I’m concerned, taking someone who’s just finally managed to set up the beginnings of a normal life and kidnapping them is NOT the way you go about ‘giving them closure’.

    Abi @ 4:I know it’s not your point, but I think the attitude you express there also requires a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the numinous.

    I’m not sure it’s a misunderstanding of the nature of the numinous so much as the nature of the human brain. We experience *non-numinous* incidents in sufficiently different ways, too; the unreliability of witness testimony is well established, even when the thing described is, or should be, strictly factual. Not extending that to a concept that is itself too huge to grasp is just inexplicable.

    My own theory about atheism, by the way, is that there are people who are, by their character, interested in or attuned to the numinous. And then there are people who simply are not. And I suspect the ratio of the two hasn’t changed throughout history.

    I think so, too; however, in times when expressing doubt in religion was, at best, problematic, I think those people would, in general, be more likely to go along with the religion as a social construct, and observe the forms, than would the other kind of atheist, the kind who sees the numinous, and finds the accepted human interpretation of it is one they can’t stand.

    Similarly, I think in a world where the gods do show up, there are those who still find water into wine, or the return of Spring, wonderful and miraculous, and others who acknowledge that it happened, but don’t see the powers of the deities as terribly numinous, figuring that eventually, even humans would be able to figure out and reproduce the trick. And somewhere, one woman who’s furious because turning water into wine helped her husband to get drunk, and crash the car.

    David Harmon @ 8: I like that concept. There’s a hint of that in James Alan Gardner’s Commitment Hour, when it’s seen that airplanes and technology are used by “the gods”(I can’t recall now if it’s singular or plural) to cause the miracle that defines their whole society, and the protagonist’s reaction is very much ‘Of course they are. Did you think we were too stupid to realise this? But is there really a good reason why Gods wouldn’t use technology? Does it make the miracle less miraculous?’

  24. Sylvia says:

    I thought of LeGuin as well but the Dispossessed. It was more about belief and assumptions than faith but that is sort of the point, isn’t it?

    What about Lord of Light?

    Serge @12 but is that then related to atheism? I think that if I dismiss Catholicism but am in awe of the unbelievably rich blanket of wildflowers in the barren Spanish hills, I remain an atheist while being overwhelmed by the numinous.

    (heresiarch @20 said it better, actually)

  25. I think there is an interesting set of books dealing with aliens/super-powerful beings who end up being worshiped as gods. It’s a story that can be told well, if you play fair with both the deities and the faithful, I think. The interesting ones are where the gods are changed by their godlike powers.

    Lord of Light does that, as does the Dragera series. I’d also add The Blue Hawk by Peter Dickinson to that list. But where’s the line, and how is it drawn, between them and OldTrek episodes like Who Mourns for Adonis? and The Squire of Gothos?

    Ideas?

  26. @Serge, heresiarch & Sylvia:

    I think, on the subject of the numinous, that it’s important to distinguish between it (as I’m using it) and the experience of being fantasted by reality. That’s certainly how I read Serge’s comment about the kitten: that the observable universe was so intensely wonderful that it bowled him over. It’s a phenomenon I am very susceptible to indeed.

    The numinous (as I am using the term) is something else, something I talk about fairly reluctantly. It’s so easy to open one’s self to sneering, you see. But I’ve had a few moments in my life where it’s not been the observable universe that’s knocked me flat. It’s something else, something bigger and beyond that, whose presence I’ve felt or thought I’ve felt.

    Now, I’m married someone who is, in my phrasing, one of nature’s atheists. He simply does not seem to experience the numinous. Alternatively, he isn’t susceptible to that particular delusion; no one knows which interpretation is correct. I’m certainly content to take my best guess about how these things work and let it shape my life, while letting him do the same with his best guess.

  27. Serge Broom says:

    Sylvia @ 24… What I was trying to say, was that, yes, I am an atheist, but there are things in the natural world that, if I stop and think about it, inspire awe not unlike the numinous – as I understand that word’s meaning.

  28. Serge Broom says:

    abi @ 24… dealing with aliens/super-powerful beings who end up being worshiped as gods. It’s a story that can be told well

    “Who Mourns for Adonais?”

  29. Sylvia @24:

    I always think of this conversation from The Dispossessed:

    ‘So he sees me–how?’
    ‘As a dangerous atheist.’
    ‘An atheist!! Why?’
    ‘Why, because you’re an Odonian from Anarres — there’s no religion on Anarres.’
    ‘No religion? Are we stones, on Anarres?’
    ‘I mean established religion — churches, creeds –‘
    [...]
    ‘I see,’ he said now, another puzzle coming clear — ‘ You admit no religion outside the churches. Just as you admit no morality ouside the laws. You know, I had not understood that, in all my reading of Urrasti books.’
    ‘Well, these days any enlightened person would admit–
    ‘The vocabulary makes it difficult,’ Shevek said, pursuing his discovery. ‘In Pravic the word religion is seldom — no, what do you say — rare. Not often used. Of course it is one of the Categories: the Fourth Mode. Few people learn to practice all the Modes. But the Modes are built of the natural capacities of the mind, you could not seriously believe that we had no religious capacity? That we could do physics while we were cut off form the profoundest relationship man as with the cosmos?’

    It’s a beautiful distinction between what I’ve been calling faith and what I’ve been calling religion.

  30. Lila says:

    Serge: Another trope of faulty worldbuilding is that the culture has one Nation.

    And one climate, and one ecosystem. That drives me CRAZY.

  31. And one language, which will be another post in the near future.

  32. John Mark Ockerbloom @16:

    I don’t tend to hear mature converts talk like this. Even when they adopt a new faith, they often write about what appealed to them about their former world-view, and it’s not unusual for them to continue to talk about what’s good in their former beliefs, or about their former coreligionists.

    I quoted this paragraph at a friend of mine who is in the process of moving from one religious tradition to another; there’s been some very bad reaction from former co-religionists who don’t expect this phenomenon.

    In less thoughtful religious fiction (and non-fiction), the author’s favored religion becomes a sort of Mary Sue: something that every good and wise character must invariably rearrange their life around, with any possible rival treated either as worthless or utterly evil. Which isn’t any more believable or appealing for religions than for characters.

    This comment has caused me to add both the Narnia series and His Dark Materials to the bad side of the list. It’s an astute way of phrasing the problem.

  33. OtterB says:

    Abi @26 But I’ve had a few moments in my life where it’s not been the observable universe that’s knocked me flat. It’s something else, something bigger and beyond that, whose presence I’ve felt or thought I’ve felt.

    IMHO (and it is humble, on this subject, and YM definitely MV) one can meet the numinous in the created world in small (delight in a kitten or spring buds), in large (watching the stars), or in abstract (e.g. a pleasure in discovering and contemplating the laws of physics or the functioning of the human body). It is, to me, related though not identical to the numinous experience of meeting the Creator more directly.

    Re The Sparrow, I found the original to be a great book, but couldn’t like the sequel.

    And John Mark Ockerbloom @16 followed by Abi @32 I find the Mary Sue religion (Saint Mary Sue?) a useful concept as well. I find, when I think about it, that I can often enjoy the ones where my own religion or its close analog is all that is good and true (e.g. Narnia), while disliking ones where it is the other way. (e.g. His Dark Materials. I read the first book, disliked it, and never wanted to read the others.)

  34. Serge Broom says:

    “If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God.”
    – Stephen Hawking

  35. Sylvia says:

    OtterB @33

    There’s a sequel to the Sparrow?

    I wasn’t crazy about Dreamers of the Day (I like my history and my fantasy to be kept nicely organised on separate shelves, if I’m honest) but I loved the Sparrow. What was different about the sequel?

  36. Serge Broom says:

    One thing to keep in mind when religion shows up in SF’s aliens is that the writer really is talking about Humanity, and not attempting to build a fully realized alien culture. I know, that’s obvious.

  37. Serge @34:

    Hawking is a brilliant physicist, but he’s a pretty sucky theologian.

    The mind of God that is knowable by humans is not the mind of God; a deity that is a superset of the universe doesn’t fit inside the space between anyone’s ears. The old saying applies: science is about how, but [philosophy/religion] is about why.

    I don’t expect that the Grand Unification Theory would make one whit of difference to any of the religions of the world. Speaking personally, as a theist, I’d be really interested to see it, but it wouldn’t make me think I knew the mind of God.

  38. Serge @36:

    One thing to keep in mind when religion shows up in SF’s aliens is that the writer really is talking about Humanity, and not attempting to build a fully realized alien culture.

    Oh, absolutely. But a writer who’s banging on about their pet religious polemic through the medium of genre fiction is as boring as someone who’s standing on a soapbox at the corner with a sandwich board. It’s like a writer with any pet topic: if it gets in the way of the story, it’s bad writing, bad worldbuilding.

    The essence of good writing is the ability to create people who are unlike each other (and you, no matter how many multitudes you think you contain) and treat them as full people. Even (especially!) the ones you disagree with. Religion, as it happens, is a place where a lot of authors fall down, because it’s a contentious and deeply emotional topic, and because a lot of people have assumptions around it that they mistake for facts.

    If you write an alien species whose females are all sexually insatiable and dumb as igneous rocks, that probably says something about your attitude toward female humans. Likewise, if you write about one whose people are saintly because they’re theists, or all evil because they’re theists, it’s telling. Talking about religion in genre fiction is really talking about religious tolerance in one slice of society: readers and writers of SF&F.

  39. Serge Broom says:

    Apologies. Had no wish to offend.

  40. Serge @39:

    And you didn’t. Don’t worry about it.

  41. Serge Broom says:

    A couple of years ago, Kurt Busiek, one of the best comics writer, had a “Superman” story where he brought up religion, in this exchange between Clark Kent and his human mother.

    “Did it bother you when I stopped going to services with you?”
    “Clark, you were fourteen. Old enough to make your own decisions in that regard.”
    “I know, but… Did I disappoint you — or offend you?”
    “No. Not one bit. Clark, you could never disappoint me –”
    “Except for melting that vase from Paris. And crashing thru the weather vane.”
    “And you would bend all the utensils in the house every time I made liver… Clark, my faith was my own. I brought it into your life so that you could have a foundation for making your own choices… I certainly think you’ve made good ones…”

    As for why he’d stopped going to Church… He had been young, and still learning to control his powers, which meant he often overheard lots of petty whispers and lies during services, and he didn’t want to stop believing in the goodness of people.

