Thursday, May 27, 2010

A faith for space travelers

My interest in science fiction has lead me to wonder what our descendants will believe. Some authors seem to believe (or hope, I'm not sure which) that in the future, religion will disappear. Anne McCaffrey, whose fictional world of Pern has no religion, comes to mind. I think that while a colony group with no religious members is entirely possible, eventually someone would invent a religion. I think that religion will be with us for a long time yet, although it may lose influence or change dramatically. And in a society that started out with no religions, it might be harder for a religion to take hold.

So with that in mind, what kind of religions would flourish in a society of space travelers?

Religions reflect the society that gave them birth. I think we can agree, for instance, that the gender roles espoused by various religious groups not only affect the broader cultures they are part of, but spring out of that background. So an egalitarian society would likely have clerics of all genders and backgrounds in any homegrown religion, whereas one with strong social barriers such as ours would reject some people (women, homosexuals…) from participating fully. Of course in our society this is changing, but I don't think we can take it as a given that the people of the future will be more open-minded.

People also have a tendency to worship natural forces (or the supposed controllers of natural forces) that affect them. So I think some people, especially on generation ships might worship a god of the void, for example. Or say that their god lived in the nearest black hole or quasar. What if they stayed on their ship so long that they forgot what a planet was like? Can you imagine their surprise upon landing? Or upon meeting planet-bound societies?

Aliens might very well not produce religions as we recognize them. Even if they did, they would probably worship beings that looked like them and the creatures they knew. Would any humans join their sects? Would they join ours?

It's also important to note that aside from very new colonies, it's unlikely that any planet would have a single homogeneous culture. Even if there was a world government, there would probably be pockets of resistance and non conformity, and this would go for any intelligent aliens (except for hive minds) just as much as for humans.

We've also seen science fiction in which one race worships another, one with vastly better technology, that passes itself off as a race of gods. I think that one Star Trek episode even had the characters become objects of worship when they interfered with another society. And some people even think that ancient religions on our own planet can be explained by alien intervention, which just goes to show that people refashion old beliefs to fit new needs and trends.

Anyone read any good books that address this?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

God is Human (and he could not be otherwise)

Atheists who have read the Bible (or parts of it, like me) often say that God's actions are inconsistent (especially when reading the Christian Bible) but what strikes me the most is that whatever theologians say about the folly of anthropomorphizing God, he is a very human figure as portrayed in the Bible. This is especially true if you don't buy that the inconsistencies in his actions are due to greater knowledge. If you treat him as a petty and sometimes foolish character, it makes sense. But this is not an interpretation that works well in a monotheistic framework, at any rate not a conventional one.

However, there is some evidence that early Jews believed in more than one god, and that many didn't even confine their worship to their own tribal god (the god of the Bible). Modern Judaism, of course, doesn't support this view, but I am rather fond of it - I like the drama of a group of quarreling deities, as in the Greek and Roman myths, rather than the comparatively boring idea of a single benevolent creator, or the frightening one of a single strict or even vindictive deity.

But the reason I think that God has to be human (by which I mean that as a character he is humanlike) is that we only know one intelligent species capable of communication - Homo Sapiens. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine an intelligent being that was not humanlike (which is also part of why most science fiction aliens look a lot like us). He has to either be a humanlike character or a non-character.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

More reflections on religion in fantasy worlds

Lately I've been working on a new story. It's fantasy, but set in a sort of alternate-history version of the real world, so I don't have to do as much world building as if I was starting from scratch. For example, the geography is the same, aside from the location of borders and man-made features such as canals. But the historical change is big enough that I can't just use real-world governments or religions.

All this got me thinking about fictional religions again. In spite of the obvious influence of real-world religions on fiction, I can't think of a fantasy world that simply uses a real religion. In fact, though the writers are often Christian, or at least live in largely Christian societies like the United States, and although the model for a lot of fantasy is medieval Europe, fantasy religions are often polytheistic. Perhaps this is because fantasy religions are taken to be true for the world in which they are set, with gods whose clerics possess real powers, which might be less plausible if it was a real religion that we knew about. I think the nostalgia some people have for the polytheistic faiths of Europe that were replaced or subsumed by Christianity also plays a role.

Urban fantasy, of course, uses real religions for the most part, but what I'm mostly interested in is fantasy set on a different world or a very different version of this one.

So how do writers create religions, from a psychological point of view? In my case, the story I'm working on takes Gaulish beliefs, about which we know very little, as a jumping-off point. I've created a national myth, a sort of collective origin story, for the culture from which the main character comes, a story that explains why many in that society exhibit magic powers. From there, I'm trying to work out how that would affect religious belief and practice, and how other societies would react to my characters and their powers. I'm finding that it takes a lot of work to dream up a culture, even starting from something that really existed.

