Apostasy And Science Fiction
by Mark W. Tiedemann
So look what they dug up this time. An
ossuary, an ancient limestone box, purportedly containing the bones of
someone named James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. It's the right
age, the cursive aramaic is from the right period, the tradition is correct.
It just might be the smoking gun everybody concerned with the issue has
been looking for, especially since the Shroud of Turin has been shown to
be a fake. Another gallon of gasoline on the fire of controversy
concerning the authenticity of Yeshua bar Joseph and all that has been
subsequently attributed to him. The debate continues.
This is going to be a column about why I write SF--Science Fiction--and not Fantasy. It's also going to be autobiographical, because I can't explain the one without going into details about the other. So really it's going to be about how and why I see the world the way I do. Writing SF is inextricably bound up in my worldview and explaining that requires some history. Confession time, as it were, so to speak.
Be warned, therefore, that if you are easily offended by eschatological controversy, go to a different section of the site and read no further. Because what follows is an admission of viewpoint not friendly to matters religious--although not unfriendly to matters spiritual, which I see as something completely different.
I write science fiction...
Well, I write science fiction for a lot of reasons. I should make that clear right at the start. No one reason exhausts the raison detré behind my joy in it. But we're not going to be talking about all of them, so...
I write science fiction (for the purposes of this essay) because I can accept the model of the universe and its workings which is the basis for a scientific apprehension of the universe. Because I understand--and largely accept--the description of reality offered by that viewpoint, I find it difficult to read or write fiction based on a religious description of the universe. Make no mistake, I believe that basically Fantasy is religiously based--it takes as its model a universe filled with gods and spirits and demons and essentials which animate the very fabric of matter and permit violations in causal reality which are the basis of superstition and the so-called Occult. In short, Magic, and its attendant variations.
I find it all so much bullshit.
Now, the perceptive reader who may have paid attention to my output over the last several years will notice that I've actually written some fantasy. True. Just because I don't accept the defining telos of fantasy doesn't mean I find it aesthetically useless. I even read some of it and when I do it is because of the literary merits--story, if you will--and because the authors have said something about the human condition which I find compelling. Just as there are more reasons I write (and read) science fiction, there is more than one reason I sometimes read (and write) fantasy.
But by and large, the vast bulk of contemporary fantasy, especially that which has been cast up since Tolkein became the end all and be all of the epic mode, leaves me cold. A good friend of mine wrote an excellent essay about why he no longer reads fantasy, and his reasons can be counted among my own as well. Among them, he included a strong affection in fantasy for medieval economies, including all forms of (largely uncontested) slavery, an unquestioned acceptance of blood hierarchies (divine right of kings, etc), and a tendency to base self-worth on violence. Of course, fantasy has no monopoly on that last, but when combined with the other two it makes for a particularly odious ethic, alá Wagner.
The fantasy I have read that I appreciate is, in some sense, anti-fantasy. China Mieville, for example, and Jeffrey Ford are two who come to mind who write the sort of stories which show the tragic results of the unquestioned assumptions of fantasy themes as they might unfold in a universe which is perhaps alive and aware but which has either no interest in the small creatures that populate it or is utterly incapable of intervening in any constructive way.
How's that? What's he talking about? The universe alive and aware?
That's the sort of universe a religious viewpoint promulgates. The very fabric of the cosmos is the viscera of a great being--gods do not inhabit the universe, they (or it) are the universe. Or some manifestation of its essential nature. (We, you see, are not of the universe in that sense--we inhabit it for a short while, are severed from its spiritual essence, and upon death return to that essence. Most religions share this fundamental decription of a bifurcated nature, hence we have the separate descriptions of Natural and Supernatural, the latter having to do with the endless panoply of ghosts, demons, gods, demigods, urges, and immortal beings that populate our myth and folklore and inform the Occult with its current power as expressed in mystery cults. In this sense, the whole Gaian Hypothesis is an attempt at blending the two or claiming that the severence is a false description. In any case, the gods are what they are because the universe is aware and, in most religions, involved in the material world--us.)
To reiterate, I find this utter bullshit.
But it can make for potent storytelling. I take nothing away from the obvious power such models possess for moving people, for impressing them and shaping their psychés. Just because something may be b.s. doesn't mean it can't be compelling.
It has compelled human beings for countless millennia. It compels us today.
It is no wonder that so many people reject science out of hand and cast it as the enemy in what amounts to a Kulturkampf. Science takes all that potent b.s. away. To phrase it mildly, science "demystifies" the universe. To put it a little more baldly, it says that the spooks in the dark are simply unknown phenomenon which can be known if you'd just take the step to use your mind and shine a light on that corner you've been scared of since you stopped wetting the bed.
Cold? Science is without warmth or humanity or...
Frankly, I've never understood that. It's human, it's our birthright, our legacy, the only worthwhile thing we may have achieved after coming down from the trees and building the first rude huts and tilling the ground around them. It gives us something denied the rest of the creatures around us--perspective--and allows us a degree of control over our short, otherwise brutish lives. Neither cold nor warm, but a tool that can permit us to determine whether we live fulfilling lives or freeze to death in the dark.
I know what science can provide--and, as importantly, what it can't. Religion, however, is worse than a lottery ticket, because we don't even know if there is a jackpot, never mind how big it is or what the odds are of cashing in on it.
Science has its shortcomings. It is not capable of giving us love, nor can it teach us to enjoy a sunset or a blooming rose. It is a tool for exploring the world, no more, no less. It doesn't comfort us when someone we love dies nor does it explain the pain of a broken heart or the joy of friendship. It is no subsitute for parents and a poor way to appreciate art.
But then it doesn't claim to be any of those things.
In religion you find the claim that you can do nothing without a god. That all the good things in life are there because of a god and our capacity to appreciate, enjoy, and, so far as we can, understand them is because of a god. Religion claims to be all things to all people at all levels.
People don't understand why such a worldview turns me off. They don't understand why I don't accept the prescriptions of a religious view. They don't understand, in particular, why I find it rather offensive.
Of course, a lot of those same people don't understand what I see in science fiction, either.
Insofar as the two are bound up, I will now attempt to explain how I got here from there. It really is about writing science fiction, the whys and wherefores. Really.
