Monthly Archives: September 2013

Atheist Churches! Oh My God, No!

By Lara Apps


Today’s post might offend a few people, but I don’t care. I’m pissed off. And very, very disappointed in my fellow free thinkers. I like to think of myself as pretty accepting, but I have a massive problem with the “atheist church” trend. As in, I want to slap the founders and anyone who joins one of these travesties. In case you haven’t heard, atheist and secular churches are a thing now. You can go to an assembly, receive services such as weddings and funerals, and do all the church stuff without having to believe in God or read any sacred texts. Unless you’re a member of the London-based Sunday Assembly, in which case you can be part of the church even if you do believe in God. The Calgary Secular Church even has 10 Commandments.

What the fuck is going on? Is atheism, as some commenters have suggested, turning into a religion? It sure as hell looks like it, although cult might be a better label.

The justification given for these atheist churches is that people want to feel that they are part of a supportive community of like-minded people, and to have some structure in their non-believing lives. Fine. I get that. So join a running group, or a scrapbooking club. Start a book club. Whatever floats your boat. Learn to be friends with people who don’t think exactly the same way you do — your life will be richer for it. But for fuck’s sake, don’t buy into some homogenizing “structured godlessness” scheme. Don’t believe the hype! There is no way that a large, organized group of people can maintain an all-beliefs-are-OK stance in reality for very long. Sooner or later, you get things like, say, 10 commandments and conflicts over who really belongs in your church. Sunday Assembly’s co-founder, Sanderson Jones, has already mused that this atheist church doesn’t really have to be all that atheist (see the Salon article linked below). What this means is that “hard core” atheists don’t belong. The exclusion is already happening, and this church is barely off the ground.

Jones has also said that he doesn’t think established religions will have a problem with atheists adopting their methods and forms (why would they? this is a path back to “real” church), and that the only people who will have a problem with atheist church are “aggressive atheists.” Well, I’m not an aggressive atheist, and this enterprise sounds limiting, exclusionary, and exploitative. Not to mention boring as hell. Kind of like real church, only worse because at least real churches don’t pretend to be fostering free thought.

Warning: religion and spirituality linked to depression


By Lara Apps

A new study* published this month in Psychological Medicine reports that people who are religious or spiritual are more likely to become depressed than secular people are. This was a large cohort study conducted over a year in several countries, with the goal of developing risk measures for depression. What’s remarkable about it is that most previous studies have suggested that being religious leads to better mental health. Earlier this year, for example, the media reported on a University of Saskatchewan study that concluded “Attending religious services at least monthly has a protective effect against major depression.” Here is a brief description of the background, method and results from the new study’s abstract:

Background. Several studies have reported weak associations between religious or spiritual belief and psychological health. However, most have been cross-sectional surveys in the USA, limiting inference about generalizability. An international longitudinal study of incidence of major depression gave us the opportunity to investigate this relationship further.

Method. Data were collected in a prospective cohort study of adult general practice attendees across seven countries. Participants were followed at 6 and 12 months. Spiritual and religious beliefs were assessed using a standardized questionnaire, and DSM-IV diagnosis of major depression was made using the Composite International Diagnostic Interview (CIDI). Logistic regression was used to estimate incidence rates and odds ratios (ORs), after multiple imputation of missing data.

Results. The analyses included 8318 attendees. Of participants reporting a spiritual understanding of life at baseline, 10.5% had an episode of depression in the following year compared to 10.3% of religious participants and 7.0% of the secular group (p<0.001). However, the findings varied significantly across countries, with the difference being significant only in the UK, where spiritual participants were nearly three times more likely to experience an episode of depression than the secular group [OR 2.73, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.59–4.68]. The strength of belief also had an effect, with participants with strong belief having twice the risk of participants with weak belief. There was no evidence of religion acting as a buffer to prevent depression after a serious life event.

So what’s going on? Has this study shown that religion and spirituality cause depression? No, and the authors, to their credit, don’t claim this. The most significant finding is that greater spirituality was correlated with greater risk of depression; the authors speculate that one reason for the correlation between religiosity, spirituality, and depression may be that this was a European-based study, and since Europe is more secular than North America, religious and spiritual people have less support and may therefore experience depression. Most previous studies were conducted in North America, in a very different religious context from Europe, so this is a key observation. It’s important to point out that the number of depressed religious and spiritual people was not high — it was about 10% of the study population. Also, about 7% of the non-religious participants experienced depression during the course of the study.

