Recent, faith-based slavery in Ireland


Some of the survivors are finally receiving a bit of compensation for being enslaved for life by the Church with the assistance of the Irish government. The last of these hellish places closed in 1996. Yes, that recently. This is a recent news video:



It’s a bit late, but at least it’s something

As you may know, although I sometimes write fantasy fiction, I am pretty skeptical about the supernatural in real life.

My skepticism turns into alarm whenever someone employs magical thinking in a context where it could do real harm.

The leader of the largest faith-based group promoting the idea that prayer can “cure” homosexuality has finally admitted that it just doesn’t work. The preponderance of evidence collected by mainstream medicine and psychiatry over decades indicates that we all come out of the box with our sexual orientation hard wired.,0,7570124.story

Many years ago, I worked with a gay man who was raised in a deeply fundamentalist family. He and his lover, who had a similar background, were tormented by guilt.

They finally jumped off a mountain together, holding hands.

Bablefish, God, Your truth, My Truth

In case you’ve never read Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (the movie version is a pale, inadequate reflection of the zany brilliance of the book), I should explain that one of his inventions was a small fish you could stick in your ear that allowed you to understand anything said to you in any language.

Adams had the following comment:

“Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

Adams wrote that long before the World Wide Web, but he could have been talking about it. This is yet another example of a science fiction writer able to realistically foresee the social consequences of a new technology. Some browsers now come with a built-in translation feature for converting the text of web pages into your default language. I expect that eventually somebody will come up with a plug-in that will handle speech as well. On top of that, in most countries now it’s fairly easy to get access to video feeds of news and entertainment from distant countries, even if you must put an illegal satellite dish on the roof to do it.

All over the planet people are getting online and watching the behavior of people living in societies with radically different social norms. This has been a shocking experience for many of them.

I happen to live in the United States, part of the West, for want of a better term. My wife and adult daughters make their own decisions, run their lives as they see fit, and go out in public dressed as they like.

Hundreds of millions of people on this planet, particularly in the Muslim world, see Western women like those in my family on their screens. They seem naked and brazen by their standards. Many viewers in non-Western societies are outraged. They feel that what they see going on in the West should not be permitted. They want it stopped.

In the United States, one is expected to affirm belief in the existence of a Supreme Being, preferably one of the traditional Judea-Christian flavors. (In some regions within the United States, Jesus is the only socially acceptable option.) The Gallup poll has for decades been tracking attitudes towards members of different demographics. Gallup has consistently found that potential voters given a list that includes Catholics, African Americans, Jews, Baptists, women, Mormons, Muslims, and gay people, tell pollsters that the category they would most refuse to vote for under any circumstances whatsoever is that of atheists. If you want to run for public office in the United States, the first thing you should do is to join a church.

Yet Americans who see news and entertainment from Europe are becoming aware that on the other side of the Atlantic religious faith doesn’t generally get the kind of unquestioned deference it does here. I recall a Doctor Who episode (originates in Great Britain) where a recorded announcement on a space platform that functioned as a transportation hub like an airport reminded travelers that weapons and religions (both items were considered dangerous) were not permitted on the station. Something like that would probably not have made the final cut on American television.

Devout Americans have realized that although you can certainly find devout believers in Western Europe if you look for them, religious faith there is often considered either an eccentric hobby pursued by a small minority or a museum piece hauled out of mothballs for weddings, funerals, and state occasions. Most of the native population ignores it most of the time, which drives the leadership of the establishment churches in those countries, who remember the good old days when they could get away with murder, nuts. Devout Americans don’t like the lack of public piety they see across the water and want something done about it. That’s why you get American missionaries in Europe. They are determined to somehow drag Europe kicking and screaming back to church.

In some places in the world, religious groups have gotten creative about silencing their critics. In Russia, where the Orthodox Church has again become a major political player since the collapse of the Soviet state, the lower house of the parliament just passed by a big margin a bill that makes it a felony to insult the feelings of religious believers. The penalty is three years in prison. (They also got a bill through that makes it a crime for parents to tell their children that gay people exist.)

