Ambassadors for Atheism

In the world of Philip Pullman's fantasy series His Dark Materials, each human being is accompanied everywhere by their daemon, an intelligent animal-shaped spirit that is the outward manifestation of their soul. When Pullman's heroine, Lyra, meets a boy who's been severed from his daemon by a cruel experiment, her reaction is one of disgust and horror:

Her first impulse was to turn and run, or to be sick. A human being with no daemon was like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of night-ghasts, not the waking world of sense.

There are no daemons in our world, but we atheists often face a similar situation. We have the ability to arrive at a code of ethics without the dubious help of revelation, basing our moral decisions on reason and a sense of empathy for our fellow human beings. But still, far too often, we meet believers who insist that this is impossible. They're used to following a code of rules handed down by authority - by a text, or by other religious believers - and have become so accustomed to obeying that they literally believe it's not possible to come up with an ethical code on your own. They've lost the capacity even to imagine how this might be done.

One would think the existence of the vast majority of atheists who are ordinary, decent people would force these people to reconsider, but often it doesn't. Instead, they perceive atheists the way Lyra perceives that daemonless boy: as freaks, as bizarre and unnatural aberrations - and the evidence of our manifestly moral lives does not change that.

The flip side of this coin is that people who are unquestionably evil (or ones whom the speaker merely disagrees with) are often labeled "atheist", as though the word were just a generic synonym for "wicked". I've written about this before in "The Atheist Crew", but this example from David Hankins of the Baptist Press surpasses them all:

We do have some recent examples of societies that do not believe in God nor recognize a mandated divine value on human beings. They are associated with names like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Idi Amin, and Saddam Hussein. Devoid of any sense of God or godliness, they created a social order of mayhem and evil that destroyed millions of lives. So much for the morality of godlessness.

Yes, you read that last one right: this apologist claims that Saddam Hussein was an atheist. That would be the same Saddam who died while reciting a Muslim prayer, the same Saddam who ordered the Muslim creed called the takbir placed on the Iraqi flag, allegedly in his own handwriting. By the standards of the Islamic world, Saddam's Iraq was a relatively secular state, but to call it a "godless" or atheist state is insanity. (I've written also about how Hitler was emphatically not an atheist. Idi Amin was also a Muslim. I should probably write some later posts on the beliefs of the other tyrants cited.)

As I said, as a purely factual claim, this would be insane. But I don't think Hankins intended it as a factual claim, but as a statement of the way he divides up the world: in his eyes, there are the good Christians, whom he agrees with, and then there's everyone else, the evil and wicked atheists. (The first Christians were accused of atheism by the Roman Empire for similar reasons. The fact that he's using the logic of the Christians' erstwhile persecutors is an irony he undoubtedly fails to appreciate.)

For people who think this way, there's probably no hope. They're clearly not concerned about what the facts say, just as racists are not concerned about the facts regarding the intellectual ability and capacity for achievement of blacks. But I think most people are not so set in their prejudices, and their minds can be changed. If they see that atheists are good people, the notion may become less unnatural to them, and in time they may come to accept it as normal and expected.

It's important to remember, therefore, that we are ambassadors for atheism. Fairly or unfairly, atheism in general will be judged by the standards of behavior that individual atheists display. Thus it's important that we be the best ambassadors possible - that we show ourselves to be moral people and present a good image of atheism to the world. This means of changing minds, in the long run, is more likely to help us than any number of rational arguments.

January 28, 2009, 8:23 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink39 comments

The Tempter Returns

I awoke from my sleep with a start.

It had been a long and wearisome day. I had turned in early, as the late autumn light waned from the sky, and it was now dark and deep outside my window. But now something had roused me, and I had the distinct feeling that I was not alone.

I went from room to room, searching for intruders. At first glance, my home seemed silent and empty. The Observatory was silent, its holographic displays a pale flickering in the darkness. The screens in the Rotunda were banked to a dim blue glow. The Library was wrapped in shadow, its shelves of books motionless and still, and through its high windows, the Garden slumbered in the depths of fall, yellow and black, with only a few tiny jack-o-lanterns glimmering in the moonless night. I checked the empty Foyer, where the fireplace had died to a few feeble embers, and was about to put it down to a stray dream and return to bed - when something caught my eye. Up above in the Loft, a light was on.

I climbed the stairs and emerged into the room. In the far corner, at my writing desk, a reading lamp cast a pool of yellow light from its green shade. Someone was sitting at the desk, his back to me.

I was not taken entirely by surprise. I had almost been expecting it, given the date. But this time, I was going to take the lead. Anger rising, I crossed the room... and then the person in the chair turned around, and it was not who I had expected.

My opening accusation died into surprise. "You— Who are you?"

My unexpected visitor smiled. "Not who you expected, perhaps?"

Then, although his countenance did not change, I looked more deeply at him - saw him suddenly, as if a veil had been lifted away, and I knew who he was after all.

"You look different this time," I observed.

The Tempter smiled a slow, lazy smile. "Of course."

I tried to hide my astonishment. The Tempter was here. He had not accosted me while I was traveling, or in the wild; he had come here, to my home, to confront me. It was either a bold show of confidence or a risky gamble, and I wasn't sure which. I knew he was going to challenge me, but I had to get in a question before he did. "Last year, in the wilderness on the way home from the desert, I met a stranger. He looked - and sounded - a lot like you. Was he?"

He shrugged. "One of my shadows, perhaps. But that's not why I'm here. I trust you've had much to think about since last we met. I've brought some new ideas for you to consider."

Once the Tempter has found you, there's no way to get him to leave without hearing him out. "Fine. I'm ready."

"Are you now." He grinned that patient, amused smile again. "We'll see. I hear there's an election coming up soon. Hopeful, are you?"

"The polls say—" I began, but he waved me to silence. "I'm not interested in polls. It's not specific candidates I care about, but a more general conclusion I want to establish."

"And that is?"

"The pundits and the media say this is a 'change' election. And it does look good for your side, I have to admit. But have you ever considered how much ever changes because of an election, really?"

"Of course things change because of elections. Are you really denying that?"

"Yes, I am." His teeth glinted as he grinned. "The excitement that always comes with elections may have temporarily overpowered your good sense, but the day after the votes are cast, you'll come back to earth. The truth is that politics is a series of disappointments, and it always will be. The nature of the system practically guarantees it - it ensures that the only candidates who get into office are the ones who are most willing to do the bidding of the establishment and exploit popular prejudices. It rewards politicians who appeal to the worst in all of us - and it works, you know. Nothing unites people like a common enemy, and as far as most of them are concerned, you're that enemy. Those ads you ridiculed are more effective than you think they'll be. And the allegedly progressive ones aren't much better. Most of them are apathetic, bought and paid for; you know as well as I do how much of a disappointment they've been. And when it comes to religion, they pander to delusion just as much as their opponents. They'd never welcome you to their side. In fact, they're probably embarrassed by your support and would gladly shut you up if they could."

