Never Quote Discworld to an Atheist

The other day, I found this article from a Google alert: an essay on the religious website First Things by the author and Catholic apologist Elizabeth Scalia (who also blogs as The Anchoress).

The post was about Terry Pratchett, the celebrated fantasy author and secular humanist. Since his personal beliefs come through clearly in his writing, I was surprised to find out that Scalia's a fan of his Discworld series. She quotes with approval the following passage from one of the Discworld books, Carpe Jugulum, which features a dialogue between the Discworld's greatest witch, Granny Weatherwax, and the Omnian priest Mightily Oats:

"There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example," said Oats.

"And what do they think? Against it, are they?" said Granny Weatherwax.

"It's not as simple as that. It's not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray."

"Nope."

"Pardon?"

"There's no grays, only white that's got grubby. I'm surprised you don't know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is."

"It's a lot more complicated than that—"

"No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won't like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."

"Oh, I'm sure there are worse crimes—"

"But they starts with thinking about people as things..."

It's interesting that Scalia didn't mention that Omnianism is a satire of Christianity. But in any case, she approves of this passage because, as she reminds us, Pratchett is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's and has announced his intention to end his life on his own terms, when the time is right, rather than wait for the disease to rob him of himself. She thinks that Pratchett's own characters would counsel him against that course of action:

I wonder if Granny Weatherwax would agree with Pratchett, or if she would tell him he was making a thing of himself — placing his life within the context of a simple stop-start mechanism without regarding the inborn transcendence that, regardless of origin, is demonstrated so ripely in his own inventiveness. She might wonder what that ripeness might yet become — for others, if not himself — if allowed to remain on the vine rather then be plucked early. Perhaps she would warn Pratchett that he risks thing-nifying the people surrounding him and loving him, by turning them into mere markers and bystanders.

This sounds like a challenge, and I accept it. I've been a fan of Discworld for a long time, and I'll be damned if a Catholic apologist is going to tell me that Terry Pratchett's wonderful cast of characters is on her side. And as it happens, I remembered another passage from the very same book, one which bears far more directly on the topic, which Scalia's post didn't mention. Here it is:

Granny Weatherwax was airborne again, glad of the clean, crisp air. She was well above the trees and, to the benefit of all concerned, no one could see her face.

....There was a story under every roof, she knew. She knew all about stories. But those down there were the stories that were never to be told, the little secret stories, enacted in little rooms...

They were about those times when medicines didn't help and headology was at a loss because a mind was a rage of pain in a body that had become its own enemy, when people were simply in a prison made of flesh, and at times like this she could let them go. There was no need for desperate stuff with a pillow, or deliberate mistakes with the medicine. You didn't push them out of the world, you just stopped the world pulling them back. You just reached in, and... showed them the way.

There was never anything said. Sometimes you saw in the face of the relatives the request they'd never, ever put words around, or maybe they'd say "is there something you can do for him?" and this was, perhaps, the code. If you dared ask, they'd be shocked that you might have thought they meant anything other than, perhaps, a comfier pillow.

....She'd been a witch here all her life. And one of the things a witch did was stand right on the edge, where the decisions had to be made. You made them so that others didn't have to, so that others could even pretend to themselves that there were no decisions to be made, no little secrets, that things just happened. You never said what you knew. And you didn't ask for anything in return.

When I pointed this out in a comment, Scalia responded with the following. I invite you to judge how plausible an interpretation of the above passage it is:

I think I interpret that very differently, along the lines of both the death of JPII and my own brother's passing..."reaching in and showing them the way" through love and presence to the end.

I strongly suspect that Granny Weatherwax, far from siding with Elizabeth Scalia, would regard her as one of the people who "pretend to themselves that there were no decisions to be made". As many times as I read it, I can't understand her argument that ending your life on your own terms is degrading to the people around you by treating them as "mere markers". (Why doesn't this same argument apply to offering yourself as a substitutive sacrifice? Why doesn't it apply to the willing martyrs whom the Catholic church exalts? If anything, aren't they the ones who treat others as markers of their deaths?)

Insofar as this definition of sin is a useful moral standard, the Catholics are the ones who are guilty of transgressing it. If treating people as people means anything at all, it means recognizing their right to self-determination, allowing them to make their own choices even when we disagree. Yet it's the Catholics who think they have the right to control others' decisions; it's the Catholics who regard a person's happiness or suffering, their independence and autonomy, as unimportant, and it's the Catholics who advocate keeping a person alive, even against their own expressed wishes, to suffer the disintegration of self and the ravages of terminal illness. Terry Pratchett saw these people for what they are long ago, so I'll let him have the final word, by way of one more apt quote from Granny Weatherwax:

The smug mask of virtue triumphant could be almost as horrible as the face of wickedness revealed.

September 9, 2011, 5:36 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink34 comments
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The Contributions of Freethinkers: Ursula K. LeGuin

Although I've highlighted the lives of some amazing feminists on Daylight Atheism, I don't want to give the impression that the only thing women can be famous for is fighting for the rights of women. Today's post is a reminder that freethinking women have made their mark in other areas of human culture as well.

Science fiction and fantasy have always been heavily male-dominated fields of literature. A 1966 reader poll of sci-fi's greatest novels didn't list a single entry written by a woman, and a similar 1973 poll of readers' all-time favorite authors included only two women - one of whom, Andre Norton, wrote under a masculine-sounding name. But some women have made their mark in spite of this, and it's the other one on that list whom this post is about.

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was born in Berkeley, California in 1929, the daughter of an anthropologist and a writer. She was interested in fiction from a precocious age, writing one of her first short stories at the age of 11, but her career as an author truly took off in her early 30s. Among her first notable novels were the Earthsea books, a fantasy series about a magical world consisting of a vast archipelago of islands.