Hurt feelings? That may be a bad translation for all I know, but I think what’s going on is that the Russian Orthodox Church is borrowing a tactic often used against people in Western academia who criticize Islam and some cultural practices sometimes associated with it such as female genital mutilation.

You accuse the critics of bigotry and claim that any criticism of Islam or cultures associated with it, however reasonable and polite, is a vicious, racist act. This works especially well with liberals, who are a lot more comfortable with the “well, there is your truth, and my truth, so there really isn’t any truth” cop out anyway.

(That reminds me of the joke about the freshman philosophy student who decided he was a solipsist and then wondered why there weren’t more of them.)

An awful lot of the rage and danger we are dealing with on the global stage is being driven by religion. Here is my recommendation for when people doing outrageous things use their religion as a justification and accuse you of bigotry for calling them on it: make a clear distinction between the person who believes in an idea, who is automatically entitled to a minimum of respect and courtesy, and the idea itself, which gets no more respect than it can win on the battlefield of ideas.

The Rules of the Game for Beginning a Civilized Global Argument About Religion in the Age of Bablefish:

1. Never, ever, say anything nasty to someone you disagree with about his or her sex, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnic background, social class, appearance, or physical or mental challenges. That stuff is strictly off limits in any sort of discussion or argument. Period.

2. You have a moral obligation to criticize the behavior of anyone who fails to observe rule number one.

3. A religion is a group of individuals who find true a particular set of related ideas affirming the existence of a supernatural agent, agents, or forces who must be appeased in some specific way. Those ideas are fair game for intelligent criticism. Just because the topic is religion, the ideas don’t deserve kid-glove treatment and their advocates shouldn’t be permitted lapses in logic or ordinary rules of evidence. For example, don’t expect to get away with saying that you have faith in something, so therefore it must be true. (Suppose you played the faith card to claim that peanuts were in telepathic contact with Thomas Jefferson?) Playing the faith card is just a way of admitting there is no reason whatsoever to believe what you do. Don’t cheat when you argue about ideas, but play hard. You can’t hurt the feelings of a theological system or a sacred text. There aren’t any feelings to hurt.

What’s that in your ears?

I live close enough to the ocean that about once a week my wife and I drive to the beach. We like to arrive around sunrise and walk or jog a few miles down the shore and back while the sun isn’t so intense and there are fewer people about.

This morning it was quite beautiful. Blue sky with a few streaks of clouds, a rich swirl of seashells left behind by high tide adorning the sand, a slight breeze with a hit of salt spray, the cries of seabirds, the crash of the surf.

It was magnificent.

So why did so many of the other people we encountered wear white earplugs to drown out the sounds of the natural world?

Hold that thought.

Yesterday two men, apparently acting on orders from their imaginary, invisible friend (according to some eyewitnesses, they cried “Allahu Akbar!” or “God is the greatest!”), attacked an off-duty soldier and hacked him to death. This occurred in broad daylight on a street in London.

(Least anyone think I am picking on Muslims in particular, let me make something clear: in my opinion, if you believe you are receiving marching orders from any invisible superbeing(s), no matter what you call him, her, they, or it, you are delusional.)

At that point the story segues from the horrific into the surreal.

Having just committed a brutal murder, they encouraged witnesses to take their pictures and make video recordings with their phones. Rather than running away screaming, many people seem to have hung around or just strolled through a scene that included a mutilated cadaver and chatty murderers standing around holding meat cleavers or machetes still red and sticky with their victim’s blood. When a news crew turned up, the killers used the opportunity to launch into a religiously tinged political speech.

They wanted to get their images and words widely broadcast through the world’s video screens.