"It wasn't like that with Robert Ingersoll."

"Those were different times, and he was a rare exception. Every era has its flukes."

"Be that as it may. Even granting that much of what you say is true, I think you've misconstrued my position. I'm not saying that atheists are welcomed in the halls of power now. I know we're not. Religious prejudice is still much too common. I see our mission differently: effecting change not from the top down, but from the bottom up. With time and patience, we can win enough support and sympathy that politicians will have to acknowledge us. That's the same template that successful social reform movements have followed in the past. Surely not even you can deny that we've made progress. What about women's suffrage? Ending segregation?"

"That we have made progress, I don't deny," the Tempter said. "But I doubt whether we can so easily extrapolate this, as you do, to the conclusion that progress will continue. Just because past reform movements have been successful, it doesn't follow that all future ones will be successful. And I think you're going up against an opponent that's far more powerful and well-entrenched than those past movements were."

"I don't doubt that the atheist revolution will be quieter than previous revolutions, and that it may take longer," I said softly. "But it's no less real in spite of that."

"Ahh," the Tempter said, a thoughtful hiss. "And that leads into an excellent point. I want to correct a misconception in your thinking - one that skews your opinion without your being aware of it."

"And that is?" I said cautiously.

"You wrote recently of what you call 'the bubble' - the way religious groups surround themselves with the like-minded. I think that essay hit closer to home than you realized. We're all far more sensitive to flaws in others than those same flaws in ourselves, and this is a perfect example. Don't you have a bubble too? You seek out rational, skeptical people; you read their writings daily, you immerse yourself in their thinking, you surround yourself with them. Understandably so - but that colors your thinking. You look out and see so many people who think like you, and it makes you think the whole world works like that. In reality, you and your allies are a vanishing minority in a sea of obstinate, ignorant faith."

I didn't have a ready answer for that. "I have to admit, there's some justice to what you say. But I don't think I've been unduly optimistic. I'm well aware that atheists' progress still has to be weighed against the existence of a believing majority. Didn't I just say as much?"

"Yes, but I think you consider that acknowledgement just a footnote," the Tempter said pointedly, "a side consideration to an otherwise well-positioned and successful movement. In fact, it's the major obstacle facing you, and one that can very easily block whatever change you might seek. Think about it: there are churches on every street. They're woven into the fabric of society, from major cities to tiny towns. They all have congregations that meet every Sunday to receive their orders. What can atheists possibly offer to match that?"

"Organization makes people more visible and makes them appear more numerous," I persisted. "And you can't just imply that everyone in the pews is a brainwashed fundamentalist. The larger a group becomes, the more diverse its membership gets, and the more impossible it becomes to enforce one belief or ideology on every member. I know there's a hardened core of fundamentalists, but I think a large portion - maybe the majority - are there just because it's the default choice. We can sway them - and that's the value of that bubble you referred to. I prefer to call it speaking with one voice, myself. The more we speak out, the more we can peel these people off. Our efforts absolutely do have the potential to have a far greater impact than our numbers would suggest - not that those numbers are so bad, anyway."

"Deftly spoken," the Tempter said, grinning. He stood from the desk, rising so his shadow streamed out against the light behind him. "There's that optimism I mentioned. You've done a marvelous job convincing yourself, I don't doubt. But, again, you're underestimating how easy this mission will be. Even if there isn't ideological unanimity, most of those people in the pews have been religious so long it's sunk into their bones. It's part of their identity. Tell them to abandon it? You might as well try to persuade them to get a sex change! They like where they are, and except for a few outcasts, most of them will never budge."

"Change in society's opinion doesn't come about by mass conversions among the old guard. It comes from new generations who've grown up with new ideas and are comfortable with them. That's just a fact of human nature, but it's one we can work with."

"I think you aspire to more than generational change," the Tempter said accusingly. "Don't try to change your position now. But even if I were inclined to grant your point, that's where that bubble you spoke of works against you. The vast majority of believers live in isolated, insular worlds. They'll never hear of your message, or if they will, it will only be as a background annoyance, a boogeyman tossed off from the pew. You still underestimate - by far - just how durable received opinion is. Sure, you may chip off a few flakes. But that's not what you dream of. You dream of an avalanche of change, a new wave of enlightenment. That's a foolish, self-deluding dream, and it's not going to happen, not in your lifetime or any other. Those little scratches you're making aren't even enough to hurt. If anything, you're doing the religious cause a favor by giving them a visible enemy, and as I said, nothing unites people like that." He moved forward, looming over me. His grin grew wider. "Face it: you're not making a difference."

I bowed my head. "What did you say?" I asked quietly.

"You're not making a difference," the Tempter said emphatically.

I looked up, meeting his eyes. "Say that again."

The Tempter seemed to hesitate. "I meant what I said. You're not making a difference."

I took a step forward, into the pool of light from the lamp. "No difference? Really?"


"I acknowledge your point only as far as this," I said, advancing. "If we only talk to each other, we may underestimate the difficulty of what we've set out to accomplish. We have to be careful of that. But atheists, unlike believers, don't have a bubble. How could we? We don't have a single leader or authoritative text. We disagree with each other, often emphatically. And we don't isolate ourselves. On the contrary, we set out to engage with the world, to confront different perspectives. We welcome the debate. And when we take that light into dark places, it does make a difference. And do you want to know how I know that?"

The Tempter stared at me, but I didn't wait for his reply. "I know it because they tell us so. I hear from them when they realize they're not alone. I hear from them when they find the courage to stand up for themselves. I hear from them when they leave darkness behind and make the journey to reason. Look past the uniformity of the crowd; they're out there, and there are more of them than you think."

The Tempter took a step back. I advanced further, pressing my attack. "Have I entertained thoughts of leading a revolution? Of course. Who doesn't daydream? But I know those are fantasies. The most important work is always done at the individual level, one person to another. I've always said I'll consider my work well served if I could affect even one other person's life, and I have. But there's more to be done. How many more people do you think are out there like the ones I've spoken to? How many more are waiting for us to bring that message to them? They're ready, if only we can reach them. And that's why I write, that's what I'm fighting for. It's not to shake the foundations of society, not to make the mighty tremble - it's for the sake of compassion. That's something you'll never understand."

I stepped forward to deliver the coup de grace, but it wasn't necessary. The Tempter, a look of mingled astonishment and defiance on his face, froze and then faded into shadow. I was alone in my study, standing in the little golden pool of light on the edge of darkness.

For a moment I stood there, and then something new came to my senses. There was a faint light creeping in around the edges of the world, softening shadows, turning the black to pale gray. I shut off the lamp, then went to the window and pulled the shutters open. The world still lay in silent dreams, but along the horizon, the first glimmers of gold were rising. The dawn was coming, and light was returning to the world.

