Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Hogfather, and the debate on religion

Disclaimer: I've never been the most voracious of readers, so anything I write on books should be taken with a slightly bigger pinch of salt than usual.

A friend made me read my first Terry Pratchett with, "He may well be a modern Wodehouse." And that read turned out to be "Hogfather." No other book has had me so absorbed in it since my boyhood reading of "The Call of the Wild." For one, the world-view it presents seems to match mine pretty much exactly - it's as if Pratchett peeked inside my head and not only understood every vague feeling and unfinished thought, but then went on to build the wittiest, most imaginative story around it. In terms of inventiveness only Tolkien comes close, but even his considerable talents appear as slow as Ent-speech when juxtaposed with the effortless sparks that fly off every other paragraph here.

Since I'm not yet ready to topple from P1 the dozens of Wodehouses I've read over the years, I still maintain that Pelham Grenville makes me laugh more, and, further, is the most prolific character-creator I've come across. But even he hasn't managed to do for me what Pratchett has with just this one book - take a mist of a thought that has been wisping around in my head, frustratingly inexpressible, evading all attempts at pinning down; and then crystallise it into black ink on white paper, appositive phrases and relative clauses in full bloom, and complete with dotted "i"s and crossed "t"s.

Case in point:- 

The amount of belief in the world must be subject to an upper limit. Creatures have appeared that were once believed in. They disappeared because they were not believed in - people were believing in something else, right? It follows that if a major focus of belief is removed, there will be spare belief.*

Isn't that just the perfect summing up of religion? We spend so much time taking positions on religion, on its goodness and badness and the relative degrees of the same, that we lose sight of something fundamental: taking a position on religion is rather like taking a position on thirst. Religion isn't something that exists distinct from humanity, it's just a manifestation of a part of our humanness - as quintessential as is wrinkly skin on spending too much time in the shower, or a boner in the morning.**

Assume religion didn't exist (ignoring that this is kind of like saying "assume we didn't have lungs"). Even if we didn't have lungs, we would still need something to oxygena... err... do the stuff that lungs do. And if your counter-argument is, "Well, what if we didn't need oxygen too?" then a response to that is, "What then would blood do?" and this goes on until we end up with a completely different creature, biologically. Uh... I don't think that was quite what I was shooting for. Lungs do something useful, and I don't mean to imply that religion is useful.  Let's try another one...

The Internationale opines: "If these ravens, these vultures disappeared one of these days, the sun will shine forever." To which Orwell replied, with unimpeachable logic, that if they did disappear, we'd merely have other creatures take their place and do just what the ravens and the vultures did; ravening and vulturing is something that will be done - it's not like we had this perfect society going and they landed from Mars to ruin our utopia, was it? Studying the whys and wherefores of our propensity to religion is a different matter, but all this arguing about whether we need more religion, or less of it, seems like an exercise in futility: we have exactly as much religion as we deserve, or put another way, as we're built for.

I suppose I could've presented this with just two paragraphs - one with the Pratchett quote and a green tick next to it, and the second with Weinberg's "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion," and a red cross beside it (expressing disagreement, if all the symbolism is getting a bit too much). But if I were to express only concise, original thoughts, all you'd see on hitting this URL is a blank page.

*It doesn't appear in exactly that format in the book - it unspools as dialogue.

**I wonder why the religious don't use this argument more often when confronted with a fire-breathing atheist, or indeed, why atheists don't use it more often when confronted with a religious fundamentalist?


missjane said...

You do realise that the boner comment excludes at least half of humanity, and possibly closer to three quarters, once you leave out the young, the old, the ill and the disinclined?

I think it's not used in arguments because the arguments are usually about getting someone to believe what you believe, or don't believe; they're not about why religion is or isn't.

Rohan said...

Yes, but if you take the Pratchettian view that there are quotas for everything, evangelizing (in either direction) should lose its charm. I suppose you could split it into two parts:-

1) At the broad (or macro level, as we engineers put it), if you make a believer of someone, since the belief levels overall has to remain the same, it'd mean that some believer somewhere else is getting turned into a non-believer. Likewise with atheistic conversions, too.

2) At an individual (or micro level), and this is the more pertinent one since all these arguments tend to be cloaked in terms of good and evil (religion makes you more good, atheism makes you less evil, etc), the arguers would realise that even if they were making the convertee good in one respect, since his or her overall goodness levels have to remain constant, they're making them more evil in other respects. For instance, converting someone to Christianity makes them less likely to disrespect their parents, or covet their neighbour's ox, but then they're now more likely to go to Africa and tell people there that condoms are laced with HIV, and should not be used.

It's a lot like the law of conservation of energy, come to think of it.

Does this make sense?