But I still have to wonder. Does the creation of a fictional religion parallel in any way the creation of a real-life new religious movement? I mean, I suspect most religious leaders are in earnest, but even so, do the same tendencies come out in fiction as in religious belief? The same ideas about what is and is not religion, about what kind of truth-claims one can credibly make? I suppose these questions are as much sociological as psychological, and they are rather beyond the scope of this blog.

Friday, May 14, 2010

An atheist, chanting the Torah?

Last night I went to Torah chanting class. This is something I'm rather fond of, even though I don't believe (much) of what it says in the Bible. That is to say that I don't treat it as probably true. I treat it as a collection of stories, which say more about the authors' conceptions of human nature and the world than anything else. If some bits turn out to have some basis in reality, so much the better! It must be said, though, that I am capable of adopting a more traditional view from a "what-if" perspective for the sake of services and Torah study.

But going back to the chanting, the second time I went to a Jewish service (the first being a friend's bat mitzvah, which I don't remember very well) I was very impressed that they chanted the Torah. So when I heard about a free, once-a-week class, no Hebrew knowledge necessary, I decided to go.

As it turns out, the entire Hebrew Bible is full of cantillation marks (or trop(e) marks), as seen on the right in Genesis 3:17-19 (from the JPS Tanakh) which indicate the placement of the emphasis in the word, the tune to which each word should be sung, and the way the sentence is broken up. There is at least one such mark per word, but occasionally there are two. There is no widespread agreement on the set of tunes to use - it isn't like musical notation - and there are different sets for different texts and certain holidays. The class I'm in focuses on the Torah set for everyday (non-holiday) use, because of course that's the one that gets the most use.

I've been at this for a while, on and off, and I've studied Hebrew to the point where I can almost, but not quite, keep up with the Hebrew chanting in class, and am thus no longer forced to study in English (it is very unusual to chant in English, but at this synagogue some people do). The teacher, who is not officially a synagogue employee but plays an active role in many services and makes money tutoring bar and bat mitzvah students, has been suggesting for a few sessions now that I should chant a short portion of three to five verses in a few weeks. This time I told him I was a little uncomfortable with chanting something I don't believe, even if it is in Hebrew, but it turns out that my classmate, the Israeli atheist, isn't the only person who's involved with this group without believing, and of course a lot of them believe in unconventional versions of the religion, so it's a bit of an oddball group. I'm still on the fence about chanting, but apparently I'm Jewish enough for them. I just might do it, but the idea of chanting from the Torah, which not only lacks cantillation marks but also vowels, and which would involve several other things I haven't done before, such as putting on a tallit and possibly saying my own blessing, makes me nervous.

Why do I like it? There's a certain solemnity to the whole procedure, which really makes it feel special. It's oddly musical, even haunting, especially once you get to know it, and chanting can be a very meditative practice. It's also very intellectually demanding, especially because of the Hebrew, unless you take a pure memorization route. That, and I'm all for any excuse to sing. I also like the teacher and many of the people who come to class. It's drop-in, so you never know what to expect, although the more advanced students who come in are almost always there to practice a specific portion that they're going to chant within the next few weeks. It's nice to hear them work on it, and some weeks I feel up for the class, with its academic air, but not for Saturday morning services.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Shabbat Observance

One of the parts of Jewish religious observance that I'm the most drawn to is Shabbat, the sabbath. And yet being Shabbat observant (shomer shabbat/shabbos) in an Orthodox sense would be very difficult, not least because there are so many commandments that I do not know!

Shabbat starts Friday evening and continues until after sunset on Saturday, in accordance with how days are reckoned on the Hebrew calendar. During Shabbat a whole host of activities are forbidden, including but not limited to: working or causing your animal (or slave) to work, starting or putting out fires, turning on or off devices that use electricity (by analogy with fire), carrying things across property lines, traveling (more than a certain distance past the edge of town), handling money, and so on. There are thus a lot of restrictions that cannot be avoided and some that can be - by setting timers to turn things on and off automatically, one can avoid turning the lights on and off, or by living within an eruv, a sort of fictional property whose edges are defined by temporary barriers of sorts, commonly wires attached to telephone poles, one can carry things within that area. And any of them can be broken - is required to be broken - in order to protect human life. But these laws are a large part of why more traditional Jewish communities tend to be concentrated to some extent around a synagogue.

All of this doesn't have that much relevance to my life - I circulate in progressive communities (Reform, Reconstructionist, and similar), I don't believe in God, and in practice I don't observe any of the commandments strictly, although I try to avoid using the computer, the television, and the telephone on Shabbat. Furthermore, I am not technically Jewish, either by the traditional definition according to Jewish law or by the Reform definition. So why does this interest me? What exactly do I like about it?

