Monthly Archives: February 2013

Magic and Technology/Science and Religion

magictech

In the context of a fantasy story, can magic and technology coexist? Can they occupy the same world with the same set of natural laws? If so, can they be practiced by the same individual? Or does magic interfere with technology or vice-versa?

As fantasy fiction reflects spirituality, being in fact the ancient art of mythcrafting, the way this question is answered (of course there is no one correct answer) resonates with another question: Are science and religion compatible? The fantasy question is open ended. One may do anything in fiction as long as the end result is a good story. But for fantasy as mythic enterprise, the story should have relevance to the world we live in and, at best, spiritual resonance.

The religious/scientific question is the place to start for that reason in my opinion. The more so as it touches upon a number of core questions for the spiritually inclined in modern society.

Let’s begin with the question of why there has ever been a conflict between religion (or between some religions, I should say) and science. The answer is twofold. Part of it is that prior to the development of scientific method, there was no clear distinction between the two or between either one and philosophy. As a result, scholars associated with religions often approached questions like the origin of the human species or the configuration of the visible universe, which today we would call scientific questions.

What is a scientific question? (I pose the question because the answer may not be obvious to everyone.) A scientific question is a question of fact, first of all. It’s an “is” question, not an “ought” question. It’s not a question of values, morality, or aesthetics; it answers how, not why (unless we’re talking strictly about human or animal behavior, and even then it’s more a how question than a why question, exploring the mechanics of motivation for animals with brains capable of being motivated — “Why do monkeys kill each other?” rather than “Why are we here?”). There is an enormous range of questions that cannot be asked, and therefore can’t be answered, using the methods of science, not because of their subject matter but because of the type of question they are. The domain of science may seem large (and it is), but as a subset of the set of all possible questions, it’s also fairly restricted.

The second criterion for a scientific question besides being a question of fact, is that it must be about something that is (at least in principle) observable. Science is empirical. It is based on a person standing at a realistic distance from a phenomenon and observing it. This is the first step in the scientific method. It is followed by someone coming up with an idea that describes what has been observed — a hypothesis. This is followed by further observation (incorporating bells and whistles like experimental controls where possible) to confirm the hypothesis or call it into question, followed by more thinking and hypothesizing and predicting, followed by more observation and so on. So if something is in the jurisdiction of science, it must be possible (at least in principle) to stand at a reasonable distance from the phenomenon and observe it. We don’t actually have to be able to do that in practice, but we have to at least be able to speculate that one of these days we might, as we develop better instruments or find better vantage points. (For example, it was acceptable to speculate about planets orbiting other stars long before we were actually able to observe any of them.)

So scientific questions are questions of fact about observable phenomena. All such questions are in the domain of science. Scientific method is the proper method for approaching such questions. It’s by far the best, most reliable method we have for doing so. Approaching them by any other method — such as raw intuition unverified by scientific method (which is not to say that intuition doesn’t play a part in science), or (even worse) the voice of authority and tradition, is not appropriate and leads to error. And this is the source of conflicts between science and religion: religion attempting to answer scientific questions by unscientific means. Religion shouldn’t do that. If religion doesn’t do that, there will be no conflict between science and religion. But does this leave religion with any questions to answer?

Yes, it does. First, there are all those questions which are important but not questions of fact. Religion traditionally attempts to answer moral questions, for example. These are definitely outside the zone of science, but still there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it, and moral questions, while they are outside the domain of science, aren’t really in that of religion. They may be approached from a non-religious perspective. Moreover, many religions become both authoritarian and conservative, and lock moral answers in stone so that they cannot adapt to changing material circumstances.

So what else? Well, there’s the second criterion of scientific jurisdiction, that the subject must be an observable phenomenon. It must be possible to stand a reasonable distance from it and observe it. Anything which is not an observable phenomenon is outside the reach of scientific method. Is there anything which is not observable, but which nonetheless we know to be real? Indeed yes: two things.