I read these in high school, long before I knew about any of Le Guin's other works, and while they held my interest enough for me to complete the original trilogy, I wasn't greatly impressed. The books seemed so stodgy and fatalistic; and while I didn't fully realize it until much later, this may have been in part because of the viewpoints their author had absorbed from the cultural milieu. The protagonist, the wizard Ged, is a man, and the books go out of their way to stress that women's magic is despised; one of the proverbs of Earthsea is "Weak as women's magic, wicked as women's magic." (Some of her later short stories set in Earthsea go a long way toward redressing this balance.)

But I went back to Le Guin later in life, and I'm very glad I did. Many of her other novels are outstanding, and some of my particular favorites include:

Le Guin's noves have attracted widespread acclaim. Both The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, as did a third book, The Word for World is Forest. Le Guin herself was named "Grand Master of Science Fiction" by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, one of only three women to win that honor, in addition to a host of other awards. But most telling of all, perhaps, is the recognition she's received from her fellow authors. One of her novels' hallmarks is a technology called the "ansible", which allows for instantaneous communication across any distance, transcending the light-speed limit. Many other sci-fi authors have used the term in their own books as an homage, implicitly paying respect to her influence.

Le Guin's later works consistently espouse a feminist viewpoint, as well as making it a point in each one to include a person of color as one of the main characters. And best of all, although some SF/F writers are raving religious bigots, this one is a bona fide freethinker. In 2009, she accepted an Emperor Has No Clothes Award from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which honors public figures who tell it like it is about religion. In her acceptance speech, she said:

Now, I honestly do not think all the tailors who have made those clothes, that God-costume, so busily, for all these centuries, did it or do it deliberately and knowingly as a con game, to deceive us. Maybe in part, but mostly I think the people who sew the garments of God are busy deceiving themselves. Priests, of course, can make a good living out of it and also gain secular power. But lay believers weave those garments day and night, all over the world, and to some of them it is the most important thing they do, and they love doing it. That’s fine with me, so long as they don’t try to make me do it with them.

...Let the tailors of the garments of God sit in their tailor shops and stitch away, but let them stay there in their temples, out of government, out of the schools. And we who live among real people — real, badly dressed people, people wearing rags, people wearing army uniforms, people sleeping on our streets without a blanket to cover them —let us have true charity: Let us look to our people, and work to clothe them better.

Other posts in this series:

March 25, 2011, 5:53 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink15 comments
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Return to the Desert IV: The Xenophobe

I kept walking, leaving the canyons behind. The eerie stone pillars and rugged topography of the badlands faded away like a mirage, and soon, the land was flat and featureless again.

This part of the desert was what geologists called a hamada, a low, level plain of boulders and stony soil. Low, wind-carved dunes rose in the distance, and far beyond them, hazy with distance, stood the ever-present mountains in whose rainshadow this barren land lay. My steps crunched on the rough gravel, whose wobbly and irregular stones threatened to twist a carelessly placed ankle.

Out on the open plain, there was no shelter from the sun's brutal heat. I pulled the brim of my hat low to shade my face, but I could feel beads of sweat sliding down my back. The ground was brilliant white, a blinding dazzle, and even if there had been anything to see, it was hidden in the heat shimmer. Under those circumstances, it was no surprise that I almost tripped over the stone wall before I saw it.

Regaining my balance, I took a step back and surveyed the scene. The wall was no more than knee-high, made of rough, natural rocks that someone had carried and fit together. It was circular in shape, enclosing an area the size of a small room. It was much the same as the stone walls you might find on an old farmstead, but here in the desert, beneath this blistering sun, the labor required to build it must have been grueling.

I walked around the perimeter of the wall, trying to guess who might have built it and why, when I got a second violent shock. Someone leaped up from where he had been crouching behind it, someone I hadn't seen before, and glared full into my face. He had skin the color of leather or old parchment, a long, scraggly beard and a balding head of wispy gray hair, and wore only shapeless, colorless rags. His eyes were set deep in his skull-like face, and they darted around like the eyes of some trapped animal.

"Enemies!" he shrieked, in a voice like an old cracked radio. "Danger! Beware! Enemies all around!"

With that, he dove back down, huddling behind the wall as if it could shelter him. I glanced out across the scorched plain, but from horizon to horizon, there was no one else in sight besides the two of us.

"What enemies are you afraid of?" I inquired, as politely as I could.

He leaped up again. "Terrorists! Immigrants! Gays! Communists! Scary dark-skinned people! They're coming to take our guns and our Bibles. We have to bomb them, we have to occupy them. We have to invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity! The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world!"

Despite myself, I was impressed. He had delivered that entire rant without pausing for breath.

"I think you've spent too much time listening to the gossips and scandal-mongers out here in the desert," I said. "Is this how you live? Have you ever stopped to consider why it is that you spend every day being told about the newest group of people to hate and fear? Your leaders do it on purpose - fill your head with fear, teach you to jump at shadows - because people who are angry and afraid don't think. They're easily herded, less likely to think rationally, and they'll gladly follow anyone who promises them safety. It's a tactic that political leaders and demagogues have been using successfully for centuries. The script stays the same every time; it's only the name of the enemy that changes. And the remarkable thing is that this works even when the designated victim is a small, marginalized, almost powerless minority, and it's the large, powerful majority that's being told to be afraid."

I couldn't tell if the raggedy man was even listening to me. He paced back and forth inside his circle of stones, muttering words under his breath as if deep in thought. "The powers that be are watching. The Trilateral Commission and the Illuminati. Children dragged away by jackbooted thugs for praying in school. Satanic cults and their baby sacrifices. Evolution is a fraud. Global warming is an invention of Big Environmentalism. Christmas is under attack. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Cell phones cause cancer. Toxins in our vaccines. Teach the controversy!"