I like not feeling the pressure to be productive. I like getting advertisements and phone calls out of my face, and escaping from the sensory overload of a modern, plugged-in life. I like taking my time and doing things slowly. I like reading, one of my major Saturday activities. And I enjoy the ritual. Lighting candles reverently, ritualistically, with a blessing (here in Ashkenazi/Eastern European pronunciation), feels holy to me, whatever that can mean to an atheist. I like havdalah as well, but I rarely get the chance to participate in that. I like the synagogue services, welcoming in Shabbat in the evening service and the Torah service Saturday morning, especially the chanting (or here's some cute kids chanting). I enjoy the camaraderie over snacks or a meal afterwards.

And I suspect that if I was more strict at least about the restrictions I try to impose on myself, I'd enjoy it even more. But this is something I waffle about every week.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Christian novels, or why I'm Aslan's homegirl

I'm reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for what has to be at least the fifth time. I've also seen the movie twice, so as you can guess, I'm a big fan. I first read the book when I was a kid and my parents gave it to me, followed eventually by the other six books.

When I was a kid, I didn't notice how Christian the Chronicles of Narnia was, and I certainly hadn't heard about C.S. Lewis' religious beliefs.

But rereading the book as an adult has given me a completely different perspective. I notice the description of the children as the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve. It no longer seems like a given to me that the creatures of Narnia should be sad because there is no Christmas. It doesn't even make sense to me that they should have heard of Christmas! And it seems clear that Aslan, the giant, majestic lion who helps the children throughout their journey, is a Christ figure - he sacrifices himself on the Stone Table to redeem Narnia and returns to life. His mane is shorn, which could be a Samson and Delilah reference (making the White Witch Delilah?) or a reference to the historical executions in which the convict's hair was cut short or shaven off, partially as a humiliating gesture, partially to make the executioner's job easier.

Aslan's appearances and disappearances in Prince Caspian could be a story about losing childhood certainty, or having to fend for yourself as part of growing up. In the later books, we see Susan lose all belief and most of her memory of Narnia over time. I think this could be a pretty pessimistic story, coming from a believer like Lewis, especially because it's portrayed as more or less inevitable. You can't be an adult and experience Narnia.

The question, then, is whether we liken belief in Narnia to belief in Santa Claus or to belief in God, which tends to come under fire in the teenage years. I found out recently that C.S. Lewis himself was an atheist in his teens and twenties, which leads me to wonder whether it is not a little bit his own story.

The Chronicles of Narnia is not the only book I love that has a strong Christian influence - the Lord of the Rings, whose author, J.R.R. Tolkien, was a good friend of Lewis' and unlike him was Roman Catholic (Lewis was Anglican). The description of the setting found in the Silmarilion (which is sort of a collection of Middle-Earth mythology, like a Bible) is interesting. The Valar and the Maiar could easily be described as gods and angels, respectively, but all are subservient to Eru/Il├║vatar ("the One"), like angels. And Melkor is a devil figure - Sauron's boss, as it were, who is cast down out of Middle-Earth, explaining why we never hear of him until the Silmarillion. So we have various mythologies (Norse, Celtic, Finish, Greek, Welsh) rolled up together to create a series of stories set in a more or less Catholic framework. Which is actually very consistent with modern Christianity - the pagan religions of Europe have been major influences, and old gods have become saints and other heroes.

I don't have a problem at all with Christian influences in my fiction, but I think there's value in making them explicit when discussing these books. I do tend to avoid books that are billed as Christian fiction, though.

And to get to the title, I'm Aslan's homegirl because Lion Jesus is awesome!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

When your friend thinks you're going to hell

Today, I had the nicest conversation I've ever had with someone who thinks I'm going to hell.

I'm a volunteer tutor with a literacy program associated with the local public library. Twice a week, I meet with a woman who wants to improve her reading skills. It's been going quite well as a rule - we get along and she's making progress.

I've known for quite a while now that she was brought up Catholic and has been going to a Jehovah's Witness Bible study group for about a year. This made me a little nervous, but when she wasn't much bothered that Ricky Martin came out, I figured she was okay.

But today we talked about her interest in Bible study and she mentioned that a gay guy she knows invited her to study with him, but she didn't want to because according to her, he doesn't follow the commandments. I pointed out to her that nobody manages to follow all the commandments, even if they're trying, and that he might be very knowledgeable anyway, and it came out that the reason she says she has nothing against gay people is that she figures they'll get their just desserts in the afterlife! She didn't put in quite that way though. I tried to talk to her in straightforward terms about why I support gay rights, and I don't know how much of it got through, but when she asked if I had a boyfriend, I ended up coming out as a lesbian. She didn't believe me at first, because she said I didn't look like one (I told her that most of us don't look like we are).