I have been an object of suspicion to my peers
since I can remember. "That Tiedemann kid," they might say, "he's
a weird one."
What are you supposed to do with that? Your parents raise you to a certain age, making you pretty much the center of a universe whose parameters you cannot know, and then, when the state says it's time, dump you into a building-full of other little centers all of whom then vie for the position of chief center. Without preamble or proper introduction or explanations that make sense to a five-year-old, you are suddenly shut up with strangers, none of whom have the least interest in your former position of supreme being. Instead, they're all interested in pointing out to you how they are still supreme being. That and trying to figure out which circle of hell you belong to. This is euphemistically called "socialization." Rural folk call it establishing a pecking order.
I remember it as trial by fire.
Three things crystalized for me within a year of starting school. One, I hated it. Two, I believed everyone around me had come from some foreign land and did not speak my language. Three, I blamed myself for not fitting in.
I've gotten over the last, but to this day I still find that my feelings about "school" linger with bitterness. And most of those kids did not grow up in households like mine. (The language part I've gotten over, too--they just cared about different things.)
How can I explain this?
I was born in 1954 and entered kindergarten in the last staggering phases of Eisenhower's administration. I was an only child who loved television and certain comics and entertained wild fantasies of being one fictional hero or another. I played combat a lot. There were a few kids on my block, but most of them were older than me (years later we moved to a different street where the reverse became the case). I lacked patience and never acquired the sports bug. I could not have told you, at age six, who was pitching for who or what teams had been in the World Series. I didn't know, I didn't care. Movies? Great, loved movies, but not horror films. I scared easily and my mother fretted over me having nightmares. This at a time when the second great period of horror films was in the process of gripping the nation's youth in an iron fist of coolness.
(An example of my youthful disconnection from other kids. One of my neighbors got a model kit for his birthday of the Wolfman, the great Lon Chaney incarnation. This was a big deal, we were all blue collar folk with not a lot of money, so a model kit like this was an important event. It was constructed with great care and then one day I was swept along with everyone else down to his backyard where the oldest kid on the block, a guy named Martin, was Going To Paint It for him. Martin was, by all acounts, good at this and had a full range of Testors model paints. A table was set up in the backyard, the tools laid out, the assembled plastic statue presented, and the work commenced. Slowly. With great care and attention to detail. This was going to take Martin all afternoon. Everyone huddled around to watch as if at church, rapt with attention, mesmerized. Except me. After twenty or so minutes, boredom took over. I suggested a couple of diversions, but no one was interested. Shrugging, I went off by myself to explore the back yard. I promptly made a lot of noise, disturbing Martin, drawing dirty looks, and finally causing them to run me home. I didn't get it. What was the big deal? Of course, all my model kits were examples of true haste, with glue runs and ill-fitted joins. Big deal. Who wanted to take so much time to get to the finished result? Not me. I was never asked back to watch another demonstration.)
Almost from the start I was the object of ridicule and teasing and eventually beatings. Small, underweight, and uncoordinated, I was an easy target, and I absolutely loathed pain. Fighting back, in my young experience, earned another belt in the gut or kick in the shin. So eventually I learned to hate my peers as well as school. Over time, it all moiled into one vast cesspool of prisonlike timekeeping, something to endure till the magic day I Got Out.
Now here's the positive part. All this conspired to drive me into my imagination. The part that didn't hurt was where I retreated into books and stories and movies. (I have been and will continue recounting much of this part in the Encounters section, so I won't belabor it here.)
I found out that book reports were great ways to pacify the teachers. I wrote a lot of them, which meant I spent a lot of time between the covers of a book. Still, I don't think I could qualify as a bona fide bookworm until about the age ten or eleven. That's when it really became aparent that books formed the better part of my young life. All the while I was reading, I was also creating. I'm a natural artist (in a small way) and have always been able to draw, so a lot of energy went into duplicating the comics I loved. This entailed coming up with stories, of course. Inventing plots on the spot for playtime was a common thing for me. I staged the wargames in my neighborhood, for instance, which became increasingly more complex. (Never mistake wimpiness in a child for an aversion to violence as idea. I was every bit as enamored of soldiering and cowboys and gunfights as any other child and indulged the fantasy of being the tough G.I. or stout town marshall with relish. The fact that I was useless in a real fight only fueled the fantasy. I hated being a so called weakling and aspired to the condition of martial arts champion/fastest draw/ sharpshooter/secret agent. There had to be a trick to it, that's all, the secret thrust, the technique, the knowledge...)
Now we come to the point of divergence. Now we come to the place where I veered off from the bulk of my friends and peers and entered a path that led to where I am now. To understand further, a little home history.
My parents were baptized into the Mormon Church when I was a wee thing. I remember the ceremony--I witnessed it. Mom never drank or smoked, but Dad gave up cigarettes and coffee and stopped drinking an occasional beer. Beyond that, I don't recall many other changes in the house except the community activities the church drafted Dad into mentoring, and the visiting teachers. Nothing at all negative in my memory about any of it. Church was church. They had a special, small chapel for the kids, and we used water and pieces of Wonder Bread for the sacrament. The church itself seemed huge to me then, but I drive by it now (it's become some branch of evangelical baptist off-shoot) and have a hard time reconciling how small it is with my memory.
In any event, religion in our house was like going to the grocery store. We did it once a week and it became a routine and at that age the idea that Jesus loved me was a comforting thought. There was no wall between the "real" world and the spirit world. The idea of angels being real didn't seem strange--insofar as I was a fairly typical kid, I believed in ghosts and things that go bump in the night. This was a part of that whole. In my imagination, it was all of a piece.
I had gotten used to not paying a lot of attention to things. There was television, comics, stories my Mom read to me, and the indecipherable world of adults, and at some point I just began thinking as though none of what they talked about applied to me. So a lot of the lessons at church went right through. I didn't get a huge indoctrination in the LDS. I knew about Joseph Smith and I knew some of the Mormon version of Navou and the trek to Utah--which was made to sound a lot like Moses leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt. They even ended up in a kind of desert landscape that, based on the Biblical movies I'd seen, resembled the Promised Land. (Deserts, as far as I'm concerned, have far more to do with evangelical religion than actual divine inspiration. Frank Herbert was dead on in setting Dune on a desert planet.) But beyond the basics of christianity, I wasn't very hep to the intricacies of my religion. I knew there was a difference, because when I attended other churches (as when I visited relatives for extended stays) I was accutely uncomfortable at the services. I guess I knew intuitively that Something Wasn't Right.