  42. dcb says:

    When I originally read the Narnia books (age seven), I had almost no knowledge of Christianity, so the whole religious message/allegory went straight through me without making any impact. I was, however, very annoyed and upset at the destruction of Narnia in the last book, and particularly in the implication that this was a “good thing”.

  43. heresiarch says:

    abi @ 26: “But I’ve had a few moments in my life where it’s not been the observable universe that’s knocked me flat. It’s something else, something bigger and beyond that, whose presence I’ve felt or thought I’ve felt.”

    For me, “the observable universe” includes everything we experience, everything that leaves its mark on us. We can talk, after the fact, about whether this experience or that experience is “real” or “supernatural” or what have you, but that’s a distinction drawn within our minds, not something that exists in our perceptions. And so how can you feel, much less be knocked flat by, something you can’t observe? Feeling is observing.

    “It’s so easy to open one’s self to sneering, you see.”

    Yes. For me, the numinous is all about a pure, unmediated apprehension of some indescribable truth: the tongue and pen are fumbling, useless things in its wake.

    “Alternatively, he isn’t susceptible to that particular delusion; no one knows which interpretation is correct.”

    I don’t think one can be deluded about one’s own experiences; you can interpret them incorrectly, or at least in an unuseful way, but what you see and feel is by definition an accurate reflection of what you see and feel.

  44. Braxis says:

    I don’t think you can accuse the author of ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’, ‘Job: A Comedy of Justice’ and ‘Revolt in 2100′ of not addressing religion in his work.

    Revolt is a classic example of case 1 above, and what happens when it finally falls apart. Stranger not only poses questions about humanities need for religion and belief, it gives some interesting answers: Which religion is the One True Way? All of them!

    In Bank’s Culture novels we have the Sublimed as Gods; distant, unknowable, powerful and occasionally capricious. They are more believable than the standard ‘Aliens who set themselves up as gods’, because they didn’t. They just moved on, and those they left behind decided, for the sake of species continuation, to respect their god like powers.

    The only ‘religious’ moment I can recall in Niven’s solo work occurred in ‘Ringworld’. Nessus tells Louis that his species have proof that Puppeteers have no souls. This discovery has a huge influence on the Puppeteers society. These near immortals, who know that there is nothing to come after this, are extremely careful of the life they have. The fact that the Puppeteers are descended from herd animals makes their monoculture more believable too – difference is not a survival trait in a member of the herd.

  45. Braxis says:

    P.S.

    Talking about Heinlein and religion, I’ve always been curious to know what crime resulted in the proscription of the Catholics in the Gulf/Friday universe. Does anyone know the Authors word on this one?

  46. Braxis @44:

    Good point on the Heinlein, but he was never very good at weaving it into his worldbuilding. Either it was a Thing or it wasn’t there at all. (This is probably just me not liking his tack on religion when he took one.)

  47. Lila says:

    abi @ #38: a writer who’s banging on about their pet religious polemic through the medium of genre fiction is as boring as someone who’s standing on a soapbox at the corner with a sandwich board. It’s like a writer with any pet topic: if it gets in the way of the story, it’s bad writing, bad worldbuilding.

    At best, as LeGuin said about her own book The Word for World is Forest, “the sound of axes being ground is clearly audible.”

  48. OtterB @33:

    re Saint Mary Sue…look what you made me go and do.

    Ave Maria Susana, gratia plena.
    Auctor tecum.
    Benedicta tu in personis, et benedicti sodales tuae sectae, [nomen religionis insere].
    Sancta Maria Susana, Signa Religionis Verae, demonstra virtutem tuum, nunc et in denouementem huius fabulae.

    (translated:)

    Hail Mary Sue, full of grace.
    The author is with thee.
    Blessed art thou among personifications, and blessed are the followers of thy sect, [insert name of religion].
    Holy Mary Sue, Symbol of the True Religion, display thy virtue, now and in the denouement of this story.

  49. kate says:

    Personally, I felt Job was rather anti-religion, in the end. But yes, religion was definitely segregated, for Heinlein. I would expect that was on purpose, in the sense that if he tried to put a palatable-to-him version in the juveniles, it wouldn’t sell.

    I found Narnia to be an interesting examination of one kind of Christianity, but yes, given the Calormenes, definitely a Mary Sue problem. Of course, when I was 11, I took parts of the end of the Last Battle as a Universalist statement of religious freedom. I suppose that just proves people will read what they want to into your writing.

    I could liken your “some people have access to the numinous and some people don’t” idea to an orientation, but I suppose not, since there isn’t really a continuum.

    Oh! Octavia Butler (Earthseed). Yea or nay?

  50. Braxis @44:

    To expand on the Heinlein thing: I think I’ll put Stranger in a Strange Land in the good list; I think he does well by both his new religion and the old (his treatment of Muslim characters in particular).

    I haven’t read Job or Revolt in 2100; I rather ran out of steam on Heinlein sometime around the time I picked up Friday, and there was lots of older stuff I never got to. I’ll take the consensus of the thread on where they go on the naughty/nice list, if we come to one.

    I should put Niven & Pournelle’s Inferno up there, too. The main character starts as an atheist, gets angry at God, and ends up participating in the grand design of redemption, without any of those positions being shown as wrong or inappropriate at the time.

  51. Serge Broom says:

    Mal Reynolds and Book…

  52. TexAnne says:

    IIRC, Heinlein’s Job is a good takedown of Dominionism, or what Fred Clark calls “real, true Christians.”

  53. Sean K says:

    Another book series/author that should definitely be included in the Well Done category is George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. Multiple different faiths that do NOT get along (and in fact, war regularly over them), and every character has his or her own thoughts on the faiths that he or she is aware of.

  54. Serge Broom says:

    Were Philiup Jose Farmer’s “Father Carmody” stories about Religion?

  55. Braxis says:

    Abi @46

    The only exception to this are his Martians. In several stories they are portrayed as a contemplative and philosophical race.

    TexAnne @52

    All three books indicate that Heinlein feared and/or despised certain flavours of evangelical religion.

    Three more books for consideration.

    Robinson’s Red Mars – A convincing blend of old Earth religions, with Sufism and Arabic Islam particularly prominent, combined with Martian mysticism and militant greens.

    Zelazny’s Isle of the Dead – The alien gods are real and, choose avatars through which they will act in our universe.

    MZB’s Darkover stories – I never quite worked out whether the Darkover gods were gods, indigenous aliens, human ancestors with powerful psychic powers or shared hallucinations. This may be due to my habit of buying second hand and having to take pot luck on reading order.

  56. In general, sf/f doesn’t do a great job with religion in world-building. Bujold is a major exception, I agree. I’m enjoying Kate Elliot’s work, in part, for that reason

  57. Serge Broom says:

    Even a society that doesnt believe in an Afterlife will have rites to say farewell to the departed.
    I should know.

  58. heresiarch @43:

    So perhaps the dividing line between what I call the “natural theists” and the “natural atheists” isn’t about a sense of the numinous, but about what you do about it. I don’t know.

    What I do believe is that there are people who believe in God, and always have, and aren’t going to be argued, persuaded, or evangelized out of that position. There are also people who don’t, never have, and likewise aren’t going to be argued, persuaded, or evangelized out of that position. And there are people who move from one state to the other during their lives.

    But a fictional society that doesn’t include all three types of people is going to have to work harder to persuade me, at least, that it’s realistic. If the species in question doesn’t include ‘em all, it’s going to have a society that’s very different than any Terran society ever has been, and I’m going to want to see how those differences pervade the whole life of the people.

  59. OtterB says:

    Re Heinlein, I agree with putting Stranger in a Strange Land on the good side. Revolt in 2100, I don’t know. I remember reading it when I was in 7th or 8th grade – my first foray from the Heinlein juveniles into his more adult work – and must have read it again, but not at all recently, so it’s quite possible my opinion would change on a reread. I think it’s in the basement somewhere; I’ll have to see if I can find it. My recollection is (spoilers, if anybody cares) that it’s the story of a young man finding that the religious leaders he trusted did not deserve that trust, but that it was more nuanced than “anyone who believes in religion is a deluded fool.” That would put it on the good side, since “good” means a realistic depiction, not arguing for or against. It was, I think, more about tyranny than it was about the numinous.

    Sylvia @35, It’s The Children of God. Lenore Rose @23 mentioned it, and her reason for disliking it is the same as mine. I haven’t read it a second time, but my recollection is that if you could get over that opening gambit, there was much that was good about the book. I couldn’t get over it.

    Abi @48 re Saint Mary Sue…look what you made me go and do. I’d say I’m sorry, but I’m not. Oh dear.

  60. Theophylact says:

    Abi, have you read Banks’s Surface Detail? It’s pretty clear that it’s not that he’s ignoring religion; he really doesn’t like it. Perhaps a revolt against a Scots Presbyterian background?

  61. Theophylact @60:

    I haven’t; I kind of fell of the Banks bus two or three books ago. If it’s notably anti-religion, I’m probably better skipping it.

  62. praisegod barebones says:

    I guess I’m wondering which side of the divide you would put China Mieville’s Kraken on. (I’d imagine that you and he have more or less diametrically opposed attitudes to lots of things i this area; but one thing he seems to get right is the dramatically differing degrees of importance that religion – or its absence can have in different people’s lives.)

    Abi @ 32, Otter B. @ 33: having been educated in a fairly traditionally Christian school, while belonging to a staunchly – even instinctively – atheist family, and had ‘The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe’ used as something more or less analogous to a set text at school, I find myself glad that Philip Pullman exists to counterbalance the scales (especially as children are bound to be pointed at the Narnia books.)

    Come to think of it, though, the place where I think Lewis really makes a Mary Sue out of Christianity is ‘Out of the Silent Planet’ and its sequels. Reading that really put me off his particular approach to Christianity (even more than something explicitly theological, like ‘The Problem of Pain’.

    One thing I’m wondering about is whether its possible to write well about religion in science fiction unless you can approach religious difference in the actual world from a sympathetic point of view. That’s something that I think both atheists and theists often have difficulty with (leaving aside the existence of relgious traditions which regard such sympathy as automatically suspect).

  63. heresiarch says:

    abi @ 58: Yes, that’s true.