One of them is consciousness in the sense of qualia or subjective experience. We cannot observe our own consciousness experiencing the world, because it is always the observer and cannot be the observed. Nor can we observe the consciousness of someone else experiencing the world, although that’s less intuitively obvious. We can observe the workings of the brain of another person, or his behavior which suggests consciousness to us, but his consciousness itself is impossible to see, or to objectively verify its existence. (This is in fact a mystery. We should be able to observe another person’s consciousness if it were part of the world, even though it makes sense that we can’t observe our own. But we can’t. Therefore the other person’s consciousness isn’t part of the world. Back to this in a moment.)

The other thing that we know to be real, but cannot observe, is the universe as a whole. We can observe the parts of the universe and the processes of those parts, but the whole — encompassing not only all of space but all of time as well — can only be thought about, and perhaps experienced in another way besides observation. Why? Because again, observation requires standing at a reasonable distance from the phenomenon to be observed. We cannot do this with the whole universe, because the universe includes us. We cannot stand at a distance from everything and observe it, because that would require standing at a distance from ourselves. (This suggests a possible answer to the riddle of why we can’t see another person’s consciousness, too.)

Throughout history, these two things — the cosmos and consciousness — and the relationship between them, have been the subjects of spiritual understanding. This is the proper territory of religion. It cannot be approached by reason, let alone by scientific method. The universe cannot be observed from without, but it can be (and is, constantly) experienced from within, subjectively. Consciousness cannot be observed from without, but it can be (and is, constantly) the point from which experience happens, and its relation to the universe can be understood intuitively through that subjective experience, particularly in the course of expanded consciousness, spiritual experience, and mystical awareness.

This is the proper domain of religion. All else is politics. And this sort of thing is obviously compatible with science. The two have little to do with each other, except that science can provide new vistas on the wonders of creation, and new images for myth-making, and — most important of all — an intellectual ethic that rejects rigidity, authoritarianism, and dogma. As our world continues its metamorphosis from classical to advanced civilization, and as the ancient religions continue their upheavals, this will become more and more true, and the supposed conflict between science and religion seen more and more for the error (on religion’s part) that it always was. The change will come about from religion surrendering to science those questions which are properly scientific, and adopting the open-mindedness and anti-authoritarian intellectual ethic of science in regard to those questions which are properly religious, even though adopting the scientific method itself for those questions is impossible. (Otherwise they would also be scientific questions.) This is not an easy transition to make, and traditional religions are fighting it very hard and, alas, sometimes violently. But it is happening, and will continue.

Now, back to fantasy, magic, and technology.

Magic is something that partakes of both religion and science. Magical powers tend to arise in conjunction with spiritual awareness, and the techniques for developing magical powers are in many cases similar to those used to induce spiritual experience. At the same time, though, magic is itself an observable phenomenon, a part of the world about which questions of fact may be posed, and therefore in the domain of science. So in a sense, magic is the coexistence of religion and science, and it’s proper that it should coexist with technology.

Now, for a period of time in the past, this was (and in some works remains) not a convention of fantasy. For a long time, fantasy fiction separated magic and technology absolutely. There were various devices for doing this. Magic was sometimes placed in another world — it worked there, but not in our own world. Or sometimes this was not explicitly stated, but the world of the story (where magic worked) was low in technology, with the implication that magic was a primitive art not compatible with modernity. Sometimes it was asserted that both can work, but they are in fundamental conflict and cannot both work at the same time.

None of this is a literary requirement; none of it is necessary to tell a good story. So why was it done? Because it was a mythic requirement during a certain phase of the transition we have been making between the religions of the past and those of the future. A desire existed on the part of many people (including many readers and writers of fantasy) to preserve traditional religious beliefs and at the same time to keep the material benefits of modern science and technology. In real life, the two were compartmentalized, not in the natural way that recognizes the limits of scientific method, but in an artificial way that roped off certain ideas that could and should be proper subjects for scientific investigation and preserved them under religious authority instead.

The separation of magic and technology in fantasy fiction at the same time reflected this separation of religion and science in real life.

It’s a hopeful sign to me that today’s fantasy is beginning to abandon that separation. The idea that magic is a part of the world we live in — this modern world that also includes technological marvels — is asserting itself. While the skills and talents involved in developing and using magical powers versus those involved in engineering and the use of technology are different, they are perfectly compatible and exist in the real world.