A rash reading of the study, or of the various reports about it, might suggest a causal link. The study authors do not argue that religion and spirituality cause depression, only that it was associated with a higher risk of depression in the participants; therefore, medical professionals should consider religiosity and spirituality as potential risk factors when assessing patients for risk of depression. Despite what some other bloggers have suggested, the study authors do not conclude that anyone needs to reject religion or spirituality in order to avoid depression.

This does, however, present an important challenge to facile assertions regarding the benefits of religion and spirituality. As the authors put it, “These results do not support the notion that religious and spiritual life views enhance psychological well-being.” Considering that this directly contradicts the findings of the University of Saskatchewan study, as well as many other studies, it would be irresponsible to draw any quick conclusions about the mental health risks and benefits of religion and spirituality. Despite headlines like “Religious believers more depressed than atheists,” which distort the study, there is no reason to assume that being non-religious confers immunity against mental illness, any more than we should assume that being religious or spiritual does.

What we absolutely need to do is question the agendas driving these studies and the ways in which they are interpreted by the media and general public. Attempts to prove that religion is good (or bad) for you are part of a long cultural war that stretches back to the anti-clericalism of the 18th century. I’m not saying religion shouldn’t be challenged, or that the authors of these studies see themselves as part of a cultural war. But the very fact that a study like this is being reported by news outlets and blogs shows that there is more at stake than straightforward medical research.

* “Spiritual and religious beliefs as risk factors for the onset of major depression: an international cohort study.” Authors: B. Leurent, I. Nazareth, J. BelloÅLn-Saamen˜o, M.-I. Geerlings, H. Maaroos, S. Saldivia, I. Sˇvab, F. Torres-GonzaÅLlez, M. Xavier and M. King. In Psychological Medicine (2013), 43, 2109–2120.

Atheist Apparel for Charity

I came across this new two-man company/initiative via the Friendly Atheist blog. Absence of Clothing sells atheism-themed t-shirts, stickers, and water bottles (I assume there will be more products eventually) and donates 50% of the profits to charities or non-profit organizations “that benefit the world in some way.”

From the comments on their Facebook page, it looks like their biggest seller so far is the “Thank God I Am An Atheist” t-shirt. Slightly too in-your-face for me, but I like the “We’re given one life and making the most of it” sticker. And I love the 50% donation to charity. Kind of sticks it to those who say atheists have no moral compass. Actions speak louder than prayer, indeed.



Vampire Weekend Made Me Cry


By Lara Apps

Not too many rock or pop songs really tug at my heartstrings (Baroque music is another story; I need a box of Kleenex handy to listen to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater). The last song I can think of that truly got to me, and still does, is U2’s With or Without You — I think it’s the keening. But Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, features two tracks that dragged some totally unexpected emotions out of me.

The first song, Unbelievers, has an upbeat sound with a quick tempo and catchy melody. Pay attention to the lyrics, though, and you find this (from Rock.rapgenius):

[Verse 1]
Got a little soul
The world is a cold, cold place to be

Want a little warmth
But who’s going to save a little warmth for me

We know the fire awaits unbelievers all of the sinners the same
Girl you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train

[Verse 2]
If I’m born again I know that the world will disagree
Want a little grace but who’s going to say a little grace for me?

We know the fire awaits unbelievers
All of the sinners the same
Girl you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train

I’m not excited but should I be
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?
I know I love you
And you love the sea
But what holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me

[Verse 3]
See the sun go down, it’s going on down when the night is deep
Want a little light but who’s going to save a little light for me?

If I’m born again I know that the world will disagree
Want a little grace but who’s going to say a little grace for me?

We know the fire awaits unbelievers
All of the sinners the same
Girl you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train

I’m not excited but should I be
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?

I know I love you and you love the sea
But what Holy water contains a little drop little drop for me

I’m not excited but should I be
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?
I know I love you and you love the sea
Wonder if the water contains a little drop little drop for me

The band has said that this is not an atheist anthem; in a more extended comment on the song, lead singer Ezra Koenig says that it is about polarization, the splitting of the world into two, e.g. religion and anti-religion. It’s also, clearly, about trying to fit into such a world. The references to holy water, grace, fire, etc. suggest strongly that the song’s narrator is a Catholic atheist (that is, an atheist who used to be Catholic); however, I think the lyrics could be interpreted more broadly as referring to anyone who is an unbeliever toward any dominant ideology or religion, all of which tend to condemn naysayers. In any case, the lines that I responded to the most when I first heard the song are the pre-chorus and chorus, specifically the line “Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?” I remember the hostility of believers coming as a shock when I was younger, and it still saddens me that a large proportion of the people on this planet think I deserve to burn in hell just for opting out of religion. It doesn’t matter how much good I try to do in my life: I’m a lost soul to them.