    I enjoyed His Dark Materials, and I made a little face at its inclusion on the bad side. I’ve been thinking about it, and while I’m not sure it deserves to be removed, I think it’s worth highlighting the difference between being starkly-to-the-point-of-Mary-Suing-the-universe opposed to religion and being that starkly opposed to faith. Pullman is I think the former* but not the latter. That’s a difference that only really emerges at the end of the series however, and is more avowed than demonstrated.

    * Especially religion in any hierarchical form.

  64. praisegod barebones @62:

    Regarding Kraken, I haven’t read any Miéville, so I don’t know.

    One thing I’m wondering about is whether its possible to write well about religion in science fiction unless you can approach religious difference in the actual world from a sympathetic point of view. That’s something that I think both atheists and theists often have difficulty with (leaving aside the existence of relgious traditions which regard such sympathy as automatically suspect).

    I think that’s where I come out to, too. But how can you write about gender in science fiction unless you can find value in both? How can you write about politics, or race, or history, or anything else, unless you can move past the Me Thing Good You Thing Baaaad level of moral sophistication? Unless you can figure out how your villains are heroes in their own narratives, all you have is Mary Sue against the Cardboard Army.

    Religion and faith are admittedly a very difficult place to take that kind of empathy. Many religious people have unthinking views about the importance of faith, or hold essentially tribal beliefs about other religions. And many atheists, particularly in our society, have been on the receiving end of enough abuse and misunderstanding to make empathy difficult. Even people who are not trying to evangelize their perspective may have trouble getting through the emotional minefields.

    I’ll add the Space Trilogy to the “no” list; you’re right that it belongs there.

    Have any of the more atheistically inclined people here read The High House and The False House by James Stoddard? How did that strike you?

  65. heresiarch @63:

    I think it’s worth highlighting the difference between being starkly-to-the-point-of-Mary-Suing-the-universe opposed to *religion* and being that starkly opposed to *faith*. Pullman is I think the former* but not the latter. That’s a difference that only really emerges at the end of the series however, and is more avowed than demonstrated.

    I quit partway, I’m afraid. I didn’t want to damage either the walls or the books my husband was enjoying by means of the kind of energetic mutual encounter that I was increasingly inclined toward.

  66. Kee says:

    Lenora Rose @ 2:

    “In a fictional world where the gods do show up, refusing to believe in the gods may well require actual madness. However, looking at their behaviour or their laws, and saying, “No. I won’t worship you because I don’t like what you do.” makes hella sense. I don’t see it often enough.”

    Megan Whalen Turner has a character who does just this in The Queen of Atollia. The Queen’s Thief series in general has a nicely layered mix of religions and varying levels of faith — from perfunctory ritual without solid belief in the gods, to a more anthropological approach to the myths of the religion, to a visceral knowledge of the existence of the gods in one of the pantheons mentioned. (I’ll be interested to find out whether she addresses the possibility of the gods in the other pantheon.)

  67. I’ve updated the post to add another class of failure to the list. In retrospect, it’s the most obvious class, and I’m surprised I missed it in the original version.

  68. praisegod barebones says:

    Braxis @ 55 mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. I don’t really remember religion in that (probably becuase not much has stayed with me form it at all). But somewhere else where he deals with religion quite well, I think, is The Years of Rice and Salt, which I think a couple of people have mentioned over at Making Light recently. I suspect this might be, in general, something he is good at.

  69. albatross says:

    In your new entry, I think it needs another bit: if the story assumes some religious truths, then characters who don’t believe them are inevitably wrong wrt the story. Characters in the Change novels who don’t believe in supernatural beings are pretty plainly wrong, as those beings are visibly taking a hand in events. (Though it’s not 100 percent clear whether they’re gods, exactly.). But skeptics aren’t stupid or evil, just wrong. And there’s a meta question there about what the author is implying about reality….

  70. Sean K says:

    praisegod barebones @68

    Actually, it’s good that you bring up KSR’s Red Mars trilogy, because religion *does* factor in to it a little bit. There are entire colonies on Mars that are religious groupings. In particular, there are Muslims (and yes, there is some conflict about that). But in particular I remember one scene that had one of the main characters talking with a Muslim husband and wife, who tease each other casually and lovingly about how the man is supposed to superior. When the main character seems taken aback, it is the Muslim *woman* who gives a well reasoned defense of why she believes that, why Westerners look down on it, and how it works in practice.

    Whether you agree with them or not, it was a wonderful section in that it presented the point of view of The Other in a very Non-Other way.

  71. albatross @69:

    Could you unpack what you mean there a bit more?

    As I see it, if the author has chosen to write a story with real god(s), then atheists would indeed be wrong with regard to the story. And if there’s no god or gods, then the theists are wrong. That’s where we stand right now in the real world, too.

    My problems are with the author either not allowing for sufficient variety within the society, or choosing sides to the point that the characterization turns to cardboard. In both cases, although it can be offensive to readers, the real problem—the real argument—is that it’s bad worldbuilding, bad characterization, and bad writing in general.

  72. heresiarch says:

    abi @ 64: “And many atheists, particularly in our society, have been on the receiving end of enough abuse and misunderstanding to make empathy difficult.”

    And to be fair, also many atheists have unthinking views about the importance of faith, or hold essentially tribal beliefs about theism. I know why you can’t say that, but I can, and it’s worth saying =)

    @ 65: I think OtterB put it well @ 33: “I find, when I think about it, that I can often enjoy the ones where my own religion or its close analog is all that is good and true, while disliking ones where it is the other way.” That’s sort of how I feel about His Dark Materials: well, he’s not caricaturing *me*, so I can overlook the one-sidedness.

    albatross @ 69: “In your new entry, I think it needs another bit: if the story assumes some religious truths, then characters who don’t believe them are inevitably wrong wrt the story.”

    You mean that the wrongness of the Wrong characters also extends to other issues of fact in the story, such as the central narrative conflict? So if it’s a murder mystery, the Wrong characters are also wrong about who did it (or possibly are the murderer)? I’m thinking of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, which I feel also fall in the “Oh Dear..” column.

  73. Caroline says:

    Abi @6, that’s interesting. I didn’t see it that way — I viewed the (second) group that she and Simon join as a believable extrapolation of a certain kind of conservative Christianity, a kind that feels familiar to me. Not as something I’ve been a part of, so I may have the wrong stick-end in this case. But as something I’ve been around, overheard, and occasionally had cultural clashes with, here in NC.

    Overall, though, I’d agree that Diane is not well treated. It’s not a human-enough portrait of a believer; she only comes into her own as a character at the end, when her faith and religion are…less relevant, I’ll say (to avoid spoilers).

  74. Serge Broom says:

    Is there any religion in Middle Earth?

  75. Mary Aileen says:

    Serge (74): I first read you as asking “Is there any religion in the Middle East?” –and it broke my brain.

  76. Sean K says:

    @ Serge 74 —

    Yes. Sort of. Religion in Middle Earth is kind of an odd subject. That the world was created by Iluvatar is (more or less) a known fact by the denizens of ME. But Iluvatar has removed himself from direct workings by the time of the events of LotR. More importantly, the Catholic Tolkien deliberately created Middle Earth as a world with no revealed (through a Bible) or personified (through JC) God.

    Also, all the non-elves in Middle Earth are *explicitly* Not Saved. They do not get to sail into the West. There is no place for them in Heaven.

    This was specifically to explore the possibilities that at least *some* humans would act good, honorably and nobly, even when they *know* there is no hope of redemption for them.

  77. Sean K says:

    To continue my thought, I’ve always felt these facts about Middle Earth are part of what makes it so appealing to atheists like myself — that it’s a story about people who do the good and honorable thing, even when they know this will not save them.

    Full disclosure: I am an ex-Catholic, and have noticed over the years and decades that my atheism has a distinctly ex-Catholic flavor to it. I figure that’s at least part of why I tend to enjoy Catholic writers, like Graham Greene and Tolkien.

  78. albatross says:

    [Note: I have spoilers for Stirling's Change/Emberverse series here--Dies The Fire, The Protector's War, A Meeting in Corvallis, The Sunrise Lands, The Scourge of God, The Sword of the Lady, High King of Montival]

    Abi,

    What I’m trying to get at is that I think there is some kind of important difference in how religion will be handled between:

    a. A story where, like real life, questions of religion and spirituality are ultimately about faith, personal experiences that aren’t really possible to share, intuition, non-replicatible experiences, etc.

    b. A story where some key questions of religion and spirituality are answered pretty clearly in observable reality.

    In the first kind of story, handling religion well probably means recognizing the inherent unprovability of it, the nature of tribalism that leads religions to have conflicts, the way people will sometimes combine with or borrow from other religions, the whole rich and complicated way religions and spirituality separate from religion help make up the world we live in. An important point here is, the author doesn’t know which (if any) religious and spiritual beliefs are right, and doesn’t need to.

    In the second kind of story, we’re just in a different situation. The gods show up to dinner from time to time. Ghosts walk among us and tell us of the afterlife. Or AIs smarter than any human could ever be assure us that religious and spiritual beliefs are just symptoms of insufficiently advanced civilization and flawed humanoid brains.

    In some of that second kind of story, there are still questions that look like questions of faith. (The gods may show up to dinner from time to time, but you still have to decide if they’re worthy or worship, or merely amoral or bad actors who are too dangerous to offend. Or important questions may be left unanswered, which still require faith, still split people up into tribes based on their believed answers, etc.) In others, there just kind-of aren’t. If you really believe the Culture Minds are godlike intellects, and they uniformly tell you that the only afterlife available involves backing you up and distributing copies widely, and they act benignly in every way you can see and will patiently spend as many years as you like explaining, discussing, and proving their point to you, well, questions of religion don’t really seem too interesting anymore. It seems to me that we’re then in a place where the author has decreed that, in his universe, gods and spirituality are nonsense. I’m not sure how different this is from the situation in the space trilogy, where CS Lewis makes it clear that in his universe, something like an expanded Christian worldview is true.

    In both cases, those authors are trying to make a stronger statement–that in this universe where they aren’t authors who can decree what shall and shall not exist, their religious or nonreligious beliefs are equally true. My take is that Banks isn’t saying “for the sake of argument, let’s imagine a universe where religion was silly,” but rather “religion is silly, and so let’s construct a universe in which that fact is obvious and accepted by all right-thinking beings.” And Lewis is likewise saying “the Christian worldview is in fact an accurate one, so let’s construct a story in which that fact is obvious and ultimately accepted by anyone who’s willing to see what’s in front of him.”