"And isn't it remarkable that you see yourself as surrounded by enemies?" I asked. "Who here is really threatening you? What rights of yours are being taken away? You in the desert far outnumber us in the garden, you realize. We've never called for the conquest of the desert by force, nor could we succeed even if we tried. All we're doing - all we've ever done - is to assert our right to live as we choose, and ask that you respect that by not trying to coerce or bully us. Our society has gone so out of kilter that you have special privileges which you've come to think of as your due. When fairness prevails and those special rights are taken away, you think you're being unfairly persecuted, because you don't realize that no one else has ever had them."

The strange man shook his head, but I couldn't tell whether it was in response to what I was saying. "All flu shots are poison, you know. 9/11 was an inside job. HIV doesn't cause AIDS! HIV was man-made to cause AIDS! They have secret technology to cause earthquakes and hurricanes. They put fluoride in our drinking water to keep us under control. Chemtrails sprayed from airplanes. The moon landing hoax. Who really shot JFK? Big Pharma is hiding the cure for cancer - there are natural cures they don't want you to know about! You can run your car on water. Big Oil is covering it up!"

"Have you ever heard the theory," I asked, still unsure if my words were falling on deaf ears, "of the hyperactive agency detector module? Human beings are primed to see intelligent agents even in natural cycles where none exist - or to see broader patterns of agency and intent where the actions of one or a few are a perfectly sufficient explanation. It's as if we have a predisposition to believe that the intent must correspond to the cause - that a huge disaster can't be caused by random chance, or by basic human motivations like self-interest and in-group bias, but must be the product of an equally huge and powerful conspiracy.

But don't you see what all these conspiracy theories require you to believe about your fellow human beings? They force you to see us - to see everyone outside your narrow circle of like-minded allies, as not merely ignorant or indifferent, but as actively malevolent. They force you to see other people as strange and dangerous aliens whose wants and desires can never be reconciled with yours. Do you really find it plausible that we're so different from you? Despite the scare stories, all we really want is the same things you want: peace and safety, health and prosperity, and the right to make our own choices in life. We're all human beings trying to live together on this world, and the things which make us similar are far more important and meaningful than the ones that make us different. You really don't have to be afraid."

I awaited another burst of accusations, but there wasn't one. Instead, when I looked up, the man was staring at me with a haunted expression. "I really don't have to be afraid...?" he said hesitantly. He took a step forward, but flinched back from the boundary of the stone wall.

"It's just a little step, you know," I said.

He stepped forward again, and this time he didn't flinch back. He stepped over the stone wall, and the instant that he did, he vanished like a swirl of smoke: no longer a denizen of the desert, but gone on to some other place entirely. In the same instant, a startling change came over the circle of desert enclosed by the rock wall: suddenly, it was no longer a desert at all, but an oasis. Where once there had been sand and stones, leafy flowering plants and tall palm trees now shaded a shallow pool of bright, clear water. It might not last forever, I knew... but even in the desert, such places did appear sometimes. More importantly, I knew I could use it as a path home. All gardens were connected at some level.

I looked around the otherwise desolate land once more. "Until next time," I murmured, and stepped into the shade of the trees. I knew there would be a next time... but if there was a prospect of causing more gardens like this one to bloom in the desert, the thought of returning didn't seem nearly as dreadful.

November 14, 2010, 11:03 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink12 comments
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Return to the Desert: The Eschatologist

The salt-crusted stone shack disappeared before I had been walking more than a few minutes, swallowed up in a sandstorm gust. Squaring my face to the wind, I kept walking.

The salt flats soon fell away behind me, and I entered a new region of the desert. It was a badlands: a barren landscape of mesas and canyons, steep slopes and sawtooth ridges, all sculpted into fantastic, unearthly shapes like the topography of an alien planet. Tall, twisted spires and jagged outcroppings rose all around me in a stone forest. A pale daytime moon hung, huge and ghostly, in a dusty pink sky.

As I slowly picked my way across this forbidding terrain, I began to notice a curious feature of the landscape. The tall, spindly stone spires were being replaced by narrow, stumpy boulders like thick pillars, jutting out of the earth at curious angles. Most of them were rough and featureless, blasted by sand and wind, but one or two had an odd resemblance to human forms.

The trail led into a slot canyon, with high stone walls rising above me and narrow shafts of sunlight streaming down from above. Echoes bounced off the rock. There were more of the lumpy stone pillars here, and their resemblance to frozen human shapes seemed stronger still. Then I rounded a bend, and flinched back with a cry of astonishment. Standing directly in the path ahead of me was the stone figure of a human, eyes and mouth wide in terror, the arms upraised to protect the head. It was no coincidence or mirage, and I realized in a flash that the oddly shaped stone pillars I had been seeing were similar sculptures, but eroded and worn down to almost nothing. Or were they sculptures at all?

My answer wasn't long in coming. Another bend, and in a small clearing, what met my eyes was a strange and terrifying sight. From the chest down, it was a humanoid statue like the rest. But from the shoulders up, it was a living person - arms and head of flesh fixed to that immobile torso of stone, the one blending seamlessly into the other.

It was a horrifying predicament, but the person didn't seem in the least disconcerted. He had a craggy face, a long black beard, and bushy eyebrows beneath which dark eyes burned with fervor. He saw me at the same time I saw him. "Repent, stranger!" the bizarre figure cried out in a voice of thunderous command.

This wasn't the greeting I had been expecting. "Repent?" I echoed in confusion. "For what?"

"For your sins, of course!" he boomed. "The end of the world is fast approaching. It may be days. It may be only hours! This is your last chance to cleanse yourself of your evil deeds before God comes in judgment to scour the earth with fire."

"You seem very confident of that," I observed.

"The signs are everywhere! How could you doubt that the end is upon us? Everything is coming to pass as foretold in the prophecies. Do you not see the famines, the plagues, the war?"

"What war is that?" I inquired.

"Any war!" he bellowed. "See how swiftly the world is changing! During the day it is scorching hot, and at night, freezing cold. The rains come less and less, and the wind carries stinging grit that burns my face and skin. All signs of the end! The world cannot abide for long under these conditions!"

