Stars, Orbits, Crossed Trajectories

William Least Heat-Moon is renowned for his travel writing. Blue Highways, his first book, is a marvel of fine prose, careful observation, poignancy, and great storytelling.  It is deservedly considered a classic. Books that followed were no less fascinating, and each took an unexpected route to give us a look at life on various roads, some by water, others by history, always with an eye on the landscape.

Now he has turned his skills at close observation to fiction.  Celestial Mechanics is Heat-Moon’s first novel and it is as unexpected as any of his past works.


Silas Fortunato, thirty-three, has come home to inhabit a hundred acres inherited from a deceased aunt, and by happenstance encounters Dolores Heppernan, who goes by Dominique, arguing with an inn-keeper over a misplaced reservation. Silas gives her his room and so begins his pursuit to bind the fey Dominique to him. He is smitten. In an idiosyncratic courtship, he convinces Dominique to marry him and move to the Hundred, with its aging ramble of a house and the unimproved woodland around it.

Dominique is a real estate agent–this after having been many things. We’re never entirely sure what Silas was, but it had to do with academia, to be sure, for his is a deeply-read man with a fascination for Marcus Aurelius and aspirations to write a play.  No astrologer, he nevertheless puts great stock in the stars and even builds a platform for stargazing at the top of the house.

Rarely have two people been so mismatched. Heat-Moon understands something about obsessive love because he never explains what it is about Dominique that draws Silas.  He simply chooses her, devotes himself to her, and works mightily to make her happy to be his wife. For her part, almost from the start Dominique questions her own motives for agreeing to the marriage and starts looking, sporadically but with growing urgency, for a way out. To be fair, she does try to pull Silas into her view of life—tries to convince him to sell the Hundred for development, get a house in town, travel.  But Silas—the name means “Wood Dweller”—while willing to make great concessions to her, will not part with the property for any reason so venal as money.  He sees the land as a source of regeneration and hopes Dominique will eventually come to find peace there.

But Dominique is not interested in peace, not that kind, anyway.  She is in headlong pursuit of security of the kind that requires her to depend on no one else.  She wants wealth, travel, independence.  She wants no one to trap her, confine her, or limit her in any way.  While Silas never wanted to do that, the very stability he offers to her is an illusion, a trap, a set of walls.

The truth is, Dominique is on the run. From herself more than anything else.  She sees people as wanting nothing more than to define her and restrain her and her entire life has been a series of escapes.  She is smart, clever, but just enough to know how to manipulate the systems around her to keep from being caught by them.

Silas wants nothing more than to find and understand his place within the world Dominique seems determined not to yield to. Their relationship becomes a congeries of misunderstandings and evasions.

Into this one more person enters, Dominiques sister, Celeste, who is in the process of taking orders in a convent.  She hears of her sister’s marriage and the odd man to whom she has committed herself and now seems ill at ease with, and comes to visit.

It is clear to us that Silas married the wrong one.  Silas, though, has no such thoughts, and though we suspect Celeste does, she is conflicted about what to do.  She wants to stability and peace of the convent but she chafes under the restrictions on imagination within.

In certain ways, the novel proceeds along well-trod paths.  But Heat-Moon knows that the well-trod can surprise, that roads, pathways, trails, and highways can deceive if one does not look close enough at what there is along the way.  Here he gives us the unexpected enfolded in what seems familiar.  People, he shows us, are the least predictable of maps, and even when they seem to be going an obvious direction, the journey can still surprise.

There is even a ghost of sorts in the book.

But this is, as per Heat-Moon’s past offerings, a very layered story, and nothing is quite as neatly comprehensible as it may seem.  Dominique…well, Heat-Moon understands the power of names, as well he should.  Dominique, seeking to be self-contained, is her own passion.  Dolores means “sorrow” and is a not very sly reference to the Virgin Mary.  Dominique means “lord.” She seeks to be her own chosen apotheosis.  But she is stuck entirely in the flight to Egypt.  Celeste, not surprisingly, means “heavenly.”  But Celeste is looking for a very tangible, terrestrial salvation. Heat-Moon plays the full range of contradictions and potentials implied by all these meaning-laden labels and pulls the expected story inside-out.

What we end up with, then, is a road trip of souls.  William Least-Heat Moon has taken a story of people making choices incompatible with their own desires and natures and given us a travelogue of the spirit. The trajectories of these three people, each one trying to find their place in a cosmos crowded with distraction and uncertainty, reveal the geography of the self and the gravity of choice. In the end we’re offered a map of roads oft-traveled and too little remarked on the journey to hope.

Moral Crisis and The Reality of God: Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow

Sometimes it is very much worth the wait before reading certain books.  Too early an exposure and the substance could be misapprehended, misinterpreted, misconstrued, or simply missed. Such, I feel, is the case with Mary Doria Russell’s superb The Sparrow, which came out in 1996. I bought a copy shortly after it appeared in paperback and it has remained, unread, on my shelf since. Until this month. Why?

I don’t know, really. I started it a few times and something in the opening pages either left me unengaged or daunted. Whatever the reason, it waited till this year, and perhaps that was as it should be.

I knew enough about the novel to tell people that it is a natural successor to James Blish’s excellent novella, A Case of Conscience, which has many of the same elements. A Jesuit as member of a first contact mission to an alien world and the moral conundrum arising from certain inevitable questions.  Interestingly, I find that both novels hinge on an evolutionary question going directly to matters of fundamental morality.  Blish suggested powerfully that our entire conception of god and its concomitant moral structures may be simply a consequence of how we evolved.  That the sociology resulting from our biology allowed for certain cross-generational assumptions which a different biological system simply wouldn’t produce.

Russell’s concept is less pat than Blish, since in many respects the biology involved is similar enough to ours to muddy those particular waters. She adds another component to the mix, though, that results in a basic difference of moral priority.  In fact, in the end there’s a question of whether or not morality is relevant at all, overwhelmed by opportunity and expedience.

What we have in The Sparrow is deliciously layered examination of cultural assumptions that continues to play even after the book is finished and the afterimages begin cycling through our minds.  She set a series of logical land mines throughout that set each other off with the inevitability of a Socratic dialogue.

Father Emilio Sandoz, Jesuit and linguist, a child of the slums who has through a series of fortunate accidents become more than his beginnings would ever have suggested possible, is on hand when the first evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence is discovered at the large radio array of Arecibo. After analysis, the signals resolve into music. Odd, alien music that is nevertheless compelling, a siren’s call to erstwhile explorers.  There is no question upon hearing this music for Sandoz. We must go.

The mechanism by which they travel to Alpha Centauri is grounded in solid extrapolation of how space technologies may proliferate in the near future.  Asteroid mining is a going activity and it is a matter mainly of financing to turn an abandoned asteroid into a starship.  The Catholic Church, through the offices of the Jesuits, opts to send a mission.  They ask no one’s permission, in fact pretty much tell no one that they’re going.  The U.N. is debating sending a mission and later they do, but this one—the Stella Maris—is the first.

I don’t wish to spoil the plot, which, even without the substantial subtext would be a page-turner.  The careful revelation of detail through which Russell presents her thesis is important to its impact, and that subtext is the whole purpose.  Suffice it to say that the mission fails.  Emilio Sandoz returns to Earth, a broken man, the only survivor of the party of eight.

When I say “a broken man” I mean in every sense of the phrase.  His hands are a wreck, he has numerous physical problems, including scurvy, and his mind is all but gone from the trauma of the mission itself and its costs and from the fact that he was forced to make the return voyage all alone, a long journey through a deeper dark night of the soul than one might ordinarily encounter.  Upon return, he is to be brought before an inquest, established by his own order, to find out the facts of the mission and determine their meaning.