So now she thinks I'm going to hell, if she didn't previously think I was as a non-Christian. I also came out as an atheist, although not in so many words.

But the weird thing was that it didn't get heated at all. I could have taken offense at some of the things she said, but I didn't. How do you deal with someone who thinks you're going to hell, but who doesn't yell at you about it?

Monday, May 3, 2010

My Atheist Position

I took this table from this post on Triangulations. I find it interesting to look at the sheer diversity among atheists etc. so I filled it out.

 Self-Label(s)
Agnostic Atheist (believes there is no god/are no gods but acknowledges that she cannot prove it)
Past Sect History
Unitarian Universalist
Past Belief History
Life Long Non-believer (Birthright)
Past Orthopraxy History
Church every week as a kid. Christmas and Easter.
Level of Certainty:
Moderate
Openness: Open, but cautious
Degree of Outreach:
Varies between Affirm, Debater, Active. More on the active side online.
Present Religious Participation:
Often (various kinds of progressive Judaism), rarely (Unitarian Universalist)
Stance toward
Categorically Rejecting Religion:
Religion is okay. We should recognize and use its contributions while correcting its excesses and allowing others to believe what they will.
Degree of Enchantment Enchanted
Mystical Perceptions: Non-Mystical
Theory of Religion:

I'm not sure how the first religions came to be. I think we have a need for explanations and that religions today serve many roles, such as marking important stages in our lives (birth, coming-of-age, marriage, death) and marking time on a more day-to-day basis into working and non-working time, holy and mundane time (especially religions that have a sabbath or day of rest). They often mark the seasons as well (look at your favorite Christian or Jewish holidays - lots of them draw on pagan celebrations tied to the seasons). They serve as moral arbiters, as well, but I think in most of these respects we could do without them, as long as we had some agreed-upon system for this.
Non-theistic Leanings
Nothing supernatural
Secular Superstitious or Irrational Habits
I knock on wood.
View of Reason

Reason is very important. Humans tend to be irrational.
Faith Items
We'll make it past our current troubles, somehow.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Beatles Shabbat

On Friday, I went to a pretty unconventional service at a local progressive synagogue. At this particular synagogue, on months that have a fifth Friday, they do a service based around the music of a particular band. This time around it was the Beatles.

This is unconventional in that according to Jewish law, one is not supposed to use musical instruments on Shabbat. Now, this doesn't stop Reform congregations, but this congregation is unaffiliated and doesn't use instruments except on fifth Fridays.

It's also unconventional in that the musical selections mark a departure from the traditional Friday night liturgy. Now from what I hear, many parts of the tradition and especially the melodies are really not that old, and in egalitarian synagogues it is common to change parts of certain prayers to recognize the importance of women and to be inclusive. All this, however, doesn't stop some people from getting up in arms whenever anything else is changed.

But at this service, people seemed to know what they were getting themselves in for. Almost everything was replaced with Beatles music that was thematically similar, although really the connections were quite loose. Some words were changed or capitalized to indicate that they were meant (in this context) to refer to God, and a few prayers were set to Beatles music.

There were some choices I really liked, like singing Eight Days a Week ("Ain't got nothing but love babe/Eight days a week") at the beginning of the Shabbat bride part. On Friday nights, the service is meant to welcome in Shabbat, the day of rest, and Shabbat is personified as a bride.

As the service went on, however, I felt more and more disconnected from it, in part because I didn't know some of the songs, and in part because when we came to the Hebrew bits, I was paying attention to the translation, and it always feels uncomfortable to say things you don't believe. So I didn't actually say most of it this time.

For example, this is from their translation of the Aleinu, which is said towards the end of the service:
"For we bow, prostrate ourselves, and thank the Supreme Sovereign of sovereigns; the holy one of blessing..."

And there you have the rub for me. Sometimes I want to be involved with this group, sometimes I enjoy the services and other events, but when it comes to the beliefs, I can't get with it. They aren't the kind of people that would kick out an atheist, but I don't think they realize I am one. I should probably find a Jewish Humanist group instead, but the nearest one I know of is too far away to get to more than once in a great while.

At least they didn't make us say the part about unbelief being no more. That's the part I dislike the most, because sometimes I can ignore the god stuff, but I can't pretend it would be a good thing for atheism and agnosticism to disappear.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed myself, and it was nice to see my friends, but it really highlighted what I don't like about being involved in religion.