Image credit: catmando / 123RF Stock Photo

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From a New Work in Progress: Refuge

refuge1

“Is it working?”

“I think so. Give me a minute.”

“Damn it, it’s not working. We got a bad copy. Shit.”

“Calm down. It’s not a perfect copy but – there!”

The key, after considerable jostling and fiddling, finally turned in the lock, and the door opened with a click.

“Relax, Dave. I’ve done this many times.”

“Okay, I know, me, too,” said Dave, “but it always makes me nervous.”

“And keep your voice down!”

“Yes, sir,” said Dave in a whisper. “Think he’s here?”

“Of course I think he’s here, why the hell would we be here if I didn’t? Look, stop a minute. Do your breathing routine. Get hold of yourself.”

Dave, a short, stocky blond man in his middle thirties wearing blue jeans and a leather jacket, stood straight, closed his eyes, and breathed rhythmically. Slowly, smoothly, he inhaled, counting to four as he did, then held his breath for another count of four, then exhaled slowly during another four count, then held his breath out for four. In for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four, and again, and again. As he performed the exercise, his nervousness faded, the calm appeared in his center, and he found himself able to think clearly again. He opened his eyes.

“Better?”

“Yeah. Sorry, Mike.”

“It happens,” said Mike with a shrug. He was short, about the same height as Dave, but dark and slight, with a hook to his nose and a strong chin. He and Dave slipped into the unlit storage room of the Oakland accounting firm and closed the door behind them. Mike cast about with his telepathic sense and found their quarry, working late as their intelligence had indicated, in one of the offices. “All right, you remember what’s different about this one?” he said.

“Yeah, no killing. I pin him, gas him, tie him up in his chair, that’s all.”

“No. One more thing.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Dave, “I leave the room, ‘cause you don’t trust me to be there when you question him.”

“It’s not that I don’t trust you, but we know the Droon will answer questions only for a Chapter Master, with no one else present. We know that because the Scourge of God has done this dozens of times since the fourteenth century and that’s the way it always works. So I have to question Stevens alone.”

“I know, I know,” said Dave. “I was just ragging you. Come on, let’s finish this and get away.”

“Okay.”

They slipped into the hallway. One office had a light on. A middle-aged man sat before a computer screen, doing something arcane and accounting-esque, one supposed. The image could hardly have been less threatening, except for the aura of menace, like a cloud of jagged broken glass swirling around the man, that identified him to Mike as something much more malevolent than even the wickedest human being. In Scourge of God tradition, the Droon were considered demons. Mike had his doubts about that, which was one reason they were doing the hit this way: interrogation, not just assassination. Harder, more dangerous, but sometimes necessary.

The Droon, John Stevens, continued to tap his keyboard and squint at the screen. There was no sign either in his body language or in his aura that he knew the Scourge had come. The two men, keeping low and to the shadows, approached the half-open door to his office.

“On my signal,” Mike whispered. He judged the moment, and whispered again, “Go!”

Dave leaped, kicked the door wide open, and darted behind Stevens’ chair. Stevens should have been paralyzed with surprise for a moment. No such luck. He erupted from his seat and struck Dave a hard blow across the right temple, then kicked him in the knee, even harder. Dave went down, groaning.

Mike didn’t waste time cursing. He caught Stevens’ left arm and brought it down hard across his upraised knee. Bones cracked, and Stevens ground his teeth but made no outcry. Mike pulled Stevens’ fractured arm behind him and caught him in what had to be a very painful lock. Stevens tried to reach him with his right hand and his feet, but Mike controlled him with the pressure and pain until he could draw his knife and place it across Stevens’ throat.

“We want answers,” he said. “Give them and you’ll live for a year and a day. By the Pact of War I swear it, in the name of Saint Joan, the truth means you need not fear.”

Stevens froze. “Scourge of God?” he breathed.

“Of course,” said Mike.

“You’re a Chapter Master?”

“That’s right.”

“Shit. Okay. You win.”

Dave had sat up and was examining his knee.