At some point along the way, my Dad had a falling out with the Church Elders and essentially quit the LDS. I found out years later what it was about--politics--and I won't go into it here. Suffice it to say that about that time we moved, selling our house and taking up residence as renters from my grandparents, and I changed schools, Mormonism was pretty much over with in our home.
But not its impact on my Dad.
In a very fundamental sense, my Dad is an inveterate skeptic. One of the things that attracted him to the LDS was that when asked a question to which they had no answer, they wouldn't make something up or relegate it to the status of Mystery like so many of the various denominations do--they would admit to ignorance and promise to find out if possible. To my Dad, that was a sign of sincerity and intellectual honesty. That's a good way to get on his good side. He always taught me that admitting you don't know is nothing to be ashamed of (a lesson it in fact took me a long time to appreciate) and a hell of lot better than trying to backfill prevarications and balderdash. But the skepticism permeated his appreciation of everything and over time has made him a bit...well, cranky. At the time, though, it manifested in a profound concern that his son not be guiled or tricked or scammed. The only way to do that was to make sure, if possible, that I knew how to think for myself. The way he went about this led to unforeseen (but not unforeseeable) consequences with which I can only say I am content.
Here's the weird part.
My hatred of school began early. My grades were poor almost from start, despite endless assurances from my teachers that I was "a bright boy who should have no problems at all." My lack of performance puzzled my parents--my mother had earned a full college scholarship (which she did not for various reasons take advantage of) and my father had gotten a limited one in art which he could not take advantage of--and the thinking was that a lack of classroom discipline lay at the bottom of it. So when I changed schools, I moved from a public school to a private school.
Parochial school. Lutheran, to be exact.
Emmaus Lutheran School.
It was here that I developed into a fine little apostate, although it took years after leaving it for the effect to fully manifest.
Now, you might wonder at my parents' thinking. Mormons (ostensibly) placing their child in a Lutheran school. What? Kind of like a Jewish family placing their children in a Catholic school.
It's not that hard to understand. They were set against me entering another public school. The one closest to me, by virtue of the bizarre districting in St. Louis, was the one I could not attend. The district line ran down the middle of my new street. So kids living across from us could go to Shenendoah School, but I had to go to Grant, which was a few miles away. Long walk. Grant also had a bad reputation.
About the same distance from my house as Shenendoah, there was St. Francis De Sales and Emmaus. De Sales (pronounced DEE-sales by all of us in the neighborhood) was Catholic. And expensive. Emmaus, the Lutheran school was cheaper. And carried less taint of papism. This still mattered back then. Vatican II had just happened, and the changes from that had not even begun to permeate the world's Catholic dioceses, so everyone still thought of the Catholic Church in the same way they always had--authoritarian, brainwashing, interfering, and in many instances non-christian.
Yes, that's right--non-christian. Catholicism was held by the entirety of Protestantism as (at least on the street level) the exact opposite of true christianity. They were the Whore of Rome (or Bablyon, if you were really into Revelations), antichrist, all but satanic. I was reared to believe that the one kind of girl I had to stay away from at all costs was a Catholic girl because my life would be ruined--she would seduce me and convert me and I would be forever lost to the clutches of the Vatican. It is strange now to think of it, but John F. Kennedy had the hardest time running for office because of his Catholicism. It was said that the Vatican would be running the United States if he became president.
In any case, finances and prejudice won out and I ended up enrolled in a Lutheran grade school.
Now, bear in mind, my parents' entire motive for putting me there was a question of discipline. As a private institution, they could still (with parental permission) dole out corporal punishment. They thought I needed spanking to pay attention in class. They thought an iron hand was required to get my grades up. They thought the public schools were too soft.
Crap. I got spanked once during my entire stay in Emmaus and that was for something I didn't do. My grades improved marginally, but not enough to justify the expense.
(To be fair, I discovered later that the two public schools I almost ended up in were far worse than the first one I went to and I would likely have been...well, Emmaus was better for me in the long run, let's put it that way.)
The only real change, though, was religion class. And that's where my Dad stepped in, Socratically and didactically.
Let me say here that by the time I graduated Emmaus Lutheran School, I was every bit the christian. I believed in God and that Jesus was his son and died for my sins. That I had no clear idea what a "sin" was--I don't think anyone did, they just accepted it-- I suspected it had something to do with the persistent shittiness of my self-image. I felt foul and unworthy, so I must be a sinner. I must have that taint left over from Adam's fall, otherwise I wouldn't feel this way all the time. The only way out of this muck was through the salvation offered by Christ and the sacrament and prayer and unquestioning belief in Biblical truth.
My Dad did not try to disuade me from being a christian--he tried to ameliorate my Lutheranism, rationalize it into something he considered closer to reality. Two or three times a week at supper he would ask what I'd learned that day or that week and after I told him, the probing started. What do you think about that? Does that make sense to you? Look at it this way and tell me if that adds up. Is that really consistent? And I would lamely try to defend what I conceived of as my faith. I'd answer, he counterargue, I'd defend, he'd attack.
Up till then I always assumed all so-called christian denominations were pretty much the same, at least in the fundamentals. God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, crucifixion, raising from dead, Lazarus, etc. Denominational bickering seemed pretty silly to me, but like any post-pubescent I accepted an Us and Them approach to life, which meant that if you weren't in our camp then you must have something wrong with you. I didn't really think that my parents' Mormonism was at odds with Lutheranism--until we got to the question of the Trinity. And not even the Trinity but the idea of the Triune God. Three in One. All the same being, but with separate and distinct aspects. To Dad this made no sense whatever. Either it was One Thing or it was Three. There was a hierarchy or there wasn't and he felt there was, so there was something suspicious about this mystical conjoinment of beings. Especially when it came to Jesus' suffering and the doubts expressed both in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross atop Golgotha. He picked at it, making me think it through, and the one thing that sent him right up the wall was the defense that it was a divine mystery and couldn't be explained by human thought. He categorically rejected this.
