The near-universal existence of religion across cultures is surprising. Many people have speculated on what makes tribes around the world so fixated on believing in gods and propitiating them and so on. More recently people like Dawkins and Dennett have added their own contributions about parasitic memes and hyperactive agent-detection.
But I think a lot of these explanations are too focused on a modern idea of religion. I find ancient religion much more enlightening. I’m no historian, but from the little I know ancient religion seems to bleed seamlessly into every other aspect of the ancient way of life. For example, the Roman religion was a combination of mythology, larger-than-life history, patriotism, holidays, customs, superstitions, rules about the government, beliefs about virtue, and attempts to read the future off the livers of pigs. And aside from the pig livers, this seems entirely typical.
American culture (“American civil religion“) has a lot of these features too. It has mythology and larger-than-life history: George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, the wise and glorious Founding Fathers, Honest Abe single-handedly freeing the slaves with his trusty hatchet. It has patriotic symbols and art: the flag, the anthem, Uncle Sam. It has holidays: the Fourth of July, Martin Luther King Day, Washington’s birthday. It has customs: eat turkey on Thanksgiving, have a barbecue on Memorial Day, watch the Super Bowl. It has superstitions – the number 13, black cats – and ritual taboos – even “obvious” things like don’t go outside naked needs to be thought of as taboo considering some cultures do so without thinking. It has rules about the government – both the official laws you’ll find in the federal law code, but also deep-seated beliefs about the goodness of democracy or about how all men are created equal, and even customs that affect day-to-day governance like the President giving a State of the Union in January before both houses of Congress. There are beliefs about virtue: everyone should be free, we should try to be independent, we should work hard and pursue the American Dream.
Insofar as this isn’t obvious to schoolchildren learning about ancient religion, it’s because the only thing one ever hears about ancient religion is the crazy mythologies. But I think American culture shows lots of signs of trying to form a crazy mythology, only to be stymied by modernity-specific factors. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many historians around to tell us exactly how things really happened. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many scientists around to tell us where the rain and the lightning really come from. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we’re only two hundred-odd years old and these things take time. And most of all, we can’t have crazy mythologies because Christianity is already sitting around occupying that spot.
But if America was a thousand years old and had no science, no religion, and no writing, we would have crazy mythologies up the wazoo. George Washington would take on the stature of an Agamemnon; Benjamin Franklin would take on the status of a Daedalus. Instead of centaurs and satyrs and lamia we would have jackalopes and chupacabras and grey aliens. All those people who say with a nod and a wink that Paul Bunyan dug the Great Lakes as a drinking trough for his giant ox would say the same thing nodless and winkless. Superman would take on the stature of a Zeus, dwelling beside Obi-Wan Kenobi and Bigfoot atop Mt. Whitney, helping the virtuous and punishing the wicked. Some American Hesiod would put succumb to the systematizing impulse, put it all together and explain how George Washington was the son of Superman and ordered Paul Bunyan to dig Chesapeake Bay to entrap the British fleet, and nobody would be able to say they were wrong. I mean, we already have Superman vs. Batman as canon, why not go the extra distance?
Scott Alexander, “A Theory About Religion”, Slate Star Codex, 2016-04-07.
April 18, 2016
July 7, 2015
On his blog, Charlie provides a crib sheet for his novel The Rhesus Chart including the all-too-common appearance of vampires in urban fiction:
Vampires: well, who hasn’t read enough vampire books or watched enough vampire movies to claim some expertise? Maybe I’m anomalous in having a low taste for urban fantasy, but while I’m writing a novel I can’t unwind by reading something similar to what I’m working on — so during my hard-SF phase in the 2000s I read far too much UF as a source of brain candy while writing books like Iron Sunrise or Saturn’s Children.