    I’m not sure that’s bad, exactly, but it means that religious differences and diversity kind of stop meaning the sort of things they mean in our world. Once it’s settled that religion is systematic insanity, the only good religion is an extinct one, and you feel pity for some character’s sad devotion to some ancient religion. (At least till the choking starts, when you realize you’re in a different kind of story than you thought you were in.)

  79. albatross says:

    Arggh. I edited my post enough to just cut all references to Stirling’s books, but didn’t remove my spoiler notice.

  80. tykewriter says:

    Where would you put Dune? All religions (or is it just Christianity?) have been squidged together into The Orange Catholic Bible, the Bene Gesserit legends have been planted like the masonic symbols in The Man Who Would Be King, there’s some kind of Zen thing around, and Muad’Dib launches a jihad.

    (Nice blog. May we have a Preview Post button please?)

  81. LetheN says:

    abi@64: I think that’s where I come out to, too. But how can you write about gender in science fiction unless you can find value in both? How can you write about politics, or race, or history, or anything else, unless you can move past the Me Thing Good You Thing Baaaad level of moral sophistication? Unless you can figure out how your villains are heroes in their own narratives, all you have is Mary Sue against the Cardboard Army.

    I feel like there are meaningful distinctions here that are being glossed over. For example, two statements:

    (1) Religion is a terrible thing and a blight upon society, and the people who practice it are fools or monsters.

    (2) Religion is a net negative for society, although it isn’t uniformly destructive, and while I understand neither the appeal of it nor the attempts of its adherents to defend it philosophically, I know too many intelligent and good people who follow a religion to condemn religious people as a class.

    It seems to me that there is a world of difference between these two statements, though neither of their hypothetical speakers would likely admit to seeing much value in religion.

  82. LetheN says:

    @abi in the main post How else will that difference show up? Will they be comparatively worse at pattern-matching (on the argument that belief in the numinous is the product of over-matching patterns)? Will they have no customs around wishing or hoping? Will they all find games of chance boring, because they instinctively calculate the odds of things and hold no statistically improbable hope of winning?

    I find this statement pretty objectionable on a couple of levels. The second sentence reads as sympathetic to the viewpoint that religion is, in essence, a sort of mental disorder or evolutionary side effect; I’m an agonstic atheist, but that still bothers me a little. The next three stereotype atheists as lacking hope; this is as pernicious as the stereotype you (rightly) decry in the next paragraph. One can hope that something will happen, even while acknowledging that it is unlikely, and wishfully daydream about the improbable without demanding that it be possible.

    From Mike Johnston, a photography writer and a hardcore (and rather unsubtle) atheist:

    “Some people say the lottery is a tax for people who suck at statistics, but I’m of the opinion that one lottery ticket is a great product at a great price. At only a buck, one ticket increases your chances of winning almost infinitely, because you make a binary switch—you go from having no chance to having a chance. The only really poor deal where the lottery is concerned is anything more than one ticket. I saw a calculation not long ago that if you invested $200 a week in lottery tickets, statistically your mean time before winning would be 640 years. I don’t have that much money to spend. I also don’t have that much time, personally. And as for the ‘product,’ what you’re really buying is not technically what they’re selling. What you get for your buck is a few hours’ worth of creative daydreaming.”

  83. Niall McAuley says:

    Middle Earth is interesting. There is very little explicit religion in The Lord of the Rings, there’s no sign that the Hobbits or Men (at least, the Good ones) worship anything. No churches, services, or praying at all. Ghosts of men clearly exist, but apparently most don’t want to.

    We do hear a bit about the Elves beliefs, Elbereth Gilthoniel and all that. The Elves beliefs are rather unlike our idea of a religion, however. They intend to sail actual ships West to their Heaven, and many of the greater Elves have been there, and come back. They all know exactly what will happen to them when they die, and some of them have done that and come back, too.

    There is a strong sense in The Lord of the Rings of a force which is opposed to Evil. The Elves and Gandalf conclude that Frodo is meant to have the Ring, and he is given help at several points when he least expects it, and his entire task is eventually fulfilled because of his earlier goodness, without anyone naming the entity responsible.

    …and Sam does not sit with Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom beside the lava flow and say “Thank Christ for that!”.

    (Jackson’s movie has Gandalf tell Pippin about an afterlife for Hobbits, which I’m sure would have made Tolkien choke on his popcorn.)

  84. LetheN @82:

    I’m sorry that you were offended by that paragraph; I certainly did not intend it to be objectionable. I think we are in violent agreement, actually, and it’s simply that I was not clear enough.

    That paragraph stems from three criticisms of theism I frequently hear from the more evangelistic atheists on the internet. Basically, the thesis is that religion is a failure mode of a mechanism we humans all have, be it pattern-matching, hopefulness, or judgment of statistical probability. My point is that you can’t have the trait, as humans do, without having the failure mode. If you want your atheist aliens to be hopeful—as I know human atheists are*—you have always the possibility that that mechanism will malfunction into religious hope. Likewise for the other two characteristics, or any other that gets blamed for the existence of religion.

    If an author wants to write a world where there are no house fires, she has to remove fireplaces too. If she thinks that religion is the product of hopefulness gone wrong, how else can she guarantee that it won’t go wrong in her aliens except by removing it? That makes her aliens very inhuman, as I pointed out.

    I don’t agree with any of these characterizations of religion or theism (obviously; I’m a theist). But I’m not asking authors to agree with me. I’m asking them, all of them, even the ones who I think are wrong, to play fair with their characters and readers. That means showing the implications of whatever differences in their species eliminate religion from their societies, rather than just leaving it out completely and silently.

    If the examples I used contain too much straw (and they may very well do) I’d be interested to hear others.

    —–
    * It’s worth mentioning at this point that I’m married to one

  85. LetheN @81:

    We’re in violent agreement here as well. What I meant by how your villains are heroes in their own narratives is pretty much what you say with I know too many intelligent and good people who follow a religion to condemn religious people as a class.

  86. tykewriter @80:

    Dune, yes how could I have forgotten that? Firmly in the good category. The religions, are well-written, complex, and varied. Characters show a wide variety of levels of belief, disbelief, cynicism, manipulation, and revelation. Mysteries turn out to be deep and enlightening to the characters.

    Herbert plays fair, in my opinion.

    (Comment preview would require me to move from my hosted solution on WordPress.com to a WordPress installation I did more of the maintenance on. It might come to that, but the tweaking time would be writing time gone astray. Still considering.)

  87. albatross @78:

    The line between writing a good story that reflects your view of the universe and a polemic can be tissue-thin, but my litmus test is not “does the author allow everyone room to be right?” It’s “does the author allow everyone room to be reasonable?”

    Basically, I’m not trying to say that authors can’t have views on the existence or otherwise of god(s), and express those views in their work. This may involve portraying a universe where it’s clear that there is no Supreme Being, or portraying one where one or more of the deities play an unmistakable part in the plot. Fine. Go for it, I say. It takes all kinds of flowers to make up the garden.

    But an author who treats his characters as cardboard, so that all the people who disagree with him are transparently wrong, demonstrably evil, or morally depraved, does a disservice to his craft and his readers. Treating everyone on either side of the theist/atheist line as stupid or evil is just such a disservice. And so is erasing them with an unexamined stroke of the pen, disappearing them from the texture of sentience without explanation or consequences.

    Forget theology. Forget current politics, history, all the real-world things. It’s bad writing.

  88. Serge Broom says:

    Abi @ 87… What you ask for basically is a Stanley Kramer film. One of his most famous happens to be “Inherit the Wind”, appropriately enough for this thread. There are some bad guys on both sides, but there are good people too.

  89. LetheN says:

    Abi@84: I think I get what you’re going after now about hope, and I’m sorry if my tone was a bit strident before. I should have thought a bit more before I typed, and, especially given your previous writings that demonstrate you are an unusually reasonable person, not leapt to the worst conclusion. Again, I apologize.

  90. albatross says:

    Abi #87:

    Yeah, that seems right. I want an author to:

    a. Play fair with the characters, including ones who don’t share the author’s beliefs.

    b. Build a world that makes sense in terms of religion–where religion as it occurs in that society rings true, somehow. Worlds where nobody’s religious, or where all X are virtuous and all non-X are wicked, or everyone believes the same stuff, kind-of don’t ring true without some kind of explanation. (Though for “religion” you might substitute some different word–spirituality, belief in higher purpose, etc.

    c. Play fair with the reader. I’m not all that interested in the author using the story to beat me over the head with his or her faith (or lack of faith), and I’m definitely not interested in seeing some version of me or people I love turned into heartless villains or mindless fools.

  91. David Harmon says:

    Niall McAuley @83: Whereas Robert Jordan’s world is a partly-mirrored image. It’s the bad guys who know what happens when they die (even if it’s surely unpleasant), and occasionally come back too. The good guys, in contrast, get a lot of confusing portents and often cryptic prophecies… but on the larger scale, there are enough surprises (starting with the triple champions) and suspicious coincidences, to make it clear that the Creator is still in the game.

  92. albatross says:

    David:

    I think Jordan’s world is a nice example of dualism–the notion that good and evil are balanced, equal and opposite powers. And the Wheel is often seen to be trying to restore balance, which in this case means making the good guys taveren. (I imagine in other cases, it makes the bad guys taveren, again to bring balance. Or maybe good guys who will wreck the world, a la Artur Hawkwing and his son sent off to conquer Sanchan.)

    Though I guess this idea is weakened somewhat, in that the Dark One is playing a rather active role. If the Creator is playing a role, it’s not so easy to see.

  93. David Harmon says:

    albatross @92: Well, he’s also laying a traditional asymmetry over that dualism: The Shadow can break “the rules” freely, but the Creator is bound by them. In this case, it’s explained by their different agendas: The Creator wants to preserve the Pattern, so it won’t do anything to damage it, and discourages it’s servants from doing so. The Shadow, in contrast, is mostly bound by the Pattern, but wants to destroy it. Not only do its servants use far more destructive tactics, but the destruction itself strengthens the Shadow. One interesting implication of the asymmetry is that the Pattern includes only the living world. Thus, raising the dead is a Shadow specialty.

  94. TexAnne says:

    I’d like to suggest that the Young Wizards books be put into the “done right” list. The idea of the Enemy being entropy fits neatly into my Christian faith–what with cold, hunger, and fear being things we’re specifically told to fight–but I’d like to know how atheists see it.