You would think that this wouldn’t matter to an atheist, since belief in an afterlife tends to get jettisoned along with belief in god/gods. It’s true that threatening an unbeliever with hell is unlikely to be effective in changing their behaviour. Still, though, there’s a moment when you have to come to terms with severing yourself from most of what humanity believes about the world, life, and death. I don’t mean to suggest that atheists are heroic or unique in this; we’re not. But while atheism is liberating, it’s also, at times, a difficult way to relate to the world. Unbelievers captures this beautifully.

The other song is called Ya Hey. Musically, it reminds me very much of U2’s Joshua Tree-Rattle and Hum period for reasons I can’t quite pin down. Here are the lyrics, courtesy of Rock.rapgenius:

[Verse 1] Oh, sweet thing Zion doesn’t love you
And Babylon don’t love you
But you love everything
Oh, you saint
America don’t love you
So I could never love you
In spite of everything
In the dark of this place
There’s the glow of your face

There’s the dust on the screen
Of this broken machine

And I can’t help but feel
That I’ve made some mistake
But I let it go

Ya Hey (x3)

Through the fire and through the flames
(Ya hey x2, Ut Deo, ya hey x2)
You won’t even say your name
(Ya hey x2, Ut Deo, ya hey x2)
Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”

But who could ever live that way?
(Ya Hey x2)
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo

[Verse 2]
Oh, the motherland don’t love you
The fatherland don’t love you
So why love anything?
Oh, good God
The faithless they don’t love you
The zealous hearts don’t love you
And that’s not gonna change

All the cameras and files
All the paranoid styles
All the tension and fear
Of a secret career

And I think in your heart
That you’ve seen the mistake
But you let it go

Ya Hey (x3)


[Middle 8]
Outside the tents, on the festival grounds
As the air began to cool, and the sun went down
My soul swooned, as I faintly heard the sound

Of you spinning “Israelites”
Into “19th Nervous Breakdown”


Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”
But who could ever live that way?
(Ya Hey x2)
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo Annotate

This is a song addressed directly to God, expressing the frustration, anger and,
perhaps, grief of the doubter. Like Unbelievers, Ya Hey captures the way
doubting God feels — it’s not a purely intellectual experience if you used to
believe. Robert Leedham expresses this perfectly in his moving post about this

“Rather than dropping oblique reference points every third line, it sees Koenig adopt a magnificently blasphemous posture from start to finish. He is talking to Jehovah/The Almighty/The Big Cheese as the representative of a world of non-believers and hardened cynics. He is demanding to know, ‘When confronted with such global indifference and outright aggression, why you would not announce your existence with absolute certainty?’

Anyone who’s lost faith in religion will have posed this question before. When all was well in my life, bar a series of facial eruptions to rival Mount Vesuvius, it didn’t bother me that I’d never witnessed a shining white light and a voice booming with thespian wisdom. That would arrive in my hour of need, at a moment that required more than biblical vagaries like “I am that I am.

The truly upsetting brilliance of ‘Ya Hey’ is that it recognises this moment will never come. It’s not in God’s nature to announce himself like that. Despite having created Zion, Babylon and the rest of world, he will watch it fall apart without staging an intervention. He will leave you strung out on a hospital bed, incandescent with fear and anger, regardless of what you might consequently think of him.”

So what made me cry? I have to say, the moment I choked up while listening to Ya Hey came as a complete surprise. I was focused on working out the lyrics when this hit me: “Oh, the motherland don’t love you The fatherland don’t love you So why love anything?” The lines are being sung to God, i.e. why should God love anything if no one and nothing loves him; but that line “So why love anything?” struck me as something a doubter might very well say to him or herself. I know I did once or twice in the past. It’s not a happy state of mind.