Sandoz doesn’t want to cooperate.  He doesn’t want to relive the events that ended in such failure nor does he want to infect anyone else with the knowledge that has caused him to renounce his faith.

Though not exactly. This is one of the interesting aspects of the layered game Russell plays throughout. It’s an open question, even at the end, whether Sandoz has in fact lost his faith.  He seems to wish it, certainly, angry and bitter he is at a god by which he feels betrayed.  But Sandoz is a brilliant man.  He exemplifies what has become axiomatic about Jesuits and maintains his faith by dint of reason supported by a passionate belief in justice.  No simple “believer” and having emerged from a hellish childhood to become one of the best linguists not only in his order but anywhere, it takes enormous challenge for him to question his commitment to a god which more facile minds would characterize as bizarrely cruel.  Even at the close of the novel he is wrestling with the nature of god.

At the center of the novel is a particular formulation of the question of evil which goes to what might be termed beneficial expedience.  The alien race to which he goes as linguist and missionary lives in apparent harmony with itself and its environment.  A complex harmony, mirrored in the songs that are the first knowledge humankind receives of them.  There is much about them that is admirable but also puzzling—until they realize that what they at first thought to be a single species is in fact two intelligent species and their evolved cohabitation of their world requires of them certain accommodations that for humans would be odious.

There is the question of judgment—not our world, not even our evolutionary history, how are we to judge?  But any concept of a god as source of moral law must necessarily exhibit certain basic consistencies, regardless.  There is the question of expedience—if something works not only for the individual but for the planet as a whole, again, who are we to question?

But finally, Sandoz comes face to face with the human example as baseline for any kind of moral assessment and asks: “What do we have to show as in any way superior, when the condition of our species is questionable at best?”

Russell sets a serious moral trap in this novel, leading us step by step to the point where we must look at our own condition and ask how our own apprehension of moral law plays out.  Does it enforce any kind of justice?  Does it bring us into harmony among ourselves and our environment?  Does the dogma by which our moral adjutants dispense advice and guidance actually serve the function for which it is claimed?

Like a good Jesuit, Sandoz is still asking these questions at the end of his ordeal, and a terrible ordeal it is.  On a certain level, he is brought to the condition of all colonized and oppressed peoples and made to know what it is like to have everything he believes and assumes overwritten by a more powerful circumstance.  By the end he has suffered every indignity. Every single one that arises from basic injustice.

And yet the system which puts him through this is not by its own metrics oppressive—merely an embellished example of evolutionary imperative.  By comparison, Sandoz wonders if the horrors of our own condition are not the results of a fundamental rejection of evolutionary imperatives, the imposition of a wholly artificial system presumed to be based on moral assessment but really little more than a gloss on power relations having little to do with anything “natural.”

In turn, one can then ask the same thing about the aliens and their relationships.  If, which seems to be one of the unspoken assumptions by which Sandoz operates as a moral agent, sapience is the deciding factor in applying standards of justice and equity, then how can the two species on Rakhat maintain the self-evidently immoral system they do?  By the same token, if equality is of such value to us as a basis for our moral decisions, how then can we maintain the cultural systems we do?

There is, Socratically, a dialogue at play throughout the novel, and a rigorous one at that.  Each of the eight humans who go to Rakhat as well as the priests conducting the inquest represent choices and judgments based on different apprehensions of the god question.  Each stands for a different set of conditions calling into question our basic assumptions about civilization and moral action.  Often it’s subtle, but sometimes powerfully visceral.  We realize that this is a novel which, practically from page one, takes every assertion of right and wrong and expedience and morality and says “Sure, but” in the very next passage.

Finally, it is an examination of the limits of accommodation.

The earlier novel, A Case of Conscience, asked a few of these questions, but it shied away from many others.  Nor did it offer such a full range of mirrored arguments.  Its conclusion was in many ways annoyingly ambiguous and turned on a question of epistemology which was less personal, less visceral than what Father Sandoz is forced to face.  But there remains a line between them which is not insignificant, which is that we must ask if any conception of god is not in the end purely a matter of intellectual expedience that cannot stand up to exposure to truly different cultures and biologies.  If, basically, in the end such conceptions are, like anything else, merely systems designed to see us through to the next level of understanding.  They do change.  The Jesuits themselves changed from their beginnings as an order dedicated to the authority of the pope and an enemy of developing knowledge to an order of the best educators and some of the finest scientists on the planet.  Whether admitted or not, their conception of god changed.  Sandoz is dealing with the question of how resilient any such conception is.

Or was Spinoza right and that god is simply nature and morality is ours to construct and adapt and modify?  Sandoz seems at times a closet Spinozan, but as flexible as he often is, he finds his limits and snaps.

Or does he?

I’m not sure I possessed the stuff to appreciate this novel when it came out.  I may not now, but I can at least see, sometimes vaguely perhaps, Russell’s intent.  In any case, it was certainly worth the wait.

Easy Habits and the Consequences of Belief

At first glance, the two books could not be more different. Subject, tone, everything seems different. Not at odds so much as…nonoverlapping.

Which is ironic, since both deal, in their separate ways, with that very idea, the separation of areas of knowing.

Probably because I read them so close together I recognized their shared concerns as clearly as I did. Whatever the reason, it struck me as obvious in so many ways that I began to recall all the other books over the last few years that could be likewise gathered within this same subset, all on distinct topics and yet all based on, to some degree, an analysis of the same human propensity to disregard evidence when it contradicts belief.

Let me begin with the more general of the two.

Jerry A. Coyne is an evolutionary biologist.  Compared to others with public profiles, he has published few books.  Three, to be precise.  His latest, Faith Vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, is a direct challenge to Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of “nonoverlapping magisteria.”  Gould’s premise is that science and religion should not conflict with each other because they are concerned with entirely separate realms of knowing—hence the nonoverlapping part—and except for certain agenda-driven partisans, there is no reason for them to be in conflict.  Coyne sees this as accommodationism, which he thoroughly discredits in his book.

My claim is this: science and religion are incompatible because they have different methods for getting knowledge about reality, have different ways of assessing the reliability of that knowledge, and, in the end, arrive at conflicting conclusions about the universe.  “Knowledge” acquired by religion is at odds not only with scientific knowledge, but also with knowledge professed by other religions.  In the end, religion’s methods, unlike those of science, are useless for understanding reality.

Coyne identifies Accommodationism as an attempt not to stir the hornet’s nest, because scientists are often dependent on politically sensitive funding.  Science, especially Big Science dealing with questions of origins, is expensive and the days of the independently wealthy scientist are largely gone.  Rocking the boat by annoying those who hold the purse strings would seem ill-advised.

The conclusions, he goes on to argue, of scientific inquiry continually poke holes in those claims by religion that still assert authority over secular matters.

But more than that, such deferral to authority erodes our critical capacity and can lead to false conclusions and bad judgments, all because we accept the hegemony of “faith.”

…a word defined in the New Testament as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  The philosopher Walter Kaufmann characterized it as “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.”

The sticking point for many would be that “reasonable person” proviso, for surely, as Coyne concedes—often—there are many reasonable people who nevertheless espouse a religious faith.  What are we to make of that?  Is the basis for the assessment of “reasonable” perhaps too ill-defined or is the scope of “belief” too broad?