October 31, 2008, 12:30 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink55 comments

Movie Review: The Golden Compass

Last night I saw The Golden Compass, the movie adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman's acclaimed fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. The movie, like the book, is set in a fantastic and richly imagined parallel universe, similar to our own world but different in many important ways. In Pullman's steampunk world, human beings' souls live outside their bodies, in the form of talking animal familiars called daemons; the icy north is ruled by fearsome armored bears and clans of flying witches; and an evil church that extends its grip over the world battles the defenders of freethought to suppress the truth about a mysterious particle called Dust. The church views Dust as the physical evidence of original sin and wants to stamp out all knowledge of it, but a few brave scholars believe it is the gateway to a limitless infinity of possibilities.

The heroine of the movie, Lyra Belacqua, is an orphan girl raised by the masters of Jordan College in a parallel London. A shadowy organization known as the Gobblers has been kidnapping children for unknown purposes, and when one of Lyra's friends is snatched, she vows to set out and rescue him. In her quest she finds allies, including a band of traveling Gyptians seeking to recover their own lost sons and daughters; the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby, and a loyal armored bear, Iorek Byrnison. But her greatest help may be the instrument of the movie's title: an "alethiometer", a clockwork device given to her by the master of Jordan College which, if read and interpreted correctly, can give the true answer to any question. Ultimately, Lyra's quest takes her to the frozen wastelands of the North Pole, where she faces the sinister Magisterium and its chief agent, the poison-sweet Mrs. Coulter, and learns the truth about the evil experiments it's been conducting on the stolen children.

At least in America, there's been a minor uproar over this movie, because the book's author, Philip Pullman, is an avowed atheist who's salted the novels with anti-religious and freethought themes. (The second two books of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, pick up the plot of a literal war against God - although in the books he's called "the Authority", and depicted as an aged pretender rather than the true creator of everything.) Fulminating bigots like William Donohue of the Catholic League have demanded a boycott, and newspaper columnists have fretted that this movie's intent is to "teach atheism to children". (I don't remember hearing any complaints about how the movie adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was intended to "teach Christianity to children".)

Predictably, the movie's producers tried to head off this criticism by watering down the anti-religious themes from the book. The evil organization, which as I recall is explicitly depicted as the Church in the original novels, is here only called the "Magisterium". Rather than an explicit struggle against religion, the heroes' opposition is depicted more as a struggle against authoritarianism. Also predictably, these changes had no effect on the self-appointed guardians of dogma, who only need to catch the merest whiff of dissent to thunder about "disrespect" and demand that the offender be censored and punished to make them feel better. Nevertheless, more of Pullman's theme was left in than I had expected, including the equation of Dust with original sin. Mrs. Coulter gives a speech in which she claims Dust came about because the first people disobeyed the Authority, although the movie does not go into any detail on who or what the Authority is. I also thought it was more than a little heavy-handed to depict all the top officials of the Magisterium as having daemons that were serpents or preying mantises (although Mrs. Coulter's golden monkey is a wonderfully evil creation).

I've read Pullman's original books, and I can definitely recommend them. They're wonderfully detailed and richly imaginative creations. Unfortunately, the movie suffers from the comparison. It wasn't bad, but the script did feel rushed and obligatory, as if the writers were trying to cram in as many events from the novel as possible. On a purely numerical level they succeeded, but the result was a plot that careened from one event to the next, dumping loads of exposition on the viewer at every turn, rather than giving the characters time to breathe. Nevertheless, some of Pullman's ideas do shine through. Lyra in particular was a great heroine, capturing the fiercely independent, defiant spirit of the books.

That said, anyone who's expecting the books or especially the movie to serve as the standard-bearer for atheism is likely to be let down. For all the great freethought ideas contained in them, they're not tightly reasoned anti-religious polemics. The books are a story, an imaginative fiction. In our world, there is no literal Authority to kill, no Dust to tell us the truth the church has tried to cover up. The story should be judged on its own merits, not pressed into service to support a real-life cause. The most we can expect from this or any other story is to encourage children to ask questions and consider new possibilities, which is all to the good. It's to be expected that even this little hint of freethinking will provoke roars of outrage from the pompous pretenders who fear alternative stories, and who can all too easily recognize themselves in the corrupt and tyrannical authority figures skewered therein.

December 15, 2007, 1:48 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink20 comments

The Desert V

(Author's Note: "The Desert" is a work of short fiction in several parts. If you haven't already done so, now would be a good time to go back and read the previous chapters so that you know what's going on.)

V: Epilogue

It seemed like ages ago that I had set out from my home, and the beautiful Garden that surrounded it, on a journey that brought me deep into the harsh wilds of the desert. In that barren, desolate land, I had encountered several of the lost souls who dwelt there. Most had refused to hear me, but I had successfully persuaded one of them to listen to reason and leave. Soon after, I had come to the end of the desert, believing my task was done. But on my way home, my head heavy with sleep, I had strayed from the path. Now I was lost in a dark and gloomy wood, and home seemed further than ever.

It was a wet, storm-wracked night. The forest closed around me, dark conifers whose branches dripped with rain and thickets of thorn vines that grew between their trunks. Overhead, thunder and lightning lashed at the black sky, and the rain fell like stinging needles. The twisting, narrow hollow of a path wound perilously between the trees.

My legs burned with weariness, and the desire for sleep was almost a physical pain. I longed to find my home, or at least to rest for a time, but there was no place to stop in this dark wood.

From somewhere in the darkness behind me, there was an eerie, desolate howl. I shivered and quickened my pace.

Then, up ahead, a light glowed through the night and driving rain. I hurried eagerly toward it, and the light resolved into a tiny cottage of plaster and thatch, surrounded by a dense thicket of trees. Gold light glowed from its windows, tantalizingly inviting.

I rapped hard on the heavy wooden door. "Hello! Traveler seeking sanctuary!"

Almost before I had finished saying it, the door opened silently. A man stood in the doorway, silhouetted in the glow streaming from within. "Welcome, traveler," he said with a smile.

I squinted at him. "You seem familiar. Do I know you?"

"I don't believe so," he said smoothly. "Come in. It is cold and wet, and I have a fire going within."

That was all I needed to hear, and soon I was inside, sitting before the brick hearth and holding out my hands to the heat of the flames dancing within. The interior of the cottage was a small, cozy place, plaster walls and wood beams tinted golden by the firelight. The rain lashed impotently at the windows.

"Better?" my host asked, once I had dried off.

"Much," I said gratefully. "Thank you. What do you do out in this forest? Is this your home?"

My host didn't seem to hear me. Instead he looked at my coat, hung near the fireplace to dry. "You've been to the desert lately, I see. Did any come back with you?"

Somehow, I didn't think to question how he knew where I had been or what I had been doing. "Yes, one. Why do you ask?"

"And yet," he said with a strange, sad smile, "there are millions more who remain."

"I realize that," I said, feeling a flicker of suspicion. "But I can't reach all of them, and most wouldn't listen even if I could. I do what I can; that's all anyone can ask of me."