"I'm pretty sure those are normal conditions for this place and always have been. As for wars, plagues and famines, those are nothing unusual or out of the ordinary - humanity has been dealing with those more or less constantly since the start of recorded history. And that reminds me." I thought back to the line of stone statues, most eroded down to nearly nothing. "By telling me all this, I take it you're carrying on the hallowed traditions of your sect?"

"For thousands of years," he said proudly. "My ancestors, too, preached the great message that people must repent to escape destruction. Those glorious words of hope have been handed down to me from those whose names have long since faded to dust. I'm proud to uphold the sacred traditions of my unimaginably distant forefathers by warning the world of its imminent and certain doom."

"And you don't see a contradiction in that? All your ancestors preached that the end would come soon, probably with the same certainty as you, and they were all wrong. Doesn't that mean, just going by probability, that I should conclude that you're probably wrong also? What makes you so sure that this time you've got it right?"

"My ancestors were not wrong!" he raged. "The reckoning has been delayed in accordance with God's plan, that is all. When they preached to their hearers that destruction would come upon 'this generation,' they meant my generation, the one that will actually live to see the apocalypse! It will be the glorious culmination of all their hopes!"

I rolled my eyes. "Well, I'm glad to see you've got this all worked out. And I'm sure your far-distant descendants will say the same thing about the words you're speaking to me now?"

"There will be no others! This time the end is really and truly coming, with no doubt whatsoever. I thought I had made that perfectly clear!"

"Yes, I think you've made yourself quite clear," I agreed. "Maybe you've made yourself clearer than you intended. Obviously, it makes you feel good to believe you know in advance that the end is coming. It makes you feel that you're in possession of a special, secret truth, one that makes you morally and spiritually superior to the ignorant people all around who are going about their lives in blind complacency. It makes you feel as if you're the protagonist in a story where you know that you win in the end. It's an exciting feeling, one that gives your life a sense of purpose and meaning.

"But look again at that consummation you so devoutly wish. Literally, you're rooting for the death of everyone who doesn't believe as you do. When you hold a view like that, you inevitably start seeing your fellow men and women as unworthy of moral consideration, as deserving only of hate and destruction. After all, if they're God's enemies, aren't they your enemies too? If God's only plan for them is eternal damnation, why should you treat them any better? Holding a view like that for long starts to rob you of your humanity. Just look at what's happening to you, at what's already happened to your ancestors. You end up losing all your love, all your compassion, all the best qualities that make us human: you end up with a heart of lifeless stone."

The half-flesh, half-stone figure stared at me wildly, and for a split-second, I thought I had gotten through to him. Then he shrieked and crouched over as far as he could, sheltering his head with his arms: the exact posture of the last statue I had seen. "The end! The end is coming! Repent! Repent!"

I sighed. It was what I had been expecting, but just for that one moment, I had retained a sliver of hope. It wasn't too late for this self-styled prophet, even now, if only he was willing to listen. I had seen people escape the desert after being in worse predicaments than his, seen stone change back into living flesh and blood. But he wasn't willing, and as I walked away, I thought gloomily that if I returned in a year or two, I'd likely find nothing here but another frozen statue - another colossal wreck amidst the lone and level sands of the desert.

November 7, 2010, 2:41 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink7 comments
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Return to the Desert: The Scholar

A gust of stinging wind assailed me as soon as I passed through the portal, blowing fine grit into my face. I coughed and staggered back a step, tasting a bitterness in my mouth. It was a few moments before I could clear my eyes and look up, and when I did, the lay of the land was different than it had been. Instead of steep, rising dunes, it was a flat plain of barren red and brown, cracked and crazed in unearthly patterns by the pounding of the sun. Weathered red mesas rose in the distance ahead.

This was no more than I had been expecting. It was impossible to map this trackless wasteland; no traveler was likely to find the same terrain twice. That was just as well, since I had no desire to repeat my fruitless conversations with the same people I'd encountered here last time. There were other things to explore. Shouldering my backpack and taking a firm grip on my walking stick, I set off.

Several lonely hours of walking passed without seeing another living thing. I scaled low hills and forded dry wadis, but the mesas seemed to get no nearer. Never had I seen a place so still, so dead. Not the lonely cawing of a vulture nor the slightest whisper of wind disturbed the vast silence, nor did the smallest splash of lichen or cacti interrupt the remorseless monotony of the sun-dried land.

Rather than sand, this part of the desert had a powdery soil, the color of ashes, as fine as dust. Every footstep stirred billows of it, until I was trailed by an enormous, sluggishly swirling cloud. A ragged haze drifted across the face of the sun.

I crested another rise and saw a strange vision: the earth ahead was sheeted with pale white. Snow in this desolate furnace? Then I realized the truth: it was a salt flat. Water had once flowed here, but it had been dried up for a very, very long time, leaving behind only a salty residue, and the land was parched and lifeless. But more important to me was that, in the midst of this desolation, there was a small, tumbledown stone cottage, with a roof of white-crusted slate.

I thrust open the door, and inside was a single, low room. Shafts of light rayed through tiny windows, and at the far end, a hunched, wrinkled figure was bent over a stone desk. It was clad in a faded, threadbare robe the same color as the ashy sand. Something about the cut told me it must once have been a garment of some majesty, but it had faded under the relentless chiseling of this land.

I raised a hand in greeting, but the scholar had heard the door open and turned to meet me. "Welcome, friend, to my home!" he enthused.

"Greetings!" I hailed him. "It's good to meet you. You know, I couldn't help but notice you're living in the middle of a desolate salt flat. I have a home, not far from here, where there are beautiful gardens. Do you want to leave here and come back with me?"

His eyes narrowed. I saw the corners of his mouth turn down. "Are you one of those people?"

