Ask Zompist: Second thoughts on religion

One of the first pages I read after I had discovered , back in 2000, was the introductory page on Almean belief systems. And it made an enormous impression on me back then. I know that it is technically about your conworld, but IMO almost all of it works very well as an essay on belief systems on Earth, too. Back then, that essay changed the way I look at things. For instance, ever since, even when I share some of the beliefs in a belief system, a part of me still prefers to look at the belief system from the outside rather than the inside.

But all of this makes me wonder how more than 20 years of additional learning and experiences have shaped your own views of the topics that essay deals with. Any thoughts?


I would add more today, but not really change what I wrote there.

Looking over it, I can see a few writers who influenced me greatly: Marvin Harris, G.K. Chesterton, Eric Hoffer. And C.S. Lewis, though he’s not mentioned there. I’ve read quite a lot since, but ironically the first thing I’d add is more Harris— the etic/emic discussion discussed here, which relates to what you say about looking at belief systems from the outside. Many aspects of belief systems simply make no sense on their own terms (emically), and have to be looked at etically. On the other hand, I’d caution against trying to use etic analysis as a weapon. It irritates the people involved, and you really have to make sure you get your facts right. (A heuristic: if the analysis makes the people look stupid, it’s probably more partisan than scientific.)

I purposely talked about “belief systems” under the belief that religions and political ideologies are aspects of the same phenomenon. (There’s a lot of Hoffer in that.) That’s one thing I’d maybe modify today. Now, on one level it’s true— see the previous blog entry, on Orwell’s observations of ideologues. I do think we can best understand the wars of religion in the 1600s, and the wars of ideologies in the 1900s, with the observation that people used to understand their national and political fights in terms of religion, and now understand them in terms of ideologies. The mental habits of the religious and the political partisan are nearly identical.

On the other hand, the functional yield of this grouping, so to speak, seems to be low. Religion encompasses quite a few features— theology, ritual, personal spiritualism, recourse to supernatural aids— that are largely lacking in politics. Political ideologies, meanwhile, tend toward authoritarianism in a way that doesn’t shed much light on religion. (Religious authorities can be oppressive, oh yes. But I object strongly to viewing any religion as “nothing but oppression.”)

There’s also the present-day relationship between religion and politics, which is complicated. Very old-style religions can be political— cf. political Islam, or the disgusting Evangelical love for Trump, or the nationalism of Modi in India. If anything, the expectation that politics has replaced religion now seems overblown. We still have fascists and communists, but to get tens of millions of people excited, the smart money is now back on religion.

As I said, I’ve read a lot more about religion in the last two decades, mostly while researching my books. So I could talk quite a bit more about Dàoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Middle Eastern polytheism. But a lot of that wouldn’t come up in an overview of belief systems. Though an alert reader on Twitter had a great idea— a Religion Construction Kit— so you may see a long-form treatment of the subject in a few years. (My current book, on the ancient Middle East, will have quite a lot to say about the origins of monotheism and state polytheism.)

One more thing I might emphasize more now is the buffet nature of religion. Not all religions have all the elements I described. And even when they do, individuals may take what they like and ignore the rest. Outsiders can concentrate too much on what the priests do, or what the scriptures say. I’ve always wanted to know what the ordinary believer does, and what the range of possible behaviors is.

On a personal level, I’ve moved over the last 35 years from being an energetic Evangelical, to being a Christian very disappointed in the church and the Church, to being an agnostic. All this without developing the disdain and hatred for religion (especially Christianity) that some people indulge. I’m still fascinated by religion— or parts of it, and by the character of God. And I’m irked by conworlds which take the easy trope of making religion All Oppressive All the Time.

Polarization, 1945

I spent a few hours tonight reading or re-reading George Orwell’s essays, and this one on “nationalism” struck me as relevant today, largely because quite a few pundits seem to believe that political polarization, echo chambers, and outright lies are unprecedented novelties.

(Note, the essay talks about “nationalism” and “nationalists” only for lack of a better term, but he makes it clear that he’s also talking about religious or political zealotry. Today we’d probably say “ideologies” and “ideologues”.)

On echo chambers:

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war.

On lying:

Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which, it is felt, ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied.

Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth in almost any newspaper that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or failing to form an opinion. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied. Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him.

Orwell was writing in May 1945, just after WWII ended in Europe. And he was writing from England, not the US. Nonetheless, the essay is a good reminder that political polarization and siloing are not new, nor creations of the Internet; there was no golden age where political parties frolicked together like Elves and Men and read each other’s media.

Now, for Boomers of my age there was a time when politics seemed calm, bipartisanship was possible, and extremists seemed to be on their way out. We call it “1976.” But this was not some normal and enduring state even of American politics; it was a short interlude after the contentious ’60s and before the plutocratic revolution of the ’80s.

This is admittedly cold comfort, when conservatives seem more insane and dangerous than ever. At the same time, reading Orwell is a reminder that things are always pretty dire, a hope for a less dire world is always possible, and the evil people of the day are also liable to make the stupidest mistakes.

My Minecraft library

My book news is that I’ve been working on the index, and an alert reader’s long list of typos. Then I have to clean up the Sumerian grammar. So naturally I’ve been relaxing with Minecraft.

I feel like I’m getting to be a good builder. Here’s my latest building:

I’m really happy with the detailing. I’ve learned a lot from (though I’m miles short of) Keralis and Bdubs from the Hermitcraft server.

Here’s the inside:

Really nice Minecraft building is a matter of adding completely unnecessary details. Dig the bookcases and the lamps and village bell hung from chains. (It’s also a matter of using blocks for their looks rather than what they’re supposed to be. E.g. that white balcony up above is made of snow.)

I’m trying to make my huge builds actually useful, and this is a trading hall for my Librarians. You can see a couple of them moved in, and now I actually have about eight of them. The pros often lock their villagers into a tiny space, but mine have the run of their magnificent building.

Getting them here was a chore. When I’d moved #2, he got lost. I looked all around and under the building, wondering if he’d been killed by a monster. Finally I found him: he’d gone up my ladder to the roof, where he just stood around humming, unable to find his way back. I rescued him with a boat.

If perchance you want to do this sort of thing, my other bit of advice is to try out builds in Creative. It’s a lot easier to work out block choices and architectural details there, rather than trying to decide in Survival, where changing your mind (e.g. using orange rather than brown terracotta) means wasting resources.