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Jay Lake
Date: 2013-01-17 05:39
Subject: [politics|religion] Where should the rules come from?
Security: Public
Tags:books, green, mainspring, politics, religion, starship
Yesterday on Facebook, a conservative friend said, I suspect part of the issue is that most writers and artists of the last 150 years working in the fantastic field have been (more or less) refugees from religion, of one sort or another. To them, a more perfect (or at least more fun) world is a world where god and church... are just not present. God and church mean rules and we work in genres inhabited (more or less) by people who hate rules. On their persons. On their choices. On their thoughts and ideas.

(No link, because I don't want to accidentally create a dog pile.)

As it turns out, I somewhat mistook the context of my friend's remark, but I still wanted to repost what I said, because I think it may have some value. Below is a synthesis of several comments of my own:
I think you're oversimplifying terribly. I don't know a single liberal or atheist who doesn't believe firmly in the social contract, and the social contract requires rules. Frankly, from our point of view, it's conservatives who have been abandoning the rules in working so hard over these past decades to void much of the social contract.

As an atheist myself, and definitely a proud refugee from religion, I write about religion all the time in my fiction. See my entire Mainspring series, as well as my Green series, as well as a large percentage of my short stories, as well as Death of a Starship, whose protagonist is an Orthodox priest, and my yet-unpublished Sunspin, one of whose key characters is also a Christian priest. Portrayed with loving care and as much internal honesty and morality as I can manage, not with liberal snark.

To oversimplify on my part, the fundamental disagreement you're so casually alluding to isn't over the question of rules vs. no rules, it's over the source and meaning of the rules. I don't think any single faith should be the source of societal rules. How would you as a conservative Christian feel about living in a society based on rules drawn from the Sharia, for example? That's how I feel about living under Christian rules. Though in all fairness, the vast majority of the secular rules I favor and the Christian rules I presume you favor are in alignment.

In my personal case, I have a particular allergy to both Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, but I also work pretty hard to talk about religion fairly in my writing. I'm an atheist, but I'm not a fool, and religion is one of the defining human experiences/institutions.

Likewise, on the political front, the assertion that the US is a Christian nation is obvious religious fantasy when contrasted with the blackletter content of the Constitution as well as the writings of the Founders taken as a whole in context (as opposed to cherry picking 'gotcha' quotes). Nonetheless, it is an act of intellectual idiocy to deny that we are overwhelmingly a Christian nation in a cultural and historical sense. To me, freedom of religion means freedom from religion. That in turn is the single most important protection any particular religion or denomination or sect or individual faith-holder has in pursuit of their own religious freedoms.


To sum up, those of us who reject religion in our own lives are not the libertine1 anarchists of conservative fantasies. We're just people who think there are better ways than arbitrary faith in revelation to organize society. Better for everyone, including faith holders.




1. Well, okay, I personally am something of a libertine, but that's not the point here.

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jordan179
User: jordan179
Date: 2013-01-17 13:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You're right. But the problem is that the examples offered of attempted atheist reorganizations of society, in particular totalitarian Communism but also (for some values of "atheism") various kinds of Fascism, are frightening. Not so much because a society with atheist roots has to be totalitarian, but because abandoning the superstitious fear of sins (particularly murder) for fear of punishment does not necessarily mean gaining an enlightened concept of avoiding sins because they are destructive.

I'm not sure if human beings, as our culture and perhaps biological nature are presently constituted, can make a stable society without superstition to guard its bases. This depresses me, but my study of history makes me fear that it is true.

The closest that any society ever came to succeeding at such a goal was the United States of America, and now our Constitution is plainly dying: prominent figures are asking "why should we still care about the Constitution" and they are not being scoffed into silence, which means that a lot of people are having this thought. (That they will learn why they should have cared if we are foolish enough to scrap our Constitution is small comfort to me, schadenfreude would not make up to me for the loss of my own freedoms).

Humans have a deep-seated religious impulse. If we do not focus it on a supernatural god or gods, we tend to make gods out of prominent human beings: celebrities, politicians, generals, presidents. And when we do that, we're just one unscrupulous and charismatic man away from totalitarian dictatorship.
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jordan179
User: jordan179
Date: 2013-01-17 14:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Another problem is that, even on the smaller scale, humans tend to treat each other worse when they have no background in religious values. We tend to overestimate the worth of anything we find pleasurable, and underestimate its cost, and so when we try to be perfectly rational we often behave hedonistically and throw away long-term gains in pursuit of short-term amusement. Religious values, grounded in the fear of a supernatural being, tend to backstop our own rationality, giving us an additional reason not to lie, cheat, steal, and so on. This works in our own self-interest.