"If by that you mean I'm one of the people who want to help desert-dwellers find a more peaceful and fulfilling life, then yes, guilty as charged," I admitted cheerfully. "So, are you interested?"

"I hope you know how rude you're being," he huffed. "There are millions of people who live here and don't want to move. It's arrogant for you to tell them differently! By what right do you claim to know better than them where they should be?"

"By the same right as everyone else has," I replied, "the right to speak the truth as I see it and defend my point of view. You seem to think that inhabitants of the desert are owed some special respect, some unique right not to be disturbed that we don't afford to anyone else. I say that every opinion, no matter how old and venerable, no matter how sacred it's believed to be by its adherents, can be questioned. If it's true, it should have nothing to fear from being asked to prove itself."

"But you're not questioning the right arguments!" the scholar cried triumphantly. "I know your sort. You're ignorant, brutish, uneducated. You don't care to know anything about what you ridicule. The arguments for staying in the desert that you attack are pitifully simplistic. There are much more sophisticated arguments for staying right where I am that you never talk about - they're all in those books!"

He pointed to one corner of the house, where a squat, blocky mass sat in the shadows. I looked hard at it. It could have been a stack of books; it had the right rectangular shape. But the leather bindings, if that was what they were, were fragile and spiderwebbed with cracks, and the whole mound was thickly encrusted under a layer of salt deposits.

"I don't think anyone has so much as opened those books in decades, if not longer," I observed. "We could debate all day about what's in them, but whatever they say, those obscure arguments clearly aren't why most people who live in the desert are here. Most of them are here because they were born here, it's all they know, and they've never thought much about it beyond that. It may be courtly manners where you come from to ignore those people, but the truth is, they're the vast majority. I haven't come to talk to the tiny minority of scholars like yourself - I've come to talk to those people, the majority, and to deal with the reasons they actually present for staying. Those beliefs are the ones that cause the most harm, to themselves and others, and those are the beliefs I've come to engage."

"You're not helping," he said petulantly. "My goal is to make the people of the desert happy where they are. I go out every day to tell them that they don't need to leave."

"And who says I'm supposed to be helping you? What makes you think that our goals are the same? My goal is simple, as I've told you: to speak the truth as I see it. Everything else is secondary to that. If I truly believe that the garden is better, why should I not say so? Yes, I may step on some people's toes; true, I may never be the most popular person in the desert. I'll probably never be a scholar like you and live," I added, glancing around the dark interior of the little house, "in luxury like this. And that's fine with me. Besides, don't the people of the desert deserve a chance to make up their own minds? I want to show them that there are alternatives and let them make up their own minds. You want to protect them from views that don't agree with theirs. You called me arrogant, but don't you think that you're being the arrogant one?"

The scholar frowned. He hunched deeper into the shadows. "You're just making the people of the desert hate you and turn away from you. When you come to argue with them, when you criticize them and ridicule them, you're showing that you don't respect their deep convictions about wanting to stay here. Those tactics just make them want to stay where they are even more."

I smiled. "Friend, I'm sorry to be blunt, but you're being cowardly. You're acting as if people's opinions are immutable, as if they can never be convinced to move from where they are. That's not true. I've seen it happen - not all the time, of course, but probably more often than you think. For all your talk about respect, has it occurred to you that I respect these people more than you do? I treat them as adults who can listen to persuasion, who can rationally consider contrary arguments and make up their own minds, and who can be criticized when they do wrong. You treat them as if they were children who need you to shelter them from possibly upsetting truths for their own good. I don't doubt that I may say things some people would rather not hear, but you know what? I make no apologies for that."

But I wasn't finished. "As for the ones who won't listen, well, trust me, they don't need any prompting to hate and fear us. They already despise people from the garden, regardless of what we say or don't say. They've always been taught that we're the villains, intruders from a strange, frightening, far-away land. If we stay silent, if we hold back out of some misguided notion of politeness, all we accomplish is to permit those hurtful stereotypes to survive and flourish. If we come out here, if we speak up and introduce ourselves, we may at least make some of them realize that we're not the monsters they've been told we are. You talk as if we have to leave them alone or they'll fall on us in a great wave. Do you not see that that's already happening? They've already organized against us. They're already trying to spread their desert into my garden. They started this fight, not me. Can you blame me for defending myself? Speech is the only weapon I have, and I intend to use it. Whose side will you be on?"

I waited for a reply, but none was forthcoming. The scholar was a hunched shape in the shadows, his back turned to me. Clearly, in his mind, this conversation was over.

"I see you've made up your mind," I murmured, and turned to depart. A bitter wind swirled around me as I left the shack, pulling the door shut behind me and plunging the interior into darkness.

November 1, 2010, 5:47 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink9 comments
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Return to the Desert

The sun beat down, hot and harsh, from a lead-colored sky. I stood at the end of a dusty, winding trail. Behind me lay gray marsh and scrubland, grassy plains, forest and woodland, and finally the rivers and gardens of my home. But before me was a harsh, arid land, parched and withered and hostile, bleak and savage and yet inhabited: my destination. The desert.

In front of me rose an arch of crumbling red stone, pitted and scoured by wind and blowing sand, the words once engraved deeply into its keystone now too worn and faded to read. In the distance past that portal, the sand rose into high, rolling dunes sculpted into fantastic, serpentine shapes. The heat shimmer over the dunes made it impossible to tell what lay beyond them, save in the far distance where jagged mountains rose.

It had been three years since I'd last walked the sands of the desert. On my last journey, I'd stayed too long and gotten lost on the way back - an error I was determined not to repeat. But although I'd stayed away for a long time, I couldn't seclude myself forever. Despite all the torments this place would bring, I had a responsibility to go back. There were people here, dwelling in this wasteland - some by choice, some imprisoned, either by others or by their own self-built delusions. If I could free some of them, persuade them to go back with me, I would have achieved my purpose in returning to this place. I knew it was possible, and though I wasn't looking forward to the trip, I had a duty to try.