There are huge inconsistencies in the vampire mythology, largely because the idea of blood-sucking corpses (or the more abstract transferrable-curse-of-vampirisim) crops up in many different cultures. Northern European vampires seem to have their origins in primitive misapprehensions about the process of decay of bodies after death, and in the way contagious diseases spread through families living in close unhygienic conditions (such as tuberculosis). Religious trappings got layered on top early on, because religious beliefs are a way of making sense of the universe, especially its more inexplicable aspects: hence the holy water/crucifix allergy. So it occurred to me that given the Laundry Files universe as a setting, it ought to be possible to come up with an “origin story” for vampirism that fits the mythology sufficiently well to explain most of the core elements and that was consistent with the previously established motifs of supernatural brain parasitism. If instead of pure parasitism (the eaters in night, the K-syndrome parasites) we posit a commensal symbiote, or a parasite that uses the host to harvest food, you end up with something like the V-parasites — and indeed, this sort of parasitism is something we see in nature.
One of my beefs with the urban fantasy genre in general is that there’s a tendency for less thoughtful authors to absorb the eschatological trappings that have cohered around the monster myths they’re adopting without questioning them. (Holy water and vampires would be one example.) I wrote The Apocalypse Codex in large part as a response to this problem — to underline the fact that the Laundry Files universe is not driven by Christian religious eschatology (unless Cthulhu worship really is going mainstream). Another problem I have with many UF series is that they posit a hidden world of magic and monsters coexisting with our own … without any friction visible around the edges, even as vampires and demons rack up an impressive body count. The Rhesus Chart is part of my fix for this in the Laundry Files (although The Concrete Jungle makes some interesting observations about the true purpose of the Mass Observation programs of the 1930s to 1960s). Vampires are predators and predators are territorial. It’s also not a great leap of the imagination to postulate that if vampires exist and were identified as a problem in public, the scale of the response would rival that of the reaction to terrorism: mandatory naked noonday identity parades, police patrols with mirrors and stakes, and so on. So the first rule of vampire school is: vampires don’t exist … and if you see one, kill it and dispose of the evidence because it’s carelessness is a direct existential risk to your own survival.
May 31, 2015
Jonah was taken aback by something Kevin Williamson wrote — not so much at the article itself, but at the casual assertion that his favourite presidential candidate was “the mighty Cthulhu (‘Why Vote for a Lesser Evil?’)”. Jonah explains why:
I found this curious. Kevin’s preferred candidate is Cthulhu? Don’t get me wrong, I get the appeal. Cthulhu gets things done. He doesn’t pander. He certainly seems to believe in a kind of sound-money policy (by the way, I’m using the masculine pronoun for convenience, not descriptive accuracy; Cthulhu is beyond sex and gender). But Cthulhu poses some problems as a presidential candidate. The first that comes to mind is that he is evil.
I should note that the claim that Cthulhu is evil has actually sparked some controversy on Twitter. Some of his devotees tell me that he’s beyond mortal conceptions of evil which, of course, is what evil people always say. Moreover, his campaign slogan is “Why vote for the lesser evil?” Is he lying? Will he be a flip-flopper, refusing to follow through on his platform of full-spectrum evil? The last thing this country needs is an EDINO — Evil Deity In Name Only. No, I take him at his word.
Call me old-fashioned, but even though I take a back seat to no one in appreciating the appeal of a cleansing fire that shall sanitize this corrupt husk of a planet, choosing evil still strikes me as morally problematic.
Jonah’s preferred choice? SMOD:
I suggest that for the principled conservative looking to chuck it all in and give up, there’s only one candidate with the credentials and philosophy the times require. I’m referring, of course, to the Sweet Meteor of Death, Smod to his friends.
Smod describes himself as a “pre-cambrian conservative.” He has no cultists looking to rule in his name. He doesn’t endorse evil, merely the sweet release of planetary destruction. While Cthulhu can be a bit of windbag, Smod makes no speeches, he makes no sounds at all as he glides through the cosmic ether. Calvin Coolidge looks loquacious by comparison. Meanwhile, Cthulhu’s will is unpredictable, he vows chaos and anarchy here on earth. Smod provides what the market demands: certainty, predictability, and simple rules for a complex society. Who knows what Cthulhu will do tomorrow? With Smod there is no tomorrow. He has the single-minded focus only a cold and soulless inanimate object can provide.