Coyne takes us through the process, giving a thorough explication of why science and religion are incompatible if not a convincing argument for the down-side of belief for belief’s sake.  He tells an anecdote early in the book about how he yearly teaches undergraduates a course in evolution, which the majority do very well at, but admit, after earning their A, to not believing a word of what he taught.  Because it contradicts their religious belief.

It is this that Coyne sees as the dangerous aspect of faith as promulgated through religion, the a priori rejection of evidence in favor of a set of usually unexamined beliefs.  He takes us through a catalogue of negative manifestations, from the rejection of medicines to the acts of terrorists to the rejection of solid science (like climate change), that have their underlying justifications in religion.

Coyne, an admitted atheist, puts all this forward while taking pains to admit the personal comfort to be found in religion by many people.  From a certain point of view he tends to go the extra kilometer to be fair.  Of course, going through the comments on various review sites, those predisposed to reject such arguments accuse him of profound bias if not outright malicious intent.  One cannot help but wonder if they bothered to read the book, all or even in part.

The book makes its case clearly and concisely.  It avoids the polemic outrage to be found in other tomes by big name atheists by sticking largely to evidentiary concerns and philosophical arguments.

But, one may ask, so what?  Religion and science are two realms in which most people would assume they have no stake. Castles in the air, esoteric arguments about things that have no impact on our daily lives.  Most people seem to keep a religion much the same way they have a pet and certainly in the West the majority live secular lives and only rarely feel compelled to apply their religious convictions to anything.  As for science, as long as the technology we depend on works, all the rest is so much theoretical handwaving.  It makes no difference if we have almost no understanding of quantum mechanics and certainly evolution is just tenure-building nonsense having to do with million-year-old bones and what kind of textbooks the school district might use next year.  Nothing to do with us in our daily lives. So what if people rely more on faith and belief in making their daily judgments than on evidence-based science?  We operate more on heuristics defended by aphorism than by reason and applied understanding, or so Daniel Kahneman tells us in his excellent study, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and we by and large get along perfectly well that way.

How does this argument concern me?

Johann Hari’s new book, Chasing The Scream, has an answer to that.  Of sorts, if we but make the epistemological leap.

Hari is writing about the drug war. It is, for him, as much a personal examination as a journalistic one, as he admits to having family and friends who are addicts.  He begins with a simple question.

I scribble down some questions that had puzzled me for years.  Why did the drug war start, and why does it continue?  Why can some people use drugs without any problems, while others can’t?  What really causes addiction?  What happens if you choose a radically different policy?

Okay, three questions.  Still, simple, basic questions, to which any reasonable person might reasonably expect a reasonable answer.

Yet we spend billions, bully small countries, destroy thousands if not millions of lives, all in pursuit of policies which rest on an appalling lack of informed justification.  By the end of the book you come to see that there are no answers to those simjple questions which in any way validate our continuing on with things as they are.  As they have been for a hundred years.

Hari goes back to beginning of the war, before drugs were illegal, and takes use through the history.  Back to Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who fueled the drug war for the twin purposes of maintaining his agency and exorcizing demons that had possessed him since childhood, even in the face of substantive research and sound arguments denying his approach to the problem had any merit and more than ample evidence—Prohibition—that it would lead to catastrophe, not only on a national but on a global level.  Hari details Anslingers battle to destroy Billie Holiday and his use of intimidation and police tactics and, subsequently, U.S. foreign policy to assure the continued crusade to eradicate drugs and destroy addicts.

Not because of any evidence Anslinger understood that led him to think this was the only if not the best way, but because he believed it in spite of growing mountains of evidence that this was a wrongheaded approach.  He suppressed evidence, hounded physicians who dared present alternative models to the drug problem, intimidated politicians—except those who could secure him funding—and strenuously denied the validity of any evidence that  contradicted his belief.

He believed.

As many did and still do.  It is this that trumps hard evidence.

Even as a young adolescent I thought the argument for our drug policies was lacking.  I thought at the time that I just didn’t understand.  Never having been in the least interested in drugs and knowing few if any who were involved with anything more serious than marijuana, it seemed not to concern me.  Later, I did a short stint as a volunteer drug counselor, but the work was far more than I could handle at the time.  I trusted the people in charge knew what they were doing and certainly the gang violence associated with drugs seemed to make a persuasive case that this was a worthwhile and often desperate fight.

But as the years went by and the war continued, I began to notice bits of research here and there and how certain politicians contradicted themselves and how the prison population, especially in the wake of Nixon’s near militarization of the police community and the drug war ethos, was growing and in very worrisome ways.  I began to seriously rethink my position with Reagan’s zero tolerance policies and the mandatory sentencing guidelines he established through Ed Meese, one of the notable Puritans of the modern age.  Even so, I had the nagging suspicion that maybe I was just missing something.  Certainly I didn’t approve of drug addiction, but I more and more came to believe that these people needed help, not punishment.  We understand that process very well with alcohol, why is it different with narcotics?

And besides, there are plenty of people who receive perfectly legal prescription narcotics and never become addicts.

The number of holes in the picture kept growing.  I no longer trusted stated drug policy, but I didn’t understand the instransigence of people over reform.

Hari’s book lays it out very clearly.  Money is high on the list.  We fund too many of the wrong people at too high a level for them to be easily weaned from the teat.  Foreign policy is also tied to this, especially in these days of international terrorism which has a strong drug component.  But the factor that ties this in to Jerry A. Coyne’s book is the one Hari covers only glancingly.


It is easier to rely on what we have always believed than to look at evidence that requires us to change our mind.

Many aspects of our lives are covered by this observation, but where problems arise are those with political and social ramifications.  The persistent beliefs about the poor, about minorities, about people with different beliefs, even when evidence is provided which significantly challenges such beliefs and suggests strongly that not only are they wrong but that we would be better off discarding them, we cling to them.

Hence my conflation of these two books and the suggestion that they share a common idea.

Not that I argue that all beliefs are wrong.  What is wrong is the intractable nature of unquestioned belief.  The only reason the drug war continues is that it has considerable popular support and the only reason it has that is that many people cannot bring themselves to change their minds about it in the face of not only evidence but what we euphemistically call common sense.

But that can be said of so many things which directly and indirectly impact our lives.

Perhaps it is a stretch and perhaps I argue out of my own biases, but it seems to me the most valuable tool we can have in our intellectual toolbox is the ability to say “well, I believe that but I might be wrong.”  Faith cannot maintain, however, among people who are able to say that and apply it to anything and everything.  Science is built on exactly that principle—all knowledge is conditional—but belief, as exemplified by religion, thrives by the absence of that principle.  It says some knowledge is absolute, not to be questioned.

In the contemplation of matters of theological concern, this perhaps offers consolation, comfort, a certain utility, to be sure.  But it is easy for unquestioning acceptance of arguments from authority to become habit and then apply it to anything that our prejudices suggest we may wish to avoid examining.  Drug addiction is an unfortunate affliction and it may be uncomfortable for people to see it for what it is—a disease, like alcoholism.  That discomfort makes room for assertions from authority offered by people who claim to be working on our behalf.  Our unwillingness to ask evidentiary questions is a cozy environment for demagogues and despots.

When you ask “What does this have to do with me?” you might be surprised at the consequences of avoidance and the price of unquestioning trust.  Why should we learn science and how to apply the discipline of examining evidence?  So we don’t hurt ourselves out of the easy habit of belief.

