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.

Cyberpunk rebuttal!

My friend Niteowl, who I still think of as a frightening TF2 Spy, has written a response to my Cyberpunk 2077 review.

I wanted to highlight one of his points:

When we are taking open world sandbox games […] I play for the action and small stories. The side missions, the little nuances that attempt to paint a world by inference. And there are so many here. Mostly about the horror of combining the worst of capitalism and technology together. 

There is a story about a lovely dad and son side business, or would be, if they had been selling pretty much anything else. Or a various side missions about migrants, invariably gone horribly wrong. Or a side mission involving scuba gear which is the most affecting bit of gameplay I’ve ever played.

What are the results if greed and technology continue unfettered? What are the unintended consequences? What are the mortifying, obvious consequences? As a Canadian it’s like America Taken To 11. For profit health care is monstrous. For profit security/health care when your body parts can be harvested? Unspeakable.

Now, I took all this differently in my post on C77’s worldbuilding. I think this point of view (cyberpunk = laissez-mourir capitalism + high tech) comes with the territory, and CDPR gets it from William Gibson and Mike Pondsmith (creator of the Cyberpunk TTRPG). I wished they’d taken it farther (in terms of weird abilities and situations) or looked at it critically (by at least referring to non-cyberpunk parts of the world). I’d also note that this is sort of the default mode of sf and sf/horror video games– cf. The Outer Worlds Mirror’s Edge, Bioshock, or even Viscera Cleanup Detail. We expect that an evil corp is going to drill for oil in Hell, or unleash a mutant plague, or institute debt slavery in the stars, or whatever. (Heck, even Half-Life and Portal fit into this pattern.)

But yeah, taking a step back, Cyberpunk 2077 provides a concentrated blast of this acerbic worldview, and it’s all the better done because you’re in it. You see the dysfunctional city and its discontents. And at its best C77 conveys things going wrong by focusing on individuals like Judy. (There’s also Keanu to lay it all out for you… mmm, let’s not focus on that.)

So, although it’s not a new insight that we’re living in a cyberpunk dystopia, they did a really good job of showing what one is like. (Personally, I’d have liked a reminder that things don’t have to be this way. We could go for Star Trek space communism instead! But it’s not CDPR’s job to figure a way out.)

While I’m here, I’ll also comment on PCGamer’s terrible advice to CDPR, to fix C77 and then abandon it. The writer opines that “I don’t think there’s much room for CP2077 to grow—at least not without a complete and fundamental rewire.” Which makes no sense at all. First, a disappointing first game doesn’t mean much, or else we’d never have had Witcher 3 at all. Mass Effect is another game with kinda terrible gameplay, and they fixed that in Mass Effect 2. Second, the writer’s preference for Witcher 4 is the worst sort of fanboy stick-in-the-muddism. It’s OK to want something almost exactly like what you got before; it’s not OK to demand it of the creator.

My dumb outsider advice to CDPR would be:

  • Stick to what you’re good at: complex, depressive, even overwrought stories. Don’t waste your time creating more automobiles to collect, or random thugs to beat down.
  • Better stealth please. It still bugs me that the best way to get through fights is with a knife.
  • Probably a new main character. Nothing against V, but this is a case where Nick Hornby’s rule applies: tell us about the worst thing that ever happened to your character. V’s experience here qualifies. I don’t want a sequel where, I dunno, V’s head gets invaded again, this time by Awkwafina.
  • Maybe pick up a book on project management? Less overpromising, less crunch mode.

Minecraft megaprojects

So, I made a nice picture to hang in my office.

Ah, you think, you found a way to upload an image in Minecraft. No, no; if there’s a way to do that I don’t know it. I built that image. I took a single map area– 256×256 blocks, or 65,536 total– and laid it out. Then I just made a map of it. Here’s what the land looks like:

Some of you may recognize the picture of Ažirei from here. This picture in particular was appealing because I wasn’t sure how to get a good human skin color. Making pictures this way is tricky, because every block gets reduced to a pixel, and the color differences often disappear. E.g. to get some waves in her hair, I had to add those concrete powder blocks above the rest of the picture. Flush with the blue concrete, the color difference was lost.