Let me tell you, this made me magnificently uncomfortable.
But faith is exactly that--a belief in something's truth regardless of logic or counterevidence or internal inconsistency. I thought I was being a good christian by clinging bullheadedly to my faith.
And I was faithful. I was a believer.
I've been told since that I couldn't have been, because logically (get that, "logically") if I had been then I would still be. True Belief doesn't fail. If I had truly believed I would still truly believe, there can be no coming to a new realization.
This is circular reasoning. A tautology. I've come to see that all religion is based on tautology. There are no exceptions. They do not sustain their own arguments outside of their neat little circles and for something to be True, it must be True regardless of the conditions in which it is accepted.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Basically, this is an insulting accusation, but I've come to expect insult from True Believers. I know what I felt, I know what I believed, and I know how it empowered me.
And it did. With god's help, I could do anything. I believed that. Prayer was effective. I believed that. God and the Bible were true, in my heart and mind, and I worked at sorting through the white noise of the universe to reconcile the world to that belief.
The first chink, though, came from the most worldly and mundane of sources. Money.
Let me explain.
I went through confirmation at Emmaus, then graduated, and looked forward to high school. Mom said it would be different, better, that I'd enjoy it more than grade school. I spent the summer exploring the new possibilities before me. I read a great deal. I became thoroughly enthralled with science fiction. I read Asimov's Foundation Trilogy that summer, the Avon paperback editions, each one purchased from Leukens' Pharmacy just around the block from my house. Leukens' was where I got most of my books till I got a bicycle and found my way down to Grand Avenue and the bookstore at the corner of Arsenal and Grand. Even after that, I'd walk up to Leukens' for a malt or soda and a new paperback. I got my comics there till it closed down when the neighborhood started to go bad.
What I did not do that summer was attend church. This was nothing new. I was a typical kid in that weekends, to me, were for ME. I slept till noon, stayed up till one in the morning, and no way was I going to haul myself out of the sack to go to church at nine on Sunday morning. Oh, I managed it twice, maybe three times after graduation, but by the end of that summer I was most certainly not going.
By the end of my first year in high school, in the abrupt absence of religion class and all my Dad's probing over it, I was beginning to accept--not consciously, mind you--that I wouldn't be going back to church.
My reading began to range more widely. Somewhere along my sophomore year I read "Stranger In A Strange Land." Chalk this up to an example of SF actually crystalizing an idea for someone. When I finished that book, a lot of thoughts that had been buzzing around in my hindbrain for, evidently, a number of years came together. SIaSL did not end my faith in god--it ended my trust in churches. Jubal Harshaw's pedantry reminded me--in smoother, gentler ways--of my Dad's constant demand that I think for myself and, above all, take no one's word for anything!
My natural dislike of authority marterialized in high school. It didn't take much prodding to get me to start checking up on what my teachers told me. Already I felt better read than half the people I knew--even some of the high school teachers--and walked through the halls of Roosevelt High School with a cocky self-assurance in my abilities at rational discernment to get myself into trouble left and right. Upon finishing SIaSL I felt I not only had the right idea, but I had a right to question everything.
That year I also ran into my first serious academic setback.
As I said, I hated school. I didn't hate learning, but I hated the regimen, the pompousness of the teachers, the fact that I had to attend. My mind doesn't work to structure imposed from without, not that way. But by and large I have to say that school and school work as such never taxed me very much. When I actually bothered to do the work, it was rarely difficult. I spent far more energy and creativity trying to get out of it, and surely my mother was correct in telling me that if I expended half that effort on actually being a good student I'd have been a straight A achiever.
I just didn't give a damn. There were more important things in life than grammar and new math and geography, taught to the discipline of grade levels and report cards.
(A side trip--althought pertinent to my attitude toward those in charge of my rearing. In 8th grade we took the Iowa Basics, which in 1968 were used to determine what academic track we would enter going into high school. These were tests of basic knowledge and reasoning skills. Now, I'm sure this wasn't kosher, but the school principle took several of us aside for what I guess he thought were pep talks. In private, he assured me that track 2, even track 3 [there were three tracks, of course, unless you were determined mentally retarded--they had a special track, termed lovingly at the time as "Terminal Education"; lovely] was nothing to be ashamed of, that this would in no way limit my chances in later life. I realized afterward that he was prepared for me to do poorly on the Iowas. A month later, he called me back into his office. He was furious. He wanted to know what I had been doing in school for eight years. Wasting time? The reason for the dressing down? I scored in the top ten percent. Nationwide. I was not stupid, I was not "deficient", I was not ignorant. I rarely did homework or participated in classroom discussions. My test scores in class subjects were uniformly mediocre. I daydreamed, paid little attention in class--in short, I was a terrible student with a C average. He knew I hadn't cheated on the Iowa Basic--couldn't, in fact--so he wanted to know... I'm not sure what he wanted to know. He was angry with me for being smart enough to be a top ten percentile intellect with middle third percentile grades. I read a lot. I could figure things out. The fact that I did that well should have pointed out to him and others that the "system" was a joke. I didn't realize this, then, of course, I just felt humiliated--again--and ashamed of my unchristian behavior.)
My setback. My Mom had been correct, high school was different, and my freshman year I actually did enjoy a lot of it. As proof, my grades shot up to B averages and I even aced a few classes. I especially loved American History and did marvelously well. I had a flare for history--I was reading a lot, remember--and had stumbled on a lot of details not covered in the class text. (I have since realized that most school texts, especially in history, are, to put it kindly, pathetic. Not many years ago I leafed through a recent high school history text that made the claim that the Vietnam War began at the Tet Offensive. I kid thee not!)
Sophomore year I entered school after summer of basking in the glow of a brief spurt of parental approval. I'd done well. The one thing I came to realize over the next few years was that what I do not do well with is praise. This has changed now, through sheer hard work and self awareness, for a long time it was true that if you gave me a compliment about how well I'd done something, I would proceed to screw it up next time. I thought I could coast. I'd achieved the required level and I didn't have to work at it anymore. Bizarre psychology, perhaps, but frankly an awful lot came easily to me. Even stuff I had to work at a little to get down I got quickly and with a modicum of proficiency--it just wasn't that hard. The stuff that didn't comply this way, I avoided.