Motives and Revelations

There is a remarkable scene—one of many—in James Morrow’s new novel, Galapagos Regained, wherein the final straw is broken for Charles Darwin and we are shown the moment he decided to back his radical new view of nature and its processes. Wholly fictional, no doubt, yet based on reality, Darwin has come to London to confront a young woman who has betrayed his trust while working in his household. The confrontation with the fictional Chloe Bathhurst is not the one that matters.  Rather, it is the confrontation Darwin is having with the edifice of a loving god.  His daughter is dying—tuberculosis—and the scientist in him knows there is nothing to be done, that an indifferent nature cares nothing for her goodness, her innocence, and any human claim on justice and fairness is but the empty babblings of a minor species only recently transcendent upon the ancient stage of life.  Darwin is angry and resentful.  The transgressions which resulted in his dismissing Miss Bathhurst are insignificant now against this greater, vaster crime which, he believes, has no actual perpetrator.  The only thing he can do, he decides, is to give her his blessing in pursuit of her own goal, which pursuit got her fired from his service.


She was fired for attempting to steal the sketch he had written concerning the transmutation of species, a precursor work to his epic On The Origin of Species.  She did this in order to procure a means to free her errant father from debtors prison by using the work as the basis for winning the Shelley Prize, for which competition has been ongoing for some time in Oxford.  The purpose of the prize to reward anyone who can prove or disprove the existence of God.  Chloe, during her employ as Darwin’s zookeeper, became aware of his theory and thought it ideal to present and win the prize.

Darwin refused.  When she elected then to steal the notes and present it on her own, she was caught and dismissed.  Darwin was at the time unaware that she had already made a copy of the paper and thought he had caught her in the act.

Now, in the lobby of a London playhouse, where Chloe had once been employed as an actress, Darwin, aware that she in fact had stolen his treatise, is sanctioning her quest.

“Don’t overestimate my sympathy.  Had I two thousand surplus pounds, I would cover your father’s debts, then arrange for you to tell the world you no longer believe in transmutationism.  That said, I must allow as how a part of me wants you to claim the prize, for it happens that my relationship with God—“

“Assuming He exists.”

“Assuming He exists, our relationship is in such disarray that I should be glad to see Him thrown down…Get thee to South America, Miss Bathhurst.  Find your inverse Eden.  Who am I to judge your overweening ambition?  We’re a damned desperate species, the lot of us, adrift on a wretched raft, scanning the horizon with bloodshot eyes and hollow expectations.  Go to the Encantadas.  Go with my blessing.”

Because this is what Chloe has determined to do.  Go to the Galapagos Islands to gather specimens to support the argument for transmutation of species.  The Shelley Society fronts her the money to do so, she enlists her card-sharp brother in the expedition, they find a ship, and set sail.  The Society had already bankrolled an expedition to Turkey for the purpose of finding the remnants of Noah’s Ark, so this was only fair.

Accompanying her ship is Reverend Malcolm Chadwick, anglican minister and formerly one of the judges of the Shelley contest—on the side of the deity.  He steps down from that post at the request of Bishop Wilberforce and sent on this new mission to oversee what Chloe will do.  He departs with uneasy conscience, made so by the second part of Bishop Wilberforce’s plot, which sends another minister in another ship with the intention to go to the Encantadas and set in motion the ultimate destruction by slaughter of all the animals on the islands, thus to deprive the forces of atheism their troublesome evidence.  Chadwick finds this idea appalling, but he is faithful and says nothing.  He joins Chloe’s expedition, which becomes Odyssean in its complications and obstacles.

The novel proceeds from one adventure to another until Chloe herself, stricken ill in the Amazon basin, undergoes a kind of religious conversion, and decides she is wrong in her conviction that there is no god.  Morrow then expands on the struggle she engages with her fellow travelers and her own considerable intelligence.

What we are treated to in this novel is a thorough examination of human motivation in the face of shifting paradigms.  It may be clear where his sympathies lie, but he is too good a writer to load the dice in favor of his preferred viewpoint.  He gives his characters their own and follows them where they would naturally lead.  He never denigrates faith, only the fickleness of our intentions in the face of conflicting desires and awkward choices.  Tempting as it may have been in the end to simply declare a winner, Morrow instead takes a more difficult and fulfilling tack by portraying the times in which this debate flared into full flame with the advent of a solid theory of evolution.

Chloe Bathhurst herself is an admirable character.  An actress, adept as a quick study, she proves herself intellectually versatile and equal to any challenge.  As well, those who both aid and oppose her are equally well-drawn and Morrow deftly clarifies their motives.

Along the way, he gives a field demonstration in observation and interpretation, showing us the process whereby new understanding takes us over and how revelation can be a problematic gift.

Morrow is one of our best writers plowing the ground of controversy.  He never takes the simplistic road.  The pleasure in reading one of his novels is that of being allowed free range of the imagination in pursuit of specific truths stripped of dogma.  In fact, he disassembles dogma in the course of his yarns, a fact that is often not apparent while we’re in the grip of his artifice.

An artifice made warm by the complete humanness of his characters.  One his best creations is Chloe Bathhurst.  In her, several clichés and canards are undone, as well as many perhaps uncomfortable but rewarding questions asked.  She exemplifies the first rule of the explorer—never be afraid to go and see for yourself.  Do so and you’ll be amazed at what is revealed.

And what is lost.

The title parodies Milton’s Paradise Regained, from which perhaps Morrow took a bit of inspiration:

I, when no other durst, sole undertook
The dismal expedition to find out
And ruine Adam, and the exploit perform’d
Successfully; a calmer voyage now
Will waft me; and the way found prosperous once
Induces best to hope of like success.

Perhaps not so much to “ruin Adam” as to give us a view into a vaster garden, older and truer, and less a burden to our capacity for wonder.

Ends, Beginnings, Rebirths, Beliefs: Two Works of Science Fiction and a Fantasy

In recent months I have read two classic novels which, curiously enough, deal with matters of a religious nature.  I’ve decided to review them together for a number of reasons, one of which is both are part of the syllabus for my monthly reading group at Left Bank Books. Another reason for the review now is that I have finally, and not without some reluctance, seen one of the new generation of Biblical epics recently released, Noah, with Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly.  There are points of interest in this deeply flawed film which I will touch on after dealing with the novels.

The first novel is James Blish’s superb A Case Of Conscience, published originally in 1953 as a novelette and later expanded to novel-length and published in 1958 (the same year, coincidentally, that Pope John XXIII was elected to his chair).  The questions posed by the story are simple enough even if the answers are nearly impossible: what does Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism, have to say about extraterrestrial with regards to the matter of souls? Depending on the proposed answer, what responsibilities does the Christian have toward them? And, finally, what is to be done/considered if such extraterrestrials appear to have no taint of original sin?Case Of Conscience

These questions may seem naïve today, even irrelevant (although not sufficiently so to make a newer take on the matter a more than relevant work, namely Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow), but Blish’s treatment was anything but naïve in that he bound it up with questions of very nondenominational morality and respect.