  95. LetheN @89:

    No worries. This is difficult emotional territory. It’s very, very hard to read about it without old feelings of hurt and alienation coming to the surface.

    (It’s even harder to write about it. I have a good deal of sympathy for authors who have ended up in the various traps I’ve described, however much their work has bothered or hurt me.)

  96. OtterB says:

    I agree with TexAnne @94 that the Young Wizards seem to have gotten it right, but I’d be curious to see how other-than-Christians feel about the series. And, I suppose, it’s at a tangent to the original topic, since it’s not really dealing with a created world and culture.

    I didn’t see anybody respond to Abi’s question upthread about The High House and The False House. I absolutely loved The High House; didn’t dislike the sequel but didn’t think it was as good. I’d have to reread before I felt like I could comment on the religious thought in it, though.

  97. One thing about the Young Wizards series is that while it definitely has a generally Christian worldview, it dispenses with the centrality of Jesus — “No one comes to the Father except through me.” In Young Wizards, anybody can potentially sacrifice themself for the redemption of sins; salvation isn’t only obtained by submission to a church. That makes things much more palatable for this atheist at least.

  98. Serge Broom says:

    In Jack Campbell’s military-SF “Lost Fleet” books, people have an Ancestor Cult, ‘talking’ to them to ask for guidance.

  99. Albatross makes a good distinction in #78, and I admit that when I talked about “Mary Sue religions” back in #16, I was primarily thinking about religions set in worlds like our own (past, present, or future). When you have a world where gods regularly and conspicuously insert themselves into the plot, then people’s takes on religion and the gods are naturally going to be different. (Indeed, it becomes jarring when it *isn’t” different. That’s why the bit with the dwarfs in The Last Battle comes off as heavy-handed– it’s one thing to doubt miraculous phenomena that are fleeting, or reported secondhand; it’s another to fail to notice them when your nose is being rubbed in them for a drawn-out period.)

    Ultimately, as Abi and Albatross point out in #87 and #90, we want the authors to be fair with the characters and the world, so they come across as people and places we can care about, and not just hand-puppets for the author’s personal agenda.

    That said, I think it’s natural for us to be more sympathetic to books that seem to us to capture our own understandings of our world, including spiritual aspects. I don’t think we have to apologize for that in our own reading preferences, though we should keep the potential bias in mind when engaged in public criticism. Again, I’m more likely to be sympathetic to authors who have beliefs I disagree with if they in turn treat characters who have beliefs *they* disagree with sympathetically and realistically. It’s sort of a literary Golden Rule.

  100. David Goldfarb writes: “One thing about the Young Wizards series is that while it definitely has a generally Christian worldview, it dispenses with the centrality of Jesus — “No one comes to the Father except through me.”[...] salvation isn’t only obtained by submission to a church.”

    Those aren’t such unusual ideas, even among widely-recognized Christian writers. Since I was just talking about Narnia, I’ll note that characters are welcomed into Aslan’s country who never recognized him in life, such as the Calormene soldier Emeth. And there’s no church of Aslan, either– indeed, of the various gods mentioned in the books, the only one I can recall that has any particularly organized religion (with things like clergy and sacred buildings) is Tash. Aslan clearly represents the supreme God in the Narnia books, but there are apparently a variety of ways to come “through him”.

  101. Bill Stewart says:

    Abi@65 Pullman – It’s nice to see that there’s somebody else who liked the book as much as I did :-) It’s not just that he was portraying the Church as Evil, but he was so Johnny-one-note about it; I was half expecting that if I bothered reading the second and third volumes that somebody would do an Atlas Shrugged style 60-page speech about it somewhere, or at least that there’d be that degree of polemical bad writing.

    I also found Narnia‘s handling of religion annoying – I read it in my late teens or early 20s, after I’d become Christian and had read a good bit of Lewis’s theological writing, which I liked. I’m not sure if I got more or less annoyed at the Perelandra trilogy – it was more like adult science fiction than young adult fantasy, less polished, clumsier in how it handled religions, less cardboard, more interesting Bad Guys, and overall I liked it better. Neither of them were up to the quality of Screwtape or Tolkien’s Leaf, by Niggle.

    On fiction where the real gods show up, does The Frogs by Aristophanes count? (brekekekex koax koax…) It’s not exactly science fiction, though I guess Science was around by then, and from what I dimly remember of our high school summer theater attempt to do the play, the gods were more stock characters like those in commedia dell’arte than numinous figures. (Certainly that was true of Dionysus.)

    One author who I think does a good job of handling religion as cultural context is Charlie Stross, in his Merchant Princes series. It’s a mostly-peripheral part of the story, not numinous, but it’s there saying “hey, when we’re doing alternate timelines, they’re really different in a lot of ways”.

  102. Serge @98:

    Did you feel that they did a good job? Did you, as an atheist, feel that the author played fair?

  103. Bill @101:

    I’m not sure where something like The Frogs would come, because I’m not sure Aristophanes’ frameworks of belief and unbelief match or map to ours in any useful way.

    (I have, by the way, been adding to the list in the original post. I’ve also alphabetized it by author rather than in the order cited. I’m pleased that we have more good resources than bad, to be honest.)

  104. Another question: how do people feel about Madeline L’Engle?

  105. albatross says:

    Madeline L’Engle played fair with religious difference, I think. There were sympathetic characters who weren’t religious, and who were doubtful, and who were religious.

    I’m blanking on the name, but the neurosurgeon partner of Max in House Like a Lotus was an unambiguously good character, though I’m pretty sure she was an atheist. Similarly, Joshua in Arm of the Starfish was an atheist.

  106. OtterB says:

    I remember Madeline L’Engle as one of a handful of authors whose works were significantly religious in nature, but who didn’t irritate me when I was in a long agnostic stretch. I hadn’t thought about this before, but I can identify several of her books as participating in forming my notion of what it meant to be a good person. There must have been a stretch of time when her work and the Heinlein juveniles were battling it out in my back brain. Hmm.

  107. OtterB says:

    I also find that the Dresden Files books by Jim Butcher do a good job with religion in mostly-the-world-as-we-know-it. Harry himself is pretty agnostic, but there are characters of various religious beliefs who seem to me to be treated well – Father Forthill, Michael, Sanya.

  108. aelle says:

    Re Pullman: Have you written somewhere more extensively about your take on the Dark Materials books? Because I would be intrigued to hear more. I had always considered Pullman a very *Anglican* kind of atheist (I even suspect he would agree).

  109. Serge Broom says:

    abi @ 102… I think the author did a good job. People in the stories don’t really talk to their Ancestors, and the Ancestors don’t really respond. At least that’s how I perceived it, seeing the story thru the eyes of the main character. To me, it basically was a way for people to focus to find the answers they needed. Which is what we all do, whether the answers are within ourselves or outside.

  110. Deborah says:

    P.C. Hodgell does religion / faith / the numinous really well. Her first book, God Stalk, is explicitly about the relation of faith and reality. Pat Hodgell builds a whole ecosystem of gods and faiths, and explores how a dedicated monotheist copes with gods everywhere–some cope better than others. Throughout the Chronicles of the Kencyrath (as the series is labelled), she explores not just the ancient (and corrupted) faith of the protagonist, Jame, but also the native religion(s) and divinities.

    I don’t think I have read any richer creation of a religion–is it faith when the character has no choice but to believe? They really don’t like their god, but are stuck with him. As one of the Arrin-ken (the race appointed as judges) puts it “For us, alas, good is no less terrible than evil.”

  111. aelle @108:

    Have you written somewhere more extensively about your take on the Dark Materials books?

    I haven’t. I think someone who was a little less vexed, or felt a little less bludgeoned, might find them fruitful for analysis and discussion, but I came to the conclusion that they were not really my cup of tea.

  112. Serge Broom says:

    I’m currently watching mini-series “The Pillars of the Earth”, which is set during the tiff between King Stephen and Queen Maud. Not off-topic as it really is about the building of one of the first Gothic cathedrals.

  113. Sarah says:

    @OtterB, TexAnne — I would have actually put the Young Wizards series in the “done poorly” category, and that’s the one major element that keeps bugging me about the books. We’re told over and over again that all peoples throughout the universe tell of the same Powers and the same basic cosmology, and are given the same Choice when they reach self-awareness. But that story is actually a very specific one — not exclusively Christian; the idea of a fallen Power isn’t confined to Lucifer — but it’s one that vast numbers of people right here on Earth, never mind alien planets, don’t tell. And that’s never addressed.

    At first I was assuming that we saw it through a more-or-less Christian mindset because our POV characters are at least ostensibly Christian and so would see the world through that lens. But in later books it’s really quite explicit that this theological plotline is the only real one. Are Jews or Daoists then evil? Just deluded? She never even mentions their existence and that really bothers me.

  114. Kyndra says:

    Historical novel, not scifi or fantasy but let me add Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters’ Heaven Tree Trilogy to the list of done well. It is an exploration of the interaction between faith, law and art in which most of the characters find that their beliefs force them to make decisions that their heart finds difficult/impossible. They can’t be true to what they say they believe or the positions they hold without doing as they decide to do. They are very real characters…

  115. Lenora Rose says:

    I’d actually like to second Kee @ 66 on The Queen’s Thief books.

    I’m closer to Sarah B than with others when it comes to the Young Wizards series. The series plays fair with the theology it accepts and examines, in that people do come at it with varying takes and varying degrees of attachment to its tenets – but it is the ONE theology. And yet, how it deals with religions in the real world that don’t fit its model wasn’t quite the question Abi was asking.

    Deborah @ 110: Another reason for me to read God Stalk. I’ve had that book recommended so many times… at least it’s not on the to-read shelf.

    Since someone mentioned Wheel of the Infinite, I’ve been trying to remember the details of the Gods in Martha Wells’ The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, because I thought they were odd, and interesting, and I know I didn’t hit anything that rang overly polemic at all. There didn’t seem to be a lot of religion, at least addressed, on the Ile-Rien side, but the world they travel to has a rather distinctive culture that does grow more complex, and it’s certainly a series that plays fair with cultural differences and clash — even the seemingly faceless and pure evil villains prove to be neither in time. So it would be odd for it not to play fair with the religious aspects of those cultures. But it’s been a while since I read them. This may be driving me to a reread.