I ran headlong into my World History teacher and proceeded to get my first and only F.
Reconstructing it after the fact, here is what happened. I missed the first two days of her class tied up with altering my schedule. I had signed up for two classes that I then changed my mind about and a third one had to be corrected from Algebra to Geometry. Someone had assumed my freshman year I'd taken Pre-Algebra, but being track one I went straight into Algebra. Paperwork snafu. Anyway, I entered Miss -----'s World History class two days late. She had issued her requirements for the class on the first day and clarified questions about it on the second. Miss ---- was the sort of person who did not care to repeat herself. I was assigned a desk and told to get the assignments from my classmates.
Who promptly didn't tell me the overall plan.
Part of that plan was that Miss ---- required us to keep a detailed notebook, to be handed in as part of our final grade. Half of it, in fact. I wasn't informed. Nor did I ask. I'd sailed through American History on oral panache and reports and test quizes, this would be just as easy.
Not. She didn't give quizzes like other teachers. She lectured. It was clear that she thought teaching high school was beneath her--she should be lecturing at Yale or Harvard. The quizzes at the end of each chapter were to be part of the notebook.
When I didn't have it, she went all military on me. It was impossible to catch up, so I flunked.
Dad was furious. How dare I? He didn't know who to blame. I'd aced history the year before, now I have an F. What? When I tried to explain that I hadn't known about the assignment, he tried to intercede, but that resulted in an embarrassing admission that I just hadn't cared enough to make sure I knew what the requirements were. I intended, as usual, to breeze through.
Miss ---- pissed me off. She was arrogant, insufferable, and in my view somewhat irresponsible. She lectured us as if we were college students. We were, as a whole, bright enough, but we lacked experience to take what she said any other way than literally.
Except me. I already resented authority. I already had a good grasp of the idea of research, if not a particularly good method of doing it. I already thought she was full of it.
So we went to war. Any tossed off, ill-considered statement she made became a Cause for me to research and prove false.
"Classic Greek culture was basically homosexual."
Then where did all the little Greeks come from?
I made her explain and expand. It wasn't my intention to make her a better teacher or help my fellow students, it was my intention to embarrass her.
"Harry Truman lacked everything for political office except intestinal fortitude."
I acquired a transcript of his congressional record and dropped it on her desk, with notes on the high points of his legislation and voting record.
We shouted at each other. It was exhilirating!
I got out of her class with a C, even though, in my opinion, I'd done college level work the following three quarters.
When it was done, I really hated school.
And I'd finished "Stranger..."
And I'd started getting a holistic grasp of history.
Especially the history of religious wars, which did not come up in class except to note that they happened.
Subsequently, my attitudes toward the church began to follow the path of skepticism.
Primarily, though, I'd lost any enthsiasm for school that had carried over from my freshman year. Of the things that kept me going, I had joined the staff of the school paper at then end of my first year. During sophomore year, I became interested in photography and began setting aside writing for camera work.
But I also fell in with the school sophists. Most of them worked on the newspaper and in their company, although I disgreed with them and fought and argued and acquired a number of unflattering nicknames from them, I heard scores of more or less radical ideas for the first time. Antiauthoritarianism was on the rise then--remember, this was '68 through '73--and I became immersed in a lot of counter culture thought.
Most of it was garbage. But a consequence for me was a further spur to independent thought. It's one thing to disagree with your teachers, still another to disagree with your peers. Which I did. I didn't "fit in" anyway, what was there to lose? In fact, you couldn't "fit in" with these folks--they weren't about that. They respected independent thought. I doubt many of them respected mine, though--I tended then to be conservative, almost reactionary, much of it borrowed from my Dad--but they didn't dismiss me out of hand.
I was introduced to a facile form of Buddhism by one of the paper staff. I don't know if it was this or just the culmination of years of ill ease over my religious attitudes, but I started actively studying religions. I still counted myself a christian then, but I had grown disenchanted with what I saw as christianity's neurotic obsessions with sex and dominance and worthlessness. I wanted to know if they were all like that or just my own brand.
"Away from fold" so to speak I had begun shrugging off the feeling of perpetual foulness that I'd always thought of as the sign of sin. I had whole days, sometimes three or four in a row, when I felt perfectly fine. And I was trying to find some way to reconcile pubescent yearnings with Biblical proscriptions on sex and carnality. I started questioning the dogma that asserted One True Faith and the essential unworthiness of humans. From my readings in history I more and more could not escape noticing how people in power used these very elements to dominate and control--especially popes, patriarchs, and kings who ruled by "divine right".
I started attending services at other denominations. By the time I graduated high school, I must have been in attendance at a couple of hundred different sects, including Hari Krishna and a pair of tent revivals (which scared the hell out of me).
When I was through, I concluded that all of them were wrong.
Oh, they had pieces of the truth, a bit here and there, but layered under so much sectarian b.s. and factionalism as to be virtually worthless in the search for real faith.
One thing was certainly true--I wasn't a Lutheran anymore.
Nor was I a Mormon. My parents had never tried to impress me into the LDS ranks and over the years whatever zeal had initially driven them to become baptized Mormons faded until, today, my Dad at least admits to finding the whole thing so much nonsense.
I was a full-fledged Questioner.
And quite content to basically keep it all to myself. That's more or less what I told the visiting missionaries from my alma mater, Emmaus.
I'd been receiving a newsletter for years. Twice I received visits from parishioners who wondered why I hadn't been back. Nice people, I believe genuinely concerned about my spiritual well-being, I felt not the least bit bad about their visit. I told them I was fine, that I was searching, and maybe I'd be back. Perhaps a bit disingenuous, but at that point I honestly didn't know.
A few months later I received a two page letter from the rectors of Emmaus pointing out that my attendence had lapsed and my soul was in mortal danger. If I didn't get back to church and pay up my dues I would likely end up in hell. (I recall that the phrase was actually "resume my fiscal responsibilities to the church", but that doesn't change the meaning or intent.)