“Broken?” Mike asked him. He released Stevens, who sat at his desk and cradled his wounded arm. Mike didn’t put away his knife, though. Droon were honorable about the Pact, all the traditions said so, but they were treacherous in practically every other way. The traditions said that, too.

“I don’t think so,” said Dave.

“Can you walk?”

“Let me see.” Using the wall, Dave levered himself to his feet and limped across the office to the door. “Looks like it. Not broken.”

“OK, go on out of here. Let me question our demon buddy.” Stevens snorted. Dave nodded, and slipped out the door, closing it behind him.

Stevens’ eyes were closed and he seemed to be doing some sort of mental discipline, or magic spell. When he opened them again, they were clear and calm and apparently free of pain. “What do you want to know, Chapter Master?” he said.

“The latest information we have about you, about who you are, comes from a hundred years ago,” said Mike. “The story is that you’re demons from Hell, taking human form to tempt humanity away from God’s will. I want an update on that.”

Stevens shrugged. “What’s wrong with the old story?” he asked.

“I don’t believe in Hell,” said Mike. “I don’t believe in the Christian God, either.”

Stevens shrugged again. “Your unbelief doesn’t make the story false,” he said.

“Are you a demon from Hell?” Mike asked directly.

Stevens grimaced. “No,” he said simply. Mike nodded. The traditions regarding the Pact of War claimed that the Droon had to answer any direct question truthfully.

“What are you?” he asked.

Stevens sighed and sat back in his chair. “At this stage of the game, what I am is a human being.”

“What were you before you were a human being?”

“I guess you’d call me an alien,” he said.

“You mean like from another planet?”

“Yes. Maybe another parallel universe. We’re still trying to figure that out.”

“So. An alien mind or spirit or something, and you take over human bodies?”

“No,” said Stevens. “I was born in this body, the standard way, just like you. All of us are. We’re born, we grow up, we go to school, we get jobs, we live human lives, and we die.”

“Sounds boringly normal,” said Mike. Stevens shrugged. “So why do you say you started as an alien?”

“That was the first body I was born into.”

“On the alien world or maybe in the parallel universe.”

“That’s right.”

“What happened to that body?”

“It was killed,” Stevens said. “It was killed when our entire home planet was wiped out by the Andol.”

“And who are the Andol?”

“Another race of aliens. A bunch of communists.” He sneered.

“Oh, come on,” said Mike. “I do not believe Marx and Lenin exported their revolutionary ideology to another universe.”

“I didn’t say they were Marxists, I said communists. Of course they’re not Marxists. They genetically engineered themselves to all be equal and obedient cogs in the wheel, and they created this lockstep communistic utopia and wanted to impose it on everyone else. We didn’t want to go along. We resisted them for several thousand years. Then one day they hit us with –”

“Nukes?”

Stevens shrugged. “Close enough. Weapons of mass destruction. Anyway, they wiped us out.” He sighed. “We came here for a refuge, to rebuild, but they followed us.”

“So these Andol things are here, too?”

“That’s right.”

“How did you come to be here after your world was destroyed?”

Stevens shrugged. “You know how. You study the magic, the mysteries, whatever you call it.”

“I don’t know how to do something like that.”

“Yeah, well I guess we have a few tricks you don’t, then, but it’s still basically the same stuff.”

“Why didn’t any of you tell Chapter Masters this before?”

“Because none of you asked the right questions,” Stevens said. “You couldn’t seem to think of us any way except as demons, so we went along.” He shook his head. “It’s not like we wanted to volunteer information and be helpful. You assholes are a serious nuisance.”

“Only a nuisance?”

“Yeah, that’s about it.”

“Our records say we’ve killed more than two thousand of you over the centuries.”

“I can believe that,” said Stevens. “You killed me four times.”

Mike nodded. “So when you die –”

“We reincarnate, of course,” said Stevens. “I’ve lived twelve human lifetimes, and only one as what I started. That’s why I say at this stage of the game I’m a human being. I have a lot more memories as a human being than as anything else.”

“So we’re not doing a very good job of getting rid of you.”

“You have never ‘gotten rid of’ a single one of us.”

“Have we slowed you down at least?”

Stevens glared. “Yes,” he admitted.