Not all atheists go through a difficult process of separating from religion; some are lucky enough to be born into unbelieving families, and some weren’t strongly committed to a religion in the first place. My own experience wasn’t traumatic — I would say it was positive, but there were definitely some tough moments (there still are; losing my father, knowing that I would not be seeing him again, felt a lot like being bound to the tracks of a train). If Vampire Weekend had been around when I was in my teens and early twenties, I’d have gratefully adopted these two songs as anthems.

Am I complaining? Do I regret renouncing religion? Absolutely not. What I’m trying to get at in this post is that emotional work is involved in a decision so momentous as changing, or leaving, one’s religion. I’m not entirely convinced that such decisions are truly choices; I think we are compelled to follow the paths that seem true to us. In this sense, then, atheists have a great deal in common with believers.

Not-quite-random thoughts on religion in the news

By Lara Apps

The National Post reported today on a new accommodation measure at the University of Regina: special sinks designed to make it easier for the school’s 800 or so Muslim students (out of a population of 13000 students) to wash themselves before prayers. The issue with regular bathrooms is that Muslims need to wash their feet as well as their hands before prayer, which is a bit of a problem for everyone.

The National Post is deeply opposed to Quebec’s proposed charter of values and its ban on public employees wearing religious items such as large crosses and headscarves. The University of Regina’s action has therefore been presented as an example to Quebec of how things should be done. I suspect that the National Post would have taken a different position regarding the special sinks if they were not so publicly against the charter. The comments thread filled up almost immediately with anti-special sinks remarks along predictable lines, e.g. why should taxpayers have to cover the cost of such sinks and why can’t Muslims just go to their mosque to pray instead of requiring accommodations on campus?

What these commenters probably don’t realize (and perhaps it’s best if they don’t, really) is that Canadian universities actively recruit international students, many of whom will be Muslims. If we are going to recruit international students, who provide an essential source of funds for cash-strapped universities because they pay much higher fees than Canadian students, then we need to put some effort into ensuring that they are reasonably comfortable here. Even if the Muslim students are Canadian (I assume many of them are), building a few sinks seems like a humane, reasonable measure.

Yesterday’s shooting at the Washington Navy Yard by Aaron Alexis generated, among some of the weirder comments (not limited to the National Post), a suggestion that Alexis, as well as other mass shooters, was motivated by religion, because Alexis was a Buddhist. A few blogs have also suggested that Buddhists can be just as violent as members of any other religion, with reference to the current sectarian violence in Burma). First of all, mass shootings are not typically motivated by religious beliefs. We’re not talking about acts of terrorism, which, although obviously similar in that people get killed, are not the same thing as mass shootings (I don’t mean to suggest that acts of terrorism are motivated solely or necessary by religion). Second, Alexis evidently had mental health problems, including anger issues, blackouts, a persecution complex, and possible PTSD. But hey, it must have been the time he spent at his Buddhist temple that made him kill 12 people.

And to wrap things up… I’ve been following a discussion on a friend’s Facebook page, in which one of the commenters has asserted that religion is a choice and therefore members of religions can choose not to follow those faiths; they can also, therefore, simply choose not to wear the items of clothing that will be banned under the proposed Quebec charter of values. The commenter is an atheist with, apparently, no sense at all of how essential religion can be to an individual’s sense of identity. Is religion a choice? Yes, in the sense that one can adopt or leave a religion as one chooses (barring factors such as social and family pressure or legal sanctions in states with official religions). But it’s not exactly the same kind of choice as deciding which television program to watch on a Friday evening. If you believe that, say, wearing a veil is a necessary aspect of your religious faith, then you probably believe it is right to wear it and wrong not to. In other words, asking you to choose between wearing and not wearing it imposes a serious moral dilemma on you. As for the suggestion that people can switch religions at the drop of a hat (headscarf?), to one that’s less demanding — this just betrays a complete failure to grasp that people’s beliefs have genuine meaning for them. I doubt the atheist commenter would accept that he could easily become a Muslim if he had to in order to keep his job. Perhaps he could just pretend to be one — but surely he’d resent that necessity a little bit?

What’s worrying me, as the public sphere continues to heat up over “Canadian” and “Quebec” values, religious accommodation, and religious freedom, is that we are risking violence, which will then, no doubt, be blamed on religion when it’s really a blinkered unwillingness to accept difference driving this particular conflict.