To begin with, this is a First Contact novel, even though the “contact” has been an established fact for quite some time as the story opens.  That said, contact has barely begun, and that is the anchor for the drama. Because the ability of the two species, human and Lithian, to speak to each other aside, the story is sunk in the problem of cultures and their mutual incomprehension.  Blish is dealing with assumptions based on a telec understanding of the universe.  Because the guiding principles of his faith are telec, Father Ruiz-Sanchez grapples with whether or not to condone further interaction between his people and the Lithians.  In the end, he reacts rather than deliberates and argues for quarantine, stripping the Lithians of any say in the matter and laying bare the flaw in Ruiz-Sanchez’s own stated system of ethics.  Namely, if Ruiz-Sanchez is, as he claims to be, committed to a system devoted to the saving of souls, then shutting out all contact with creatures who may need saving would be fundamentally immoral.  The problem for him is whether the Lithians have souls, since they appear to lack any evidence of having “fallen.”  They live amicably among themselves, show no judgmentalism, solve problems by consensus without struggling against individual venality, do not appear to know what lying is, have no discernible crime, in fact exhibit none of the traits or conditions of being in a state of sin.  It’s as if, rather than being morally and ethically advanced, they in fact have no need to be, since they have none of the cultural dysfunctions requiring advancing along such lines.  To Ruiz-Sanchez, they are born wholly developed in a moral sense.  This, of course, runs counter to his beliefs in the nature of the universe.  Ruiz-Sanchez betrays, usually in subtle ways, a perverse devotion to dysfunction.  For instance, Earth is portrayed as having solved many of its fundamental economic problems and has adopted (by inference) rational systems that seem to promote equity, yet Ruiz-Sanchez feels that such evidence of progress demonstrates a failure because it moves humanity further away from an assumed ideal which may have no basis in reality.  In short, people are living better lives, at least materially, but are abandoning belief systems which have no use for them.  Better, perhaps, that progress never have occurred so that people would need the Church and the beliefs Ruiz-Sanchez feels matter.

It is understandable that the Lithians trouble Ruiz-Sanchez.  Almost everything about them is a rebuke to the way he has always believed things work.  Biologically, there is a complete disconnect with the human system of nuclear families, and by extension both patriarchy and the question of inherited sin. Their very reasonableness is testimony to the fact that such a state of mind and cultural condition not only can exist but does exist.  At one point, in debating with his colleagues over the issue of quarantine, he says “This has been willed where what is willed must be.”  This is from Dante’s Inferno, lines 91 to 93, in which Virgil says to Charon: “Charon, bite back your spleen:/this has been willed where what is willed must be,/ and is not yours to ask what it may mean.”  By this statement, Ruiz-Sanchez seeks to shut down questioning, his own surely but also his colleagues.  In this, he betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Dante, but no matter.  The line is taken as a divine justification.  Lithia, in this view, must exist as it does because it does.  I am that I am, as it were.  For Ruiz-Sanchez this is also his justification for requesting the quarantine.  It would be fatal in two ways for intercourse to continue.  One, primarily, this Eden he thinks he has found will be eventually corrupted by interaction with humanity, for we embody the serpent, after all, which would be a form of blasphemy.  Two, it might well develop that the Lithians’ ability to function as they do will turn out to be no more than an evolutionary inevitability—which would make humanity’s condition equally so.  Ruiz-Sanchez already claims the exemption for humans from evolution that was dominant in theological thought prior to our present day (although not among Jesuits, making Ruiz-Sanchez a bit of a puzzle).  Ruiz-Sanchez is at base terrified that the Lithians are proof that the Church got it wrong.

Ruiz-Sanchez is a puzzle, as I say, because he’s not much of a Jesuit.  Possibly a Dominican.  Blish seems not to have had a very solid grasp of Catholicism, but he was dealing is large symbols here and parsing the vagaries of the multiplicity of protestant sects would muddy his point, perhaps.  His choice of the Society of Jesus makes a rough sense because of their history in the sciences and in exploration.  What is really on display is the breakdown of intellect in the face of the personally unacceptable.

This is apparent in Ruiz-Sanchez’s choice of reading material.  He’s reading Finnegan’s Wake at the beginning, a curious choice, especially for Blish as he had quite vocal problems with the kind of stream-of-conscious narrative Joyce produced in what amounts to a linguist parlor trick that strips away the pretensions of the intellect by questioning the very precepts of language itself.  But it is an inspired choice in this instance.  Ruiz-Sanchez is wrestling with it, trying to make moral sense of it, which is almost impossible.  In this context, Finnegan’s Wake is the universe as it is, and it forces the reader to accept that whatever “sense” comes out of it is of the reader’s own making.  It is a sustained refutation of a telec universe, which is anathema to Ruiz-Sanchez.

The ending of the novel is a famously achieved moral serendipity.  Because Blish kept the narrative inside Ruiz-Sanchez’s head throughout, perception is everything, and that may ultimately be the point of the novel.

Which brings us to the next novel, also a First Contact work albeit one that reverses many of the tropes in Blish.  Octavia Butler’s Dawn is also a story wherein aliens are first encountered and a world is destroyed.  In this case, though, the aliens have found us and the world destroyed is Earth, by our own hand.

In some ways this is an anachronistic novel.  Dawn was published in 1987, a few years before the Soviet Empire came apart.  It is sometimes easy to forget how convinced many people were that a nuclear holocaust was going to put paid to the entire human enterprise.  But no matter, Butler dealt with it as an event in the story’s past and did not dwell on its particulars.  Any extinction event will do.  She was not interested in judging that or examining the why of it, only in what it established for what follows.

The Oankali, one of the more fascinating and successful nonhuman creations in science fiction, found Earth devastated, with few survivors.  As part of their own program of survival/colonization, they rescued these survivors, healed them where possible, and kept them aboard their immense ship for 250 years while the Earth recovered.

DawnLilith Iyapo is Awakened into a situation she cannot deal with, a lone human in a room dealing with aliens that terrify her with their strangeness.  It transpires that they have plans for her, that part of their own program is the reseeding of worlds like Earth with recovered local species and some of their own.  Humanity, she comes to understand, will be Different.  She rejects this again and again, seeing it as a defilement of what it means to be human, even though, relentlessly and with inconceivable patience, the Oankali show her and teach her that it will be, in some ways, better.  Certainly better for the people of Earth, but better for Lilith personally.

She is to be a leader, a teacher.  She becomes part of an Oankali family.  She finally accepts them for what they are, though she never fully understands them or accepts their plans, but over time she takes up the responsibilities immediately in front of her, namely to shepherd reAwakend humans and prepare them for resettlement.

Butler brilliantly folds several biblical motifs into this story.  It is very much a Moses story.  Lilith does become a teacher, she does lead, but she herself, at the end, is not permitted to “cross over into the promised land.”  Her own people do not accept her, see her instead as a race traitor.  She becomes an irredeemable outsider.  This is also a Noah story.  The world has been destroyed, what has been salvaged must be returned to start again, and Lilith is in some ways Noah, head of a human race given a second chance.

But it is also right out of Revelations.  A new heaven and a new Earth and the handful of appointed shall inherit…

Because it is a new heaven for these people, who stubbornly reject the idea that aliens have saved them and that they are on board a ship.  They reject everything Lilith tells them, their minds recoiling at the totality of the new universe.  It would be a new universe for them, one which now includes aliens right there in front of them.

If there is a flaw in the novel, here it is.  Butler created a masterpiece of psychology here, a study of humanity under stress, and her portraits are amazing in their precision and economy.  However, none of them have any of the traits of those who would eagerly welcome the prospect of meeting aliens and living in a new milieu. And certainly there are people like that.  The odds are Lilith should have found at least one or two allies who were well beyond her in acceptance.  Instead, almost all the people she deals with are in this aspect profoundly mundane.  This, however, is a quibble.

Strikingly, for a story so grounded and informed by religious motifs, there is no real mention of anything religious.  It is significant by its absence.  It is as if Butler decided “if you can’t see the symbolism yourself, spelling it out will cause you to miss all the other points in the book.”  One could also read this as a tacit acceptance on the part of all these people that religion failed them and they’re done with it.  Nothing has happened in a fashion they would have been raised to expect.