Mike sighed. “You say these Andol are on Earth, too?”

“That’s right,” said Stevens.

“What do they want here?”

“Maybe to finish the job on us that they started. Maybe to add your planet to their communistic utopia. Maybe to domesticate you and raise you to be food animals. Maybe you should ask them.”

“All right,” said Mike, “maybe I should. Where can I find one of them?”

Stevens grinned. “There’s a cell of theirs, or an ashram or whatever you want to call it, in San Francisco.”

“Do you have an address for it?”

“No,” said Stevens.

“Damn it,” muttered Mike.

“Think about it, these are the genocidists who wiped out our whole world. They have to know we’re not feeling real grateful to them. Think they’re going to send us a mailing list and ask us over for tea?”

“I guess not,” Mike said. “San Francisco, you said.”

“That’s right. I don’t know where in the city, and I don’t know how many of them there are. I don’t have photographs or names or anything like that.”

“What do you want here?” Mike asked suddenly.

“To survive,” said Stevens. “This is our refuge, like I said.”

“This is our home.”

“Look, you medieval meddler. What do you think this planet would have amounted to if we hadn’t come here? Have you ever considered that?”

“What?”

“You have to know we had a pretty advanced science and technology on the old world, and we’ve been working on this one for centuries. Right after we popped in, boom! Instant scientific revolution. You think that was an accident? You talking chimpanzees would be living in thatched huts and sleeping with the pigs and sheep still if it weren’t for us. Shit, you’d think you’d be just a little appreciative.”

“I think we might have managed on our own,” said Mike.

“Maybe. Eventually. Not as fast, though, that’s for sure.”

“So what do you want, to recreate your old homeworld here?”

“As closely as we can given the different species, sure. A free society of individualists, with advanced technology. That’s what we were, and that’s what we’re trying to make you into. Not doing that badly, either, although we still have a ways to go.” He shook his head. “You shitheads have been going after the wrong guys all this time. And the Andol have been doing a lot better job of hiding from you. You never even knew they existed until tonight.”

Mike nodded. “OK,” he said, “I guess that will do.” He opened the door to Stevens’ office. “For a year and a day, the truth has made you safe from us.” He pulled a business card from his pocket and dropped it on Stevens’ desk. The card showed the circle-cross and the words in Latin, Diabolus In Iferno Est – “the Devil is in Hell.”

He closed the door behind him when he left.

***

That night, Mike dreamed of his father. In parts of the dream he was a little boy again, and his father was training him in the skills he would need later in his life. At others Mike was his current age of 34, but a conversation ran through it, a coherent stream of talk connecting splintered and shifting images. Parts of the conversation were real talks Mike and his father had held while Dad was still alive, but other parts had never happened in real life.

“Dad, you mean you kill people?”

“They’re not really people, Mike. The Droon are devils in human form.”

“But how do you know?”

“By their demonic halo, their aura. Also by their actions. You’ll see soon.”

“But what kind of actions?”

“Mike, every Droon keeps a household staffed by slaves, people held in bondage by one trick or another. Some are illegal immigrants who serve under threat of being turned in to Homeland Security. Some are on the run from the law or from criminals they’ve crossed. Some are held in fascination by the magic power all the Droon have. But whatever the reasons, no one leaves a Droon household alive, as long as the Droon himself lives. And the things some of the Droon do with their slaves, the tortures, the sadistic fantasies! They’re into all kinds of other shady activity, too. They run sweatshops in foreign countries or hidden in this one, they corrupt politicians, they kill people for pleasure. Take all the wickedness the human heart indulges in, bind it all together in a single individual and add a huge helping of magic, and that would describe a Droon. Not every evil person is a Droon, although every Droon is evil. The real test is the aura, like I said. You’ll see very soon. I’ll take you to visit one of them that we’ve been watching, and you can see the aura for yourself.”

“But just the same, Dad,” said the suddenly grownup Mike, “the whole thing is an exercise in futility. Kill the Droon, and they just come back.”

Dad nodded. “I know, son,” he said. “It’s kind of like mowing the grass. It will never be finished once and for all, but it still needs to be done.”