Dawkins on Paedophilia

Richard Dawkins is back in the news (does he ever leave it?), not for obnoxious tweets about Islam this time but for defending the paedophilia of his boyhood as not having been all that bad, actually. In his new memoir Dawkins describes being fondled by a prep school master as a boy and, at boarding school, having “‘to fend off nocturnal visits to my bed from senior boys much larger and stronger than I was.'” The current furore stems from an interview published on September 7th in the Sunday Times, in which Dawkins suggests a) his boyhood experiences were “mild” and thus were not ‘real’ paedophilia (unlike rape); b) the “moral zeitgeist” has shifted so that even mild paedophilia is regarded as monstrous; c) we should not judge the past by present-day moral standards.

There are many articles online about this, but it’s worthwhile reading the original interview, at

The context of the remarks on paedophilia is a discussion about how today’s moral transgressions were viewed in the past, starting with what Dawkins might call harassment and some might call sexual assault (a young man [not Dawkins] groping the breasts of every passing woman on the street), then moving on to Dawkins’ personal experiences of “mild” paedophilia. The point of all this is to argue that “mild” paedophiles should not be lumped “into the same bracket” as the rapists and murderers. It’s unclear whether he thinks Jimmy Savile is a mild or monstrous paedophile.

Things get weird when Dawkins defends the Catholic Church on the subject of sexual abuse of children:

“’Although I’m no friend of the Church, I think they have become victims of our shifting standards and we do need to apply the conventions of the good historian in dealing with cases which are many decades old.'”

No, no, no. And again, no. First, we are talking about cases involving victims who are still alive, not things that happened centuries ago. Second, granted that standards of sexual behaviour have changed a great deal in the past few decades, abuse of trust has always been viewed as wrong, including among cultures, such as ancient Greece and Rome, with a permissive attitude toward sex between men and boys.

Third, and this is important, there are no “conventions of the good historian” that suggest we excuse acts that took place in the past simply because moral standards have changed. No, what a good historian does is focus on understanding the past on its own termsas a way of avoiding present-centred judgements and assumptions that can interfere with comprehension. The fact that I can comprehend why people in the 16th century thought it was necessary to torture and burn “witches” doesn’t mean I’ve given them a moral pass. Expending a great deal of energy on moral condemnation of the 16th century seems a bit pointless, since all of the individuals involved, and their immediate descendants, are long dead — but I wouldn’t suggest that abuse of due legal process, torture, and cruel executions were acceptable just because the world was different then. The fact that moral standards change over time seems to be some kind of revelation for Dawkins, but this isn’t exactly a new concept.

As for this notion that a few decades somehow puts an act beyond the reach of current moral scrutiny, I haven’t noticed any good historians suggesting that the Holocaust wasn’t evil — and it certainly happened a few decades ago.

Perhaps, for Dawkins, it’s a question of scale. At one point in the interview he remarks that he can’t muster a sense of condemnation regarding the “mild” paedophilia he experienced because it just doesn’t compare with Genghis Khan’s 12th-century massacres and other instances of “the monstrous cruelty that went on in past times.” Granted, a schoolmaster with wandering hands is not a Hitler or Genghis Khan. But are we supposed to be lenient towards anyone whose crimes don’t measure up to those examples?

Earlier in the article, the interviewer describes Dawkins as “Britain’s top atheist,” as if there was a competition and Dawkins won (it may be meant to be a joke — just before that, the interviewer mentions Dawkins’ dogs and the certificate from the 2008 Crufts dog show hanging on the wall). It’s probably too much to hope for, but maybe, just maybe, this interview will reduce Dawkins’ influence and someone sane will become the “top atheist.”

Related articles

Girl Guides, God, and Being an Asshole

Girl_Guides_centenary, was going to be a post about not being an atheist asshole.

Back in June, atheist blogger Matthew S. McCormick posted a slide show presentation he had given to a students’ society, in which he argued that it is necessary for atheists to be assholes in order to counter the oppressive superstition and irrationality surrounding us. He cites Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to support this position, while criticizing Carl Sagan’s view that a kinder, gentler approach to fellow truth-seekers is more appropriate, given that none of us has all the tools necessary to fully understand the universe. McCormick disagrees with Sagan and announces, proudly, that he is an asshole in the name of atheism. He believes other atheists should be assholes, too. I disagree with McCormick’s position as a general practice — but today I feel the need to be a bit of an “asshole.”