    Diana Wynne Jones’ Drowned Ammet was kind of interesting in this; two gods show up (with some implication that they’re not the only ones) who are treated in a near-frivolous “we know this ritual is lucky but barely remember why” manner in one place, and turn out to be high and terrible powers in another. The sole entirely skeptical character is a major villain out for his main chance, alas, and there’s a bit of a slip into “if they disagree with the main character/gods, they’re bad guys or idiots” attitude, so it probably doesn’t quite fall into the good side, but I still liked the fact that the same figures had engendered very different treatments.

  116. Jacque says:

    Actually, I’d nominate Mary Stewart’s Merlin series (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment) in the done-well but not heavy handed category.

    The numinous is just kind of present, in the background, occassionally explicitly informing or influencing the main character. I realized, upon thinking back, that those are the books that set me on the path to becoming a lower-case pagan.

    Don’t recall if it even specifically mentions Christianity, except as one of the many influences in the cultural environment. (Been a while since I’ve read them.)

  117. Serge Broom says:

    Jacque @ 116… Do you remember how their miniseries adaptation handled this? It had Sam Neill as Merlin, which is a definite plus. (Martin Short’s character and Helena Bonham’Carter’s – not as much.)

  118. Jacque says:

    Heh. Just ran across this quote from Steve Barnes:

    “Believing that Spirituality can’t exist without religion is like thinking hamburgers can’t exist without McDonalds.”

  119. Jacque says:

    Serge @117: ??? I remember seeing something go through a while back with Sam Neill as Merlin, but I hadn’t realized it was adapted from Mary Stewart. Will have to investigage. (Though that’s one of the ones that is so much itself in my mind that I can’t imagine anybody’s conceptualization of it that wouldn’t screw it up. :-> )

  120. Jacque says:

    Investigate. Ahem.

  121. OtterB says:

    Lenora Rose @115 re the gods in the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy. I don’t remember any mention of religion on the Ile-Rien side either, in this or in Death of the Necromancer. On the other side, there were gods that seemed like place-spirits. They stayed in a location, and did things for the people who lived there, and communicated with one chosen person. Not omnipotent, not visible, and not … personal, I guess I want to say. Very “other.” It wasn’t a religion in the sense of having formal rituals, much more a lived thing.

    And there was something about Ilias’s curse, too, but I’ve forgotten how that worked.

  122. Mycroft W says:

    Heh, Jacque: I would have argued that one backwards from Steve. Given the existence of spirituality, religion will, eventually, exist, in about the same way that given hamburgers, McDonalds (or its identical twin) will, inevitably, exist.

    Whether that is a comment on sapience, or humanity, or simply my more cynical worldview than Mr. Barnes, is left as an exercise for the reader.

    The meaning of his comment to the individual – that it is not necessary to be religious to have spirituality, any more than one can’t go anywhere but HappyMacs for a burger – is, of course, valid and useful. Societally, however, is another story.

  123. Terry Karney says:

    Mycroft: I don’t think McD’s is inevitable, in a world which has hamburgers. The Catholic Church in The West wasn’t inevitable either (I’m reading, “The Inheritance of Rome right now as well as “Paul Among the People. For seasonal devotions I am reading, “The Baseball Codes” by Turbow and Duca). The commodification might be certain (though I am not sure I agree with that, as I look at Shinto), but the homogenization isn’t (just look at Budhism).

  124. OtterB says:

    Terry, what do you think of Paul Among the People? I hadn’t heard of it before you mentioned it, but hopping over to amazon for a quick look, it has a lot of appeal.

  125. David Harmon says:

    Trying to catch up:

    Stranger In a Strange Land was in fact satire of religious “formulas”. IIRC, Heinlein was a tad disconcerted when people started asking him to jointheir water circles….

    Another toss-in: Black Sun Rising, et seq. (C.S. Friedman?) Here we have a world where ambient “magic” responds to human thoughts, emotions… and beliefs!

  126. David Harmon says:

    praisegod barebones: In the Silent Planet trilogy, Christianity is essentially part of the world-rules. Essentially, he seems to be trying to demonstrate how Christianity could be compatible with multiple planets, star systems, and so forth.

    Numinous: Yes, definitely accessible from nature, or more obscure sources. And it does not have to imply contact with some particular Entity. As of 10 or 15 years ago, the Neo-Pagans were practically making a technology out of accessing the numinous in various ways!

    OtterB 96: I didn’t see anybody respond to Abi’s question upthread about The High House and The False House. I absolutely loved The High House; didn’t dislike the sequel but didn’t think it was as good.

    Pretty much my own reaction. This is another case where God, at least indirectly, is part of the world rules.

  127. David Harmon says:

    And yet another case for argument: Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. I call it another case of Author On Board: The Christian-analogues are notably short on magic, much less miracles, while the “devil” and his servants are all too present and spectacularly powerful. It’s worth noting that the primary tools against the latter, including the deathblow weapon, are relics from prehuman times, rather than any human powers. Even the human paganism is represented by a woman who tries spirit journeying to contact her gods… first she calls in some nearby elves, who were already quite present in the world. Later, she journeys farther… and sacrifices herself to save the plot protagonist, without ever finding her gods (or the ur-Christian version, either).

  128. Terry Karney says:

    OtterB: I like it. It makes me wish I could read koine so I could look at it, but the tools needed to see what the author says is in there are more than just the words, it’s a much more complete grasp of the culture of both the greater Roman world, and the smaller aspects of it which those in the lower ends of the scale had to cope with.

    I’m going to be writing something about it for The Slacktiverse.

  129. Jacque @118, Mycroft W @122, Terry @123:

    My model of the interrelationship among the numinous, spirituality, and religion (from the perspective of a theist) is something like this:

    God(s)/the Infinite/that Numinous Thang is like a mountain. Not some peely-wally Scottish Munro, but a big effing mountain like Everest or the Matterhorn. It looks different, this mountain, from different angles. From where some people are standing it’s got just one peak, while from other angles it’s got several. But it’s the same mountain.

    Some people are drawn to the mountain. They find their gaze turning toward it in idle moments. Their thoughts stray that way. They want to get closer to it, maybe climb it. That’s spirituality, or faith.

    There are different roads to the mountain, different ways of climbing it. Sometimes those roads crisscross, or merge for a stretch. Some of the roads are mutually exclusive with others. And some folk don’t take an established road, but strike out between existing routes. If it works out for them, others may follow, until their single track becomes another road. That’s religion.

    Some people get pretty interested in which road you take to the mountain. Personally, I don’t think it matters nearly so much as all that, as long as it’s leading you in the right direction (and you’re not hurting others as you go). Which road you are most comfortable on depends on where you’re starting from, and who you are as a person.

    This is all within the context of theists. People who aren’t heading toward the mountain, but who are doing good in the world, go with my entire approval.

  130. OtterB says:

    Terry @128, thanks. I’ve ordered it. I’m only a very occasional visitor to the Slacktiverse, but will keep an eye out for your post.

    Your seasonal devotions also sound interesting, but I would have to read them as a nonbeliever.

    Oh, here’s a late-recalled set of books whose representation of religion I rather liked, though I’d be interested in the take of others. They are by Beth Hilgartener, “A Business of Ferrets” and “A Parliament of Owls.” Not currently in print as far as I know. There was, I believe, supposed to be a third that got caught in the Meisha Merlin meltdown. Beggar children get caught up in political intrigue at court. Vivid, well-drawn characters; the good guys were very likeable though not perfect, and the bad guys were suitable evil but not cardboard. Pretty grim/violent in spots, but balanced by some humor and nice interactions between the characters, with overall a hopeful tone. Anyway, in this world, there are several gods. They are real, but normally intervene only indirectly and only when asked by their followers. The thing that may make it iffy is that, as I recall, one god is clearly the “bad one.” I don’t recall it as too heavy-handed, but I wasn’t reading these things with as critical an eye as I will after this discussion.

  131. Niall McAuley says:

    Another SF book with a well-done religious component: The Book of the Long Sun, by Gene Wolfe, in which the protagonist is actually a priest. He’s a priest who doesn’t really believe in the Gods of his religion, which are all real. His religion involves a lot of silly mumbo-jumbo, which sometimes works. He does believe in a transcendant God, based on personal experience of the numinous, but no-one else has ever really recognized that God in their pantheon.

  132. Mycroft W says:

    Abi, et al: I have a similar belief. I do believe that humanity is prone to order (or power, or power through order), and that it is likely that that is inherent in sapience. Given that, and given spirituality, organised religion is an inevitable consequence.

    I’m not saying that that is bad (though it can be and it has been, and will be again – usually when the power inherent in the order becomes more important than the benefits of the order on the spirituality, or when the power demands that the consequence of freely choosing not-the-religion is less-than-generous), while also not saying that one needs to affiliate with an organised religion to be spiritual. After all, I have affiliated with a organised religion, because it is easier to work my spirituality, and be the person I can and should be, within it than without (I am an auditory learner and thinker; “communing with nature” shows me nothing, unfortunately. Same with the Labyrinth, and many other self-directed spiritualities. Someone pointing out ways of reading the readings that I hadn’t seen? Boom, I’m off for a week working on it, and years, lifetimes, trying to act on it.)

    I think that the desire for comfortable is also human; therefore, given the presence of “fast-able food”, and given travel outside what is walkable, a setup that will be the same here and in Peoria, and (to an extent) in London or Tokyo or Bangalore (still wish I had tried the McChicken Tikka – not that I had a “boring” or “comfortable” meal my entire time there!) will inevitably arise. That, too, is not necessarily bad – my hearing of a lot of the pre-Vatican II Catholics was that it wasn’t that the Latin was Right, but they knew what they were getting.

    I also respond to that; when I moved away, I went to an ex-Presbyterian United Church the first week I was settled, got really creeped out by it, went to an ex-EUB United Church the next week, and felt at home and welcome, at least partly because of the similarity in theological bent (and partly because of the differences, to be honest). Also, if you’re a foreigner, the vernacular can be difficult; I went to a colleague’s wedding in the local Chinese Catholic Church; pre-Vatican II, I would have been right at home (well, as “at home” as a Protestant can be), as I can easily follow the Latin Mass; however, the Chinese Mass, even with everything in the same place and order, was much harder to follow.

    You can have McDonald’s religion (but I don’t think it gets people much in the way of spirituality), and you can have comfort in your organised spirituality (with the rest, one hopes!), and you don’t need religion to have your spirituality, but it’s not wrong or bad if you do.