"That is more than anyone could ask of you," said my host. "No one could accuse you of wasted effort if you were making a difference. But you're not making a difference. At best, you're dislodging a few grains of sand from a mountain. I applaud your trying to help those poor people, but that effort won't be complete - if it's ever complete - until long after your lifetime, whether you work at it or not. There will be others after you. Why not rest and leave it up to them?"

"If freethinkers of past generations had reasoned the same way," I said, annoyed, "my cause would be far behind where it is right now. They did what they could to lay the groundwork for me. Now I'll do the same to build a yet larger foundation for the future. Every generation has a part to play in this effort, and I intend on playing mine."

"Noble sentiments, but in reality it's little but masochism. You're pouring yourself into an effort for which it's not likely you'll ever get respect or thanks. Don't let others take advantage of you like that. You have a beautiful home and a Garden you love. Why not go there, close the gates behind you, and let the rest of the world see to itself? What happens out there is none of your concern."

"Deserts spread," I said ominously. "Part of the reason I do this is to protect my home. And besides, there are countless people in the desert who are unhappy, miserable - people like the one I spoke to earlier tonight. Many of them will never find their way out if there's no one to speak to them and show them the path. Should I withdraw into my home and leave them to their suffering?"

"They can find their way out by themselves if they really want to," said my host. He had moved back, standing near the fire, and his face was half in shadow; his eyes glittered black.

"But much more easily if they have a guide," I countered.

"Your concern is admirable, but in the end it's worth little. And besides, aren't you introducing them to a path that has its own traps and dangers?"

"The destination is worthwhile in the end."

"So you say." He grinned. "Many who live in the desert would not agree. They think it's their home and they couldn't imagine being happier. It's what they want. Why not leave them to it?"

"Many of them only think it's what they want because they don't know all the available options. I met someone like that today."

He shook his head sadly, but still there was that ominous glitter in his eye. "But look at the toll it's taken on you. Look how exhausted you were when I found you. Compassion is one thing, but not when it costs this much. The desert siphons away life, we both know that; if you stay there too long, you'll end up like them. No rational theory of morality would ask you to expend your own well-being in pursuit of this mad goal. You've done enough. You should return to your home and rest. You don't ever have to go back."

And now I could no longer contain my suspicion. "Who are you?"

For a second, I thought I saw a grin on his lips. Then, all of a sudden, the fire and the light went out together. I was alone in the empty, darkened cottage, the rain thundering on the windows much louder than it had a moment ago. Spiderwebs clotted with dust filled the corners. The hearth was cold and black and looked as if it had not been lit for ages.

Suddenly seized by a nameless fear, I threw open the door and staggered out into the rain. The night and the storm slashed at me as I plunged into the dark wood, whirling me around until I scarcely knew which direction was which. But I pressed on, and after what seemed like an endless time, lights beckoned me through the trees. The lights of my own home, this time. With a vast sense of relief, I threw open the gates and collapsed onto the grassy lawn.

It was not until later that I thought back on my strange meeting that night. The whole experience had the distorted, unreal quality of a dream. Who was that man who sought to lull me into complacency, or persuade me to give in to despair? He had not seemed like one of the denizens of the desert. And though I had held him off, I sensed that he had not been vanquished. Though I did not encounter him again, as the days turned to weeks, the memory of that night stayed with me; and as I looked ahead to the coming new year, I wondered what it might portend...

October 31, 2007, 7:38 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink9 comments

The Desert IV

(Author's Note: "The Desert" is a work of short fiction in several parts. If you haven't already done so, now would be a good time to go back and read the previous chapters so that you know what's going on.)

IV: The Visionary

The faint path I had been following through the desert had long since petered out, and for several hours I had been making my own way across the sands. The fallen stone blocks of the ruined city lay well behind me, no longer in sight.

The sun had now sunk almost entirely below the horizon, and the sky had grown dark. But there were no stars to guide my way with their friendly twinkling - only a hollow void, as black and vast as infinity's maw. A near-absolute darkness had descended on the wasteland, making each labored step dangerous.

With the setting of the sun, the searing heat of the day had gone. In its place, with shocking swiftness, had come the cold. The sands underfoot, now powdery fine and black as midnight, had an icy, desolate chill. The cold air cut into my exposed skin like a knife, and silver frost sparkled in the air with each breath I took. A bone-deep weariness had settled in me after two failed encounters, and I was beginning to long for the light and warmth of my home. But I was determined to reach at least one person, and there was no way out but through. I pressed onward.

The fear was growing in me that I would not find anyone else, and with that to occupy my mind, I almost stumbled over the man before I saw him. Frail and stick-thin, clad only in shredded rags, he knelt on the sands and stretched out his hands toward the empty sky. He had to be freezing, but he gave no sign that he felt the cold.

"Hail, friend!" I called out to him. "What are you doing out here in this cold?"

The man glanced at me in startlement, as if he hadn't noticed me before. When I had first seen him, kneeling with hands outstretched, I thought he had been pleading with someone. Now I saw that his face was stretched into a blissful, vacant smile. Half-frozen tears of joy trickled down into his grimy beard.

"Cold?" he said. "I don't feel any cold. The weather is perfect. I couldn't have asked for more."

"Friend, it's freezing out here. You must be cold and miserable dressed in that. Come with me - I know a place indoors where you can warm yourself. I have a fire going."

"Thank you for your offer, but I'm fine where I am," he said dreamily. "I have all I need right here."

"Don't tell me you're happy here?" I said in shock.

"Why, of course! How could I not be? This is the best place on earth. No one could be happier anywhere else."

"How many other places have you tried?" I asked.

He looked at me in surprise, his gaze seeming to regain a bit of clarity. "None. Does that matter?"

"Yes, it does! How can you possibly know that this is the best place on earth if you haven't even looked at the alternatives? How do you know you wouldn't be even happier somewhere else? And besides," I went on, sweeping a hand around, "look at this place. Look and see it for what it is. It's a cold, barren wasteland. There's no life here, no growth, no joy. It denies you everything you truly need to be happy. You may think it's a paradise because that's what you've always been taught, but when you fairly compare what this place offers with all the others that are out there, you'll see that there are whole worlds you've been missing out on. Tell me honestly: are you really happy here, deep down inside?"

The man's look of surprise deepened. He looked around slowly, then shivered, as if noticing the cold for the first time.

"Well, to be absolutely honest," he said in a fearful whisper, "sometimes I'm not completely happy here. It gets chilly here some nights, and I feel so alone. Sometimes it doesn't seem like anyone's listening to me. I won't say this place doesn't have its faults... but isn't everywhere else even worse?"

"Nothing could be further from the truth," I assured him. "There are places outside this desert where there are gardens of water and light, overflowing with life, with plenty of friends and companionship. I can describe them to you, and I can even tell you about other people who went there and are happier now. But the only way for you to really experience what it's like is to come with me and see them with your own eyes. If you don't like what you see, you can always come back here. But truth be told, I don't think you'll want to."

