Thursday, April 25, 2013


I’m working on an essay for a science fiction magazine about how scifi relates to religion.  I’m writing it in chunks, which is a natural way for me to consider a series of issues, and with Dzhokhar and Tamerlane still on my mind, claiming the destruction they caused was in the name of some proud mountain tribe’s religion (Islam rejects them), it seems timely to focus on young men, usually the major sci-fi fans.   (I’ve got 74 hits on that D & T post by now.  Usually I get about thirty.)


First of all, religion itself is a composite of several categories: ritual and artistic expression, morality, theory of existence, guide for human arrangements -- mostly fitted to the physical ecology through material culture, economics, science, hierarchy and war.  Different cultures organize these categories in different ways.

There has always been science of a kind (an accumulation of information about how things work) from the very beginning, as in hunting.  Only ten thousand years ago humans moved to agriculture and settlements, which allowed the development of math, writing, and an accumulation and sharing of knowledge by specialized persons.  “Religion” was quick to claim all that, including dedicated property.  In the specialization of roles, they relied heavily on mysteries and secrets, but in the best of situations they provided a framework for practical daily living plus an “ultimate” goal, such as achieving immortality, participating in life itself, attaining privileged status, contributing to their human community, or reaching an internal sense of the Holy.  Often there was special attention to death.  Or sex and birth.

All of this was built on a mammalian substrate of physical function, including the brain and its management of the body.  Evolution, defined as persistence through survival of individuals and groups, has only recently reached the point of being able to observe its own operations on a molecular level.  New technology has taught us how much beyond our senses there is a cosmos and how unconsciously our bodies proceed without us.  But also it has taught us how our senses deliver information to our brains and how it is processed, censored, elaborated, and resolved into identity which is shared and embedded in human relationships.  Bits of the brain, evolved before there was such a thing as a human being, still control our actions regardless of our beliefs.

Exploring these interrelationships and speculating with vivid illustrations what would happen, if there were changes in the actual body or in the culture-sphere that includes “religion”, is the work of science fiction, launching the imagination instead of magic.


If the land in question is desert where the skies are wide and crammed with stars, the religion will focus on that, as well as the practices that are necessary for desert survival.  The metaphors of the texts, the management of birth and death, the over all moral “style” will be those necessary for survival in the severe desert.  That means chieftains, polygamy, abstinence, control, and rivalries among tribes.  In a coastal warm-climate place where there is plenty of food, there are likely to be elaborate arts and religious mechanisms for distributing plenty or even destroying some of it, as in the Pacific Northwest ceremonies of breaking and throwing away “coppers,” sheets of embossed metal, sometimes of great beauty.  Order will be kept by family circles, who share.


For a religion to form protocols in one ecology and then move to another, is problematic.  Those that are more detached from the land and dependent on human relationships are more likely to make better transitions -- as the Christians who depend on the father-mother-son nucleus -- but even they are now being challenged by the social deconstruction of families caused by economic shortfalls: so many men out of work.  It has been suggested that the new patriarch is simply the government -- issuing the checks and making the rules, even providing the habitation -- so that the essential family is only mother and children with no place for a father.  Insemination is random, childbirth is unclaimed, and yet the inseminator can be identified even if he was introduced via a turkey baster or through violent rape -- without anyone being able to explain what that means in terms of the male role.  

Males without families are often males without any religious patterns in their lives, vulnerable to substance abuse, crime, and depression.  Young males -- no longer children but not yet adults -- are in limbo, accumulating incredible amounts of information without enough sorting mechanisms.  In their drive to find an anchor point they might attach to young women, to their own mothers, to powerful men, to religious leaders, to military contexts, to gangs, and to exo-cultures.  The most interesting ones are the more daring ones, signaling their status on the boundary by exotic ornamentation and secret signals.  Sometimes flirtation with death.  Interesting is not the same as safe.


It’s tough for theists to get their head around the Death of God.  They’ll talk about how they’re atheists, but then they start talking about God again in some roundabout way.  Pretty soon you realize they’re talking about their father and then pretty soon it becomes clear that they’re talking about all the male authority figures in their lives and how they have failed -- deserted them, attacked them, turned out to be weak fools.  They talk about how some big strong man should take hold of the situation and make everything good again.  They’re wrong.

The real problem is not the death of God, who in the end is only a minor character in a very long and complex story in which his Son finally outshines him.  The real problem is the death of religion itself, because religion is a made-up category, the general term for an assortment of forces in human life  See above:  Ritual and artistic expression, morality, theory of existence, guide for human arrangements  -- mostly fitted to the physical ecology through material culture, economics, science, hierarchy and war.   They’re related, but they’re not the same.  Somehow we’ve been lumping all these things together and calling them religion and then assigning them to organizations (corporations) that we call religious because they integrate the forces into dogma.

But we are in a time of radical paradigm shift -- we are deeply questioning what life is about and it’s hard to tell who the “good” people might be.  It is religion itself that has died.  This is called “nihilism.”  It’s a good thing if you can stand it.  Some of us remember blackboards and how even a felted eraser left a gray cloud of dust.  To get that board really black again took a wet cloth -- rain, tears, saturation.  Then you can find the chalk and start over again.  Don’t push hard or the chalk will snap -- it’s only a frail little metaphor.  Not justification for a bomb.

Old-fashioned?  Okay, look at this:  This is real Science.  Wringing out a washcloth in space -- what will happen?  So what does THIS metaphor mean?  I think it means that even something as natural and ever-present as water behaves entirely differently when the paradigm shifts.  If the religions we know developed out of all the different places on the surface of the planet, what is the religion for space, the planet seen whole?


Darrell Reimer said...

Good morning, Mary. A tangential link for you: "Is Philosophy finally without God?"

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Thanks, Darrell. Good to hear from you, even though I went to your blog "" and lost an hour because of reading about Madeleine L'Engle!

As you suggest, the interesting link is tangential. I'm simply not prepared nor intent on either God or Philosophy. I'm reading a lot of theory about how the brain works, in particular the recognition of "felt concepts" which are UNDER words and rationality.

Prairie Mary