The Oankali have determined the cause of humanity’s epic failure.  Two traits which combined disastrously, as they explain to Lilith:  exceptional intelligence and a commitment to hierarchical structures.  Hierarchical thinking and the cleverness to build weapons of mass destruction led inevitably to the annihilation of the human race and the poisoning of the planet.  In order to survive, the Oankali tell her, this must be changed, and therefore humans will be changed.  The Oankali are masters of genetic manipulation—their ship itself is a living thing—and they inform her quite clearly that this must be done.  This becomes the point of greatest contention—for Lilith this is a loss of what it means to Be Human, even though clinging to that is what destroyed humanity and nearly the planet itself.  Butler simply puts this out there.  The Oankali explain themselves, Lilith rejects it even as she comes to accept them.  Her experiences trying to teach and lead the first group of newly Awakened survivors would seem to support the Oankali position.  And yet…and yet…

The question of self-determination comes into this throughout.  Sensibly, Butler never actually examines it, only leaves it present as an emotional issue, while she shows the other trait within humans that is significant and necessary—adaptability.  Humans always change under pressure, always have.  This time  the pressure seems less circumstantial and so an opportunity for people to reject the necessity of change can be placed center-stage.

In both novels we see the primacy of moral determination in the face of the unanticipated.  The very nature of the universe is turned upside down and the givens of the past no longer suit.  In the end, circumstance determines far more than we may allow ourselves to admit, and the narratives by which we live must change to allow us to move forward.

Which brings me to the film, Noah.  When this movie came out there was a spasm of objection from certain quarters over its revisionist take on the Biblical tale.  Upon seeing the film, which is in many ways a fairly silly movie, I can see where it would bother a certain mindset, but also how that mindset would blind the viewer to some of the interesting aspects of it that make it not so easily dismissed.

The Creation myth is reduced to its elements, the Fall is handled almost as a fantasy tale, and the aftermath of Cain killing Abel is the real basis of all that follows.  The children of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, become caretakers of the world while the children of Cain build “a great industrial civilization” and set about conquering, killing, and polluting everything.  The story is transformed into an eco-fable, one in which the punishment inflicted is in response to mines, murders, and misuses of the “gifts” of creation.  The Sons of Cain are depicted as warmongering, patriarchal butchers, nascent NRA members, and proto-imperialists. while Noah and his are shown as gentle nurturers, Noah himself much in the Dr. Doolittle vein.  The landscape is a stark contrast between the urban ruin of the Cainites and the meadowy greenscapes in Noah’s care.

An interesting moment occurs, among several “interesting moments,” when the King of the Cainites, Tubal-Cain (which one might feel references surgical birth control, but in fact he is mentioned in Genesis and  credited as being a master metal worker), explains to Noah’s son Ham that he and his people have the same religious mythography, but they believe The Creator adandoned them, turned his back on mankind, and left them to survive and fend for themselves without his help.

Had there been more of this, the film might have achieved some kind of philosophical sophistication, but as it was Aronofsky, in spite of clever touches and good dialogue (and a stunning visual æsthetic), reduced it to a side-bar of the Lord of the Rings.  All the components were there to show how the story might be relevant to the present, and yet the message was muffled in the extravagant imagery and an attempt to extract an ur-myth from the Hebrew iconography.  It’s a better film than many of its critics, on both sides, credit, but it’s failures of reach make it less potent than it might have been.

One thing I found compelling is the portrayal of Noah in the course of building the ark and trying to keep his family together as a man suffering, essentially, PTSD.  He becomes convinced that what the Creator wants is for all humanity to die out and he intends to kill his son’s firstborn should it turn out to be a girl.  Aronofsky folds the story of Abraham and Isaac into this rather neatly and also manages to extract a better lesson—Noah cannot kill the girls (they turn out to be twins) and feels he has failed the Creator.  But his daughter-in-law, played well by Emma Watson, teaches him that it had always been in his hands because why else would the Creator have chosen him to do all this if not that he, Noah, had the ability and the responsibility to decide.  A rather mature lesson to take from all the slaughter grandly depicted.

All three works offer end of the world scenarios of one kind or another and all three portray moral decision-making that ultimately comes down to what humans do with what is in front of them, for their own benefit and for the benefit of others.  All three place that power squarely on human shoulders and suggest, in their various ways, that solutions are never to be found outside ourselves.  And even if such solutions occasionally can be found, it remains for us to do something with the consequences.

About Hild, A New Novel, A New World

It is completely fitting that science fiction writers should write historical fiction.  Both forms deal with the same background—alien worlds.

Because we live in a story-saturated era where access to the ages is easily had with a visit to the library, the local bookstore, the internet, movies, it is easy to assume we know—that we understand—the past, with the same cordial familiarity we experience our own personal history.  That people lived differently “back then” seems more a matter of fashion and technology, not a question of thought process or philosophy or world view.*  People lacked central heating and air conditioning, cars, television, telephones, indoor plumbing, antibiotics…but they lived essentially the same way.

Well, one could make a case that they did,  but you have to ask the question “In what ways did they live the same way?”  Therein lies the heart of good historical analysis and extrapolation.

Because while we can connect with people of the past in many very broad ways—they were human, they loved, they hated, they were greedy and generous, they were driven by passions, they dreamed—the specifics can school us in the range of the possible.  What does it mean to be human?

Far more than we might imagine.

But that’s where the novelist comes in, the writer who takes the time to grapple with those myriad distinctions and give us a look into those differences that are still, regardless of how remote they seem from our personal understanding of “human,”  part of who we are, at least potentially.

I mention science fiction at the beginning because at a certain level, if we’re dealing with something deeper than costume drama or plot-driven adventure fiction, the exercise of finding, comprehending, and actualizing on the page an entire period from the past—Republican Rome, Hellenic Greece, the Mesopotamia  of the Sumerians, the Kingdom of Chin, or post Roman England—is much the same as building a world out of logic and broad-based knowledgeable extrapolation.  In some instances, extrapolation is all-important because the fact is we simply do not know enough to more or less copy a record into a fictional setting.  Instead, we have to take the tantalizing scraps of what remain of that world and supply the connective tissue by imagining what must, what probably, what could have been there.  And in the process we discover a new world.

If done well, that newness becomes a mirror for us to perceive what we have overlooked in ourselves.  (Which is what good fiction ought to do anyway, but in the well-constructed historical it is a special kind of revelation.)

Seventh Century England is rich with the unknown, the ambiguous, the seductively out-of-reach.  It existed between one deceptively homogeneous era and another, between the Roman Empire and the emergence of the Holy Roman Empire.  More, it held some of the last vestiges of the once vast Celtic Empire.  It was a land where shadow-pasts vied for hegemony over the mythic substrate defining meaning for the warlords, petty kings, and mystics serving them. Pagan religions found themselves competing with this new Christianity, which had been around a while but was finally beginning to make significant headway among the competing kingdoms, looking for the leverage it needed to make itself an “official” religion with the authority to shove the others aside.

Into this came a woman who eventually mattered enough, given the overwhelming patriarchal structure of the day, to deserve a mention from the Venerable Bede (who saw women much as most men of his time did, necessary creatures in need of guidance and by dint of their sex lesser beings).  In Book 4 of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People we’re told of St. Hilda, who was by any measure of the era (and even ours) astonishing.  “Her prudence was so great…that even kings and princes asked and received her advice.”

A good novel starts with a good question and in this case it would be: Who was this woman and how did she get to this place?

A question to which Nicola Griffith impressively supplies an answer in her new novel, Hild, (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux).

Hild, later St. Hilda of Whitby, lived from 614 to 680.  She was a second daughter of minor nobility whose father died, leaving the family at the mercy of rival kingdoms.  Later she founded an abbey, where she remained the rest of her life, and was a teacher of prelates and princes.