The man crouched down on the black sands, wrapping his arms around his knees and shivering. "I don't know. I just don't know. At least here I know where I stand. To move to a new place, where I don't know anyone or anything, where I don't know what would be waiting for me..."

"It's natural to be afraid of such a major change. And I can't deny that it may seem to get even darker for a while if you come with me. But you have to trust me that there's light and warmth on the other side. The journey back with me may not be easy, but it's only a passing thing, and in the end you'll know it was all worthwhile."

"But, but..." He seemed to be fumbling for an excuse, searching for a way to talk himself out of it. "But everything I care about is here. If I leave this place I'll lose it all. I'd have no foundation, no hope."

"Not so," I urged him. "That's what you've been told by other people of this desert, people who want to keep you here - I think for their own pride as much as for any other reason. They've never been to the gardens; they don't know what they're talking about, and most of what they say about them isn't true. I'm telling you that everything you care about, everything that truly makes your life meaningful, is there waiting for you. There's clear air, happiness and peace, surpassing anything you could imagine. If you lose anything by coming with me, it will be something you never needed in the first place. You're not happy here. What do you have to lose? Just trust me." I held out a hand.

A strange light came into the other man's eyes. Slowly, hesitantly, he stood up. Pulling his rags around himself, he reached out for my hand. Then, silently and smoothly, his form began to unravel - uncoiling and dissipating like smoke on the wind. The last thing I saw was his face, and this time it wore not a look of dazed bliss, but a real smile, deep and warm. Then that was gone as well, and I stood alone on the black sands.

With a sense of relief, I surveyed my surroundings. In truth, I didn't know exactly where he had gone - that was up to him. But now he had a chance, and that was more than this place could ever offer. And in any case, I felt confident. There would be others to guide his way, and the path he had set out on, though little-known, was well-traveled. It would take time for him to come to the end of it, but I hoped to meet him again one day in the light of a garden of his own.

But as for me, I had to set out. The night was growing deeper, and I was weary beyond description. I was near the end of the desert, and home had never sounded so inviting.

I walked on through cold and darkness. The desert was as empty and black as if I was the only person left in it. But after a time, a glimmer of pale light impinged on my vision. A solitary twinkle appeared in the gloomy sky, then another and another. With a faint smile, I walked onward, beneath a sky filled with glorious, bright stars.

Then, from up ahead, the still, dead air of the desert stirred. A fresh breeze brushed against my face. I quickened my steps.

I crested a rise, and the end of the desert stretched out before me. Ahead was a low, sandy coast where the stark chill faded into a spray of fresh, salty air. Seagulls circled in the air overhead, their squawks and cries echoing. The surf rolled and boomed on the shore. To the southeast, the desert gave way to clusters of scraggly dunegrass and then a dark scrub forest.

I looked, then knelt down. At my feet a small flower bloomed, improbably alive in this desolate place, its red petals and leafy green stem a startling splash of color against the drab sand.

Getting my bearings, I straightened up. I had a long path to walk before I could return to my garden and my home.

October 6, 2007, 12:29 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink8 comments

The Desert III

(Author's Note: "The Desert" is a work of short fiction in several parts. If you haven't already done so, now would be a good time to go back and read the previous chapters so that you know what's going on.)

III: The Traditionalist

I plodded on through the desert. The heat was mind-blasting in its intensity, and I walked in a shimmering haze. My world had narrowed to placing one foot in front of the other, following the faint, almost invisible path that led onward.

But the white blast of noon was fading, and in the west, the sun was beginning to set. As it sank lower, it seemed swollen and heavy, like a dying star, and its lurid, deep red light darkened the sky and cast an eerie pall over the land. Dunes and stone outcroppings cast shadows the color of dried blood.

After a time, I noticed something that had escaped my attention. The stone outcroppings that had become increasingly frequent were not natural formations. Despite the windblown sand that had etched and half-buried them, they were still recognizably regular - the work of human hands. There were tumbled pillars, worn-down blocks, fallen walls. In growing amazement, I realized these were the ruins of a city, though clearly one that had been abandoned countless ages ago and since reclaimed by the sand. Had this desert once been a more hospitable place? Or had some group of people tried to settle in this harsh land, until its unrelenting heat and dryness had caused them to dwindle and die out?

Then, up ahead, I heard sounds - a voice. Stepping out from behind a crumbled pillar, I surveyed the scene.

The speaker stood in a sheltered lee in the corner of two ruined stone walls, both of which had sand piled behind them to the top of the walls. It was a woman, wispy and bony, her hair sparse gray and her skin wrinkled. Along one of the walls ran a long line of graves, easily dozens, each one marked with driftwood crosses or crude cairns. She stood just beyond the last grave in line, as if awaiting her turn to take her place in the earth.

I waved to her. "Greetings, friend!"

The woman glanced up and gave me a frail smile. She lifted a hand in greeting.

"I'm a visitor," I called, approaching her. "What are you doing here?"

"Here? Why, this is my home."

"This is your home?" I said in some disbelief.

She nodded. "I was born and raised here. My family has always lived here. My ancestors lived here for many generations."

"I can see that," I replied, glancing at the line of graves. "And you're sure you want to stay here?"

"Of course!" she said in shock. "This place is part of my culture and my history. It's what I've always known. Why should I leave now?"

"It seems to me," I said carefully, "that what matters is whether you're happy. Just because this place has been part of your history doesn't mean it has to be part of your future as well. You're not defined by your past. There are new vistas to seek out. Why not start a new strand of history of your own making?"

She looked horrified. "I made a commitment to live here. When I was a child, I took part in a ceremony where I pledged to all the world that this place would be my home for life. It would be a betrayal of that promise and of my family's trust for me to live anywhere else."

"Promises like that aren't binding," I said. "In the first place, you were probably coerced into making that promise at an age where you were far too young to give meaningful consent. Especially given the pressure that was put on you by your family to follow in their footsteps. You can hardly believe there's any kind of meaningful possibility for a child to go against her parents' wishes.

"But even if you had given free consent, it wouldn't matter. There are some kinds of promises a human simply can't make. To pledge that you'll stay right where you are forever and never change - that's essentially to pledge that you'll never grow or change as a person. You can't promise that even if you wanted to, and no belief system has any right to ask otherwise. The most anyone can or should pledge is to remain with a group as long as their aims and interests align. If they no longer do, we have an absolute right to seek out and associate with new groups that we can better identify with."

A scowl passed across her face. "My forefathers knew the best place. They settled here because it was right for them. Are you asking me to say I'm smarter than them, know better than them? That would be arrogant. I'd have to know everything to know what the best place is. Virtue means being humble, and humility means I stay right where I am."