Last, Smod is real. We don’t know when he’ll get here, but odds are he eventually will. Sure, “Why Choose the Lesser Evil?” is a great bumper sticker, but aren’t we tired of fakes who fail to deliver? To borrow a phrase from Seinfeld, Smod is real and he’ll be spectacular (for a fraction of a second. And then silence. Sweet, sweet silence).
Jonah, I thank you for the kind words. But, hesitant as I am to disagree, I think you might need to think through this a little bit. I am second to none in my admiration for Sweet Meteor O’Death, and I pray devoutly that he arrives in one piece every time I turn on MSNBC, but there is a strong case to be made for Cthulhu in 2016.
Smod is a little bit like Rick Santorum: You may sympathize with what he stands for, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily want him to be president. Imagine the fear, the absolute terror, the despairing wails of the entire human race at the moment of his arrival: You could get all that by nominating Santorum for secretary of education and saving the presidency for surer hands.
Jonah, I think this is another case of the tension between more libertarian-leaning conservatives such as myself and the more traditional Burkeans such as you. I am perfectly comfortable with a reign of eldritch chaos on Earth, while you, in spite of your own warnings against the totalitarian temptation, present us with the ultimate one-size-fits-all solution. Yes, solving all of our problems in a blinding flash of planet-ending mass extinction is, given the current political environment, a genuine feel-good solution — but what are we, hippies?
Sure, Smod is bound to have some clever campaign ads, e.g. a big picture of the Earth over the slogan “I’d Hit That!” (Another possible Smod motto: “The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.” You’d think he’d have thought of that.) But we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by that kind of shallow demagoguery.
May 3, 2015
He’s quite right … and he drives home the point in a recent blog post:
Desmodus rotundis isn’t sexy. (Except insofar as small furry rodents that carry rabies aren’t as un-sexy as some other obligate haemophages.) Bed bugs are really not sexy. But if you want maximally not-sexy, it’s hard to top Placobdelloides jaegerskioeldi, the Hippo Arse Leech.
The Hippo Arse Leech is a leech; it sucks blood. Like most leeches, its mouth parts aren’t really up to drilling through the armour-tough skin of a hippopotamus, so it seeks out an exposed surface with a much more porous barrier separating it from the juicy red stuff: the lining of the hippo rectum. When arse leeches find somewhere to feed, in due course happy fun times ensue — for hermaphrodite values of happy fun times that involve traumatic insemination. Once pregnant, the leeches allow themselves to be expelled by the hippo (it’s noteworthy that hippopotami spin their tails when they defecate, to sling the crap as far away as possible — possibly because the leeches itch — we’re into self-propelled-hemorrhoids-with-teeth territory here), whereupon in the due fullness of time they find another hippo, force their way through it’s arse crack, and find somewhere to chow down. Oh, did I mention that this delightful critter nurtures its young? Yep, the mother feeds her brood until they’re mature enough to find a hippo of their own. (Guess what she feeds them with.)
Here ‘s a video by Mark Siddall, professor of invertebrate zoology at the American Natural History Museum, a noted expert on leeches, describing how he discovered P. Jaegerskioeldi, just in case you think I’m making this up.
By the end of my description Jim and Freda were both … well, I wish I’d thought to photograph their faces for posterity. So were the audience. And that’s when I got to the money shot: the thing about fictional vampires is, vampires are only sexy when they’re anthropomorphic.
April 6, 2015
Published on 1 Apr 2015
In this Trekspertise special, David Brin lays out the qualities that help science fiction stand out from other genres. This is a re-edit of David Brin’s original video, “Science Fiction: The Literature Of Change”. Be sure to check out Mr. Brin’s excellent books, as well =)
March 6, 2015
While we’re on the topic of odd beliefs in the middle east, here’s a fascinating court case:
If the East ever perfects its own version of the courtroom drama — Piri Mason, say — it will surely consist of dramatic moments like this: Koksal Sahin, a Turkish man accused of murdering his girlfriend, stealing her valuables, and fleeing from Istanbul to Izmir, pleaded not guilty this week and offered the court revelatory testimony of what actually happened. “As far as I understood,” Mr. Sahin told the court, “a genie attacked her.”
