I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I just couldn't keep quiet!

Okay, so two columns back I announced I wouldn't be posting any columns here in August because of the deadline for Dragonseed. But, yesterday I was doing my morning wake-up browse of the internet and stumbled onto an editorial by Dennis Prager, a talk show host. He's written an article arguing for the neccessity of God, as opposed to the existence of God. It's basically a list of 14 reasons why, if we assume there is a God, we are better off than if we assume there isn't.

You can read his whole article here. Unfortunately, the article didn't have a comment field beneath it. I don't want to violate any copyright by cutting and pasting his 14 point here to argue with them one by one.

Some of them, I don't argue. Some sound like pretty good arguments for atheism, starting with his first item:

Without God, there is no good and evil; there are only subjective opinions that we then label "good" and "evil." This does not mean that an atheist cannot be a good person. Nor does it mean that all those who believe in God are good; there are good atheists and there are bad believers in God. It simply means that unless there is a moral authority that transcends humans from which emanates an objective right and wrong, "right" and "wrong" no more objectively exist than do "beautiful" and "ugly."

I'm perfectly comfortable with the notion that good and evil do not exist in some form that transcends humanity. Once I stopped attempting to divine the wishes of an invisible judge who will weigh the value of my life after I die, my life became a bit less stressful.

But, moving on, there was one point that was made that really made my eyes pop open:

Life is ultimately a tragic fare if there is no God. We live, we suffer, we die – some horrifically, many prematurely – and there is only oblivion afterward.

I dislike the use of the word "tragic," but aside from that, I agree with the basic thrust. However, the alternative seems to be this: Life is ultimately a tragic fare if there is a God. We live, we suffer, we die – some horrifically, many prematurely – and afterward all but a tiny handful will be punished with everlasting torment.

To me, the first statement seems far more acceptable than the second. We live, we suffer, we die--but at least God isn't eating popcorn while watching kids starving or getting abused or coming down with cancer. The human condition seems to me to be exactly the same level of suffering with or without God--only, if you do presume the existence of God, you're left wondering why he hates you and what you've done to deserve the tornado that just wiped out your house.

One last point that also got my goat: If there is no God, the kindest and most innocent victims of torture and murder have no better a fate after death than do the most cruel torturers and mass murderers. Only if there is a good God do Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler have different fates.

This was closely related to the moral argument that eventually drove me into atheism. Because, according to the teachings of my church, there was no path to God but through Jesus. So, being kind wouldn't save you. Being an innocent victim of torture or murder wouldn't save you. And, if a murderer repented on death row for killing and raping some Buddhist hippie, that murderer was going to heaven to live it up while the woman he killed was going to spend all of eternity in a pit of eternal flame suffering far worse agonies than mere rape. In my church, Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler did have the same fates--they were both going to hell, since Catholics weren't really Christians. Ghandi was going to hell. John Lennon, hell. Every native American born before Christians reached the America's... hell bound. Unborn babies aborted in China were heavenbound, since sin didn't pass on until you were born, but all their commie mommies and daddies... off to hell! God doesn't care if you're a good mother or an axe-murderer. If you aren't born again, you burn. And, he doesn't really grade the sins... Hitler is going to suffer in the same hell that Ted Kennedy is going to for voting against the Iraq war (or whatever).

Anyway, sorry to break the silence with a rant, but I just couldn't let these two arguments pass. Now, back to Dragonseed.


Eric James Stone said...

> This was closely related to the
> moral argument that eventually
> drove me into atheism.

Hmm. I can see it as a valid moral argument against your former church, but I don't see how it leads all the way to atheism.

For example, while Mormons like me believe that there is no path to God but Jesus, we also believe that those who did not have sufficient opportunity in this life to accept Jesus will have such an opportunity in the afterlife. (And the Mormon conception of the afterlife is so different from the one your church had that none of the inequities you mentioned would be present.)

I'm sure there are several other denominations or religions that avoid the problems you mention in other ways, so I don't think Mormonism is unique in avoiding the moral problem.

Gray Rinehart said...

Eric is right; that's a nuance that many denominations treat differently.

I think God is smart enough to sort through all the extraneous "religious" stuff we've laid over top of the truth.

James Maxey said...

It leads to atheism through the following path: What is the logic behind the faith? In the pentacostal, evangelical movement, it all came down to the literal truth of the Bible. It was all true, or none of it was true. And, it doesn't take all that much effort to realize that not every word in the King James bible can be true. Once you're left doubting the authenticity of the foundational documents, what are you left with? Just things that people feel? Trust in prophets? And as far as the afterlife goes, what is the evidence that the Mormon vision is more authentic than the vision of Buddhists, or Rastafarians, or Catholics, or Muslims, or Scientologists, or atheists? With no evidence for any of the competing claims, how do you choose among them? Most people seem to wind up choosing their religion via peer pressure rather than through any objective system.

Eric James Stone said...

OK, I guess I was misinterpreting what you said. It was not the moral argument itself that drove you to atheism, since that moral argument does not seem to be implicated at all in the path you just described. But that moral argument caused you to start questioning your faith, and once that questioning began, you then took the path you described.

Rafael said...

this is why I don't subscribe to organized religion at all. I'm not an atheist and I don't worship A God but having others tell me what is right and what is wrong and how my afterlife will be if there is one just doesn't sit right with me. I would prefer to live my life believing that somewhere out there there is "something" and leave it at that.

James Maxey said...