The next morning, Mike brewed some coffee, then booted up his computer and opened the Scourge of God folder. In that folder were a number of text files containing the records of the Order’s activities for the past thirty years. Older records were contained in bound books on the shelves in the basement of Mike’s home in the Berkeley hills. The relatively recent volumes, those going back to the mid nineteenth century, were typewritten. Earlier than that were handwritten volumes, and of those the ones dating as early as the sixteenth century were written in modern English, although the oldest of them contained many Shakespeare-like archaisms. Before that, they were inscribed in Latin, which of course Mike had learned to read as part of his training for his current position. Latin, unarmed combat, armed combat both melee and firearms, stealth and concealment, breaking and entering, computer science and hacking, meditation and breath control, magical ritual and the use of magical powers, and the history and traditions of the Scourge of God going back to the Order’s founding in the Fourteenth Century at the time when the Droon first made their appearance among humans, in the midst of Europe’s turmoil.

Mike had lied to Stevens about one thing. He was not merely a chapter master of the Scourge of God. He was the Order Master, looked up to as leader by every Scourge of God member on the planet. That was not the kind of information he felt comfortable giving the enemy. But he, Michael Cambridge, descended from Osgood of Cambridge, the Order’s founder, had been selected from birth to become the new Order Master on his thirtieth birthday. It was the only calling he had ever known, but now, for the first time in his life, he began to doubt.

He pulled up a Google search screen and stared at it while drumming his fingers on his desk.

Could he trust the information he had gotten from Stevens?

Yes and no. He could trust every word of it to be true. That was in the Pact of War between the Droon and the Scourge. What he couldn’t trust was his own interpretation of those words. They genetically engineered themselves to all be equal and obedient cogs in the wheel, and they created a lockstep communistic utopia and wanted to impose it on everyone else. That was the way that Stevens saw the Andol and their society. But it didn’t automatically follow that Mike would judge them the same way.

We resisted them for several thousand years. Then one day they hit us with weapons of mass destruction and wiped us out. That was true, too. Mike was sure. But who started the war? What happened to the society of the Andol? Was the attack that wiped out the Droon home world a first strike or was it retaliatory? These were important questions, and Stevens hadn’t answered them, because Mike hadn’t thought to ask.

Many things remained up in the air, but two things he could be sure about. The Andol were a race of interlopers similar in some respects to the Droon. And they were here.

How to find them? San Francisco was a pretty big town.

Flashing on a word that Stevens had used, Mike typed “ashrams in San Francisco” and hit the enter key.

One had to start somewhere.

Image credit: lonely11 / 123RF Stock Photo

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Villainy

villain

What is a villain in fiction, particularly fantasy fiction?

The villain always partakes of myth. He is the Enemy, the reason why we need a Hero, the Challenge that causes the Hero to rise above his limitations and self-doubt and reach his potential. Depending on how the story is crafted, the Villain (time to capitalize that word, I think) may also be a human being with limitations and flaws of his own. But that isn’t always so, particularly in fantasy, where the Villain may be a myth in the conventional sense. There’s nothing human about Sauron or Emperor Palpatine. (There is, of course, about Darth Vader, who is the central character of the whole Star Wars series.)

Whether to make your Villain a human being and show his or her point of view is a literary decision and there are benefits either way. I usually do. Some writers don’t. But it is always necessary to introduce into your villains a mythic element. That is what makes a villain into a Villain.

So let’s consider some of the implications of Villainy in terms of myth.

The Villain is that which stands in the way of Good. Whatever we want or believe in, it’s the antithesis. We can (or anyway I can) identify three levels of villainy, each a higher octave (so to speak) of the one before.

The most basic level of Villainy is Selfishness. This involves base human motivations: greed, power-lust, anger and violence. A lot of Villains are motivated by one or more of these, with the first two being the most common. These are points where individual human desires are in conflict with the enterprise of civilization. Greed puts individual selfishness above the common good. Power-lust elevates one person’s will above the commonalty. Anger and violence strike out to destroy the peace on which civilized life depends.

You can do a lot with just these human motivations. Most bad guys outside the genres of fantasy and science fiction are motivated by nothing more than these. But the Villain potentially becomes more interesting when he rises above these ordinary failings and exhibits something even more sinister.