According to the defendant, when this genie saw an Islamic amulet that was hanging from Mr. Sahin’s neck, the malevolent entity went berserk. Mr. Sahin realized what was happening because his late girlfriend was “saying something in Arabic” while attacking herself. The genie not only caused Mr. Sahin’s girlfriend to stab herself in the stomach and cut her own throat, he testified, but it also grabbed Mr. Sahin himself and flew him off to Izmir, where he found himself registered as a guest in a hostel, apparently in possession of the girlfriend’s valuables.
But Mr. Sahin’s story is not as ironclad as it may seem. While several aspects of the story are consistent with the behavior of genies — or djinn — according to traditional lore and even some judicial precedent, others are previously unrecorded. Djinn are certainly believed to be able to possess human beings and to influence their behavior, and they have a long mischievous history of flying people about and depositing them in distant places, especially when the humans are asleep. And while cases of djinn killing people may exist in the lore, instances of djinn murdering their own human hosts unprovoked are highly unusual.
December 18, 2014
The timidity of the child or the savage is entirely reasonable; they are alarmed at this world, because this world is a very alarming place. They dislike being alone because it is verily and indeed an awful idea to be alone. Barbarians fear the unknown for the same reason that Agnostics worship it – because it is a fact. Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.
G.K. Chesterton, “The Red Angel”, Tremendous Trifles, 1909.
August 13, 2014
Jack Schafer on the cyclical nature of the news and an explanation for certain story types growing into mythic form:
Has some wise guy flipped a switch and thrown the news into summer reruns?
Everywhere you look in your news feed is a story you’ve seen before. In northern Iraq, conquering jihadists have the Kurds calling on the United States for more help. North Korea is again stating its desire to nuke the White House. A virulent contagion abroad has Americans worrying when it will break out on our shores. And, in a rerun of a rerun, a Gaza war of tunnels, rockets, invasions, ceasefires, withdrawals, broken ceasefires, and shuttle diplomacy is claiming a record harvest of headlines.
But the periodicity of the news has another cause, as press scholar Jack Lule discovered more than a decade ago in his book Daily News, Eternal Stories. Lule proposed that the news was less a pure journalistic creation than it was the modern expression of ancient myths.
Like many all-encompassing formulas, Lule’s reduction of news into myth suffers by attempting to explain too much. But after reading his book, you can’t help but notice how many front-page stories collapse into the seven master myths he assembles (which will sound familiar to anybody who has brushed up against Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces): the victim, a casualty of randomness or a villain; the scapegoat, who is punished for straying outside the social order; the hero, who smites evil; the good mother, who “offers maternal comfort and protection”; the trickster, the rogue who disturbs the social order; the other world, typically foreign countries; and the flood, or any other disaster.
Few, if any, journalists would confess to consciously calling myths to convey the news, perhaps in part because so few of them are aware of the mythic thrust of their work. Instead, the ancient outlines express themselves spontaneously in copy, as reporters, who are usually voluminous readers, seek to infuse higher meaning to the disparate facts they’ve collected in their notebooks, even if they’re covering something as prosaic as a funeral or a legislative battle.
Few readers would confess to myth-seeking in their media choices, yet Lule makes the undeniable case that audiences prefer news when it is fashioned into something more eternal than pure information. Lule writes:
Newspaper sales, magazine circulation, television news ratings, and website traffic all surge during dramatic and sensational events: schoolyard killings, royal weddings, hurricanes, assassinations, airline crashes, and inaugurations. What are people seeking? They’re not going to use these stories to vote for a candidate. They want compelling dramas. They want satisfying stories that speak to them of history and fate and the fragility of life. They want myth.
May 20, 2014
Charles Stross doesn’t typically write stories with traditional hero characters, and he explains why, before digging deeper into the likely origins of the stereotype:
I will confess that I find it difficult to write fictional heroes with a straight face. After all, we are all the heroes of our internal narrative (even those of us who others see as villains: nobody wakes up in the morning, twirls their moustache, and thinks, how can I most effectively act to further the cause of EVIL™ today?). And people who might consider themselves virtuous or heroic within their own framework, may be villains when seen from the outside: it’s a common vice of fascists (who seem addicted to heroic imagery — it’s a very romantic form of political poison, after all, the appeal to the clean and manly virtue of cold steel in subordination to the will of the State), and also of paternalist authoritarians.