What is in some ways almost as scary is that some witnesses evidently didn’t take what was happening right in front of them seriously because it wasn’t on a screen. I suppose they were waiting for a newsreader on a gadget to tell them that they ought to be upset.

As a global society, we are in a mass retreat from reality. Even in relatively prosperous and free societies where genuine knowledge about how the world really works can be had by anyone willing to take the time and trouble, huge numbers of people believe in utter nonsense, whether of the supernatural kind or in some crap that disintegrates under the scrutiny of mainstream science or in preposterous conspiracy theories that are so absurd they make the paranoid idiocy found in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion look reasonable.

Meanwhile, information about real problems that need urgent attention is drowned out by celebrity gossip, political ankle-biting that results in nothing useful whatsoever, and similar infotainment.

Most of this rubbish, these days, is spread through electronic screens.

So do something.

(1.) Find some books of genuine history or natural science (college freshman texts or books favorably reviewed by a reputable, mainstream popular science magazine are a good place to begin) and start reading. Read Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World somewhere early in this process. Read a lot of books.

(2.) When you hit words you don’t know—and you will, if the book is any good–look them up.

(3.) Then go out and interact with something real.

You can’t hear the seagulls’ song while you have white buds in your ears.

Fantasy: good, bad, and dangerous

For the benefit of non-fans, I should begin by explaining that Doctor Who is a long-running British science fiction series about a peculiar alien called The Doctor who travels the universe in a time machine called the TARDIS. During a visit to Britain in the early 1960’s—when the show first went on the air—its camouflage system malfunctioned, and it got stuck permanently looking on the outside like a police call box—sort of a phone booth. If the Doctor becomes very seriously injured, he regenerates and afterward has a different appearance and a somewhat different personality. This allows the show, from time to time, to replace the Doctor with a new actor.

Back in the 1980’s I attended a sci-fi event where both Tom Baker (the actor who played Dr Who number 4 in the 1970’s) and Colin Baker (who played Doctor number 6 in the 1980’s) spoke about their experiences playing the Doctor.

Both men had stories about meeting fans who had difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality. Tom Baker told a particularly poignant story of encountering a homeless woman who had somehow seen the show and desperately wanted him to take her away with him in the TARDIS. With as much tact and kindness as he could muster, he tried to explain that he was merely an actor and that the show was fantasy. He thought he failed to convince her.

Kurt Vonnegut,Jr, who knew a thing or two about madness, thought that it required two things: bad chemicals in your head and bad ideas. I think bad ideas can be enough.

Fantasy taken too seriously can be a source of bad ideas.

Okay, I’m probably going to offend somebody now, but in the past couple of weeks I have recently seen too many tragic news stories about people doing terrible things to innocent victims because they took their favorite fantasy too seriously. I’ve decided to say something.

Item one: It now seems clear that the Tsarnaev brothers who allegedly bombed the Boston Marathon thought they were doing so because—here comes the bit where I offend some people—they were on a mission for their invisible friend.

They differ from the Son of Sam only in that David Berkowitz invented his fantasy (he thought a neighbor’s dog was telepathically forcing him to kill people) while the alleged bombers the Tsarnaev brothers were motivated by an off-the-shelf fantasy invented by someone else a long time ago.

Item two: Back in the day, it was difficult to tell where the Roman Catholic Church stopped and the Irish government started. With the assistance of the Irish government, the Church enslaved thousands of young women and put them to involuntary work in laundries operated as a money-making scheme by the Church. For many of them, this was a life sentence after their families turned them over to the Church for being “bad” girls. The Church ran this operation for decades and finally abandoned it, in the late 1980’s (no, not the 1680’s), only after most Irish households got washing machines and the laundries ceased to be profitable. Recently, the Irish government finally got around to apologizing to the survivors for its role in their enslavement. Something like 10,000 women spent their lives as slaves of the Church, most of them for having done nothing worse than flirt with boys and embarrass their pious families.

