Tag Archives: superstition

A Question of Morality

“She would of been a good woman,” the Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Flannery O’Connor “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

I’m not religious, not a “believer.” I have a low opinion of organized religion, and am wary of “faith,” especially the unquestioning kind. That said, I believe there is room in this world for spirituality and I can respect it. There are many religious people who are deeply spiritual, and far more who are not. And there are some very spiritual people who do not ascribe to any belief system. It’s pretty complicated.

I function comfortably in a world of believers, a society where people seek out and embrace supernatural explanations for the complexities of their lives, and govern themselves in accordance with ancient rituals that are increasingly difficult to reconcile with the world today. I’m okay with that. I don’t get all frothy when people reject what science has confirmed because it goes against superstitions that have been handed down from thousands of years ago. I’m more troubled when they try to compel others to do the same. Fortunately, I live in a society where that’s pretty hard to do on a large scale, at least overtly.

True, there are small manifestations of religion that fill our culture, but I’m not going to get all bent out of shape if a well-meaning Christian says, “God bless you,” when I sneeze, or wishes me a “Merry Christmas.” I ask only they also don’t get upset if I don’t do so. When they take the equally well-meaning “Happy holidays,” as being somehow an attack on their beliefs, then there’s a problem. But, for the most part, things are fine, and I’m happy to live in a pluralistic society that can be so dominated by one particular faith, yet not become totally repressive.

Where I do get unhappy is in a rather odd place, one that comes of the melding of religion and morality. There exist things like the “Christian Yellow Pages,” where people can seek out businesses run by alleged Christians. The assumption is that a Christian will just innately be moral and ethical and trustworthy. Why? Because he believes in Jesus? More to the point, because he professes a belief in Jesus? Like someone wouldn’t lie about that? Come on, a dishonest person won’t hesitate to say whatever you want to hear. And even if he is Christian, that doesn’t make him innately more moral. Actually, the fact that he’s making such a big show out of being Christian is, as I understand it, antithetical to the actual teachings of Christianity.

But the real problem is the presumption of morality. This goes beyond business practices. Many religious people believe that a believer is more moral than a non-believer. They hold this perspective to the point that they think we need to emphasize religious practice, that we need to put religion back into the schools in order to make our children more moral. Underlying this entire premise is a very nasty assumption: not merely does religion instigate morality, but in fact in the absence of religion, people will not be moral. This is frightening.

When someone says that without religion we will not be moral, it tells me a great deal about that person. Whether or not it’s true that people cannot be moral in the absence of religion, it’s indisputable that he himself is only moral because of his religion. In other words, he only does the right thing because he believes in, and fears, some sort of divine retribution. Take away his faith, and he will become a savage.

People who are only moral because they believe some invisible superbeing is watching and keeping track aren’t moral at all. It’s said that the truest test of character is what we do when we think nobody is watching. If a believer behaves well only under threat from an all-seeing God, it’s not morality, it’s imposed behavior.

That’s why I submit that in fact non-believers are actually more moral than believers. A believer acts a certain way because he believes there is an eternal reward coming for doing so, and certain punishment for not. A non-believer, on the other hand, has no such motivation. He rejects the idea of an afterlife or reincarnation or anything else like that. He understands that this life is all we get, there are no second chances, nothing better waiting for us. When this life is over, that’s it. So he makes this life the best it can be.

And he realizes this is also true for everyone else. He, far more than the most crusading fundamentalist, understands how precious life is, in all its myriad forms. He will hesitate to kill because, unlike the believer who thinks it’s all part of God’s plan and the dead are on their way to paradise, the non-believer knows that killing takes away everything, and it can never be returned. This is why the rampant killing in our entertainments sickens me. Even in fiction, I am heartsick at a life snuffed out. Forever.

Yet our books and movies are full of killing, often done by supposedly good characters who then give no further thought to the monstrosity of what they have done. The victims didn’t matter because they weren’t major characters and, thus, their lives were unimportant. But all lives are important to someone, and a moral person never forgets that, even playing a computer game. In my book, there is death, and it’s always profound, and my characters cannot avoid the psychological consequences and moral implications. Alas, that may well make some people avoid my book, because the last thing they want is for morality to intrude on an exciting story. Not surprising, given the role religion plays in most of their lives.

Religion shields people from having to acknowledge the finality of death. It makes it easer to kill. Why else have so many wars and organized atrocities been done in the name of religion? When our conscience is imposed upon us, we are spared the burden of minding it ourselves. Now, I’m not one who says that if there were no religion, the world would be a better place (sorry Mr. Lennon, but it’s just not true). Human beings have an infinite capacity to be horrible to each other, and without religion, we’d find some other justification. But religion is a particularly good one, because rather than making us moral, it obviates our moral responsibility to each other, and thus frees us to justify the most heinous immorality as “God’s will.”