The next step up in Villainy is Twisted Virtue. It consists of a warped dedication to the Good: a Robespierre, a Cromwell, even a Hitler. These three men acted in pursuit not primarily of their own personal gain, ambition, or rage, but out of what they saw as the good of society. Their evil came about because they pursued the good through dubious means (Robespierre), too inflexibly and autocratically (Cromwell), or with a warped idea of the good that authorized actions most would call evil (Hitler). This sort of person makes a much darker Villain, capable of far greater evil, than a mere greedy businessman, crooked politician, or thug. Corrupted virtue accomplishes greater evil than mere vice. A person will seldom make sacrifices for his own gain, especially not ones that outweigh the gain anticipated. There’s a cost-benefit analysis involved in selfish evil that applies a certain amount of restraint. But in pursuit of something conceived of as the greater good, something that is greater and nobler than one’s own selfish desire, a person will go to greater efforts and make greater sacrifices and risk greater dangers. If that conception is flawed, greater evil can result.

The third and highest octave of wickedness in a Villain is what might be called Demonic Evil. Here we have the Villain who commits evil deeds, not out of base selfish motivations nor out of a warped desire to serve the Good, but out of a clear, no-bones-about-it dedication to Evil itself. The corruption of virtue, the shattering of innocence, the destruction of society, the spreading of fear, pain, poverty, and ruin, are sought by the Demonic Villain not because they are means to some desired end (whether selfish or noble), but as ends in themselves. It’s difficult to make this level of evil believable in a human Villain, although not impossible.

Now here’s the challenge for a fiction writer, especially a fantasy writer: incorporate the most challenging level of Villainy you can, without losing the belief of your reader. This is especially a challenge for the fantasy writer because in fantasy the normal stops are pulled and you can introduce Demonic Evil completely unrestrained, by having your Villains be actual demons or the equivalent. Cosmic principles of annihilation. Ancient gods of darkness that have slept for thousands of years and are about to return. The Dark Lord and his mind-warped priests who have left all humanity behind them. A great mind consumed by the Dark Side of the Force. You can do this sort of thing in fantasy and get away with it, but if you do, it becomes much, much harder to have your Villain be a sympathetic character.

Sometimes it becomes impossible to do that and the goal is abandoned. The Villain is simply an Enemy and all sympathy lies with the Hero, whose human struggle against inhuman evil makes up the main plot line.

On the other end (and this tends to be closer to my own failing), it’s possible to seek humanity on the part of the Villain so much that his villainy becomes watered down. It’s easier to do it the other way, with a Villain who is just a Villain, but it seems to me that you lose the opportunity for some interesting character development that way. The balancing act can be delicate. But the great thing is that it can work no matter where you come down, as long as there are sufficient challenges posed by your Villains, internal, external, or a combination of the two.

Image credit: fotokostic / 123RF Stock Photo

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Fundamentalism, Atheism, and Tunnel Vision

PolySkeptic

PolySkeptic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I seem to be getting into arguments with militant atheists* recently, for reasons I don’t really understand. I should know better. It’s just that I get a little annoyed when people lump me in with religious fundamentalists.

See, I get into arguments with religious fundamentalists all the time, and that isn’t any mystery.

Still, here are two groups that all but define themselves in opposition to one another, particularly the atheist side, and they become so obsessed with their conflict at times that they can’t see anything outside its boundaries. The position of militant atheists goes something like, “THAT is what religion is! And that’s why we hate it! It’s a plague upon the universe, a fountain of intolerance and an authoritarian mess of superstitious ignorance!”

All of which is quite true about fundamentalism. But the first sentence is false.

It’s remarkable how complete this tunnel vision can be among people who pride themselves on their ostensible rationality. Recently, I even had one MA respond to evidence that atheists and agnostics don’t constitute 20% of the American population, they constitute about 5% of it — one quarter of the religiously unaffiliated (that’s the 20% demographic) — by saying, “Come on, America isn’t 95% Christian!” In his mind, evidently, there were only two categories, atheist and Christian, and so if the country isn’t 95% Christian (which it’s not — more like 79%), then it must be more than 5% atheist, because, you know, there’s no other category with respect to religion. Is there?