Is this kind of insane? Yes, of course. I got the idea from Hermitcraft, specifically VintageBeef, who makes album covers this way. Once I realized how he did it, I had to try it.

I’ve been doing other megaprojects, some of which you can see below.

Left to right you can see what now seems like a very small ziggurat; my new modern (blue and white) villager house; my first (red and white) house; a skyscraper that holds my giant map; two nice buildings containing automated farms; and Tintin’s rocket. The red building jutting out of the hill is my current house (with the office).

I was inspired to do these mostly by watching Keralis, another Hermitcrafter, along with Bdubs. They make absolutely amazing, huge buildings, and even add furnishings inside. (Also, Keralis has the most beautiful accent, some sort of combo of Swedish and Polish.) My current takeaway: the Minecraft noob is satisfied with a boxy house; the advanced player builds things with two layers (e.g columns or overhangs); the real pro uses three. You can see this comparing my old house (two layers) with the buildings at right (three).

MECK readers needed

It’s (finally) that time again: I need readers for the first draft of the Middle East Construction Kit.

The book is similar to my China and India books. It covers the history, culture, religion, and literature of ancient Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt, up till the Macedonian conquest, and includes meaty grammatical sketches of Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hebrew.

If you’re interested and have time, send me e-mail. If you’ve done this before, welcome back! If not, tell me if you have any special expertise. This is not required, as I need general readers too. If I get a load of replies I may save some of you for the second draft.

If you’re curious, that’s king Horemheb above, circa 1300 BCE, greeting Hathor in the afterlife, and hoping no one notices he has two right hands.

Cultural materialism

I just re-read Marvin Harris’s book of this name– subtitle, The Struggle for a Science of Culture. It’s a review of a dozen or so approaches to anthropology– of course he likes his own the best. It’s from 1980, so it’s undoubtedly outdated as a survey of the major schools.

First, should you read it? Oh no, it’s pretty dry, and intended for his colleagues. If you’ve never read Harris, read Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches instead. However, a distinction he makes early on is of interest to conworlders and others.

The distinction is between etic and emic levels of culture. Curiously, these terms were abstracted (by Kenneth Pike) from linguistics. Phonetics is the study of the sounds used for language, and phonemics is the study of the sounds as people speaking a particular language perceive them. We hear and produce the raw sounds, but we think we’re pronouncing the phonemes. See your copy of the LCK for more.

Applied to cultures, the etic level is the physical level: what people do, what constraints they face in resources and ecology, what their technology and social practices are. You could theoretically study all this as a Martian, just observing and measuring. The emic level is what people think. It includes their language, literature, ritual, ideology, their ideas about family and class, what they tell children and each other.

Now, most of the schools Harris discusses differ in how they approach these two levels, and which they consider primary. Oversimplifying broadly, we have

  • Materialists consider that the etic system predominates, and determines the emic level.
  • Idealists put the emic level first, and believe that it determines how cultures work (i.e. the etics).

Now, no one thinks that you can completely ignore either level. You study both, and everyone admits that the levels can influence each other. But your overall orientation influences what questions you ask, what methods you use, and what you consider to be an answer.

To avoid some complications, I’ll use an example from the contemporary US. On the etic level, since the 1960s, the Republican Party has pursued the “Southern Strategy”. Their basic policies are to facilitate the dominance of the rich elite: low taxes, low regulation, a free hand for business, as little redistribution as possible. (Yes, things like tax rates and income levels are etic. They’re objective things, relatively easy to measure; our Martian observer who doesn’t know the language could figure them out.) These things are not very popular, so to win elections the GOP goes for a larger coalition based on region (the South and non-coastal West), race (whites), and religion (mostly Evangelicals). They highlight issues designed to appeal to regional and racial solidarity while hiding their policies (which disadvantage the very populations they are trying to win over). To ensure that the coalition wins, they carefully pass laws to make it harder for the opposition to vote.

The emic level looks very different. Here we look at what the GOP actually says— that febrile stew of resentment of minorities, fear of foreigners, fear of America changing, fear of “socialism”, fear of crime, disgust over homosexuality and abortion, nostalgia for an imagined past, feelings of wounded religious sentiment, and authority worship, with an undercurrent of fantasies of violent suppression of enemies, that we know from figures from McCarthy to Goldwater to Limbaugh to Gingrich to Trump.