I was furious. Dad laughed at me and said they must be hard up for money, ignore it.
I did. Till I got the second letter. Shorter, more to the point, but basically the same. I didn't ignore this one. I went to the next P.T.L. meeting and when the floor was opened for questions I stood up. I read the letter aloud, then faced the board and asked them who they thought they were to speak for the lord that way? I mean, I thought god decided who went to hell and why. Well, during the meeting they had talked about budget a little, and Dad had been right, they were hurting. Big deal. As far as I was concerned this was a temporal problem and they'd misused their authority to exercise a little spiritual coercion. I told them I considered this harrassment and that if I got another one they'd be hearing from my lawyer. So if you would, take my name off your roles and leave me alone!
When I walked out of that meeting, I had severed all connection with organized religion--emotionally if not intellectually. It would not sink in, however, until almost six years later when I was planning to get married.
But I get ahead of myself again.
Over the next several months I sorted out my feelings and thoughts and realized that all my study had shown me how religion is mostly a human invention. None of the churches I'd visited agreed with each other in detail, none of them had a lock on the truth, yet they all claimed to be The One True Way. Lutheranism, for all its self-professed deviation, is no more than a grim offshoot of Catholicism. Calvinism is a lawyer's take on christianity while the ecstatic sects are all substitutes for sex--what Erica Jong might call "zipless fucks." Buddhism and certain Hindu variants rightly identify the material world as a source of muddying the clear waters of religious truth, so they turn their backs on The World altogether--so much so that they are worthless in solving real dilemmas. Besides, modern neuropsychology puts the lie to the idea that mind and body are separate, so these religions are so much worthless denial. Islam is another desert faith, more zealous and didactic than christianity, without the faintest bit of regard for historical realities, and Judaism...well, it seems like nothing but ritual to me, which may have its uses, but is no sign of ultimate truth.
So the church, in whatever manifestation, has it wrong. Period. Nothing I've learned since coming to that conclusion has changed my mind, although I have changed my opinion about why people need churches.
By the time I began writing seriously, I had adopted a completely secular attitude toward the whole religious issue. It is one of those things people do in a group that has powerful meanings for each individual, but beyond those assigned and recognized group resonances there is nothing to validate objectively any of the claims made on behalf of the religious view. It is all, for me, a matter of historical/psychological processes, filtered through wishfulfillment desires and the perverse workings on minds trying to explain something with insufficient data.
But the thing that drove me to this position ultimately had almost nothing to do with the rational appreciation of social forces and anthropological interpretation of cultural phenomena. In the end, it was just the shitty way religious people treat others.
This comes from experience. If you ain't part of the club, you're a nobody. I grew up in that kind of culture. I was the perpetual outsider, the wimp, the nerd, the bookworm. I didn't know the passwords. As a kid I used to watch these World War II movies wherein, during the last days, German soldiers would dress like Americans to infiltrate the Allied ranks. They were very good, they spoke flawless American English, chewed gum, and certainly looked the part. Almost impossible to catch. The way they did it?
Who won the World Series last year?
Of course, the Germans wouldn't know. Gotcha.
The thing is, I would have been shot as a spy by that criteria.
(What is it about people that they assume everyone knows all the same stuff? It's never true, but...oh, well, that's another Muse.)
The thing is, as I say, the Club never let me in. Partly it was lack of interest on my part. But a large part was that the keepers of the gate wouldn't allow me in. Bullies. Bullies need victims. They can't hold their self-appointed stations in life without someone to bully. If no one steps forward on their own to be victim, one is invented. Thus was born the category of Heretic.
I'm utterly convinced of this on a gut level. In the organizing frenzy of the early christian church, all ideas were in play. Once a majority emerged, they turned on those who remained who adhered to the losing propositions and demanded acquiescence or ostracism. The actual drama unfolded a bit more complexly, sure, but that's what the bottom line was. Join or leave. And if you join, renounce your independent thinking and, oh, if you don't mind, give us the names of others like you who haven't changed their opinions.
If ostracism--which is nasty enough--were sufficient, then I might have had a relatively peaceful childhood. But it isn't. The bully is compelled to go find the victim and beat on him regardless. It's a power thing. But it's also a matter of self-doubt. What if the victim is right? Well, we've just gone through this purging of the ranks, we don't need everything all destabilized again, so there will be no dissension allowed--anywhere. Not even by inference. Letting the Heretic live is an admission that the Heretic might have a right to be different.
This, of course, is exactly contrary to what Yeshua said. But after Paul got through with it, the church was set on a course taken by every other mystery cult that ever existed. The whole point of belonging to a mystery cult is to be different, special. They are not democratic, often they are fascistic, but every single one of them is at base a form of organized bullying.
Too strong? Maybe. After anything gets large and widespread enough, grows sufficiently complex, such simple diagnoses seem absurdly inappropriate. The basic bullying takes on new forms of intellectual and cultural coercion, but remains fundamentally unchanged in its net result and its primary message--join us or perish. By the time Constantine organized it and put the imperial imprimatur on the christian church, the whole kit'n'kaboodle was on its way to power, never mind what Jesus said.
This is not to say that from time to time, here and there, we don't find good people doing great things in the name of god or the church. We do. A lot of them. The question is, would they have done it anyway, without the inspiration of the church? At least in the case of some of the early mystics, probably. St. Francis of Assisi is a case in point--he was thoroughly disgusted with Rome and actually embarrassed them with his genuine piety and humility and good works. For revenge, Rome created an Order in his name and completely absorbed St. Francis into the mythos of the Catholic Church. His message was subverted, his image coopted, his radicalism defanged.
From time to time in this I've mentioned Yeshua--Jesus. So it's a fair to question whether or not I believe he existed. In fact, I do. Just as I believe Gautama Buddha existed. And some raging isolate named Zoroaster. Just as I believe Socrates existed, even though he himself never put stylus to tablet and all we have of him are the accounts of his students. (In fact, one of the things I find fascinating is the similarities between Jesus and Socrates--their stories have many parallels, up to and including condemnation by the state on a charge of blasphemy. Socrates had followers willing to rescue him by the sword (Peter tried that for Jesus, remember) and he refused, going willingly to his doom. The charges were flimsy and he was killed anyway. His followers wrote down his teachings and spread his cult. Socrates was absorbed, in fact, into the christian church by way of Plato's pupil, Aristotle, who was made the Good Pagan by a church groping for some kind of intellectual order. Anyway, it's worth a look, if you're interested.) I have no problem believing a teacher lived who said a lot of things that ultimately got him killed when those things seemed to challenge local authority--Rome. But do I believe he was the son of a deity?