Of course here a deeper problem emerges. There is no guarantee that the set of religious values we are raised with will happen to be constructive ones. There is a tendency (because of memetically-based cultural evolution) that they will be useful, but the environment which they may have evolved to aid survival in may be an environment radically different in key ways than the modern environment. When we think "religious" we tend to think of rational modern Christians and Jews, but "religious" also well-describes the irrational modern Islamists, or the irrational medieval Inquisition.

There may be no good solution to this problem, other than further cultural evolution for the human race.
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scarlettina: Madness
User: scarlettina
Date: 2013-01-17 15:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Madness
I see a number of assumptions and anecdotal statements here to which I find myself responding with deep discomfort. For context, I'm culturally Jewish and only mildly observant with a strong streak of agnosticism (I don't know whether or not there's a God, but it seems arrogant to me to insist that there isn't one; the universe is a little too broad to make assumptions for my taste). You have made a couple of points, however, that I really want to respond to.

You said, "There is no guarantee that the set of religious values we are raised with will happen to be constructive ones." You then said, "When we think 'religious' we tend to think of rational modern Christians and Jews, but 'religious' also well-describes the irrational modern Islamists, or the irrational medieval Inquisition." I don't think there's any "we" here, because everyone has a different perspective. I also disagree with classifying Jews and Christians as rational and Muslims, well, not so much; I would propose that your strokes are too broad. When I think "religious" these days, I tend to think of the more extreme end of the spectrum, like the Jewish Haredi in Israel who are trying to outbreed secular Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians in order to make Israel a fundamentalist Jewish nation which, having been there, I can say it's emphatically not--but maybe not for long. I also tend to think of Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christians who would target my identity (as a Jew) and my rights (as a woman) as part of their religious mission. But when I think "religious" I also think of progressive thinkers like, oh, say, the Dalai Lama, Rabbi Michael Lerner, and Dr. Cornell West, all religious men but also deeply ethical ones. Modern Islam is full of moderate, rational thinkers, just as modern Christianity has its share of prejudiced or fundamentalist types and just as Judaism has its ultra-Orthodox, ultra-Conservative populations.

Here's the thing: You seem to be asserting that ethics can only arise from religion. You said, "humans tend to treat each other worse when they have no background in religious values." I think the ancient Greeks would have disagreed with you. I also think that history demonstrates otherwise. How many Christian Germans just followed orders during World War II? How about the Pope in the same era? And how about those Crusaders? When we're talking about perpetrating evil or even mild antagonism, no one is immune because were all human and history has clearly shown that religion is no backstop to wrong-doing; it's often the justification for same.

In a rational society, ethics are self-evident, just as our Founding Fathers proclaimed our rights as citizens of this nation to be. We are what and who our parents and leaders teach us to be. Sure, one vehicle is religion. Another vehicle, as tends to be more and more the case these days, is ethical thinking devoid of religious thought (but not philosophy, which is a whole other can of worms). And I don't think it's the atheists and agnostics arguing for the scrapping of the Constitution. I'd argue just the reverse.
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mcjulie
User: mcjulie
Date: 2013-01-17 18:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Very well stated.
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Dave O'Neill
User: daveon
Date: 2013-01-17 20:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think you make a good point regarding German Christians. For all the protestations from people (waiting on Jordan, 5, 4, 3, 2...) about NAZI Germany being secular, it was and remains a profoundly religious culture both protestant and catholic.

The bigger problem seems to be that as a species we seem to be hard wired to follow instructions from authority figures. I suspect there's an evolutionary reason for that wiring, but that's at the root cause of what we get from religion and not, I suspect, the other way around. As you point out, it's quite clear that Pius XII had no trouble in a universe where he had to do business with the German government.

I'd also argue that the problem with the US constitution is that people want it to mean what they think it says, rather than what it does say.

The Church and State rulings seem to be a part of that dichotomy.
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LiveJournal: pingback_bot
User: livejournal
Date: 2013-01-17 14:11 (UTC)
Subject: On the Cultural and Personal Utility of Religion
Keyword:pingback_bot
User jordan179 referenced to your post from On the Cultural and Personal Utility of Religion saying: [...] Expanded from a reply to a post in 's journal ("Where should the rules come from? [...]
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Edward Greaves
User: temporus
Date: 2013-01-17 15:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I find the initial comment....strange. Fantasy of the last 150 years? Really? I *might* be willing to grant the last 50 as being a bit different. But even then. JRRT? CS Lewis?