Note that.  Seventh Century, at a time and in a place where women were little more than property, Hild could not only read but commanded respect.  That alone would make her fit subject for a big historical novel.  Certainly she would serve as the basis for a cathartic life-lesson to modern audiences about the innate power of women and the need to find and act upon one’s own identity.

But Griffith avoids this in some ways too easy path to sympathy for her character and does what superb history should—provides context and shows her character in situ, living as she would have.  Hild had her own problems to face and they are not ours.  Through the course of 560 pages of well-chosen and seemingly hand-polished words, Hild is given to us as a person, fully realized, of her own time.  This is a different world and these people did not see it as we do.

The success of a novel is in its ability to bring the reader entirely in and hold them, enmeshed, for the duration.  Griffith’s past novels have demonstrated that she can achieve this in both science fiction (Ammonite, Slow River) and noir thriller (The Blue Place, Stay, Always).  But in some ways those novels presented less of a challenge in their immersive requirements—they were closer to home, nearer to our own world, and allowed for reader assumptions to come into play.  (This is deceptive, of course, and is more a question of laziness on the part of the reader than on any artistic shortcuts a writer might take.)  Hild represents an order of magnitude greater risk on Griffith’s part, a kind of dance through a mine field of possible failures that could cause reader disconnect or, worse, a betrayal of her characters.  It is a great pleasure to note that she made no such missteps, got all the way to other side, world intact, with a character very much herself.

This is what historical fiction ought to do.  Take you and put you in a world that is quantitatively and qualitatively different and still engage your sympathies.  As we follow Hild from birth, through her education (under the guidance of her mother, who is herself remarkable) and into a young adulthood in which she comes into possession of some authority, we find ourselves shifting out of our comfort zones with respect to the givens of the world.

Hild is the first book of a trilogy, which will cover Hild’s whole life.  If the next two books are done with as much care, diligence, and grace as this, we are all in for a remarkable experience.

And out of the richly-wrought tapestry of difference, we really do find a connection across the centuries.  Just not where one might ordinarily look for one.


*World view is itself a phrase fraught with change, for to have one requires we have some notion of The World, and that has changed constantly over time.  What world?  How big?  Who is in it?  Look at the changes in the past five centuries, which some historians identify as the modern era.  We have gone from a flat earth at the center of a solar system which defined the limits of space to an uneven sphere orbiting an insignificant middle range star of a small galaxy that is one out of billions and billions of galaxies, with no evident limit to what comprises the universe.

Greatless Illusion

The third book I read recently which resonated thematically with the previous two is one I have come somewhat late to given my inclinations.  But a new paperback edition was recently released and I considered buying it.  I hesitated as I was uncertain whether anything new or substantively unique was contained therein to make it worth having on my shelf.  I have other books along similar lines and while I am fond of the author, it seemed unlikely this book would offer anything not already covered.

Christopher Hitchens was a journalist and essayist and became one of our best commentators on current events, politics, and related subjects.  Even when I disagreed with him I have always found his arguments cogent and insightful and never less than solidly grounded on available fact.

So when he published a book of his views on religion, it seemed a natural addition to my library, yet I missed it when it first came out.  Instead, I read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which I found useful and well-reasoned, but pretty much a sermon to one who needed no convincing.  Such books are useful for the examples they offer to underpin their arguments.

Such is the case with God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  Hitchens’ extensive travels and his experiences in the face of conflict between opposing groups, often ideologically-driven, promised a surfeit of example and he did not fail to provide amply.

The title is a challenge, a gauntlet thrown at the feet of those with whom Hitchens had sizeable bones to pick.  In the years since its initial publication it has acquired a reputation, developed a set of expectations, and has become something of a cause celebré sufficient for people to take sides without having read it.  I found myself approaching the book with a set of expectations of my own and, with mild surprise, had those expectations undermined.

Yes, the book is a statement about the nature of religion as an abusive ideology—regardless of denomination, sect, theological origin—and offers a full range of examples of how conflicts, both between people and peoples, are generally made worse (or, more often than not, occur because of) by religious infusions into the situation.  It is in many ways a depressing catalog of misuse, misinterpretation, misstatement, misunderstanding, and sometimes misanthropy born out of religious conviction.  Hitchens analyzes the sources of these problems, charts some of the history, and gives us modern day examples.

But he tempers much of this by drawing a distinction between individuals and ideologies.

He also opens with a statement that in his opinion we shall never be rid of it.  This is quite unlike people like Dawkins who actually seem to feel humankind can be educated out of any need of religion.  Hitchens understood human nature all too well to have any hope that this was possible.

He does allow that possibly religion allows some good people to be better, but he does not believe religion makes anyone not already so inclined good.

By the end of the book, there will likely be two reactions.  One, possibly the more common, will be to dismiss much of his argument as one-sided.  “He overlooks all the good that has been done.”  It is interesting to me that such special pleading only ever gets applied consistently when religion is at issue.  In so much else, one or two missteps and trust is gone, but not so in religion, wherein an arena is offered in which not only mistakes but serious abuse can occur time and time again and yet the driving doctrine never called into question.  The other reaction will be to embrace the serious critique on offer, even the condemnations, and pay no attention to the quite sincere attempt to examine human nature in the grip of what can only be described as a pathology.

Because while Hitchens was a self-proclaimed atheist, he does take pains to point out that he is not talking about any sort of actual god in this book, only the god at the heart of human-made religions.  For some this may be a distinction without a difference, but for the thoughtful reader it is a telling distinction.  That at the end of it all, Hitchens see all—all—manifestations of gods through the terms of their religions as artifices.  And he wonders then why people continue to inflict upon themselves and each other straitjackets of behavior and ideology that, pushed to one extreme or another, seem to always result in some sort of harm, not only for the people who do not believe a given trope but for the believers themselves.

We are, being story-obsessed, caught in the amber of our narratives.  Per Mr. Thompson’s analysis of myth, we are never free of those stories—even their evocation for the purposes of ridicule bring us fully within them and determine the ground upon which we move.  The intractable differences over unprovable and ultimately unsubstantiated assumptions of religious dictate, per the history chronicled around the life Roger Smith, have left us upon a field of direst struggle with our fellows whose lack of belief often is perceived as a direct threat to a salvation we are unwilling ourselves to examine and question as valid, resulting in abuse and death borne out of tortured constructs of love.  Christopher Hitchens put together a bestiary of precedent demonstrating that treating as real the often inarticulate longings to be “right” in the sight of a god we ourselves have invented, too often leads to heartache, madness, and butchery.

The sanest religionists, it would seem by this testament, are those with the lightest affiliation, the flimsiest of dedications to doctrine.  They are the ones who can step back when the call to massacre the infidel goes out.

All of which is ultimately problematic due simply to the inexplicable nature of religion’s appeal to so many.

But it is, to my mind, an insincere devoteé who will not, in order to fairly assess the thing itself, look at all that has been wrought in the name of a stated belief.  Insincere and ultimately dangerous, especially when what under any other circumstance is completely wrong can be justified by that which is supposed to redeem us.

Monstrous Partiality

In keeping with the previous review, we turn now to a more modern myth, specifically that of our nation’s founding.  More specifically, one component which has from time to time erupted into controversy and distorted the civil landscape by its insistence on truth and right.

But first, a question:  did you know that once upon a time, in Massachussetts, it was illegal to live alone?

There was a law requiring all men and women to abide with families—either their own or others—and that no one, man or woman, was permitted to build a house and inhabit it by themselves.