[…] it seems pretty damn clear that the superhero archetypes hail back to the polytheistic religions of yore, to the Greek, Roman, Norse, and Egyptian pantheons and their litany of family feuds and bad-tempered bickering. (And is it just me or are half the biggest plots in
superheropre-monotheist mythology the punch-line to the God-Father (or occasionally one of his more troublesome sons) failing to keep his cock to himself, and the other half due to a jealous squabble between goddesses that escalates into a nuclear grudge-fest until suddenly Trojan Wars break out?)
We have this in common with our 5000-years-dead ancestors: we’re human beings, and our neural architecture hasn’t changed that much since the development of language and culture (unless you believe Julian Jaynes — and I don’t). We still have the same repertoire of emotional reactions. We still have a dismaying tendency to think it’s all about us, for any value of “it” you care to choose. We fall for a whole slew of common cognitive biases, including a complex of interacting heuristics that make us highly vulnerable to supernatural beliefs and religions. (The intentional stance per Dennett means we ascribe actions to intentionality; confirmation bias leads us to assume intentionality to natural events because this is something that’s been bred into us throughout the many millions of years of predator/prey arms races that weeded out those of our ancestors who weren’t fast enough to correlate signs such as lion prints at the nearby watering hole with other signs like Cousin Ugg going missing and realize there was a connection. So our ancestors looked on as lightning zapped another unfortunate Cousin Ugg, felt instinctively that there had to be a reason, and decided there was a Lightning God somewhere and he’d gotten mad at our tribe.)
We have other biases. We look at people with good skin and bilaterally symmetrical features (traits indicative of good health) and we see them as beautiful (hey, again: we’re the end product of endless generations of organisms that did best when they forged reproductive partnerships with other organisms that were in good health), so obviously they’ve been blessed by the gods. And the gods bless those who are virtuous, because virtue (by definition) is what the gods bless you for. So beauty comes to be equated with good; and this plays itself out in our fictions, where our heroes and favoured protagonists are mostly handsome or pretty and the villains are ugly as sin …
July 18, 2013
We open to an orgy in a god’s sex cave.
Tannhauser, a bard in the Germanic middle ages, is the boy-toy of Venus, eternal goddess of hot sex that you thought would be totally worth all her baggage but in the long run isn’t. Remember the wisdom of the bros: even if he or she is literally an unearthly gorgeous sex god, somewhere there is someone who is sick of putting up with his or her bullshit.
Tannhauser and Venus are shacked up at Venus’ place, which with typical German lyricism is called “Venusburg.” Tannhauser and Venus are lounging in bed. They’re watching a dance/orgy/cage match among Naiads, Sirens, the Three Graces, fauns, satyrs, nymphs, Baccchantes, and cupids. No, really. I could quote the libretto I just linked, but even the description of this is abusively long. Wagner could have just said “enter the entire Monster Manual, which humps.”
That’s the ballet. There’s no dialogue, and it’s not Wagner’s best music, though it’s not terrible. It does, however, answer the question “can an orgy be tedious?”
Ken White, “Popehat Goes To The Opera: Tannhauser”, Popehat, 2013-07-17
July 8, 2013
In sp!ked, Brendan O’Neill discusses the unlikely comeback of “fate”:
Fate is making a comeback. The idea that a human being’s fortunes are shaped by forces beyond his control is returning, zombie-like, from the graveyard of bad historical ideas. The notion that a man’s character and destiny are determined for him rather than by him is back in fashion, after 500-odd years of having been criticised and ridiculed by humanist thinkers.
Of course, we’re far too sophisticated these days actually to use the f-word, fate. We don’t talk about a god called Fortuna, as the Romans did, believing that this blind, mysterious creature decided people’s fates with the spin of a wheel. Unlike long-gone Norse communities we don’t believe in goddesses called Norns, who would attend the birth of every child to determine his or her future. No, today we use scientific terms to argue that people’s fortunes are determined by higher powers than their little, insignificant selves.