If you don’t like that summary, use your own, or a random set of 10-minute segments from Fox News. The point isn’t that the emic level is bad; it’s that it’s different. What you see from the outside is poles apart from what you hear and feel on the inside.

Now, the cultural materialist viewpoint is that the etic facts, most of the time, explain the emic facts. That particular mix of beliefs and preoccupations isn’t random or coincidental; it’s determined by the business elite’s need to win votes for an unpopular set of policies. The easiest way to do so is to hide the actual agenda, and make use of existing resentments.

Another way to see this is to notice how the diversions have changed over time. In the 1950s, the most effective strategy for the GOP was anti-Communism rather than racism. In the 1960s, it was the mainstream’s dismay over hippies, sexual change, and modern art. In the 1980s, the rallying points were Evangelicalism and racism.

The key point is that you’ll understand very little of American politics by looking at what the GOP believes. It may be interesting or frightening, but it’s often quite disposable (note how concern over the deficit completely disappears when the GOP is in power), and it’s a poor guide to what the GOP will do. (Hint: it may or may not pursue culture war issues. It will cut taxes.)

I’m not at all summarizing the book, whose examples mostly relate to non-American cultures. But to use any of those examples I’d have to explain those cultures in fair detail, and that’s not my point here. I should add though that if the analysis sounds rather left-wing to you (all this talk about elites and supremacy)– well, cultural materialism does trend strongly left; it owes a lot in fact to Marx.

What is my point? Well, that the etic/emic distinction, and arguments about which comes first, are useful well beyond anthropology. First, they are relevant to a lot of cultural debates today.

A lot of the anthropological schools Harris discusses prefer the emic level, and some of them feel that this is the only valid level: find out what the natives think, and explicate that with the maximum of empathy and detail. And I think this approach has a strong attraction to anyone interested in other cultures– after all, shouldn’t we study them on their terms rather than ours? Some of the discourse about colonization and privilege falls easily into this point of view, even criticizing “scientific” approaches as objectifying and disrespectful.

Now, if you’re not doing anthropology, your approach should be based on what you’re doing. If you want to be a Buddhist, you of course want to study Buddhism from the inside, and probably shut up the scientific skeptic within you. Reading literature or watching movies or just interacting with people, you can pursue and enjoy the emic level as much as you want. And if you’re not an anthropologist or historian, guesses about the etic level may be quite misguided.

The problems come when you get curious about why things are as they are. You want to know the emic level, it’s very important. But–

  • the emic level is likely to be wrong about why things are as they are.
  • the emic level is likely to be inherently conservative— to put it bluntly, it’s the realm of authoritarian old farts.

The emic level, after all, includes native justifications for slavery, for colonialism and war, for sexism, for foot binding, for the Indian caste system, for Aztec slaughter and cannibalism, for the divine right of kings, for holy wars, for dictatorships and inquisitions and pogroms. If you believe what the culture says and thinks about itself, you’ll accept a lot of immoral trash, almost all of it designed to prop up the local elite.

Not everything in the emic level is tainted, of course. Some of it is purely interesting and enjoyable. Some of it is problematic, but so is almost everything. Some of it you can learn from on its own terms.

I like Harris’s approach, because etic explanations are far more interesting and satisfying. Take sexism, for instance. Emic explanations run toward gender determinism, or else the original-sin-like position that male supremacy is universal yet unmotivated. Gender determinism is itself problematic, and the “universal” position is simply wrong. There are more egalitarian societies, though you may have to go all the way back to hunter-gatherers to find them.

More importantly, there are reasons why all the evils listed above exist, and why some cultures have some evils but not others. Here cultural materialism is critically different from the rather annoying theories that biologists come up with, like evolutionary biology. Cultural materialist explanations may be based on physical constraints, but not on supposed aspects of human nature, because anthropologists know way too much about the diversity of culture. If human nature determined how societies worked, they’d all be the same or virtually so. Instead they’re wildly different in many ways, so these differences have to be examined and explained.

Also, importantly, changing human nature is almost impossible, but changing etic facts is not. So cultural materialism is far more optimistic. If sexism is caused by certain etic constraints, then there’s a hope for eliminating it by changing those constraints. (Indeed, a lot of the progress made in advanced societies is precisely due to changing the etic level.)