    Not sure if I’m making sense, or my point well. But I hope it’s there.

  133. Mycroft @132:

    On McDonald’s: many a parent, me included, will tell you of the incalculable value of a Happy Meal. All you need is a cranky, neophobic toddler in a country/city/culture where all the other food is strange. I recall one trip to Rome about 8 years ago, when the elder kid was 2 or 3 and totally unwilling to eat any kind of tomato sauce at all. After a day of plummeting blood sugar, mulish hunger, and epic crankiness, I was gladder than I can say to find some Golden Arches.

    On Catholicism: Although you may have found the Chinese Catholic service incomprehensible, I have to say that my memory of English-language Mass is making Dutch services a lot easier. My church has a fairly comprehensive misallette, but they occasionally omit a line or two that they assume everyone will know. I usually just mutter the appropriate phrase in English, but it helps a lot to know where we are in the plot.

  134. Mycroft @132:

    My comment at 133 may have been overly oblique. More clearly, I agree with you entirely about the value of “fast food” spirituality and religion in the place it’s needed. Overall, I grok your meaning; we’re on much the same page on these things.

  135. Mycroft W says:

    Abi: I can understand that, and that is something that the Protestant side of the world has lost. I didn’t find the Chinese mass incomprehensible – I could follow along, because I know the form; the difference was, were it still in Latin (or English), I could *understand*. I could follow along in the Dutch Catholic mass as well (but not understand – remember, “auditory learner”?, but probably not the PKN service. There are benefits to conformity.

    Having said that, my friend’s quote – “We’re Lutheran. We know which side of ‘The Cathedral and The Bizarre’ we ended up in” – applies just as well to the Great Canadian Protestant Amalgamation known as the UCC, where I am. And there are, equally, many good things about that as well.

  136. Thrown into the pot for discussion: Trudi Canavan’s Age of the Five series, starting with “Priestess of the White”.

    The protagonist is an exceedingly faithful (like, Mary levels of ‘full of faith and sacrificing her life to her god(s)) girl brought up in a faith that has five very-present-in-the-world gods who endow particular chosen high priest(esse)s with full-on superhero-level ZOMGPOWER. She becomes one of them, and then over the course of the trilogy, it suddenly becomes clear to her on a lot of levels that Things Are Not As She Was Told Them To Be.

    I get the impression, while reading, that it was a first-novel kind of thing: the author is aiming high at a set-up-tropes-then-subvert-them narrative, and does eventually start succeeding a lot, but the beginning kind of feels like it’s radically failing the Hail Mary Sue test (and most other Mary-Sueish tests) until you realize what that section was setting up.

    We are shown some people who really don’t care one way or another about the gods, and people who are Exceeding Faithful for both the protagonist’s gods and another set (and have magical miracles and godly materializations to back them up); there is also a parallel culture of healers-and-magicians who exist apart from the main, leads-to-world-destroying-wars religions, and several nonhuman cultures.

    I have it mentally shelved beside Deed of Paksenarrion and Curse of Chalion in the category, “Fantasy With Gods In that’s not just a check-off list.” In Paks’ case, it’s there because it actually showed what a society containing the world mechanics of D&D clericdom might LOOK like, whereas the innovation in Canavan’s work is rather more on the god side than the followers’ side, but. I’m not sure whether it deserves Naughty or Nice by this post’s standards, precisely, but I found it interesting.

  137. Elliott @136:
    I’m not sure whether it deserves Naughty or Nice by this post’s standards, precisely, but I found it interesting.

    Well, you can use the three criteria I’m stealing from albatross @90:

    1. Does the author play fair with the characters? In other words, do the positive and negative traits of personality distribute evenly between the people who are Right about the theology and those who aren’t? Are good and bad outcomes likewise distributed?

    2. Does the world as built work plausibly with religion? Is the variety of human experience of both faith and religion present in the society? If not, is its absence adequately explained, and the collateral effects of that absence worked out?

    3. Does the author play fair with the readers? Do her narrative choices reflect a real-world agenda (this is OK, actually), and does that agenda distract from the story (this is not OK)? Does it feel like the fourth wall is broken, or that the message is more important than the integrity of the plot?

    From your description, I get a strong “yes” on point 2, probably another one on point 1. What about point 3?

  138. abi, in re #3: There are bits where it might brush up against a bad result on that one, but I think most of them are due to authorial inexperience (aka newbie-writer-syndrome). When she’s on her game, she’s very on her game, unstereotyped, and playing so very fair with all cultures involved that it becomes impossible to think she’s encoding her own agenda in one of them (ok, unless it’s the “be good to people and worry about doctrine later” threads, i could see that being author-insertion, but it’s gently done).

    There are a$$holes, murderers, saints, self-sacrificing people working for the good of others, and profiteers in most of the cultures we’re shown very much of. There’s a faint taste of Noble Savage icky rot in a couple of her nonhuman cultures, but I think that’s mainly from lack of screen time available to show them with their drawers down, as it were.

    So yeah, on the whole Nice, by those three rules, though not universally unclumsy in her writing.

  139. When you’re talking about religion in a fictional context, the essential thing is being able to project yourself into the head of someone who believes differently from you. This is fairly hard, but doable.

    I’m an atheist myself — to get technical, I’m a rather arid variety of materialistic monist — but I’ve been told by various sorts of believers that I’ve caught the lived experience fairly well. In fact, those who don’t know me and have read only one book or series often assume I’m one of them; I’ve been accused of being a Wiccan missionary, for example… something I find very amusing. Even more delightful is the fact that people apparently -have- converted to neopaganism after reading my stuff. More power to them; that wasn’t the intent, but if it makes them happy, I have no objection at all.

    When writing in what we jocularly call the real world, you have to take into account historical specificity. Religion is common to all eras and places, but that’s operating at a level of generality that’s very nearly meaningless.

    Just to take one example, “belief” in God in 2011 is necessarily rather different from “belief” in God in, say, 1320 CE. Human beings are pattern-recognizers who need explanations for things. Atheism in the modern sense just wasn’t intellectually available in 1320. Effectively, in that year everyone in — to take an example England — believed in God.

    But they believed in God in a different way from a believing Christian English person does in 2011; they believed in God rather more the way we believe in atoms. You can’t see atoms; without a lot of specialized education you can’t even really follow the generally accepted proofs for the existence of atoms… but pretty well everyone accepts that they exist and that important consequences follow.

    Likewise, in England in 1320 everyone accepted that God existed and had made the universe, though there were disagreements about the details. There simply wasn’t any other convincing explanation for things around.

    Even if there were people who had no ‘natural’ religious inclination and no more ‘felt’ spiritual experience than a rock, they -still- believed in God, just as a simple matter of everyone-knows-that fact.

    Conversely, I -don’t- believe in God, Gods, spirits, or an afterlife, though I’ve had what seemed to be out-of-body experiences and so forth. My take on those is that the balance of probabilities is that they’re the result of internal neurological events. My own psychological makeup is such that I find balance-of-probabilities arguments solidly convincing — which is why I never gamble money, for instance, and feel more apprehension driving a car than flying.

    I don’t think that people who believe otherwise about religion(s) are stupid or bad, just that they’re factually wrong on a set of issues in which many very intelligent people think -I’m- wrong.

    I don’t expect to convince them, either — I find “crusading” atheists irritating and boring, and I’m not angry at God.

    I would rather that religion were true — Lesser Vehicle Buddhism would be my choice intellectually if I were omnipotent and deciding how the Universe functioned, I have a sentimental attachment to High Church Anglicanism because it’s the faith of a lot of my ancestors, and the pagan religions are colorful and picturesque and I would be perfectly happy to see them predominate.

    I just don’t think any of it -is- true.

  140. SM Stirling @139:

    the essential thing is being able to project yourself into the head of someone who believes differently from you. This is fairly hard, but doable.

    …which is, of course, the essence of writing realistic villains, too! Or, indeed, all characters who are not Mary Sues.

    But religion is, of course, one of the hardest areas to leave one’s one belief- and value-sets and move temporarily into another’s. I think we non-crusading types (I’m a non-evangelistic Catholic. I’ve taken my best shot at a set of beliefs and practices that works for me, but I’m not so egotistical as to believe my guess is the right one for anyone else.) have an edge, either because it’s easier to listen when one isn’t preachifying, or because many crusaders are shouting to drown out their inner doubts.

    But they believed in God in a different way from a believing Christian English person does in 2011; they believed in God rather more the way we believe in atoms. You can’t see atoms; without a lot of specialized education you can’t even really follow the generally accepted proofs for the existence of atoms… but pretty well everyone accepts that they exist and that important consequences follow.

    This is an excellent analogy. It reminds me of reading the first book of the Odyssey in the original during college. The story starts out with Pallas Athena turning up at Odysseus’ house. And, reading it, I was struck by the poet’s clear belief* that this was the sort of thing that really happens. Gods just disguise themselves and pitch up at people’s houses. It’s as straightforward and realistic a plot element as a feast, a battle, or a day’s sailing.

    It wasn’t so much belief—which admits disbelief—as knowledge. Even if it wasn’t true†.

    —–
    * Unless, like you, he was just giving a very good imitation ;-)
    † Assuming arguendo that Pallas Athene doesn’t routinely do that kind of thing. Who knows? Maybe my last set of house guests were Olympians in disguise.

  141. “But religion is, of course, one of the hardest areas to leave one’s one belief- and value-sets and move temporarily into another’s.”

    — It’s a matter of the ‘conditional hypothetical’. I don’t believe in FTL travel, either, but I can entertain it as a working hypothesis without much difficulty. Since I regard all religions as false-to-fact, operating within their belief systems in fiction is about the same for me. But with religion, the hardest thing to do is to get at the -emotional penumbra- of a particular belief; and the details matter.

    For example, in one of Mary Renault’s historical novels, a man’s dying father (he’s been stabbed by political enemies) says to his son: “Avenge my blood.” The son replies “Father, how could you think I would be so base of soul as to forgive my enemies?”

    For 5th-century BCE Athenians, this makes perfect sense. The -impulse- to revenge is universal; it’s almost certainly biological, genetic in origin. But (given that humans are culture-bearers and behaviorally plastic) the context of belief and custom in which it operates is highly specific. To the pagan Greeks concerned in that very well written passage, revenge wasn’t just a murderous impulse, it was a moral and religious duty. To Christian or post-Christian Westerners, on the other hand, the situation is very different and the passage brings a -frisson- of otherness, since -our- moral tradition regards the impulse to revenge as an immoral one that should be supressed and hence it can’t be indulged without guilt. Guilt/shame is another human universal, but what you feel guilty or ashamed -about- is again highly specific.