Most MAs aren’t quite that obvious about it, and have some awareness that non-Christian religious people exist, but this awareness isn’t convenient to their facile dismissal of religion, and so they suppress the knowledge one way or another. The too-obviously-untrue “all religious people are fundamentalist Christians” is replaced by claims like, “all religious people are authoritarian,” “all religious people believe what they do because a book tells them it’s true,” or “all religious people are opposed to science.” These three things are characteristics of religious fundamentalists, particularly fundamentalist Christians: they are authoritarian, they believe in the literal infallibility of the Bible, and they are averse to at least large portions of science and certainly to the scientific method as an approach to knowledge.

None of these statements is true about religion in general, of course, any more than it’s true that all religious people are fundamentalist Christians. (I am a religious person. I am anti-authoritarian. I reject the concept of scripture altogether. And I adore science. Therefore these claims are factual errors. Q.E.D.)

In fact, the militant atheist misunderstanding of religion reminds me of nothing quite so much as the creationist misunderstanding and misrepresentation of evolution theory. In both cases, the errors are driven by a desire to believe something in conflict with reality.

The root error in militant atheism is the other side of fundamentalism’s coin. To my perspective, MAs and fundamentalist look like conjoined twins. Neither can exist without the other, and both are making the same basic mistake, but going in opposite directions as a result.

The mistake both are making is to define God.

God (or substitute whatever other metaphor you prefer — the Goddess, the All, the Void, the Infinite, the Ultimate, the Cosmos) is ultimately unknowable. We may experience God in various ways, but we cannot encompass and know God, and that means we cannot define God. God is in this respect like the ocean. We can swim in it, but it’s an exercise in futility to try to drink it dry, or to put it in a bottle.

With respect to fundamentalism or to doctrinaire religion of any kind, this means that any theological claims about what God is — particularly when they imply something God is not — are mistakes. It is impossible to have one religion be true, and others false. At best, any religious statement is a metaphor, and there is no such thing as a true or false metaphor. Fundamentalism is a confusion of the map with the territory, the poem with the feeling, the cup with the wine. (If they drink wine. Some of them don’t.) To define God is to create an idol. It is idolatry. Fundamentalism is idol-worship.

And militant atheists? They stand up proudly, and with icy, unassailable rationality declaim that there is no evidence the fundamentalists’ idol exists. And that would be fine (because they’re right as far as that goes) if they had sufficient awareness that that was all they were doing. But instead, they claim that there is no evidence God exists, as if they had any idea what God was or what would constitute evidence for his/her/its existence.

Which they don’t. Nor does anyone else, really — not a clear, definable idea anyway, because that’s impossible. God is and will always remain a mystery. God can be experienced, but not known; God can be understood, but not defined; God can be loved, but not analyzed.

Both fundamentalists and militant atheists have a very crude, simplistic idea in their minds that they mean when they say “God,” and it’s the same idea. Fundamentalists insist that this crude idea is real; they point to spiritual experience and answered prayer as proof. Atheists insist that there is no good evidence the same crude idea is real; they point to problems with scripture and lack of any concrete proof, while dismissing or explaining away spiritual experience and answered prayer. Both are partly right. The fundamentalists are right in that there IS something real underlying their idols — but they’re wrong in defining it as they do. The atheists are right that the idol is something made up and imaginary and there is no good evidence that it exists — but they’re wrong in thinking there is nothing there, even if it’s not what the fundamentalists claim it is.

From my own point of view, these are two sides of the same coin. The fundamentalists are heads. The atheists are tails. Flip the coin and see which one comes up. But whichever one does, it remains counterfeit.

 

* “Atheist” is a broad term. In some respects, I’m an atheist myself. The Buddha was an atheist. Anyone who does not believe that a personal deity is the ultimate reality is an atheist in some sense. By no means all atheists fit the description in this post. However, there is a certain sub-set of the set of atheists that does, and that sub-set includes almost all of those who go around making a point of being an atheist and picking arguments with religious people. Hence the “militant” qualifier.

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