I checked my canteen, safe in my backpack, and ran my hand along the sturdy length of my walking stick for reassurance. There were strange things that lived on the border of the desert, old superstitions and hauntings that had taken physical form; the fear of encountering them probably kept many people in. I had yet to come across any of them on this trip, but even if I did, I was prepared. Nothing could be allowed to dissuade me from my mission.

"Time to go," I told myself, trying to work up my courage, and then stepped forward. The wind swirled up around me as I passed through the arch.

To be continued...

October 31, 2010, 9:53 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink5 comments
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Movie Review: Creation

Last night I had a chance to see Creation, the independent film by British director Jon Amiel that presents an account of the life of Charles Darwin and his struggle to write his great work, On the Origin of Species, while mourning the death of his beloved daughter Annie. The movie is based on Annie's Box, the biography of Darwin written by his great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes.

The movie opens promisingly, with Darwin's eldest daughter Annie asking him to tell her a story. He obliges her by describing how Robert FitzRoy, captain of the H.M.S. Beagle, kidnapped four children from the "savages" of Tierra del Fuego and brought them to England to be raised as Christians. On the Beagle's second voyage (the one Darwin joined as ship's naturalist), FitzRoy returned the children to their tribe with the intent of having them act as missionaries, but the outcome wasn't at all what he had expected. (This is a true story, if you were wondering.)

Back at Down House, Darwin's home in the English countryside, he's visited by his friends Joseph Hooker and Thomas Huxley. Both of them are aware of the theory Darwin has been working on for years, and both of them urge him to collect and publish all his research. Huxley, a firebrand agnostic, is gleeful at the prospect of striking a fatal blow against religious orthodoxy, while Hooker is less anti-clerical and motivated more by what he sees as the scientific merit of the idea. Darwin himself is conflicted, recognizing his theory's potential to undermine religious belief, but far less certain that this would be a good thing. As the movie goes on to show, this is due mainly to the influence of his staunchly Christian wife, Emma.

As the backstory expands, we learn more about why Darwin has delayed publishing his theory for so many years. He's been grappling with a mysterious illness that renders him an invalid for long periods; his family life is increasingly strained and his wife increasingly distant; but most important, we find out, is the death of Annie. She died at the age of ten, and her absence still hangs like a shadow over the household. Of all Darwin's children, she was his favorite, and he's wracked by grief over her passing and tormented by the thought that he was somehow responsible. In repeated flashbacks, we see his affection for her, her budding talent as an amateur naturalist, and her clashes with her mother and the local vicar as she begins to speak up for her own father more passionately than he ever did for himself. Her spirit still haunts Darwin - literally, as she pops up throughout the movie, whether as memory, ghost or hallucination, to converse and at times to argue with him as he puts off writing and agonizes over whether to set pen to paper. Of course, we know how this story ends!

If there's anything I didn't like about Creation, it was its tendency to veer into melodrama. The middle third of the movie seemed overwrought to me, in particular an especially silly nightmare sequence where Darwin dreams that his stuffed and pickled lab specimens come alive and attack him. And while Darwin's imagined conversations with Annie's ghost were acceptable as a narrative device, it got excessive in some places. There's more than enough genuine dramatic gold in the historical details of Darwin's grief over his daughter's death, his struggling with his loss of faith, and his clashes with his devout wife over whether he was jeopardizing his eternal fate by publishing his theory. And the movie did touch on all those points, but I really don't think it was necessary to have a scene where Darwin dashes through the grounds of Down House, shouting out to a hallucination of Annie, while his servants look on in horror. The movie also makes very frequent use of flashbacks, and at times I found it hard to tell whether a scene was supposed to be occurring in the present or the past.

That said, there was much to like about the movie as well. It was extremely well cast: Paul Bettany, who plays Charles Darwin, gives a brilliant, deeply human depiction of a man who is tormented, fallible, but bears a deep love for his family and a fierce devotion to the truth. Jennifer Connelly, Bettany's actual wife, is fully believable as the straitlaced Emma, who loves and fears for her husband but ultimately comes around, to an extent, to his point of view. ("You have made me an accomplice," she says in one of the movie's most memorable lines.) Jeremy Northam, who plays the local reverend, serves as a dramatic foil to Darwin in some extremely effective scenes. And Martha West, who plays Annie, is a treasure.

The movie was also gorgeously shot, giving a strong sense of time and place to the story. The scenes of nature, whether in Darwin's cabin on the Beagle or the forests of the English countryside, were well chosen to complement Darwin's unfolding ideas and to give a sense of where he got his inspirations. And it was a very smart touch to have Bettany narrate parts of the story by reading actual passages from Origin of Species. Charles Darwin wrote some true poetry, and his words are mesmerizing when spoken aloud.

The last third or so of the movie was especially powerful, with some outstanding scenes that more than made up for the weaker ones earlier on. When Darwin pleads in prayer for Annie's life, there wasn't a dry eye in the theater, including mine. And that, I think, is Creation's greatest strength: it shows Darwin not as a stuffy, gray-bearded scientist or a Christian-hating polemicist, but as a human being, a father and husband, who's deeply conflicted about what he's about to unleash on the world but ultimately must go ahead because of his devotion to the truth. This nuanced, sympathetic portrayal of Charles Darwin the man could be just the kind of thing we need to increase public acceptance of his theory (and if you need any further proof, consider that the Christian reviewers loathed it). If this is a subject that appeals to you, Creation is definitely worth your time to see.

February 6, 2010, 10:25 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink20 comments
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Book Review: The Quantum Mechanic

Summary: A compelling atheist thought experiment, wrapped inside a cleverly plotted and fast-paced tale of transhumanist fiction.