And neither did at least two of the authors of the Four Gospels.
There's a game played with True Believers that I indulge occasionally out of cruel spite. You know the ones I mean, those who declare that EVERY SINGLE WORD IN THE BIBLE IS THE TRUE AND UNALTERABLE WORD OF GOD! The first question, of course, is Which Bible? I mean, which translation? But there's a simpler way to hang them up.
Jesus was born of Mary, sired by God, right? Divine impregnation. (In the first place, this was a borrowing from Hellenistic culture, which probably borrowed it from some other culture, which got it from--I mean, this was Zeus's favorite pasttime, knocking up mortal women and siring demigods. Hercules is one example, Perseus another, both of them incidentally savior figures in their own fashion.) Okay.
Then how come both genealogies trace him through Joseph?
I mean, if "Holy men of god spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit"--that's the mantra, remember? I went through parochial school hearing that as the justification for taking the Bible seriously if not absolutely literally--then, according to the literalist, Yahweh was whispering in their ears while they set stuff down so they wouldn't make any mistakes. It would have been a pretty clear sign that Jesus was Really Different if Matthew and Luke had recorded his lineage through Mary, since the patrilineage was the accepted tradition not only in the Hebrew culture of the time, but pretty much everywhere else in the so-called Known World.
What we find instead is in not one but two Gospels the lineage is trace from David to Joseph.
And they contradict!
I laugh about this a lot, since I keep getting told by the True Believers that there are no contradictions in the Bible. Yet they always forget this one. In Matthew (first chapter) the line is trace from David through Solomon, down to Jacob, father of Joseph. Joseph then fathers Jesus. In Luke (third chapter) it is traced from David through Nathan down to Heli, father of Joseph etc.
Hmm. Big oversight.
Joseph had two fathers? Combination of sperm in one ovum? Now that would be a miracle...
But the main point is that the Gospels themselves record that Jesus was the son of Joseph.
It doesn't matter. What Yeshua bar Joseph, whoever he was, taught was the radical stuff. It got him killed apparently--and not by the Jews. All this millennia-long garbage about the Jews killing Jesus is bunk. Rome put him to death as a political threat. Crucifixion was the punishment for traitors and terrorists and politics intransigents. Palestine had more than its fair share at the time.
But the words. They get lost in the mythmaking.
Partly, I think, this is because people generally won't follow an idea the way they'll follow a person. My Mom taught me this and she's absolutely right, to the detriment of those of us who can't figure someone like--like--
Well, I could digress into a long political rant here, but I won't. Suffice it to say that when Jesus told people to go make up their own minds, follow the Word, take responsibility for changing their own lives and the world around them--they weren't gonna do it because it was a Good Idea. They needed a leader. So the whole bit about the Word made Flesh developed, to give a face and a personality for people to follow, which they did, forgetting about the advice part since the whole process was taken over by spin doctors who told everyone what to believe in obedience to the dead leader they'd come to follow but could no longer check with for accuracy.
But underneath all that was a teacher who had some radical things to say. It's too bad most of what he taught has vanished, either under dogmatic rethinking or simply because those parchments weren't kept. (Remember, when Constantine finished organizing the church he order all contrary texts destroyed.)
And I guess it's at this point where I found myself most profoundly at odds with christianity. The book burning. Fascism incarnate. All of them. It should be pretty obvious why a writer would find that odious. But even if I weren't a writer, this would bother me, because to physically attack and destroy a differing opinion demonstrates one thing above all others--a profound lack of faith in your own ideas.
Science has shown us that over time the right idea, the one that is closest to the truth, wins out. At any given time, there may be dozens or hundreds of conflicting ideas. Scientists keep working at them to try to disprove them (a thoroughly anti-dogmatic practice!) and eventually ideas are either discarded as wrong or supported as correct by virtue of their own merits.
What this might mean in a philosophical sense is that nothing is ever settled, certain. Religiously minded folk of the less stout variety--fundamentalists--find this disturbing about science, which is, of course, a dead giveaway about their own problem. They want certainty, they demand it, they require it. "The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That's the End of It." Isn't that how the bumper sticker reads? Yes, well, huh.
I find the idea of a continual flux of ideas liberating. Perhaps that's one of things that attracted me to SF in the first place, the continual positing of What If questions that always suggested nothing was settled.
Fantasy does precisely the opposite.
Religion offers the prospect of an endless, never changing eternity as a kind of solace to those who can't seem to get a handle on life.
But I digress again. I can offer up an essay later on my take on the differences between SF and Fantasy. For now, I'm talking about how my life has led me to Science Fiction, as part of a reaction against the religious.
Somewhere in the last twenty years I've pretty well settled the debate in my own mind and gone on to examine the issues. I am persuaded by evidence, which of course religion eschews as contrary to faith. The concrete, the provable, the demonstrable--all such things are anathema to the pure acceptance of the truth of the religous experience.
Here's where it really comes home for me, though. Despite this claim, most--not all--religious people are no different than the most thoroughgoing materialist in matters of proof. Perhaps they claim not to need it, but when some is offered they cling to it like barnacles on the hull of a ship.
I mentioned the Shroud of Turin earlier. There is no question that it is not Christ's shroud. The carbon dating, the manufacture, the pigment, plus the whole issue of its originators' being known con artists--none of this is seriously up to question anymore. When the Vatican finally released samples--and their reluctance itself was a demonstration of the religious resistence to verification by materialist means--it ended the debate. But the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) has kept the controversy alive through an amazing combination of smoke and mirrors and obstinacy. They won't let go. My question is, why not? If you have the faith you assert to have, why defend something as tawdry as material proof to the point of looking ridiculous?
