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.