How long to you think the Irish police would have turned a blind eye to young women being kidnapped and enslaved in broad daylight if the kidnappers hadn’t cloaked themselves in a fantasy the police shared?

Item 3: A fundamentalist couple in Philadelphia have been arrested after the death of their seriously ill child whom they refused to take in for proper medical care. If that weren’t bad enough, they were already on probation for having killed a child a couple of years ago through relying exclusively on prayer to deal with a serious, but highly treatable, medical condition.

The couple live in the United States, where we bend over backwards to let people be as stupid as they like provided they say they’re just following the instructions of their invisible friends. If that weren’t the case, this couple probably would not have had the chance to let a second child die of dehydration and starvation while they continued to ask their invisible friend for help. I will bet that when their car broke down, they didn’t try to fix it with prayer.

Perhaps fantasy of all sorts should come with a warning label that it can be harmful if used more than occasionally.



Ghosts on Christmas Eve

Henry James began his novella The Turn of the Screw with this:

“The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen upon a child.”

In Victorian England it was customary to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve. Think of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” James used that tradition as the framing story for his tale.

There is an odd sort of religious element in the genesis of Henry James’s story. I understand—I have not researched this enough to state categorically that it’s true—that the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, told James an allegedly true story about a lady whose children were being menaced by a pair of ghosts in an old manor house. (James dined, at times, in rather rarefied circles.)

Something that has occurred to religious readers of The Turn of the Screw is that although the Anglican Church does have a rite of exorcism, and the beleaguered governess is the daughter of a vicar, she never seeks professional help in defending her charges against what she must believe is either (a) a pair of demons or (b) the unquiet souls of the damned. James decided that the story would be more interesting if his protagonist decided on a do-it-yourself approach. (As I’ve said before, plots are driven by bad decisions.)

I’ve noticed that although ghost stories necessarily require discussion of a core religious issue—life after death—modern ghost stories rarely operate within an explicit theological framework.

Such frameworks are certainly available. Some forms of Buddhism include complex models of the next world—one could, for example, wind up as a “hungry ghost” consumed by greed, envy, and unfulfilled desires. Writers can use these off-the-shelf structures for supernatural tales.

Jewish folklore is a rich source of such material, and Jewish sacred texts make it clear that, in ancient times, a rabbi’s job description included the necessary skills to dispatch demons should the need arise.

By the time the Reformation erupted in the early 1500’s, the Catholic Church had built an elaborate map of the hereafter that included Hell, Heaven, and Purgatory. The Church had developed systems and rituals to deal with escapees from the neither regions and to assist souls in Purgatory.

One way to read the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder is that the protagonist is in Purgatory. There is a conversation in the film that explicitly references Catholic mysticism, which makes me think that is the case. In the 2001 film The Others, there is no explicit explanation for the characters’ predicament, but the frequent references, albeit not terribly pro-faith, to Catholicism make it at least possible that they are in Purgatory.

The early Protestants would have none of Purgatory. Some of them, like the early New England Puritans later on, refused to let a clergyman anywhere near a funeral. They didn’t want anything that smacked of Catholicism, such as a religious funeral rite or prayers for the dead. For these people, the soul was already in either Heaven or Hell, and no clergyman could do anything about it. A funeral was merely an exercise in waste disposal. (And, by the way, during the few years the Puritans ran England, they outlawed Christmas, and, in general, tried to outlaw fun. H. L. Mencken once described a Puritan as someone who lived with the haunting fear that, somewhere, someone was happy. )

It’s difficult to say anything about Protestant maps of the hereafter that covers all cases. It’s like trying to say something definitive about desktop Linux computer systems. There are hundreds of different roll-your-own versions that can be very different from each other, and there are exceptions to the exceptions to the exceptions. However, to oversimplify for purposes of this blog, Protestants tend to either believe that the souls of the dead remain unconscious until Judgment Day (not terribly helpful for a writer of ghost stories) or get shipped off to either Heaven or Hell right after death. Not a lot of wiggle room for a writer of ghost stories.