I'd buy that argument more if it were aimed more at SF than Fantasy.
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mcjulie
User: mcjulie
Date: 2013-01-17 15:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I suspect part of the issue is that most writers and artists of the last 150 years working in the fantastic field have been (more or less) refugees from religion

He's making it sound like that's an accident -- like writers and artists just happen to be "refugees" from religion, completely at random. Maybe what he should be doing is asking himself why so many writers and artists feel alienated from mainstream religions. What is religion doing wrong, that writers and artists don't feel welcome there?

Anyway, some very notable contributors to our field have been people of faith -- if you consider J.R.R. Tolkien and Connie Willis and Tim Powers notable. At one time I might have included Orson Scott Card on that list, but he's gone full metal wingnut lately, perhaps as an illustrative example. Creative thinking and dogmatism do not play well together.

To them, a more perfect (or at least more fun) world is a world where god and church... are just not present. God and church mean rules and we work in genres inhabited (more or less) by people who hate rules. On their persons. On their choices. On their thoughts and ideas.

You already went straight to the heart of the social policy objection -- whose rules? But I resent the hell out of religious people of any stripe reducing my years-long crisis of faith to a childish rebellion against rules, man.

Religion is, at the heart of it, an answer to the basic existential questions -- questions of meaning and ultimate purpose. If you think it's about following a bunch of rules, you're already getting religion wrong. Christianity, according to its main prophet, has two rules: love God, and love your neighbor. If you think, as the modern religious right appears to do, that the most appropriate way to prove to God that you love him sufficiently is to piss on your neighbor, then you aren't following those rules.

Also, as a matter of fact, I do strongly object to rules on my "thoughts and ideas" and anybody who doesn't want to live in a 1984-like dystopia ought to feel the same.

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scarlettina: Jewish: Star
User: scarlettina
Date: 2013-01-17 15:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Jewish: Star
If you think it's about following a bunch of rules, you're already getting religion wrong.

THIS!
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daveraines
User: daveraines
Date: 2013-01-17 17:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My basic assumption as a young Christian was that Christianity was about the rules. It never really came alive to me until I realized it isn't about the rules, it's about the stories.
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Jay Lake: sanguine-mossy_wall
User: jaylake
Date: 2013-01-17 17:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:sanguine-mossy_wall
Yes, this.
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barbarienne
User: barbarienne
Date: 2013-01-17 17:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The problem (for religious wingnuts) is that people who see it isn't about the rules are perhaps more disposed to wander away from religion.

I was raised in post-Vatican II Catholicism. It was all about the stories, not the rules. I went to church because I liked reading the Gospel stories and other biblical sections in the missal. Stories, stories, stories, to keep me entertained while the priest nattered on about something I never paid any attention to. (Especially when it was the boring priest. If it was the more interesting guy, then I might look up once in a while.)

I absorbed the right lessons about being a decent person and understanding others and contributing to the common good; but I completely missed anything that enforced that it was necessary to be Catholic (or even believe in god) in order to be that good person.

I didn't become atheist out of rebellion or unhappiness with my religion. It just happened. I figured the whole "god" thing was like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy (neither of whom I'd ever believed in, either).

I became slightly more expressive of my atheism when in high school the new principal started imposing stupid rules. "We will say a required prayer in the morning over the loudspeaker." (Private Catholic school, so no 1st Amendment issues.) Everyone was supposed to stand up for this. I chose to remain seated, and silent. The teachers didn't know what to do about this. I was not disruptive, and yet I was obvious in my nonparticipation.
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marycatelli
User: marycatelli
Date: 2013-01-17 17:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
First question is whether what the religion is doing that makes them feel unwelcome is wrong. Many people do not feel welcome at organizations through no fault of the organization -- and sometimes even through fault of their own.
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mcjulie
User: mcjulie
Date: 2013-01-17 18:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That is a good point. However, by its stated charter, evangelical Christianity is supposed to be "welcoming" to anyone and everyone. So I would say that particular expression of religion is, in fact, doing something wrong, by its own definition of purpose.

I also think that if your organization is in particular alienating people who are intelligent and creative and kind, while eagerly welcoming people who are thoughtless and bigoted and mean, your organization is clearly doing something wrong.
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marycatelli
User: marycatelli
Date: 2013-01-18 00:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Ah, but what you complained of it is not what you are arguing from here. Whether you are, in fact, welcome on the same terms as everyone else is not shown by whether you feel welcome on those terms.

As for statistical judgments of the relative character -- judging by your impressions is, alas, the sort of thing that leads people to believe that the full moon causes trouble. (It doesn't. It's been shown over and over again. People still believe it.)