We use and abuse neuroscience to claim certain people are ‘born this way’. We claim evolutionary psychology explains why people behave and think the way they do. We use phrases like ‘weather of mass destruction’, in place of ‘gods’, to push the idea that mankind is a little thing battered by awesome, destiny-determining forces. Fate has been brought back from the dead and she’s been dolled up in pseudoscientific rags.
[. . .]
It’s hard to overstate what a radical idea this was at the tailend of the Dark Ages. It’s this idea that gives rise to the concept of free will, to the concept of personality even. And it was an idea carried through to the Enlightenment and on to the humanist liberalism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the words of the greatest liberal, John Stuart Mill, it is incumbent upon the individual to never ‘let the world, or his portion of it, choose his plan of life for him’.
But today, in our downbeat era that bears a bit of a passing resemblance to the Dark Ages, we’re turning the clock back on this idea. We’re rewinding the historic breakthroughs of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and we’re breathing life back into the fantasy of fate. Ours is an era jampacked with deterministic theories, claims that human beings are like amoeba in a Petri dish being prodded and shaped by various forces. But the new determinism isn’t religious or supernatural, as it was in the pre-Enlightened era — it’s scientific determinism, or rather pseudo-scientific determinism.
December 30, 2012
In the Telegraph, Adam Sisman reviews a book by Hugh Trevor-Roper (an old article from 2008, but still of interest):
Trevor-Roper was repelled by Scottish nationalism’s appeal to atavistic tribal loyalties. He knew that historical myth, however innocently concocted, could have unforeseen, even pernicious, consequence; the romantic fantasies of Goethe and Wagner had fired the imagination of the Nazis.
Trevor-Roper believed that ‘the whole history of Scotland has been coloured by myth’, and he took it upon himself to address some of these myths in this book, largely written in the 1970s, but set aside while still in draft. His former pupil, Jeremy Cater, has skilfully edited the text and has added a useful foreword.
The Invention of Scotland identifies three overlapping myths that have shaped the self-image of that proud nation.
The first is the political myth of the ancient Scottish constitution: that pre-medieval Scotland had been governed by a form of limited monarchy. Time after time this anachronistic notion has been torpedoed; but after a while it has always resurfaced. To this day, the Declaration of Arbroath is brandished by patriotic Scotsmen as their equivalent of the American Declaration of Independence, albeit written in the 14th century.
[. . .]
The third myth is that of traditional Scots dress, which Trevor-Roper shows to have been got up, largely for commercial purposes, in the 19th century.
The kilt was devised by a Lancashire industrialist as a convenient form of dress for his Scottish employees; while the clan-based differentiation of the tartans was the invention of two brothers calling themselves the Sobieski Stuarts, who in 1842 published their Vestiarium Scoticum, an elaborate work of imagination which served as a pattern-book for tartan manufacturers.
[. . .]
A chapter entitled ‘The Coming of the Kilt’ traces what Trevor-Roper calls ‘the Highland takeover of Scotland’. In the 19th century ‘the apparatus of Celtic tribalism’ would be assumed by the Scots aristocracy, ‘those whose ancestors regarded Highland dress as the badge of barbarism, and shuddered at the squeal of the bagpipe’. The apotheosis of this tendency would come when George IV paraded in Edinburgh wearing a kilt of ‘Stuart tartan’: disguising himself, snorted Macaulay, ‘in what, before the Union, was considered by nine Scotchmen out of 10 as the dress of a thief’.
June 6, 2012
You have to put a bit more thought into how you name your spaceships, people of the future!
Dear People of the Future,
Congratulations! If you’re reading this, you’ve just received a state-of-the-art spacecraft, and you’re probably about to take it on an extremely dangerous mission. Your journey may even concern the safety and continued survival of the human race.
But don’t worry! I’m betting your new ride is pretty sick. It’s probably got a warp drive and maybe a solar sail and lots of other technology I couldn’t even begin to understand.
At this point, you’re probably wondering: What should I name my spacecraft?
H/T to John Turner for the link.