    In terms of religion, one fundamental difference is between religions with universalistic claims and those which just don’t look at the world that way. The Abrahamic faiths -do- make hard-and-fast claims to universally applicable truth — they’re rather like science that way, which is no accident, since the scientific worldview is essentially the Thomistic strand of Latin Christendom with the supernatural stripped out.

    “Gods just disguise themselves and pitch up at people’s houses. It’s as straightforward and realistic a plot element as a feast, a battle, or a day’s sailing.”

    — in Poul Anderson’s THE SHIELD OF TIME, the hero (a Time Patrol officer) explains to a new recruit why doing an occasional “visitation of the Gods” doesn’t threaten the Patrol’s mission. He asks her what her birth milieu is, and she replies “Jamaica, 1950″. He says something like:

    “OK, suppose you’re in an isolated hamlet in the Blue Mountains. A fight breaks out. Helicopters drop stun gas, swoop down, and men in uniforms leap out and handcuff some of the participants. One of them explains that they’re from the CIA, acting in cooperation with the Jamaican government, and that the men they’re arresting are dangerous Communists. Then they all fly off with the men they’ve arrested.

    You know that helicopters, tear gas, the CIA and Communists exist, even if you didn’t expect to ever see them yourself. The occurance is a seven-day wonder, but nobody’s fundamentally shocked by it, and soon the gossip dies down and is garbled to the noise level of local concepts about those things. That’s what a brief visitation by the Gods is like here and now.”

    “Even if it wasn’t true.”

    — another thing to bear in mind is that for most of history, people simply didn’t grasp the concept of the “non-falsifiable hypothesis”. Most still don’t; it’s not a natural way for most people to think.

  142. The son replies “Father, how could you think I would be so base of soul as to forgive my enemies?”

    Actually, in that case, even mentioning forgiving one’s enemies feels like a modern injection, unless there was some reason within the plot for him to have been exposed to that kind of weird, impious (Roman term, but appropriate) notion.

    another thing to bear in mind is that for most of history, people simply didn’t grasp the concept of the “non-falsifiable hypothesis”. Most still don’t; it’s not a natural way for most people to think.

    I’m not sure I agree with this. I think we’ve always had three classes of knowledge: “things others assert that I think are false”, “things others assert that I think are true” (= beliefs), and “things that self-evidently are, what, are you crazy?” (= knowledge)

    What goes in the second box and what goes in the third have varied over time, as you’ve pointed out. But I think we’ve always had falsifiable and non-falsifiable ones, and we’ve all had the experience of finding out that something we “just knew” was true wasn’t. Sometimes it’s that the earth is the center of the universe. Sometimes it’s that a spouse would keep troth, or a friendship would last, or that the sun would never be blotted out by the darkness.

    Growing up is, in my experience, as much unlearning as learning. I don’t think that’s a modern phenomenon, and I don’t think the impulse to generalize from those specific experiences to a class of things which might not be as true as all that is either.

  143. “Actually, in that case, even mentioning forgiving one’s enemies feels like a modern injection, unless there was some reason within the plot for him to have been exposed to that kind of weird, impious (Roman term, but appropriate) notion.”

    — there was; it was a time of increasing philosophical doubt and questioning. The first Sophistic is integral to the plot, as the devastating intellectual effects of the negative elenchos hit a culture for the first time.

    This was an earthquake, a discontinuity in human experience like the invention of the scientific method, a sword across history.

    People just didn’t think like that before then. The idea of questioning premises systematically was -new-. You can see the first discoverers playing with it in an almost drunken frenzy… and then the hangover. As Marx put it, “all that was solid melts into air, all that was sacred is profaned.”

    Echoes of it have been bouncing off the world’s mental walls ever since. Eg., the textual critics have just gotten to work on the Koran the way they did on the Bible in the 19th century, and the fireworks are a wonder to behold.

    Historically, most human cultures are intellectually monolithic. Everything important consists of things that “everyone knows”.

  144. Historically, most human cultures are intellectually monolithic. Everything important consists of things that “everyone knows”.

    Well, OK, in a “balance sheet” kind of way. The state of each culture at a given point in time is substantially intellectually monolithic.

    I know this particularly well, since I live in a culture in which I am not native. I’m forever noticing things that the locals accept unquestioningly things that stop me dead in my tracks. Often it’s not even that “everyone knows” something—they don’t even realize that there’s another way to think of things. I’d put it even a step further into certainty than the things I listed above. Call it a fourth item: water for fish.

    For instance, I recently did a set of courses to become a Bedrijfshulpverlener, an emergency first responder at my office. I was given a wallet card certifying that I had completed the training. I commented to a Dutch colleague that this amused me, because it was Yet Another Diploma. He looked at me blankly; to him it was the most natural thing in the world that, having done some training, I should end up with a tangible certificate at the end of it.

    Trying to explain how qualifications-mad the Dutch are, I mentioned that when my daughter learned to tie her shoes, her school gave her a diploma for it.
    “But of course,” he replied, “how else do you recognize that she learned it?”
    “By, you know, looking at her shoelaces?.”

    (Now that I’ve been abroad for so long, I can do this to Americans, too. I try not to, because we as a nation don’t respond as well to that kind of thing as the Dutch do. See shouting and the inner voice of doubt above.)

    But although the “balance sheet”, the state of the society at one instant, is generally pretty intellectually monolithic, in the “profit and loss” view (tracking the progress over time), the picture is very different. Every culture also contains its questioners, both the far-out, crazy ones and the reasonable, almost-establishment ones. We’re seeing that right now, actually, as the whole “Occupy” movement hauls a bunch of previously unmentionable concepts like wealth redistribution and the effects of economic disparity into the mainstream political discourse.

    Some of the ideas of those far-out questioners may turn out to be central to the society’s next intellectual monolith. Abolitionists and suffragettes were, for example. Others come and go (Prohibition), or remain far-out forever.

    But the point is, societies are both a snapshot of substantial intellectual accord and a moving current of waxing and waning values and priorities.

  145. It’s important not to overgeneralize from the experience of the last couple of centuries in the West, which are -sui generis- historically.

    Generally speaking, throughout history the overwhelming majority of human beings have lived in stable, small-scale, initimate communities which are extremely homogenous in most respects; they demand conformity within their own boundaries, and are intensely suspicious of outsiders, and quite often murderously hostile to them.(*) Naturally enough, since this is the context in which we evolved. Interludes when things aren’t like that are generally periods of catastrophe, large-scale war and folk-migration and so forth.

    In settings like that, public opinion — the consensus of the community — has terrifying power. You are completely dependent on the good opinion of your kin and neighbors, who are probably extremely intolerant of dissent. And there’s no way to get away from it except exile, which usually means hardship or death. The power of gossip in a small town or other in-group is the last fading remnant of this immemorial setting.

    (*) for example, in early modern times visitors to London, already a large and fairly cosmopolitan trading city, noted that an obvious foreigner would often be followed by groups of children calling insults and throwing dung. This sort of thing was one important reason why outsiders in settings like that tended to group tightly together. A few miles into the countryside, and unless the foreigner was obviously under the protection of the local gentry it was quite likely he’d be mobbed and killed.

  146. To give an example that also bears on the worldbuilding discussion, pre-modern and early-modern people in NW Europe (and their overseas descendants) had a rather unsual pattern of marriage and reproduction. They married rather late, usually in their mid to late 20’s, and a high proportion never married — sometimes as many as 20%, frex in late-17th century England. Those who didn’t marry almost never had children; the evidence seems to be that the women in particular usually died -virgo intacta- if they didn’t marry.(*)

    This is violently counterintuitive to contemporary sensibilities. The way it seems to have worked is that there were a series of taboos, largely unstated, that among other things forbade two married couples from living under the same roof. You couldn’t marry until you had the resources to support your own “hearth”, and for most people (the rich were different) this required working outside the paternal home for about a decade or a bit more before you could afford to marry. The system was enforced by ferocious(**) community pressure against transgressors, in a setting in which there was no privacy and everyone in a given village or small neighborhood knew everything about everyone else.

    It apparently worked, for centuries, and so thoroughly that only the most authoritarian modern governments could rival its efficiency.

    (*) though the popular definition of “marriage” was not precisely the same as that held by the Church and written law.

    (**) ranging from gossip in the modern sense to denunciation to “rough music” (ritualized mob action) to legal proceedings.

  147. I think you’re generalizing too much the other way.

    It’s true that small-community life is a profoundly conservative force, for the usual reasons of rigid conformity and close supervision. (I currently live in a genealogically stable village that’s existed since the 11th century. Even though it’s more welcoming to incomers now, I could certainly tell some stories…) And it’s true that cities were suspicious of genuine foreigners. But the middle ground—inventive locals—is where the interesting changes happen. The cliché of the rural kid who’s Just Different and runs off to the big city to live his dream is a cliché for a reason. I’m thinking particularly of medieval England and the year and a day rule for runaway serfs, and I know of a few Roman examples and counterexamples*.

    (It’s still a cliché. Most of the people who ran away to cities didn’t have the skillsets to rise to become leaders of fashion or thought. But they made a good growth medium for that sort of change.)

    Sometimes, of course the rural kid ends up back at the family farm with his tail between his legs (cf the Prodigal Son). But cities have been viewed with justifiable suspicion from the villages because they’re where the dangerous exceptions go, and whence the dangerous ideas come.

    (This is turning into a bit of a “tastes great/less filling”, isn’t it? Societies are both conservative and changing, at different rates and for different reasons, throughout history.)

    What interests me is how much the pace of societal change is affected by the proportion of urban vs rural people in the world. I think the correlation is pretty clear. And we’ve passed the tipping point now—more people live in cities than not. But as the spread of new ideas gets easier, and as people (in the West; let’s not overgeneralize) have another outlet for those parts of their lives they don’t want to share with their neighbors, do we need cities to foment social change anymore? Is the internet the new city, in that sense?

    And then, of course, there’s the question of whether this rate of change is a good thing…

    —–
    * They didn’t laud Cincinattus for returning to his plough because it was the default behavior.

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