Edited at 2013-01-18 12:08 am (UTC)
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Matthew S. Rotundo: Radioactive
User: matthewsrotundo
Date: 2013-01-17 18:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Radioactive
I resent the hell out of religious people of any stripe reducing my years-long crisis of faith to a childish rebellion against rules, man.

Damn straight.

Hey, religious folks? Listen up. Too many of you do this.
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fjm
User: fjm
Date: 2013-01-17 15:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Of course, you could point out to your friend that this is factually wrong? The origins of modern fantasy are firmly in Christianity and many, many fantasy writers are believers.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2013-01-17 15:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, yes. ;)
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barbarienne
User: barbarienne
Date: 2013-01-17 17:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Libertine =/= Libertarian.

Conservatives have a terribly difficult time figuring out which of those actually correlates with anarchy. (Hint to right-wingers: that would be the people who, like anarchists, don't want any government.)
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marycatelli
User: marycatelli
Date: 2013-01-17 17:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The problem arises when there's an atheist who doesn't believe in the social contract. On what grounds would you argue for it?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2013-01-17 18:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
On what grounds would you argue for it?

On grounds of raw self-interest, if nothing else. Unless you are the biggest, meanest, richest, strongest, most charismatic person around, life without the social contract is miserable. Even big strong people grow old, weak and sick. Even rich people can go broke. In that framing, the social contract is what protects us from our younger, more aggressive, less thoughtful selves.

Put a little more abstractly, the social contract, when working properly (ie, rule of law, etc.) is what facilitates the necessary trust between people who are otherwise strangers, which in turn is required for the sorts of commercial and social transactions required for living in large groups beyond kin and close acquaintances. This is of benefit to anyone who doesn't live 100% off the fruits of their own labors. Unless you mine ore and refine bar stock for your hunting knives and plow blades, and have sulfur and saltpeter deposits on your own land to make gun powder, you are not living 100% off the fruits of your own labors. Not the mention the whole concept of "your own land" also requires the social contract to be in effect.
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Matthew S. Rotundo: Radioactive
User: matthewsrotundo
Date: 2013-01-17 18:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Radioactive
All true, Jay, but for me, I need only believe in the reality of other people in order to argue for the social contract.

I don't like being hurt. If I believe that other people are as real as me, then I must also believe that being hurt is just as bad for them as it is for me. So hurting other people = bad, even if it benefits me.

The Golden Rule doesn't require God to be Golden.

Something I would ask all those who assume that without religious faith, one cannot be a moral agent: Is your belief in God the only thing that prevents you from raping and murdering? If you didn't believe, would you steal everything you could, burn down the houses of people you didn't like, torture children for fun? Is your religious faith really all that keeps you in line?

If so, then you officially give me the creeps.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2013-01-17 18:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Note I was deliberately making a minimalist argument based solely on self-interest. Not even enlightened self-interest at that. My own views are much broader and (I hope) more ethically grounded, as well as hinging very strongly on the point you make about the reality of other people's experiences.

One of my biggest beefs with the current stance of American conservatism as articulated through its primary political agency in the Republican Party is that it seems hell-bent on enabling the denial of the reality of people who are different from "real Americans".
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marycatelli
User: marycatelli
Date: 2013-01-18 00:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
All that's necessary to your self-interest is for other people to believe in the social contract.
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russ
User: goulo
Date: 2013-01-18 10:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
See the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma and other economic theory about rational cooperation.

But the whole "atheist who doesn't believe in the social contract" thing is weird anyway. What about all the religious people who demonstrably don't believe in the social contract and who do terrible things? It's not as if belief in God causes people to behave well. Indeed some religious people do nasty things exactly because (they believe) their religion justifies it.

It's a false equivalence to suggest that being religious somehow causes ethical behavior (and that not being religious somehow precludes ethical behavior).

Anyway on purely pragmatic grounds, I (an atheist) observe that life seems better, both for me and for other people, if I behave nicely. I'm not sure why this is so mysterious for religious people to grok.
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barbarienne
User: barbarienne
Date: 2013-01-18 20:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
What Jay said.

Regardless of religious leaning or lack thereof, the social contract is beneficial to you if you're interested in being anything other than a badass warlord in a crapsack world. (Warning: TVTropes link.)

And really, even the badass warlords in history were far, far unhappier than I am right now, what with my clean water, public sewer and trash pickup, ready supply of affordable food, access to medicine, etc. etc. etc. CIVILIZATION ROCKS.
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martianmooncrab
User: martianmooncrab
Date: 2013-01-17 20:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I personally am something of a libertine

now I have this image of you strutting your stuff in the rolled wig, heels, and powder of a Restoration Libertine, but with a Hawaiian pattern long waistcoat... *sigh*
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