This isn't the first time I've reviewed a book written by a fellow blogger, but it's always a pleasure for me to do, and this one was particularly pleasurable to read. The Quantum Mechanic is a novel written by the blogger D - you may know her as the author of She Who Chatters - for 2009's National Novel Writing Month.

The hero of TQM is Douglas Orange, a mild-mannered Midwest physics professor who discovers one day that he has an extraordinary power: the ability to influence the workings of reality on a quantum level through pure will. He can't change the past or foresee the future, but other than that, Douglas' powers seem to be bounded only by the limits of his imagination. As he grows more skilled in controlling them, he becomes able to do almost anything, from reading minds to teleporting objects through space to creating matter and energy out of nothing.

At first, Douglas uses his power for nothing more than some remarkably convincing stage magic. But after a visit from a certain famous magician offering a million-dollar prize, Douglas is persuaded (and wouldn't you be persuaded?) to become a vigilante superhero. Under the moniker of the Quantum Mechanic, he launches into a career of fighting crime and rescuing people from disaster, much to the consternation of politicians, police departments, and the moralist commentators of Fawkes News.

This is ground well-traveled by novels and comic books, of course. But most of those creative works fail to follow through on the logical implications of their premise, and assume that people in possession of awesome powers would use them for nothing more inventive than foiling petty crime. I'm happy to say that TQM transcends this hoary cliche, and the second part of the novel breaks into new territory. Having cured violence and war, Douglas turns his vision to grander goals, and his power launches humanity into a technological Singularity. Under the all-seeing eye of the Quantum Mechanic, disease, poverty and death become things of the past, and humanity begins to step into its birthright as explorers and settlers of the universe.

But not all is well. Just when the human race seems poised to take the final step into this-worldly paradise, ominous signs and portents begin to arise: the faithful start disappearing from the earth; the seas boil and the skies turn red as blood; and a strange new star appears in the heavens. And on the heels of these omens, humanity receives a visit from a sinister messenger straight out of the Old Testament, a menacing angel of light known only as the Entropic Engineer. Douglas' powers don't seem to work against him, and after delivering a prophecy of doom for all sinners, he promises to return soon at the head of Heaven's vast army to usher in Judgment Day. It's the Singularity versus the Second Coming, as the Quantum Mechanic faces off against the Entropic Engineer in a cosmic war for humanity's eternal destiny... but is this destroying angel all that he seems?

Aside from the audaciously high-concept premise, there were three aspects of this novel that I enjoyed greatly. First of these, as you might have guessed, is its unapologetic advocacy of the atheist perspective. One of my favorite lines is early on: when Douglas denies God's existence and a heckler demands to know if he's searched the entire universe to be sure, he deadpans, "Why, yes." And there are several great dialogues between Doug and his interlocutors on faith, on meaning and purpose, on morality and harm, and on other philosophical topics where the author lays out and defends an atheist and humanist viewpoint with clarity and compelling reason.

Second, TQM accomplishes something that I haven't often seen done well: it tells an enthralling story even as society changes dramatically around its protagonists. Most of the transhumanist fiction I've read lacks the human perspective necessary for readers to identify and empathize with the characters. One could argue that this is unavoidable, since this kind of fiction by definition describes a world radically different from our own; but however necessary it is by the logic of the plot, it doesn't usually make for good storytelling. This book neatly dispenses with that problem by anchoring its plot in Douglas, who retains his fundamental humanity despite his powers, and letting us see through his eyes.

Third, even aside from its explicit advocacy of our perspective through dialogue, this entire novel advances the atheist viewpoint in a more subtle way. The basic story implicitly takes the form of a thought experiment: If you had the power to end evil and suffering, would you do it?

Of course, we have always answered yes, reasoning that an allegedly good God's failure to intervene in the same circumstances casts strong doubt on his existence. If there was a person with the power to stop evil, they wouldn't stand idly by or hide themselves away, but would take action when they saw it was needed. Philosophically, we all know this to be true. But this book vividly illustrates that argument by clothing it in story, and - at least for me - thereby made it far more persuasive and convincing to me than it's ever been before.

Douglas has the power to do almost anything, but he doesn't hide away from the world. He uses his power for good: he stops violence, he cures disease, he answers people's requests in obvious fashion, he shows up to respond to critics, and he acts based on a clear set of principles and not in an arbitrary or capricious manner. He acts, in short, exactly as atheists have always said a rational and benevolent god would act. And as the author shows us how the human race flourishes under his guidance, it drives home the point that evil is not - as advocates of theodicy often claim - an inherent part of the universe that can't be eliminated. Nor does doing so compromise our free will, except in the sense that people are no longer free to inflict harm and suffering on others.

This is by far the most persuasive answer to theodicy I've ever seen: not a philosophical argument pointing out its flaws in a neutral and logical manner, but simply sketching another possible world where such excuses are not needed, and showing how they inevitably suffer from the comparison. And it doesn't hurt that this compelling moral is wrapped inside a slam-bang, fast-paced tale of Earth's ascent into a posthuman future, with a thoroughgoing humanist as its main character and a plot that an atheist can't help but love.

(You can buy a copy of the book from CreateSpace.)

February 3, 2010, 12:32 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink22 comments
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Book Review: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God

(Author's Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: Sparkling writing; marvelous characters; could have benefited from a tighter narrative.

This is the first time I've ever reviewed a work of fiction for Daylight Atheism, but this one was well in tune with my site's mission and merited the exception: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Despite the title, it's a novel, not an academic textbook or a work of theology; and despite the title, it's not an apologia for theism. If anything, the opposite is true. (Potential conflict of interest alert: Ms. Goldstein is the wife of Professor Steven Pinker, who served as the judge in a writing contest that I won, and who asked me if I'd be interested in reading the book.)