And I say that as a moral person who does not need to believe in God to be that way.

(ps I know this isn’t the follow-up to my last post as promised. But that’s still coming, so stand by.)

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Belief in Writing

When you write for a target audience, in my case teen/young adult, it’s good to know what that audience likes.  And doesn’t.  It’s one thing to read the popular books, but something else again to find out what makes those books popular.  You find that out by talking with your audience.  I have the advantage of teaching at the community college level, which means I have a wide range of students, but most predominantly those on the upper end of my target audience’s age range.  I have learned a lot of from them.

But I also want to understand the lower end.  Toward that end, I recently had a very illuminating conversation with the young daughter of a friend, who talked at length about what sorts of things she likes, what works and what doesn’t and what I need to do to be effective in catching her interest.  Her father also participated in the discussion and between them told me a lot that might otherwise not have occurred to me.  It was very beneficial.

But the most interesting part came at the end.  Her grandfather was nearby, overhearing the discussion as well, and, as it was winding down, asked a question that wasn’t really a question so much as an assumption:

“So this is a Christian novel.”

I didn’t know how to respond.  Let me say at this point that I am not religious, and do not consider myself a believer.  But nor am I a disbeliever.  Some would say that makes me an agnostic, but I don’t much care for labels.  Let’s just say that I am able to respect spirituality, and believe that the universe is interesting enough that no one way of understanding it can be sufficient.  On the other hand, blind faith worries me, and I tend to have a rather low opinion of organized religion.

So I didn’t know what to say to the grandfather, who is, it’s safe to assume, a very devout Christian.  I mean, what exactly is a Christian book?  To me that would be the Bible, particularly the New Testament.  Obviously that’s not what he meant.  Is it a book that emphasizes Christian themes, as in the works of C. S. Lewis?  Perhaps it’s simply a matter of having the protagonist be nominally a Christian.  No, I bet that’s not enough.

There exists a significant amount of Christian fiction, including, of course, in the YA genre, and from what I’ve seen, it largely plays out in one of two ways: either the protagonist is a Christian, and relies on her faith to carry her through adversity, or else she is initially not a Christian – or barely one – who, though experiences, comes to find a deeper relationship with God.  Either way, the book is about being a Christian, and the faith dominates every element of the story.

If that’s what he meant, no, I’m not writing that.  It’s much too limiting.  There are plenty of people out there who will only read Christian books, and, similarly, only listen to Christian music.  In other words, everything they do must be about praising Jesus, and also spreading the word to others.  Okay, if that’s what you like, go for it, but how narrow.  A story can be good without having the character go to church.  More to the point, the fact that the character doesn’t go to church doesn’t make the story bad.

The result of this mindset is a disproportionate amount of hack literature.  The idea is that there is an audience that will read it simply because it has the Christian label.  The same is true of Christian music, which is often derided by the mainstream music industry, and not without justification, because a lot of it seems to be weak pop or rock or country that is all about Jesus.  Not to say all of it is bad; there are some excellent Christian musicians out there.  It’s the difference between music that has Christian themes and Christian themes set to music.

My book happens to not involve religion, but that’s simply because it’s not necessary to the story.  But the grandfather’s question actually has a greater significance when you consider the other part of my genre: science fiction, which actually tends to lean to the other extreme.  Not only are the characters not religious, but, in many cases, religion doesn’t even exist.  At least, not religions like Christianity.

There might be “alien” religions, which are either revealed to be primitive superstitions being used to control the masses (a thinly veiled critique of the history of real religious institutions), or else they are noble, mystical belief systems with a tangible basis in reality.  On other words, alien gods are real.

On the other hand, the humans in the story are not religious, and sometimes the narrative makes clear that we have outgrown such nonsense.  There are of course exceptions, and characters with recognizable beliefs exist, but the veracity of their beliefs is never examined.  Or, alternately, some non-supernatural foundation for such beliefs is established, and so it turns out the angels were actually advanced aliens.  But almost never do you see Christianity presented the way the actual Christian experiences it.  And the few exceptions are mostly found in that category of Christian fiction.

The reason for this antipathy toward religion in science fiction isn’t surprising.  After all, most sci-fi writers are in it because of the science part, and thus they are scientifically inclined, empirical, skeptical and generally believe there must be a logical explanation for all things.  Naturally this will inform their writing.

But it seems to me this is as unrealistic as the expectation that a good novel has to have Jesus.  The idea that we will reach a point where we all of a sudden wise up and say, “Why were we all believing that crap?” just beggars plausibility.  There is something in our basic being that looks to something greater than ourselves.  We are driven to be religious, or at least spiritual.  Many would say this is bad and point to all the terrible things that have been done in the name of religion.  But a lot of good things have been done in religion’s name as well.  Religion is neither good nor bad in itself.  It’s simply an inescable part of the human experience.

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