"You don't need unlimited knowledge to know that where you are isn't working out and isn't the best place for you. Beyond this desert, there are gardens such as you've never dreamed of. At the very least, you can come and see them for yourself and decide if you want to stay. And besides, your ancestors were only human. They made mistakes and had limited knowledge too. It's not arrogant to assume you know at least as much as they did, and probably more, considering how long ago they lived."

Her scowl had been growing darker at my words, but now a grim, triumphant smile lit her face. "That's where you're wrong. It's not my ancestors who put me here. It's God himself who put me here. Clearly, I'm here because this is where he meant for me to be born. He knows better than you where I'm supposed to live, and that's where I'm staying."

"And what's your evidence for that?" I asked sharply. "You know God wants you to be here because that's where you are? By that logic, everyone owes their particular place in life to God's foreordained will. What about people in faiths which you consider false? Did God want them to be born there, grow up believing the wrong things, and ultimately be consigned to Hell? What about war refugees or children who grow up in abusive households? Did God want them to be there and to suffer? Your position would take free will out of the equation altogether. It would lead us to a gloomy fatalism where every person accepts all the evils in their life as God's will which they shouldn't seek to escape or change. Is that the position you want to end up at?"

The woman's expression grew cold and unfriendly. "God blessed me by putting me here because this is the right place. Those people in other places weren't so lucky. They'll just have to find their way here themselves." She crossed her arms and turned away from me, clearly indicating that our conversation was over.

"You have no idea how many other people in different places I've heard say the same thing," I answered. She didn't respond, but I had not been expecting her to. I reseated my shoulder bag and set out on my way again, leaving her alone in the ruins as the red shadows grew deeper.

September 30, 2007, 10:07 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink3 comments

The Desert II

(Author's Note: "The Desert" is a work of short fiction in several parts. If you haven't already done so, now would be a good time to go back and read the previous chapter so that you know what's going on.)

II: The Penitent

The instant I crossed the boundary, the heat of the desert rose up to engulf me. It was suffocating, practically a solid thing, surrounding me like a wall of burning iron. The sun beat down white-hot from above, so hot it seemed to have mass, and the air rippled and shimmered as if in torment. Climbing the side of the first dune, I sank knee-deep into gritty white sand with every step.

The heat rolling off the dunes blistered my exposed skin and dried my mouth, but I pressed grimly on. I knew I had to be wary: the heat in this country could play tricks with the senses, making the most fantastic and unearthly visions seem solid and real. But I also knew that what I sought could not be far.

Time and distance were all but meaningless in this arid, trackless wasteland. Wherever I looked, the horizon was one level shimmer of heat, the dunes uniform and barren, seemingly empty of all life. Nevertheless, it could not have been more than an hour or two before I came across the first of them.

I heard the voice before I saw the speaker. I was too far to make out words, but the tone was clearly audible: a low, sorrowful murmur, a stream of syllables like a repeating litany, occasionally rising into what sounded like wails or sobs. I quickened my pace, climbed to the top of the nearest dune, and there I saw him.

At the base of the dune, the desert sands descended into a sloping pit, its sides frozen ripples of glassy flowstone. At the very bottom of the pit crouched a man. His age was indeterminate; he seemed to be an old man, but it could just as well have been the relentless scouring of this land. His skin was leathery, his hair crazed tufts of grey. For clothes, he wore only tattered, colorless rags.

"Hello there!" I called out to him.

He glanced up at me, startled, then returned to his wailing chant as if he had dismissed me as unimportant. He knelt down and pounded the stone with his fists.

I slid down into the pit in a spray of sand. "Friend, I've come to speak to you. What are you doing in this place?"

His gaze flickered up to me, seeming to notice me for the first time. "I belong here," he said hoarsely.

"How can you say that?" I asked. "Look around! This place is a hot, suffocating wasteland. There's no life, no growth. No healthy human being could flourish here. What makes you think you belong in this place? There are much better places to be. Come with me! I'll show you some of them."

"There are no better places," he moaned. "The world is accursed because of our sin. Life is meant to be hard and bitter. It's a just punishment for all the evil things we've done."

"What evil things are those? Look, friend, I'll be the first to acknowledge that humans are hardly perfect, but our potential for goodness is at least as great as our potential for evil. Only a cruel and unjust god would look only on the bad and refuse to consider the good. In any case, why would all the world be cursed all the time as punishment for only some things that some people have done? Do you think that's an example of the punishment fitting the crime? A punishment that was truly just would be inflicted only on people who do wrong at the time they do it - not turning the whole world into a bleak, perpetual wasteland and leaving the innocent as well as the guilty to suffer."

"God's justice is higher than ours," the man protested. "He must punish us for our wrongs. He won't tolerate any sin."

"Then what you're describing isn't justice at all," I parried. "Justice requires fairness. It requires mercy where mercy is called for. Most importantly, it calls for judging the whole person, and taking everything about them into account - not an obsession with picking out only the wrong things they've done, neglecting any compensating good traits, and inflicting the harshest possible punishment in vengeance. That's not justice, it's just cruelty."

His eyes flickered down to the ground. For just a moment, he sounded sullen. "It doesn't matter. There are far better things in the hereafter. We have to suffer to prove to God that we're worthy. We deprive ourselves now for a greater reward in the future."

"That's quite a gamble, friend! What if you're wrong - what if there is no hereafter? Then you've thrown away something more precious than you can possibly know. You've deprived yourself of happiness senselessly during the one and only chance you'll ever have to experience it. My philosophy is this: We don't know what happens after death or if there's anything else. But we know we're alive, here and now, and we know that this world offers the possibility of much happiness and contentment. We might as well take advantage of that and live the most fulfilled lives we possibly can. If there is another life, we can deal with it when we get there, and if there isn't another life, we'll know that we didn't let our opportunity pass."

"And what if we die and it's too late?" he growled. "What if our being saved depends on our believing the right things in this life?"

"And what if anything else? Look, like I said, no one knows for sure if there is a hereafter or what will get us there if so. No one has any evidence whatsoever about that. If there are no facts to constrain speculation, then any possibility is just as likely as any other. Maybe God wants us to deprive ourselves, but maybe he wants us to enjoy ourselves and be happy. Maybe he wants something else entirely. We just can't know, and that being the case, all those infinite numbers of unsubstantiated possibilities cancel each other out. We're still left with what I said before: we don't know what else there is, but we might as well be happy now. There's absolutely no compelling reason to do anything else."

"Not so!" he shouted. He sounded triumphant - mad fires burned beneath his brows. "We know we have a good reason to steer away from pleasure. Pleasure corrodes the senses, weakens the will. It saps our virtue and makes us less likely to turn to God."

I shook my head sadly. "And constant suffering instills virtue? I don't think so. If anything, suffering leaves people traumatized, weak, despairing. It makes them more vulnerable, not less, to people who would give them false hope and fire up the flames of hatred by giving them enemies to blame for their situation. It fuels violence and totalitarianism. A life of nothing but luxury and ease won't produce virtue, but neither will a life of ceaseless pain and struggle. To be virtuous, we need to experience the good things so we know what's worth fighting for."

