Religion in "Flat Black"

Continuing the discussion from NGOs for a somewhat "Traveller"-like setting:

Like Bill Stoddard, whose comment is linked above, I am not a religious believer, and like him I do not perceive a setting or story with no religious content as lacking. Moreover, I get the tiniest bit annoyed at being told that something that I lack is a fundamental and ineradicable part of human nature, or that people like me are implausible. But that isn’t why I designed Flat Black with a large majority of people lacking admitted religious belief. Neither did I design it that way as a prediction of the future. Irreligiosity was advancing when I wrote the first version and might still be doing so, but I hardly imagine that that trend can never be halted or reversed. In Flat Black it hasn’t reversed, but that is for thematic reasons. I want to use queer parochial religions as one of the “hats” on some of my planets of hats, and it makes a big difference to the attitudes that cosmopolitan PCs visiting these planets will adopt whether they think of these religions as an eccentricity or as an offence to God.

So much for Doylist reasoning. The Watsonian reason for professed atheism to be prevalent in Flat Black is this: starting on Old Earth before the Migration Period, the concept of a supernatural creator got undermined by advances in cosmology and scientific understanding of the pre-evolutionary origins of life, to the point where the divine hypothesis added no explanatory power. More important, advances in neuroscience and computational intelligence undermined Cartesian dualism. It being clear that mental phenomena are explicable in detail without hypothesising souls, that left souls with nothing to do as well as nothing to be. And that made even a Deists’ great soul of the universe less than plausible.

Finally, and most influentially, global travel, communications, and migration showed people everywhere that all the various and contradictory religions are on the same, plainly human basis, that if faith or books of revelation can lead different people to believe radically differnt things, then all the religions are equally arbitrary. The question “why do I suppose that my faith leads me to truth while most people’s must lead then to error?” remained unanswerable, and became ever more obvious as the diversity of religious experience became more obvious.

In Flat Black some religious groups that are strong now retained enough influence into the 22nd century to found attempted religrious colonies, e.g. at Ekumenon Kyriou, Hijra (which needs renaming), Bayt-e-Islam, Emmaus…. But those wee hardly immune from loss of faith anyway. By the time we get to the 30th Century AD an “Orlanthi all” of people (i.e. about 85%) would tell you that they have no religious beliefs. Admitted religiosity is looked upon as an eccentricity.

I completely see the absence of supernatural belief as a feature of the future. What I was thinking of was more the idea that there could be belief systems that weren’t supernatural, but that gave people a sense of meaning, a set of emotional reference points, a cause, a standard to live by, a sense of communal identity, or the like, in a way that made them a substitute for religion. Marxism is an obvious example, but I also named the belief in humanity venturing into space as something that works that way for me personally. Belief in human-equivalent AI and/or uploading (I’m sure you’ve seen the phrase “the rapture of the nerds”) is comparable; the project of uplifting other animal species might be so one day; environmentalism has aspects of this—the emotional reaction against pollution is very like a Hindu’s reaction to eating beef or a devout Catholic’s to sodomy, in tapping into the purity element of moral emotion.

Such beliefs would seem to furnish a basis for exotic cultures in Flat Black. But perhaps one or another of them is actually official imperial doctrine, without being recognized as a religion. Some of Sarah Hoyt’s novels have the idea of a nearer future where “USAians” believe in the Constitution of their lost republic as a sacred document; perhaps the SoPH fit that pattern?

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Oh, absolutely! Even when candid belief in the supernatural is rejected, people will still have the natural human and social needs and cravings that religion supplies and satisfies. They will turn to other things to satisfy those cravings and supply those needs. In this context it is worth observing that the kinds of religions that we WIERDoes are accustomed to are an amalgam of mutually-supporting elements that provide different desiderata, than that these things can be put together in different ways by other societies. For one example, Theravada Buddhism refuses to get involved involved in supplying elders with pat answers for youngsters’ Big Questions, denies the existence of an immaterial soul, and declares the existence, non-existence, and actions of any gods to be irrelevant and beside the point. On the other hand Islam and Judaism include as religious matter a great deal of commercial, criminal, and civil law, so that in Sunni tradition for humans to legislate is a usurpation of the prerogatives of God. To a degree that surprises us inheritors of Roman civil law, Anglo-Saxon customary law, Greek philosophy, and Christianity it is easily possible for religion to cover different ground than we are used to and for other authorities to supply what we think of as religious.

So in Flat Black there are a lot of things, different things on different planets even, supplying the needs and satisfying the cravings that are in religious societies supplied and satisfied by religions. There are civil legislatures making laws. There are schools of psychology offering paths to self-salvation. Moral philosophies and political identities that soothe ethical uncertainty. Fandoms, sports, and hobbies that provide a sacred time and space set aside from mundane concerns, and something to do while you are in them. On some worlds people dance to exhaustion for an experience of transcendence, on others they sing in choirs, on others have communal drug experiences.

One of the great things that religions offer is a way of feeling that you are involved in, striving for, something grander than your own experience and your own interest, that you are doing something that matters. For a lot of people founding a new colony can satisfy that craving. For many more political movements will do it. For yet others, the do-gooding NGOs. and I don’t think that anyone really understands the Empire until they see that Imperial service is much like a religious calling, and the Imperial Service has a lot of the same fundamental appeal as a crusading religious order.

Colonisation and Imperial service are effectively religious avocations in Flat Black

Yes, I’ve found it very easy to fall into the trap of thinking of religion is “kind of like that thing I grew up with, only with different labels”.

I’m another irreligious type. I know people for whom religion works, and I don’t think they should stop, but I am slightly edgy around people whose moral principles appear to be handed down by someone else rather than worked out for themselves. (Yes, I’m aware that this is an oversimplification.)

I think that one of the salient features of modern Western-type religion, quite distinct from the supernaturalism, is that it provides a community of interest that’s at least somewhat skewed to civil society. In other words, if you go to church-equivalent and participate in the social life, it gives you a group which isn’t only people who work in the same sort of job as you; there’ll be more powerful people who can do you favours, less powerful people you can do favours to, a plumber who’ll come out at three in the morning because he sings in the choir with you…

(Not all churches are like this, of course. There are definitely ones that are all about “people like us”.)

That must have been rather different when Christendom was divided into diocese and parishes and everyone in a given area belonged to the same parish and was subject to the jurisdiction of the same priest and bishop. Then your congregation was your neighbourhood on Sunday morning and feast days.

Absolutely. At that point I don’t think there is a distinctive “church community”, because everyone’s going without the option. I’m thinking of the roles some Christian churches have moved into more recently, because that gives a direction in which they might continue in the future.

Of course they might turn into “just another hobby club” - the same things could happen with any community of interest that spread into socialising as well as doing the core activity.

Guilds used to do it, of course. Which leads into a discussion of freemasonry. Do you know about frith guilds?

A little. I tend to think of guilds as trade guilds, which are exactly what this isn’t, but freemasonry is much more the sort of thing (and various societies like the Rotary International, Elks, etc.). Freemasonry likes to dress itself up in appropriated mysticism, but most of the people I’ve met who are involved in it regard it as primarily a networking tool.