The same goes for any critical examination of the Bible. This is resisted mightily by the more evangelical. As if the truth could be destroyed by taking a hard look at it, no light must be shed on the documents supporting christian contention. And when the flaws in the divinely-spoke edifice show up under examination, the examiner is insulted and ridiculed.
So I suppose I have to say that by and large the faithful themselves give me pause. How solid can such a belief system be when championed by those who prefer a darkened room to the full light of inquiry? My own faith, when it was in full voice, knew no such quibbles. I was confident that all questions about it could be answered eventually, on all levels. I assumed that truth would win out and it wouldn't need to cheat. As one by one the facts upon which my faith-based truth stood were shown to not work, I thought it meant that some things had been forgotten or misunderstood. I believed for a long time that there is no real division between science and religion. We just misunderstood.
Once more, I found myself the outsider.
I have come to see that the universe just doesn't require a god to exist and nothing in it requires one to explain. We made it up as we went along. Was it a lie? No, not at all.
I write fiction. Made-up things. Lies? Well, if what you're looking for is one to one parity with reality, yes, I suppose. But the purpose of doing these things is to find truth. Fiction writers tell the truth about the way people are, about the essence of their lives, about the similarities and differences in our beings and temperaments. We try to say wise things. Yeshua called them parables--instructive stories to illuminate a point. It didn't matter if the people and events of which he spoke actually happened--what mattered was the emerging substance of the narrative, what it meant. I know that through my fictions I'm trying to explain a bit of the world and to do that I have to be honest in my depictions and inventions. Anyone who has read a novel or story in which truth shone clearly knows how this works.
So when I say that humanity made it all up in reference to religion, I don't mean something so simplistic and shabby as a joke told at the corner bar. I mean that we made it up to explain to ourselves what this thing is we carry around inside us that makes up more than snakes, lizards, panda bears, mackerel, and amoebae. It's a grand edifice in its complexity. And it still largely works to help some people get through life with a sense that there's a larger point to it.
But it isn't the end of the story. It doesn't work for all of us anymore, and for a good number of people it probably never did. And to insist on its truth in the face of a changing zeitgeist is to make it the lie heretics have often said it was.
I began this by mentioning the ossuary found purporting to contain the bones of Christ's brother. The jury will be out on it for a long time, I'm sure, but I look forward to the explosion it will cause in the religious world. Once more we have something which may constitute proof. But it's divisive. Those who believe that Jesus was born of Mary by virgin birth and subsequently remained a virgin will find it impossible to accept--James wasn't his brother. Those who hold that he was the son of god will have to step back and wonder that another "holy man of god speaking as the spirit moved him" erred by naming Joseph the father of Christ. Then there will be those who will claim it was another Jesus altogether. But of course, the practice of naming relatives on these boxes was rare to nonexistent, so you have to wonder why they would bother unless this was intended to make an important statement.
The fight will grow and factions will emerge and the drama will continue. Like an epic fantasy novel, the lines will be drawn based on the True Bloodline of the Prince and war will be waged put the rightful heir on the throne.
It is to yawn. I think I read SF because none of that is important in it. It doesn't matter who mother and father were, it matters what you do with what you have. What matters is tomorrow, not the past. And while we can't really go forward without coming from somewhere, we should never let the past chain us to a worthless heritage that makes us feel shitty for wanting to go down the road a little way further.
I said that in grade school I was the punching bag for bullies. Actually, it was worse than that--everyone seemed to feel they had a right to pick on me. Maybe I wore a sign that said "Wimp here, Kick hard." There were two exceptions to that, where in I became--not popular, exactly, but respected. One was boy scouts. Oddly enough, I did all right there and no one teased or taunted me--at least, not any more than anyone else.
The other was in art. I had a flair for drawing and this garnered me hushed admiration from those around me who couldn't manage to draw a straight line with a ruler. I wrote and drew me own comics and for a brief time I sold them to my classmates until the principle put a stop to it.
At which point, they became really popular.
But I did them by hand and xeroxing was years away from being cost effective, so production was necessarily slow and uneven. Maybe someone somewhere still has one of those ten page space operas I did--blatant rip-offs of "Star Trek" and "Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea"--and will one day sell it for all of ten bucks. It was the one arena in which I was the undisputed best in my grade school days and it helped salvage a modicum of self-esteem.
And of course the teachers didn't like it.
I began to indulge those things which made the teachers uncomfortable, made them work for my attention. For a long time it was just youthful contrariness, but by the time I got out of high school it had become a credo--authority must justify itself. Later I found a lot of thinkers I respect saying basically the same thing. One of my favorites is, I believe, Carl Sagan's dictum: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
Now, scientists, like anybody else, are human. They have foibles and prejudices and blind spots and passions. Just because a scientist can be as bullheaded and dogmatic as a theologian, however, doesn't reduce science itself to the same level as religion. The process of science, the activity, is different, and its proper application ensures that the intransigence that so characterizes the history of religious thought breaks down faster and more surely. It is the fact that science admits error, says it's wrong when it is, that drew me.
Dad's nightly Socratic dialogues paid off.
Science Fiction has as one its principle heroes the archetype of the underdog taking on authority. That is a very attractive motif to me. Fantasy, it seems to me, is the assertion of one form of authority over another--the continual war of Good versus Evil, Light against Dark. No one questions the battle at its foundation, it's an inevitable contest that all involved must fight or be lost. No one says, "You know, this is your mess. Nothing to do with me. And why are you fighting over this ring/sword/talisman nonsense in the first place? Just to find out who gets to rule the serfs? Fuck that. I'm leaving."
No, what you get is the reestablishment of "rightful orders"--the king is back on the throne, we found the true prince, etc. No one questions why the war had to be fought for this turnip in the first place. No one questions the qualifications of the king/prince/etc. to be a ruler. No one wonders if maybe, since we've been doing without one for a time, well, when we finished beating back the bad guy, why not try something else?
After a while it gets tiring because nothing changes. Change, in fact, is evidently anathema in Fantasy. It happens because there is no way for it not to happen, but everyone laments the passing of the past.
It reminds me sometimes of older Catholics who believe everything will be fine with the universe when the Latin mass is restored to its rightful place.
copyright © 2004 by Mark W. Tiedemann