The other man looked at me in shock, then glanced angrily away. "Your words are evil trying to tempt me. I know what the right way is. I feel it in my heart! I just know that this is how we're meant to live. My faith tells me so and I won't let you trick me!"

I sighed. "I can't make you listen to me, friend. I've told you plainly what I have to offer. If you reject that, so be it. But you're torturing yourself for no good reason. I think life is the most precious thing there is, and we should live accordingly; your attitude cheapens it and fills it with misery and despair. If we're meant to suffer, why is there reason to be moral? Why show compassion to other people or try to help them when they're in need? Your philosophy spreads misery not just to you but to everyone around you, all in the service of a senseless and forlorn faith. I think that's a tragedy, and I pity you for it."

The other man did not reply. He turned away from me, clearly refusing to speak to me any further, and resumed his wailing lament. Already he seemed paler, less animated, as if his very flesh was taking on the quality of the stone and sand. I had a hunch that in another few decades, visitors to this spot would find nothing but another eroded statue.

But as I said, I could not make him come with me. With a last, regretful look back, I climbed out of the stone pit, back to the blowing sands of the desert, and resumed my way.

September 28, 2007, 7:02 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink5 comments

The Desert

(Author's Note: In the last post of 2006, I mentioned possible plans to write a serialized work of fiction on this site. This new series is not that work, which still lies in the future. However, it's something different from what I normally write here, and I thought it was an interesting opportunity to try something new. I'm curious what readers think of it, if they have any thoughts to volunteer.)

I: Prologue

It was a late-summer day at my home, and as on most summer days, I was outdoors in my Garden. The air was heavy with the warm, rich scent of growth, and sunlight filtered through the leaves above in an explosion of green and gold. Butterflies flitted above me like little splashes of vivid color. Not far off, a small rill of clear water trickled by, filling the air with its silvery laughter. I was drowsing beneath the sheltering green of a young hickory tree, looking out over the flowerbeds where wild roses and violets blossomed, misty in a haze of golden sun.

The land shimmered in afternoon's liquid heat, but the daylight had only a short season left. Before long would come fiery sunset and evening cool, and I had a decision to make. Where would I spend the rest of the day?

I could retire to my Foyer, and spend the night talking and laughing with old friends until the fire burned down to glowing embers in the fireplace. I could go to the Observatory and spend a night among the stars and the planets, or I could retire to the Loft or the Library, to read or meditate on dreams by the light of lamps turned down low. Or I could stay in the Garden all night, lying in the soft grass and watching fireflies come out like little candles.

I could have done any of these things - but I wasn't going to. As much as I loved it there, to stay in my home by myself would have been selfish, for I had another calling demanding my attention, and somewhere else to be. In truth, I had only been in the Garden to prepare myself for that journey, and now it was the appointed time to set out. I slung my bag over one shoulder and set out for the desert.

In one sense it was far away from my home, but in another sense, the two were not as distant as one might think. I knew the path well, for I had journeyed it many times, and soon I stood before the gateway to the desert.

It was at the end of a long, winding road of dusty, hard-beaten earth. The vegetation had been dwindling all along the way, from lush gardens and forests to tough, wiry scrubland and gray marsh, but here even that came to an end. Before me, the cracked, red earth faded out into windblown white sand, barren and lifeless. The sun beat down hot and harsh, and I could feel the approaching heat on my face.

The edge of the desert was marked by a crude fence, long since collapsed. It had been baked in ovenlike heat and scoured by blowing sand for countless years, and was now little more than sun-bleached, wind-seared driftwood tangled with rusted twists of wire. No matter. Its purpose was as a marker, as a boundary, and that it still served. Where the road led up to the edge of the sands, there stood a crumbling arch of red stone. Words might once have been carved on its surface, perhaps a proscription or a warning, but now it was too pitted and eroded to be sure. Beyond the arch lay only high, rolling dunes.

I stood there for a moment, listening, trying to steel myself for what lay ahead. There was no sound in that arid waste, no hint of water or life. The land seemed silent, as if expectant. Waiting. Then a hot, dry wind blew, shivering over the tops of the dunes, and the shifting sand moaned in a ghostly, rattling counterpoint.

It was not too late to turn back, but I wasn't going to. I had come all this way for a reason, and I would not return until I had found what I sought, futile though the effort might prove to be in the end.

I took a deep breath. The very air in that land was stifling, and I might not get another like it for a long while.

"It's time," I told myself, and matching words to action, I stepped forward, through the archway, and plunged into what lay beyond.

To be continued...

September 27, 2007, 7:55 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink10 comments

A Failure of Imagination

In the comment thread to my recent post "A World in Shadow IV", theist commenter Jarrod expressed the following objection to the atheist argument from evil:

I have nothing to say against the point that there is much horrible suffering going on; take that and run with it, if you want. But I don't think we can start making claims about possible worlds with more or less pain. We have one world with a lot of pain. No need to talk about other worlds God should've created.

Interestingly, at the time I saw this comment, I was reading the book Piety and Politics by the Rev. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Lynn made an observation that I think quite accurately describes Jarrod's comment:

"It's as if to the Religious Right, any attempt to even imagine an alternative world or other realities is an offense against God." (p.216)

The context of Lynn's remark was a discussion of the frequent attempts by religious conservatives to ban or censor books whose message they disagree with, especially science fiction or fantasy books depicting worlds whose basic rules are not in accord with the human-centric, God-dominated model of Christian cosmology. As Lynn says, "I've had Religious Right activists tell me that any book that features aliens from space should not be read by children because it could give them the impression that God did not uniquely create life on earth!"

Eric von Laudermann, author of the deconversion story "The Joys of Christianity" hosted on Ebon Musings, describes how he held very much the same viewpoint in his fundamentalist days:

My ability to draw is not God's gift to me. It took years of my own effort to gain that ability, and it's still not always there when I want it. My art is therefore sinful. After all, I specialize in fantasy artwork: things that God did not create. How dare I enjoy something that God did not create! How dare I create! That's God's job! I'm trying to be like God! I'm going to Hell!

So, why is it that religious fundamentalists are often leery of sci-fi and fantasy? One possible answer is that they feel all creative work should pay proper homage to God, which most genre fiction does not. But then again, there are sound narrative reasons for this: it's almost impossible to write a compelling, suspenseful story when God is a character. The certain knowledge that he will miraculously intervene whenever the heroes are in danger robs the narrative of dramatic tension. (Witness the Left Behind apocalyptic fiction books, which mostly feature their bland, white-bread main characters driving around and making phone calls while they passively watch each item in the end-times prophecy checklist unfold before them.)

However, I think this answer doesn't go deep enough. A better one is suggested by Lynn's comment: in the circumscribed imaginations of fundamentalists, even imagining a world where God is not actively in control is dangerous. It is a recurring theme in the speech and actions of religious conservatives that the best way to ensure ideological purity is to cut off people's access to all sources of information that convey a message different from the one those religious conservatives seek to convey. (See also: abstinence-only sex education.)

