Sunday, May 13, 2007

‪כ״ה אייר תשס״ז * 13 May 2007: מ׳ בעומר/Mother’s Day


Reminder: Today is Mother’s Day. It is advisable to let your mother know you care about her.

Today’s news and commentary:In place of the usual weird thing, I am going to review one of the books I have read for the Divine Misconceptions project, Island by Aldous Huxley:

After Brave New World, Island was a severe disappointment.

First off, Island is a failure as a story. In a decent story, the protagonist or protagonists have an obstacle or enemy which they try to overcome or escape. In Island, the protagonists, located on the tropical island of Pala, recognize they have enemies very early, in the person of their hereditary ruler, Murughan, Murughan’s mother (who is ruling until Murughan is old enough to take over), and Colonel Dipa (ruler of the neighboring island of Rendang). It is assumed that when Murughan shortly ascends to the throne, under the influence of his mother, Colonel Dipa, and a European education, he will drastically change the way of life on Pala for the worse—yet they do nothing of substance to stop this fate. Some arguing with Murughan occurs, but it is assumed anything more active, such as overthrowing the monarchy, is doomed to fail. And so the plot unfolds in the most obvious, uninteresting way possible, with Pala going out with a whimper with the reader cheering the soldiers of Rendang on.

The reason for this pathetic plot is that the plot is purely an excuse for Huxley to present a vision of an ideal society. Some of what is presented is actually good. There is a lot of emphasis on preventing problems, whether they be in health, behavior, or anything else, before they occur—an idea which much of the planet could greatly benefit from. However, much in the structure and operation of government is left indistinct, which is troubling since this leaves big questions about the decision-making process. It is one thing to ban motor-scooters when the reasoning for it is made explicit; it is quite another when the decision is handed down by an anonymous committee, the composition of which is never made clear, nor how they got to be a committee, nor their reasoning. (Worries about “materialism” do not in and of themselves constitute a reason, as they can be used to ban anything material.)

Extremely disturbing is the attitude toward religion presented. On one hand, there is a constant assumption made that atheism is correct. I say “assumption” because not a single shred of evidence is given that no god exists, rather just repetitive harping on religion’s real or alleged negative effects on people. At no time is any attempt made to prove atheism (in any scientific sense of “prove”). We hear nothing about what is impossible or improbable about the concept of a deity or historical problems with any scriptures. What we do hear is harping about the worst religion Huxley can imagine, Calvinism, and how those subjected to it suffer from it in horrific situations (unhappy marriage, metastatic cancer). However, suffering is not a valid disproof of the existence of any god (the Christian Trinity or otherwise). That a creator god would necessarily make this universe perfect and fair—and thus free of undeserved suffering—is nothing more than an assumption with no basis in physical reality. No matter how good the universe is, one can always imagine an even better universe. For example, if everyone lived forever in cloud-like conditions with a beer fountain, a stripper factory, rivers of milk and wine, and beautiful music, one could still insist that one was suffering too much for any god to exist due to not having something one considers better, such as seventy virgins. Because of this, one could always claim that the universe is too awful a place for a good Creator to exist. This makes this test completely non-informative, and as such it is scientifically useless for determining whether any god exists.

On the other, there is the promotion of Shaivism and Mahayana Buddhism. The attitude is not one of religious tolerance; the atheistic hierarchy of Pala actually promotes Shaivism and Mahayana Buddhism among the populace with the expectation that the sufficiently intelligent and educated will become atheists. This practice is akin to the cruel joke that many Americans play on their children, encouraging them to believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, only to reveal years later than they were shamelessly lying. In essence, the government is inviting people to distrust it. An even better comparison might be to the practices of the Bene Gesserit in the Dune series by Frank Herbert; like the Bene Gesserit, the government hijacks religion in order to manipulate people into unwittingly implementing its agenda. The most prominent example is the perversion of Tantra, an esoteric and elite method of obtaining enlightenment, into a popular method for birth control and pacification of the masses through sex. Considering that morality is often important to serious atheists, it is a shock to see advocacy of deliberate deception and manipulation.

(Tangent: The use of Tantric methods as described is also likely to backfire. In Pala, Tantra is taught to teenagers who are encouraged to practice it. Somehow I doubt that beginners are likely to perform correctly early on. The issue of “accidents” is never discussed—and neither is the morality of encouraging people not mature enough to raise children to engage in a practice which may well result in them. The matter of sexually transmitted diseases is likewise ignored. Considering that Huxley also indulges in annoyingly poetic descriptions of the bodies of teenagers, he arguably has hebephilic tendencies and is engaging in self-indulgent fantasy.)

Adding contradiction to deception, in Huxley’s utopia, children are taught atheism as well. In one scene, children put this teaching into action by playing with scarecrows designed to look like gods. This does not bode well for the children, since they are being taught blatantly contradictory beliefs; this can only confuse them. There is no guarantee that what they eventually decide is correct is atheism. If atheism is the desired belief, better to just teach it to them straight.

Even more hypocritically, the Palanese actually try to integrate mysticism into atheism. If one is a true, “no resort to the supernatural” atheist, one forfeits any ability to invoke mystical concepts upon pain of contradiction, no question. Nevertheless, Palanese atheism promotes having mystical experiences, not only through perverted Tantra, but also through use of a psychoactive drug. These experiences are taken to be actual mystical contact or union with Mind (in general) with the classic mystic realization that All is One. While acknowledging that the drug experience might be just a drug experience, the idea that the realizations made in a mystical state might be wrong is never considered, despite the fact that mystical experience in reality can lead people to incorrect conclusions (not to mention behavior that violates all moral conventions). Such uncritical acceptance is blatantly irrational and a gross distortion of what serious atheism is supposed to be about.

Finally, Island is plagued by a disgusting level of arrogance. The message the reader is constantly hit in the face with is that the Palanese have the One True Way and anyone who does not follow it is obviously stupid, ignorant, evil, or sick. Now, anyone with any sense will realize that their society is far from perfect, yet many people in said societies still turn out OK. In Island, the Palanese are all practically perfect and everyone else is horribly screwed up. The only exceptions to these are the narrator, Will Farnaby, an outsider who increasingly embraces Palanese ways, and Murughan and his mother, who have rejected Palanese ways. Murughan is depicted as a materialist whom the narrator suspects is having a homosexual affair, and his mother is a religious lunatic with delusions of prophecy. Everything that is related happening outside Pala is a tragedy of some sort. Outside society is practically irredeemable. Outside religion is cold, sterile, and depressing. Only the Palanese are happy; everyone else is miserable. This is too unrealistic to swallow. Arguably it is fitting that the cardboard cutout of Pala falls to the forces of Rendang without a fight.

Anyone reading this who wants to read good theology fiction, find a copy of Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny instead and enjoy yourself.

Post a Comment