On Saturday, the Guardian published an article by Observer columnist Victoria Coren in which she moved from bitching about new words (“linguistic horrors”) such as ‘chillax’ and ‘vino’ to criticizing the UK Girl Guides’ recent decision to drop loving God from their pledge. (The Girl Guides have also dropped the part of the pledge referring to loving one’s country, but no one seems to care about that.) Coren feels that the phrasing of the new pledge “to be true to myself and develop my beliefs” is mere gobbledygook:

“Oh for the love of God! (Or, rather, not for the love of God.) What ghastly committee meeting, what endless wrangle, what months of debate, what conferences and whiteboards and PowerPoint presentations led to this lame, weak, hollow clump of Californian couch jargon?”

I’ll give Coren points for alliteration here (lots of w-words), and certainly the old pledge to love God had a certain simple, direct charm. But the rant that follows demonstrates that Coren is an idiot.

She objects to removing God from the pledge because Brownies and Guides often hold their meetings in churches:

“It seems a mean trick to play on all those churches that lend their halls for Brownie and Guide activities – forcing them to choose between continuing to house an organisation that has publicly severed its link with what they stand for, or withdrawing the space and leaving local children with nowhere to gather.

In other words, they can choose between feeling foolish or cruel. It’s an insidious position in which to place anyone, especially given that the new Promise also swears to ‘serve my community’, of which churches are surely an important part.”

Really? The Guides’ pledge change is going to hurt the feelings of local churches? So badly that they will be wringing their hands over allowing a bunch of little girls to use their space without invoking God? Or so badly that they won’t let them use their space any longer, forcing said little girls to meet outside in the harsh elements (or, say, to meet in school gyms)? As for the community bit, the importance of a church within a particular community varies considerably. And is it me, or is Coren suggesting that Guides should serve the churches?

If British Brownies and Girl Guides are anything like Canadian Brownies and Girl Guides, then the pledge is about the only time God is mentioned. I noticed that Coren never refers to having been a Brownie or Guide herself — perhaps she thinks that meetings are like Sunday school.

The comment that made me shoot my morning tea out of my nose was this:

“But even if there is some reason why God must be dropped entirely, was there really no better alternative? Could they not have looked for something like the “higher power”, which Alcoholics Anonymous allows so cleverly to stand, in the minds of atheists, for cycles of nature, the universe, time, society or anything that helps a person to realise they are part of something bigger than themselves and behave with accordant responsibility?”

Let’s get this straight. “Higher power” in pledges and such means a god of some kind, or, at best, a force governing our lives. No atheist I’ve ever come across thinks nature, the universe, time (WTF?), or society is a higher power that requires us to promise to love it. For many of us, the point of atheism is that we don’t recognize, and certainly don’t worship, any higher power. “Higher power” is a useful way to accommodate believers of different faiths, as well as agnostics, who wouldn’t find a pledge to the Christian God meaningful. It’s meaningless to atheists, who don’t require a supernatural higher power to make them “behave with accordant responsibility”. We’re perfectly capable of being responsible members of society without granting our society higher power status.

Coren, in her ignorant priggishness, seems incapable of grasping that “be true to myself and develop my beliefs” allows all of the girls who might make that pledge to follow their own faiths, if they have one, without assuming that they must have a faith. Being true to oneself will, for many girls, include loving God. The new pledge does not take that away from them.

Some Girl Guide leaders in the UK are “revolting” against the new pledge, insisting on using it while allowing non-believers to use the new one (because, obviously, the sky will fall if little girls don’t promise to love God). The issue has been framed as a believer vs. non-believer conflict, as if those are the only two possible positions. There are religions for which pledging to love God (which means, let’s not pretend otherwise in the British context, the Anglican God) doesn’t make sense: Wiccans, for instance, don’t worship God. Neither do Hindus or Buddhists. Strictly speaking, Catholics and Muslims probably shouldn’t be taking the old pledge either.

Predictably, the Girl Guides have been accused of “secular totalitarianism,” while its opponents are “rebels.” This kind of language is worth paying close attention to, as it demonizes one group while romanticizing another with heavily loaded terms that manipulate readers and listeners. Who wouldn’t want to rebel against totalitarianism? The new pledge is not, of course, totalitarian in any way; it’s a clear attempt to be inclusive toward those who don’t share the official state religion. Those who want to keep the old pledge and let non-believers “opt out” fail to grasp how difficult it might be for a young girl to do that when her peers are following their adult leaders.