The main character of 36 Arguments is Cass Seltzer, an atheist psychology professor who's found unexpected success and fame in a book debunking religion. Supporting characters include Lucinda Mandelbaum, his current significant other and a renowned mathematician; his old girlfriend, Roz Margolis, an anthropologist who's researching life extension; Jonas Elijah Klapper, a windbag literary scholar who is Seltzer's former mentor; and Azarya Sheiner, a young mathematical prodigy from an ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish community.

Cass is a professor at the fictional Frankfurter University in Massachusetts, but has just received a job offer from Harvard and is mulling whether to accept it, while at the same time he prepares for a debate with a religious apologist that centers around the arguments in his best-selling book. But this story, though it takes place in the present (from the novel's perspective), is arguably not the main one. In fact, there are several plot threads, and the story skips back and forth between them - each one chronicling a different time in Cass' life, explaining how he met the other characters and how he came to be where he is at the novel's beginning.

First things first: I loved Goldstein's writing style. It's sparkling, exuberant, erudite, leaping into paragraph-long sentences as if the author is breathlessly trying to narrate everything as fast as it happens. In its best moments, it achieves the sublime. She's obviously thoroughly informed about the history and development of the atheist movement, and the way its defenders respond to criticism (some of the quotes will likely be familiar to you). And I loved the characters she crafts - so much so that I'd gladly read a sequel that follows up on some of them.

Azarya's inner battle between his dreams of nurturing his mathematical gifts, and his desire to stay faithful to his community and its traditions, is compellingly depicted and evoked an unexpected pang of sympathy from me, even for a sect as insular and narrow-minded as Hasidic Judaism. Cass is a glowingly sympathetic protagonist - for once, a novel that treats atheism as a normal and even sympathetic viewpoint, and not as a disease that a character has to be cured of! - and when he celebrates his good fortune, the reader is drawn in to celebrate with him, to make his triumphs our own and to share his fear that they may all be snatched away. And when, at the end, he steps up to the podium to do battle with his adversary, we're cheering him on (well, I was). And Roz, especially, was a magnificent creation, a tigerish free spirit who makes an already bright book even brighter whenever she appears in it.

There was only one character I didn't like, and that leads me to my one major complaint. Cass' mentor, Jonas Elijah Klapper, was pompous, egotistical, and insufferably self-absorbed - and I have no doubt that Goldstein intended us to find him so - but then, why does he have so much face time in the book? The plot noticeably drags whenever he appears, and in fact, the plot thread that involves him is never really brought to a satisfying resolution.

To tell the truth, for all that I liked about it, the book in general could have used a tighter narrative focus. There's not really a single, overarching plot that drives the story as much as there is a series of extended episodes from the life of its major character, and the "main" story - the one that occurs in the novel's present, rather than being backstory - has a fairly anticlimactic ending. There were several intriguing plot threads, especially Roz's involvement with a group studying life extension, that offer tantalizing possibilities but never really develop. Some of these have enough potential to be books in and of themselves, and if they ever do, I'd be glad to read them.

November 18, 2009, 5:08 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink5 comments
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In Honor of Terry Pratchett

I should have mentioned this story much earlier, but better late than never.

If you're an atheist and a regular reader of sci-fi and fantasy, you probably know the name Terry Pratchett - and if you don't, you should. He's the award-winning and much-loved author of Discworld, a series of fantasy novels set in a flat, circular world that's carried through space on the back of a giant tortoise. Discworld began as a straight-up parody of other fantasy novels, but it's moved on to parodying all different aspects of our culture, and doing so in the midst of surprisingly deep and affecting storytelling. Pratchett is also an atheist, and many of the Discworld books (including my personal favorite, Small Gods) show the virtues of atheism and humanism - no small feat in a riotous fantasy world where, as the author puts it, "the gods had a habit of going round to atheists' houses and smashing their windows".

And if you're a fan of Pratchett, you may also know that in December 2007, he announced he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's disease - a grim prognosis, since the early-onset form of the disease tends to be the fastest-developing, and treatment options tend to do no more than delay the spread. As Pratchett himself said, "I know three people who have successfully survived brain tumors but no one who has beaten Alzheimer's."

Although he's still writing and still cheerful, Pratchett has said in recent weeks that he does not believe in "a duty to suffer the worst ravages of terminal illness", and that when the time comes when he faces an irreversible disintegration of self, he would rather end his life on his own terms:

Now, however, I live in hope - hope that before the disease in my brain finally wipes it clean, I can jump before I am pushed and drag my evil Nemesis to its doom, like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty locked in combat as they go over the waterfall.

...I am enjoying my life to the full, and hope to continue for quite some time. But I also intend, before the endgame looms, to die sitting in a chair in my own garden with a glass of brandy in my hand and Thomas Tallis on the iPod - the latter because Thomas's music could lift even an atheist a little bit closer to Heaven - and perhaps a second brandy if there is time.

Oh, and since this is England I had better add: 'If wet, in the library.'

In recent weeks, he's also spoken out against assisted-suicide guidelines which appear to leave open the possibility that citizens of the U.K. could be prosecuted for murder for helping a terminally ill loved one take their own life.

Of course, I hope Terry Pratchett, despite the diagnosis, has many more years of happy and productive life ahead of him (and not just for my own selfish reason of wanting to read more of his books!). I hope with all my might that a cure for Alzheimer's will be found in time. But when my time comes, as it will for all of us, I hope to face the inevitable even half as well as he has this far: with good humor and courage, a fearless self-determination to take my destiny into my own hands, and a hope that some greater good can come about from individual tragedy.

And I'm encouraged to believe that comfort and acceptance in the face of mortality may not be as hard to come by as people think (or as religious proselytizers would like us to believe). There have been many freethinkers who exited life in peace and dignity, such as Edward and Joan Downes, whose story I mentioned this past July. It's likely that the more high-profile examples there are of atheists peacefully coming to terms with the inevitable, the more common and accepted it will be, and the easier it will become for all of us.

October 19, 2009, 6:57 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink26 comments
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