Objecting to sci-fi and fantasy is a logical extension of that practice. In contrast to rationalists and friends of free speech who trust that the truth will emerge from open debate, fundamentalists evidently fear that their dogmas are fragile, and must be protected from collision with inconvenient facts - or even alternative possibilities. Merely imagining a world that does not begin with their faith-based tenets, in their view, is a dangerous step toward doubt and questioning. The self-appointed gatekeepers of dogma do not trust people to make up their own minds, and would rather bias the process of belief formation by only teaching those people about the viewpoints they want them to reach.

In essence, what they fear is a competing narrative. (This was discussed in my last summer's review of The Da Vinci Code.) The stories of organized religion are adapted to resonate with people on an emotional level, and a story that taps the same feelings and inspires the same emotional reactions can all too easily dislodge the religious memes. To the degree that lay believers use their imaginations at all, fundamentalists and church authorities want those people only to imagine their symbols, to possess a mental world as ideologically sterile as the creeds that inspired it. Permitting other ideas and symbols to flourish in the mind alongside the symbols of one's chosen religion could very likely lead the believer to think of their religion as just one more story among many - which it is - and that is an outcome that defenders of dogma seek to avoid at all costs. In the marketplace of ideas, they do not want fair competition, but victory guaranteed by the possession of a monopoly.

May 1, 2007, 7:10 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink32 comments

The Theodicy of Narnia

When I was a child, I read and devoured C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia books. I was too young then to understand most of the religious symbolism, and didn't realize that Lewis had intended the series as a Christian allegory until the end of the very last Narnia book, The Last Battle, which makes the comparison explicit. I will say, however, that I enjoyed the books greatly, and that they were a great source of inspiration to my young imagination. Even now, though the Narnia books have aged somewhat, I still derive pleasure from rereading them.

However, now that I'm an atheist, I think the Narnia books can be used to make an entirely different point, one which their author almost certainly didn't intend.

In addition to his life as a fantasy author, C.S. Lewis wore another hat, that of a Christian apologist. In books such as The Problem of Pain, he passionately defended Christianity against the atheist argument from evil, arguing publicly that the existence of evil and suffering, no matter how terrible, should not alter in the slightest the conviction that a just and benevolent deity exists. However, when he took off this hat and resumed writing fantasy - when, perhaps, the need to defend Christianity was not always uppermost on his mind - a different belief seemed to come to light.

The following excerpt is from the seventh and last Narnia book, The Last Battle. I hope my readers will forgive the length, which is a bit excessive, but it's necessary to quote it in full to make an important point:

"Oh, this is nice!" said Jill. "Just walking along like this. I wish there could be more of this sort of adventure. It's a pity there's always so much happening in Narnia."

But the Unicorn explained to her that she was quite mistaken. He said that the Sons and Daughters of Adam and Eve were brought out of their own strange world into Narnia only at times when Narnia was stirred and upset, but she mustn't think it was always like that. In between their visits there were hundreds and thousands of years when peaceful King followed peaceful King till you could hardly remember their names or count their numbers, and there was really hardly anything to put into the History Books. And he went on to talk of old Queens and heroes whom she had never heard of. He spoke of Swanwhite the Queen who had lived before the days of the White Witch and the Great Winter, who was so beautiful that when she looked into any forest pool the reflection of her face shone out of the water like a star by night for a year and a day afterwards. He spoke of Moonwood the Hare who had such ears that he could sit by Caldron Pool under the thunder of the great waterfall and hear what men spoke in whispers at Cair Paravel. He told how King Gale, who was ninth in descent from Frank the first of all Kings, had sailed far away into the Eastern seas and delivered the Lone Islanders from a dragon and how, in return, they had given him the Lone Islands to be part of the royal lands of Narnia for ever. He talked of whole centuries in which all Narnia was so happy that notable dances and feasts, or at most tournaments, were the only things that could be remembered, and every day and week had been better than the last. And as he went on, the picture of all those happy years, all the thousands of them, piled up in Jill's mind till it was rather like looking down from a high hill on to a rich, lovely plain full of woods and waters and cornfields, which spread away and away till it got thin and misty from distance.

This seemingly innocuous passage, when read for what it's really saying, takes on a totally different aspect. In actuality, it's a thunderbolt against Christian theodicy, one which casts serious doubt on whether even Lewis himself believed his own words when arguing for the compatibility of evil and a loving god.

In its seven-book tenure, Narnia faced many threats - a white witch who wrapped the land in a blanket of endless winter, another witch who kidnapped the royal scion and bewitched an army of subterranean Earthmen to launch a war against the king, cannibal giants, warlike Calormenes who threatened their Narnian neighbors, an antichrist ape who turned the Narnians from the worship of Aslan the Lion and ushered in the demonic Tash, and more. In the end, usually with help from Aslan, Narnia always survived, though it often took battles and the sacrifice of innocents.

In the above passage, the human Jill is lamenting the fact that Narnia always seemed beset with war and strife, only to have the unicorn Jewel explain to her that these dark times were nothing but brief blips in a vast ocean of peace and happiness; that, in fact, Narnia was a joyous, paradise-like land for the overwhelming majority of the many ages of time during which it was in existence.

Why did Jewel (actually, why did Lewis) feel the need to reassure Jill in this way? Presumably, it was because Narnia was created by Aslan, and it wouldn't speak highly of Aslan if he created a world that was constantly in turmoil and at war. It would, indeed, cast considerable doubt on Aslan's benevolence if the world which he created with his divine power turned out to contain continual death, suffering and strife; a world where justice was not always done, where the evil frequently ruled over the good, where most lives were full of pain and want, and where tragedy struck capriciously and randomly. It would cast considerable doubt on Aslan's presumed omnipotence if he could not plan a world that would turn out the way he wanted (he described his intention in the first book, The Magician's Nephew, to make Narnia a "kindly land"); and it would cast even more doubt on his goodness if he did not want it to turn out well.

But now comes the obvious point which, in his fantasy-writing mode, seems not to have occurred to Lewis: Narnia may not have been such a place, but our world is. Our world does contain near-constant warfare, death and suffering. Our world is a place where the good do not always triumph and where the innocent often suffer needlessly. Our world is a place where tragedy often strikes without warning or reason. If it would have led us to doubt Aslan had he created such a world, is it not the logical conclusion from Lewis' very own words that the sorry state of our world should lead us to doubt God and to consider seriously the possibility that he does not exist? And is it not a further conclusion that, when Christian apologists assert the compatibility of God's existence and evil, we should seriously consider whether they even believe their own arguments, or whether they are simply employing them insincerely to defend a belief to which they already have a preconceived and non-rational attachment?

December 4, 2006, 10:23 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink33 comments

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