Eric, to clarify, there was no single argument or event that changed me from an evangelical pentacostal christian to an atheist. It unfolded over several years, with much backsliding. I sometimes describe my journey as an interest in comic books leading to an interest in SF leading to an interest in science leading to the realisation that God simply wasn't neccessary for creating the life, the universe, and everything. It's true, but not completely true. I also sometimes describe it from the moral journey. I was always deeply, deeply bothered as a child by the idea that people who couldn't possibly have heard about Jesus were going to burn in Hell. I also didn't like the idea that a murderer could change his mind two minutes from the electric chair and get into heaven. Science stripped away the neccessity of God, and the perverse moral lessons stripped away his usefullness as a guide for leading a good life.

It's possible that I could have been guided to a different religion, but I was again left with the fundamental question of: How do you pick? How do you decide between the competing claims? While in the fundamentalist church I witnessed speaking in tongues, faith-healing, and the casting out of devils. So, I was eye-witness to events that were presented as supernatural in origin, being performed by people who I didn't think were crazy or liars. No other religion really held a candle to it in the way of participatory mystical experiences. Now, of course, I'm inclined to veiw these experiences in the same way some people react at rock concerts--fainting, screaming, crying, singing along as if they words being sung are reaching directly into the their hearts.

No one has ever shown me any effective logical method of judging the various competing religious claims. Do I believe in this prophet who wandered in out of the desert and said he'd talked to god in a burning bush, or this prophet who said he'd been shown a holy book under a rock, or this other prophet who sat under a tree for years and years and years until the top of his head came off and he understood the truth of all? It seems to me that if you don't believe in nothing you're likely to believe in anything.

Prager's original argument, as I understood it, wasn't so much to prove that God exists, but that we'd be better off if we all pretended he did. It's this argument I find particularly irksome, and which prompted my response.

James Maxey said...

Rafael, I think that the "Church of the Uncatagorizable Something" could grow into a very popular religion if you played your cards right.

MatthewLee said...

There are many things in this world that anger me. People trying to appeal to baseless notions of justice and "feelings" to demand the existance of God is one of them. You prove God rationally and or empirically, not by saying "But were would morality come from?" this implies punishment and reward, which isn't morality at all. Morality comes from PRINCIPLES and the WILL to follow them, not "If I am a good boy daddy lets me sit beside him." Now that I have my pet religious pevee off my chest... If I was to adhere to a religion, I would probably go with Christian Universalism. Please here me out, the beleifes of the universalists are grounded in biblical scholarship, although their views aren't overwhelmingly poplular with the established order. http://www.christian-universalism.com/. They have a bunch articles explaining the false translations which have led to the traditional idea of hell.

To the above, it is VERY important to note demominational difference.

Sry if this seems an icoherent rant. :-]

Jared said...

The Church of the Uncategorizable Something was established some time ago, thouh they made their Something an invisible, pink unicorn. They played a different set of cards though and their adherents aren't too faithful.

I don't think any regligious belief, Christian, Hindu, Mystical, or even Athiestic is something that logic wholy leads you to. At some point you gather all your evidences and logical conjectures together and your heart takes them to the step of belief.

Changing subject back to writing a bit, this is a topic that really frustrates me about Fantasy and Science Fiction writing in general. Characters adhering to religious beliefs in these genres are almost always protrayed the way someone who does not believe in their religion would protray them. Even when sections of the book are written from the believers point of view it usually seems clear as the reader that the author views the character as a nut or misguided. Thus the characters are to me less real, always conflicted in their protrayal.

I admit to having read a lot more fantasy than science fiction, but this is so typical of the genre that I think most people just accept it. One of these days I'd like to see a major character in a fantasy book that is not a fanatic but holds their beliefs in a way that seems both logical and faithful, is not defined entirely by religion, but all the same acts in accordance to those deep held beliefs. I think such a character is much more challenging to the writer, but would be so much more real.

James Maxey said...

Jared, I agree that atheism is often arrived at via a leap of faith. Pure logic can lead you to agnosticism, or it can refute specific claims of specific religions. I'm too busy to sit down and logically ponder all the potential arguments against Hinduism or Santa Claus... at some point, you just gotta go with your gut.

As far as whether religious belief is protrayed well in fantasy, I feel like atheists very rarely get a fair shake in most fantasy novels. Most fantasy worlds have gods and magic built right into them.

I've always felt, though, that there was something inherently subversive about fantasy novels that invent religions. Once readers see how easy it is for a person to dream up their own dieties and creation myths, doesn't it open up the possiblility that all religious beliefs share similar origins in imagination?

Jared said...

Since we agree that it takes faith to be an atheist I think we're both complaining about the same problem in fantasy books. There are plenty of atheist characters and there are plenty of religious characters. I just don't think they get a 'real' enough treatment. I'm not in a real good position to do anything but complain about it though.

Your question at the end is certainly valid, though I think it predates the fantasy genre. The number of competing religious claims means some of them must be imaginations. Does it also mean all of them are imaginations? Logic won't get you there alone.

BTW, I loved your Dragon Age books. I only came over here because I just finished the second one. While I preferred Bitterwood because of the way it revealed plot backgrounds, I certainly enjoyed both. I'm hooked now and await the third book.

I just happened to stumble on this post because it was your most recent one after I finished your book. I had found myself thinking as I was reading Dragonforge, 'I bet this guy is an atheist' and I walked right into the subject.

I did the same thing (looking up the author's blogs) with Orson Scott Card after reading Ender's Game (about 20 years after everyone else), and he had a post recommending your books. I'm glad I tried them. Thanks

James Maxey said...

You're welcome!