Most of us who write spook stories avoid even implicit religious issues. There are exceptions.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I understand that the recent film Possession is about a rabbi attempting to exorcise a dybbuk that has possessed a child.

Russell Kirk’s story “The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost” operates very much within a High Episcopal/Anglo-Catholic religious world view. It is about a contemporary priest in an inner-city church who finds himself at war with the damned souls of a vicious street gang.

A somewhat less clear-cut case that I’ve decided to include is Joyce Carol Oates’s splendid story “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly.” It’s The Turn of the Screw told from the point of view of the ghosts. Particularly as regards Miss Jessel, it conveys the horror and degradation of damnation in especially visceral and disturbing terms.

In case you have never heard of it, for my money the best film adaption (with the creepiest children) of The Turn of the Screw is the 1961 movie The Innocents. The screenplay was written by Truman Capote. Yes, that Truman Capote. Actors get all the attention in movie land, but a good screenplay is the foundation upon which everything else is built. Happy Holidays!

theology in dark fantasy

In writing dark fantasy or Gothic or horror stories (yes, I know there are all sorts of subtle distinctions), something came up that I hadn’t expected. I find I must decide on a theology for my fictional universe.

It’s true, of course, that such issues also come up in non-genre fiction, but it seems to me that in more “mainstream” tales, such matters usually get bundled into the point of view of the protagonist.

Unless such tales explicitly touch on religious or philosophical issues characters are struggling with, the default position in mainstream fiction is a religious apathy that comes across as a lazy agnosticism. I mean lazy because the character, and possibly the author, adopted it without any serious effort to understand the issues involved or what the traditions she rejects actually have to say.

In our increasingly polarized society, I seem to encounter either otherwise well-educated young adults who have never carefully read any of the core religious texts of a major religion– say, the Book of Genesis or one of the Synoptic Gospels or the Bhagavad Gita or the Dhammapada — or fundamentalists who have read only texts of their specific tradition and nothing else whatsoever. No wonder we can’t talk across the cultural divide. Too few of us know the vocabulary of the other camp.

However, if you are writing fiction that includes supernatural elements, this is one area where you can’t afford to be lazy. If your fictional universe permits demons or ghosts or magic, whether you like it or not, you must think carefully about the rules involving gods and spirits. That means theology.

There are many different approaches to handling this in your fiction. The least acceptable is to employ fiction as propaganda for your religious position. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote much better fiction than his friend C. S. Lewis. This was partly because, while you can detect the influence of Tolkien’s devout Roman Catholicism in his stories– the theology and morality of his fictional universe borrow heavily from Catholicism — when writing fiction he stuck to crafting the best tales he could. Lewis never stopped being a Anglican apologist for a second. It made him a third-rate fiction writer.

If you are going to explicitly address these topics in fiction, you need a deft hand. A couple of examples of religious world views that serve the needs of the story very well would be Stephen King’s The Stand and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. The saintly Mother Abagail and Father Merrin respectively represent Protestantism and Catholicism at their best and serve their stories well by providing reasonably consistent theologies for fictional worlds where devils and magic are possible. The characters even explicitly discuss their beliefs, but King and Blatty didn’t beat their readers to death with them.

The problem I find myself wresting with in my dark fantasy work is theodicy: what cosmology underlies my fictional world that contains so much suffering and evil?

If you are a writing “realistic” materialist fiction without the supernatural – and therefore without a God or some kind of meaningful non-theistic spirituality such as you find in some of the Asian traditions – such questions never come up.

If you are writing adolescent nihilistic horror, where everything eventually turns to shit and kindness is something to sneer at, you can ignore these problems.

However, if your fiction includes supernatural beings doing terrible things, and your fictional universe is one where ethically meaningful actions are possible, then you must think carefully about the implicit theology of the tale you are spinning.