I don’t personally care very much about references to God in most pledges, oaths, etc. It’s not as if I worry that a non-existent being is going to punish me for breaking a promise to love it. But if we want children, especially, to take pledges and oaths seriously as commitments to act in certain ways, then those pledges and oaths had better make sense to them. It’s time for recognition that promises to love God, and treating a certain kind of belief as the default position, simply don’t make sense to everyone in pluralistic societies. Kudos to the Girl Guides for taking a step toward greater inclusiveness.

Science Fiction and Religion Part 1

IMG_0894I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction this summer; not just for fun, but also to explore how current SF writers are envisioning the future and the place of religion within it. Future religion isn’t a new theme in SF — Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series springs to mind as an extensive treatment — but some recent novels deal explicitly with clashes between religious and secular world views in ways that seem strongly influenced by the discourse around New Atheism and secularism more broadly. Ken MacLeod’s novel The Night Sessions is perhaps the best example of this kind of work; I plan to write about it and Macleod’s other fine novels in another post. Today I’m going to talk about Dani and Eytan Kollin’s Unincorporated Man series.

The series begins with The Unincorporated Man (2009). Justin Cord, a 21st-century industrialist, wakes up from cryogenic suspension in the 24th century, in which humans have the capacity to cure any illness, heal any wound, and revive people after death (with some limitations). There is no hunger, no taxes, no crime, no war, no unemployment, and no religion. Mars, the Moon, and various other bodies within the solar system have been colonized. This utopia rose from the ashes after a worldwide economic and political collapse caused by addiction to virtual reality and subsequent withdrawal from real life. So far, so typical. The interesting element of this future world is incorporation: every person is incorporated at birth, with a certain percentage of their personal shares belonging to their parents and another percentage belonging to the government. The society is run by corporations rather than the government, which has a minimal role. Personal shares are bought and sold, rising and falling in value depending on an individual’s actual and perceived potential for success. In other words, people literally invest in other humans, and, as a result, have variable degrees of control over them. Everyone’s goal is to own a majority of shares in themselves so that they can fully control their own lives.

The incorporation system is presented as pretty benign and altruistic in the novel’s opening chapters, but when Justin Cord (note the initials) wakes up, he is appalled by what he regards as slavery. He refuses to incorporate, which leads to an escalating struggle over his right to remain unincorporated. By the end of the novel, Cord has become the leader of an anti-incorporation rebellion based among the asteroid mining colonies. All-out war ensues between the incorporated Earth-based society and the unincorporated asteroid-based Alliance. The next three novels — The Unincorporated War (2010); The Unincorporated Woman (2011); and The Unincorporated Future (2012) — describe this war as an escalation of atrocities that bring humanity to the brink of total destruction.

These novels are not great works of literature, but the series had potential as a commentary on capitalism; that is, at least, what I thought the Kollin brothers were up to as I read the first few chapters of The Unincorporated Man. The incorporation concept is interesting, especially since it is presented as having enabled all the advances in technology, medicine, and societal stability. The Unincorporated Man won the 2010 Prometheus Award for Novel of the Year from the Libertarian Futurist Society, and the book has been compared to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as well as to the later works of Robert Heinlein. This is somewhat peculiar, because the incorporated society seems very libertarian, yet Cord, the hero, is implacably opposed to it and even revives taxation and strong government.

The inconsistencies of The Unincorporated Man’s philosophical underpinnings make more sense once we realize that the novel and its sequels are not really about political economy. The under-developed incorporation debate disappears once the rebellion becomes a war, and the series’ pro-religion agenda is revealed.

The first novel does not deal with religion directly, except, if I recall correctly, for a reference to religion as an outdated meme; however, religious imagery is quite prominent. Justin Cord (JC) is resurrected from his tomb in a cave and becomes the would-be saviour of mankind from slavery; his first sexual tryst with his lover takes place when she is in costume as a sexy devil; the journalist who joins Cord is called Michael Veritas; and so on. The pro-religion agenda takes off in the second and third novels as the Alliance encounters and is joined by several clandestine religious groups that have survived in small numbers, among the asteroid belt population, despite the presumed disappearance of all religion since the great economic collapse. Religious leaders become major players within the rebellion leadership, and religion spreads like wildfire through the Alliance population. The Kollin brothers present religion, in its various (major) forms, as something that humans need — it is not just a convenient tool for motivating a population fighting for its survival. By the final novel, religious faith and faith in the Alliance become conflated, as if they are the same thing no matter which religion an individual adheres to. God is remarkably ecumenical in this future, possibly because much of human history has been forgotten. There is no hint of conflict between the “big three” religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity; in fact, they come across as homogenized.