Another reason people often prefer emic approaches is that etic ones can seem, well, a little Martian. Just as it’s a little disturbing to take an anatomy class and cut up former humans, it’s a little disturbing to see how cultures are made. Reading about a war, for instance, it’s most rousing if it’s a morality tale, especially if the good guys win. Yet almost all wars can be explained at the level of resources, tactics, and logistics.

For conworlding, you can also take an emic or an etic approach. For the former, I’d point to Lord of the Rings. It’s presented as a literal document from its conworld, written by participants. At all points it adopts the worldview of its protagonists– directly, the hobbits; indirectly, the elves. Tolkien has almost zero interest in ecological constraints, economies, or how power operates, beyond the emic categories of “good kings” vs. “corrupt kings”. At no point in the book does he criticize how Gandalf or the elves think or behave. (I’m aware this is not true of the Silmarillion.)

For a fairly pure etic approach, perhaps take Neuromancer. The focus at almost all times is what people are doing, on a low technical level. Almost all the characters are primarily motivated by practical needs… no one needs or consults an ideology. The organization of society by the elite is directly criticized, without much interest in what the elite has to say for itself emically.

If you’ve been following my conworlds, Almea and the Incatena, you can probably see that I’m equally interested in both levels. I try to indicate what causes various social structure to form– e.g. why Eretald is male dominant and the Bé is female dominant, or why there are far more restrictions on Verdurian kings than there were on Caďinorian emperors. But I also provide extensive presentations of people’s ideological systems.

There’s a scene in Against Peace and Freedom where Agent Morgan more or less explains the etic bias of the Incatena, as opposed to the ideological systems of the antagonists. Morgan says to one of them:

Give us a static society and socionomics will tell you how to turn it into a dynamic one– what to teach the kids in school, what comic books to write, what family behaviors have to change, what sectors to encourage. Of course, a static society won’t like those changes.. that’s why it stays static. No problem… back up a level, we can tell you what to do to generate a liking for them.

Socionomics is essentially far-future cultural materialism. Of course we don’t know today how to do these things, though many people think they do. But the Incatena has way more data.

Again, if all this whets your appetite, try Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches. It’s hard to invent premodern cultures without it. (Or read my books— there’s a lot of Harris in the PCK.)

ZBB is back

The ZBB is back.

The brief story: Bluehost upgraded the scripting software, php. The forum software, phpbb, doesn’t work with the new php. Bluehost did not bother to inform clients about the upgrade, and only of three reps I talked to even understood the issue. And they didn’t seem to know what phpbb was.

On the plus side: it was clear what to do, namely upgrade phpbb. This went smoothly enough, though it was tedious and took most of the afternoon. Bonus, I have a FTP client now that I know works.

ZBB ongoing…

I heard from Bluehost. The good news: they finally did the restore. The bad news: it doesn’t help.

But, this rep was slightly more on the ball than the others. She said that they had upgraded php, the scripting software the board uses, and that was causing things to break. It would have been nice to get some warning about this, or for other reps to be informed, but whatevs.

The obvious next step is to upgrade the phpbb software. I’ve downloaded the latest version and unzipped it, but I still have to mess with getting it onto the server. If you hear muffled cursing over the next few days, that’ll be me.

Edit: Looks like I got FTP to work. Kind of. Too tired to work on it now though.

ZBB troubles

For those who are smart enough to check here for news…

The ZBB was down since yesterday. Bluehost was of little help; I think the first rep I talked to didn’t understand that phpBB is a program Bluehost supports. I called back and asked them to restore the website from a backup taken last week. They don’t seem to have gotten to that yet.

Now, their support did point to a particular file, deep within phpbb, that was causing the error. Alert user bradrn pointed out that his version (from didn’t match. It looked like a change I had made to that file years ago was suddenly causing an error. I removed the change and lo and behold, the board is visible again.

But, bad news: it’s still borked. In particular, posting is broken, which makes it pretty unusable. A bunch of minor things look wrong too.

I am going to let them do the restore, at the cost of losing a week’s worth of posts. Maybe that will fix things.

If that doesn’t work, I will probably have to upgrade phpBB, which is about as much fun as dental work, only you can’t get Novocaine.