John M. Barry details this and much more about early America which, to my knowledge, never makes it into history classes, at least not in primary or secondary schools, in his excellent book  Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.


Discussion of the Founding—and most particularly the Founding Fathers—centers upon the Revolutionary Era collection of savants who shaped what became the United States.  It is sometimes easy to forget that Europeans had been on these shores, attempting settlements, for almost two centuries by then.  It’s as if that period, encapsulated as it is in quaint myths of Puritans, Pocahontas, Squanto, John Smith, and Plymouth Rock, occupies a kind of nontime, a pre-political period of social innocence in which Individuals, whose personalities loom large yet isolated, like Greek Gods, prepared the landscape for our later emergence as a nation.  My own history classes I recall did little to connect the English Civil War to the Puritan settlements and even less to connect the major convulsions in English jurisprudence of that period to the the evolution of political ideas we tend to take for granted today.  In fact, it seems pains are taken to sever those very connections, as if to say that once here, on North American soil, what happened in Europe was inconsequential to our national mythos.

That illusion is shattered by Barry in this biography of not only one of the most overlooked and misunderstood Founders but of that entire morass of religious and political struggle which resulted in the beginnings of our modern understanding of the wall of separation between church and state.  More, he makes it viscerally real why  that wall not only came into being but had  to be.

If you learned about Roger Williams at all in high school, probably the extent of it was “Roger Williams was a Puritan who established the colony that became Rhode Island.  He contributed to the discussion over individual liberty.”  Or something like that.  While true, it grossly undervalues what Williams actually did and how important he was to everything that followed.

In a way, it’s understandable why this is the case.  Williams occupies a time in our history that is both chaotic and morally ambiguous.  We like to think differently of those who settled here than they actually were, and any deeper examination of that period threatens to open a fractal abyss of soul searching that might cast a shadow over the period we prefer to exalt.

But the seeds of Williams’ contribution were sown in the intellectual soil which to this day has produced a troubling crop of discontent between two different conceptions of what America is.

The Puritans (whom we often refer to as The Pilgrims) were religious malcontents who opposed the English church.  They had good reason to do so.  King James I (1566 – 1625) and then his son, Charles I (1600 – 1649), remade the Church of England into a political institution of unprecedented intrusive power, establishing it as the sole legitimate church in England and gradually driving out, delegitimizing, and anathematizing any and all deviant sects—including and often most especially the Puritans.  Loyalty oaths included mandatory attendance at Anglican services and the adoption of the Book of Common Prayer.  The reason this was such a big deal at the time was because England had become a Protestant nation under Queen Elizabeth I and everything James and Charles were doing smacked of Catholicism (or Romishness), which the majority of common folk had rejected, and not without cause.  The history of the religious whipsaw England endured in these years is a blood-soaked one.  How people prayed, whether or not they could read the Bible themselves, and their private affiliations to their religious conceptions became the stuff of vicious street politics and uglier national power plays.

So when we hear that the Pilgrims came to America in order to worship as they saw fit, we sympathize.  Naturally, we feel, everyone should be allowed to worship in their own way.  We have internalized the idea of private worship and the liberty of conscience—an idea that had no currency among the Puritans.

The Puritans were no more tolerant than the high church bishops enforcing Anglican conformity in England.  They thought—they believed—their view of christian worship was right and they had come to the New World to build their version of perfection.  A survey of the laws and practices of those early colonies gives us a picture of ideological gulags where deviation was treated as a dire threat, a disease, which sometimes required the amputation of the infected individual: banishment.

Hence the law forbidding anyone from living alone.  It was thought that in isolation, apart from people who could keep watch over you and each other, the mind’s natural proclivity to question would create nonconformity.

Conformity is sometimes a dirty word today.  We pursue it but we reserve the right to distance ourselves from what we perceive as intrusiveness in the name of conformity.  Among the Puritans, conformity was essential to bring closer the day of Jesus’ return.  Everyone had to be on the same page for that to occur.

(Which gave them a lot of work to do.  Not only did they have to establish absolute conformism among themselves, but they would at some point have to go back to England and overthrow the established—i.e. the King’s—order and convert their fellow Britons, and then invade the Continent and overthrow Catholicism, and all the while they had to go out into the wilderness of North America and convert all the Indians…but first things first, they needs must become One People within their own community—something they were finding increasingly difficult to do.)

Into this environment came Roger Williams and his family.  Williams was a Puritan.  But he also had a background as apprentice to one of the most formidable jurists in English history, Sir Edward Coke, the man who ultimately curtailed the power of the king and established the primacy of Parliament.  Coke was no Puritan—it’s a question if he was anything in terms of religious affiliation beyond a christian—but he was one of the sharpest minds and most consistent political theorists of his day.  He brought WIlliams into the fray where the boy saw first-hand how power actually worked.  He saw kings be petty, injustices imposed out of avarice, vice, and vengeance in the name of nobly-stated principles.  And, most importantly, he saw how the church was corrupted by direct involvement in state matters.

This is a crucial point of difference between Williams and later thinkers on this issue.  Williams was a devout christian.  What he objected to was the way politics poisoned the purity that was possible in religious observance.  He wanted a wall of separation in order to keep the state out of the church, not the other way around.  But eventually he came to see that the two, mingled for any reason, were ultimately destructive to each other.

Williams was an up-and-coming mover among the Puritans, but the situation for him and many others became untenable and he decamped to America in 1631, where he was warmly received by the governor of Massachussetts, John Winthrop.  In fact, he was eagerly expected by the whole established Puritan community—his reputation was that great—and was immediately offered a post.

Which he turned down.

Already he was thinking hard about what he had witnessed and learned and soon enough he came into conflict with the Puritan regime over matters of personal conscience.

What he codified eloquently was his observation that the worst abuses of religiously-informed politics (or politically motivated religion) was the inability of people to be objective.  A “monstrous partiality” inevitably emerged to distort reason in the name of sectarian partisanship and that this was destructive to communities, to conscience, to liberty.

For their part, the Puritans heard this as a trumpet call to anarchy.

The Massachussetts Puritans came very close to killing Williams.  He was forced to flee his home in the midst of a snowstorm while he was still recovering from a serious illness.  He was succored by the Indian friends he had made, primarily because he was one of the very few Europeans who had bothered to learn their language.  They gave him land, which eventually became Providence Plantation, and he attracted the misfits from all over.  Naturally, Massachussetts saw this as a danger to their entire program.  If there was a place where nonconformity could flourish, what then became of their City on the Hill and the advent toward which they most fervently worked?

The next several years saw Williams travel back and forth across the Atlantic to secure the charter for his colony.  He knew Cromwell and the others and wrote his most famous book, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience,
in 1644 right before returning to America to shepherd his new colony.  In this book for the first time is clearly stated the argument for a firm wall of separation.  It is the cornerstone upon which the later generation of Founders built and which today rests the history of religious freedom we take as a natural right.

But the struggle was anything but civil and the abuses to which Williams responded in his call for a “Liberty of conscience” are not the general picture we have of the quaint Pilgrims.

Barry sets this history out in vivid prose, extensively sourced research, and grounds the story in terms we can easily understand as applicable to our current dilemma.  One may wonder why Williams is not more widely known, why his contributions are obscured in the shadow of what came later.  Rhode Island was the first colony with a constitution that did not mention god and it was established for over fifty years before a church was built in Providence.

Williams himself was not a tolerant man.  He loathed Baptists and positively hated Quakers.  But he valued his principles more.  Perhaps he saw in his own intolerance the very reason for adoption of what then was not merely radical but revolutionary.