Religious allusions continue, most notably in the betrayal of Justin Cord by one of the Alliance’s inner circle, which results in Cord’s death. The Alliance admiral, a woman and a Muslim, becomes known as the Blessed One and thinks that she receives guidance from Allah. By the very end of the series, after the Alliance and Incorporation forces have reached a negotiated peace, much of the Alliance population opts to leave the solar system in what is explicitly called an Exodus; we learn about this from a holy book written after said Exodus. Cord reappears, still dead, but secretly re-entombed in a cryogenic suspension capsule to await another resurrection.

I think it’s entirely legitimate to postulate the survival of religion far into humanity’s future, and even to suggest that religion might provide an essential sense of meaning for people who have rejected the dominant mode of society, i.e. incorporation in this case. The idea that ecumenism might triumph when there has been a catastrophic rupture with the past (and where there is a common enemy) is intriguing, if unrealistic. The Kollins’ imagined future becomes problematic, for me, when they turn the atheist Incorporated society into a collective of dupes led by sadists. The Incorporation president, Hektor Sambianco, is unremittingly evil; the authors seem to have been trying to make him, and his government, worse than Hitler and the Nazis. They even have the Incorporation government rediscovering the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as they attempt to make sense of the religious revival happening among their enemies. Thanks to the previous civilizational collapse, they don’t know that the Protocols are false, so they take them as historical truth. We even learn, later in the series, that a Mengele-like figure has been experimenting on (i.e. torturing and killing) Alliance prisoners, especially those who profess pacifism on religious grounds. This is revealed in a sickening scene in which a secondary character is subjected to gratuitous sexual and physical violence.

To be fair, both sides in the war experience a ratcheting effect as “eye for an eye” atrocities escalate, and the need for mass attacks on civilians is questioned by some Alliance and Incorporation figures. The moral scales are always, however, tilted in favour of the Alliance: they are fighting for their freedom (and then for survival), while the Incorporation seems to be fighting just to spite this desire for freedom. The Alliance is presented as a community; the Incorporated society is merely a collective of self-interested individuals with no apparent larger purpose or, seemingly, any moral code. The few individuals who act (eventually) against their evil leaders demonstrate a serious failure to think critically or to reject immoral orders until they are brought to their senses by the Alliance leader, who is herself remarkably Machiavellian in her understanding and use of power but refers frequently to God and God’s love. One might regard her as a hypocrite but for the fact that when the war is over, she joins the rebuilding efforts under a new, humble identity as an explicit act of atonement.

The idea that atheists lack any moral code, because they don’t believe in the existence of a higher power, is the primary “argument” used to suggest that atheists are untrustworthy. It’s a very, very old notion that remains alive and well today despite the lack of evidence to show that atheists are more likely to commit crimes, lie, cheat, etc. than anyone else is. It’s a pity to see a promising work of science fiction fall back on such an unimaginative, simplistic vision of what a future atheistic society might be like. The portrayal of a swift descent into atheistic evil is especially disappointing considering that the Incorporated society clearly has some values: there is a strong taboo against virtual reality, and a great deal of effort goes into curing illness, injuries, and death. The society also values freedom in a certain sense: the government is very limited at the beginning of the series, and is not permitted to impose taxes. (On the negative side, the powers-that-be, i.e. the corporation and later the government, are prone to “psychologically auditing” those who don’t play ball.) These values are not, however, strong enough to survive the rise of one evil man after he murders the previous leader.  Essentially, the atheistic Incorporated society falls prey to the Devil’s wiles while the Alliance society rediscovers God, faith, and forgiveness as the keys to a successful human society. When the war is over, members of the devastated Incorporated society begin converting to various religions. Ayn Rand must be spinning in her grave.

The Kollin brothers are well on their way to becoming SF stars thanks to The Unincorporated Man’s success. It will be interesting to see whether their popularity translates into long-term influence within SF, and if so, what impact their pro-religion stance has on a genre that is traditionally critical of religion or ignores it. As much as I dislike the message of this particular “SF lite” series, I’m glad to see SF writers tackling the subject of religion’s future and offering their creative visions.