How to hack religion

Easter Sunday is one of the two days a year when I engage in Pascal’s wager. This is because attending Christian service twice a year (the other date is Christmas) is, in some denominations, the minimal requirement for being considered a Christian.

This got me thinking whether it was possible to hack religion more broadly. What, in other words, are the minimal requirements to be considered a legitimate member of other world religions?

Firstly, in order to address the immediate objections of the devout, of course such an approach is not really ‘in good faith’ as it were. Furthermore, obviously certain contradictions immediately arise for anyone claiming to be an adherent of more than one faith-based belief system. After all they don’t agree with one another!

But one may equally argue that Pascal’s wager itself is not proposed in good faith either. And in any case, if we assume, as most religious people do, the existence of one or more deities, then one must also presume that the pertinent god or gods are entirely aware of the inherent dishonesty of such an approach (though this is not necessarily a disqualifying factor in some faiths.)

One bon mot often offered by atheists and occasionally agnostics to the religious is the sarcastic agreement that they concur with the devotee that all bar one god does not exist. Therefore their disagreement relates solely to that one final deity and the related belief system. It’s witty because it highlights the revelatory nature of religious knowledge and belief, the illogical component that this rather than that or indeed any other faith is solely correct.

But what if we were to jettison such narrow and unecumenical thinking? In other words, if we were to attempt to maximise our Pascal’s wager, how might we go about it? As mentioned above, two attendances at Church per year suffices to be Christian in some quarters. This is not an onerous requirement really. But what about other religions?

Islam is an interesting case. Generally, in practice, multiple daily prayers and weekly attendance at the mosque is expected. However, doctrinally, simply submitting to Allah is sufficient to be considered Muslim. Even better, that submission need not even be made in good faith, so long as the behaviour expected of good Muslims is also observed. Hence, it is possible to simply profess the shahada, the statement of belief in Allah, in order to become Muslim.

Buddhism likewise can be adhered to without major commitment of time or other resources. There are, as might be expected in a religion with such a wide range of variants, an equally wide range of expectations of Buddhists. To some, simply being alive makes one a Buddhist already. To others, seeking refuge in the ‘three jewels’, the triratna, that is the Buddha, the dharma (doctrine, or teaching), and the sangha (the monastic order, or community), is all that is needed. In practice, this involves turning to the Buddha, Buddhist teachings, and Buddhist community for guidance. This is a little more commitment than the monotheisms require, but again, arguably not overly onerous.

Hinduism, as a variegated collection of interlinked polytheist beliefs, is also a little difficult to pin down in terms of minimal requirements. However, in many cases, the eternal duty, or Sanata Dharma, is all that need be adhered to. This is the requirement to avoid malevolence to all living creatures, and treat them instead with compassion, charity and generosity. Quite a high bar, behaviour-wise, but doctrinally quite easy to accept.

Judaism is a much trickier affair. Generally, one must be born Jewish to be considered Jewish (and the nature of proving that descent is not always straightforward – matrilineal descent from a Jewish mother is generally required.) For others, a process of conversion is necessary, and this process – known as giyur – is far from easy. Judaism as a belief takes a range of forms, from Orthodoxy to Reform, and not all accept conversion. Furthermore, conversion even where possible is a protracted process generally undergone under rabbinical guidance, and even when successful then requires that the convert, among other requirements, adheres to all 613 mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah.

I’ve yet to explore properly the requirements of other religions, such as Sikhism, Baha’i, Jainism, Shinto or any of the traditional African or Chinese faiths and animisms. I fully expect that again, they would require a process of commitment to behaving well towards others, the requirement to engage with the religious community, and perhaps a conversion process also.

But it does seem to me possible in principle at least to hack religion in a manner than expands Pascal’s Wager outward, and in the spirit of the original wager if not of the religions themselves.

I’m not sure if this means that the world’s religious faiths are a little more accommodating than generally understood, or if both Pascal and I are much more cynical than the world needs people to be. Perhaps both. In any case, a happy Easter, Ramadan, Passover or simply Sunday to people of all religions, one religion, or none.

Who loves thy neighbour, and which neighbours do they love the most?

One reason to study religious futurisms is because the world is becoming MORE religious, not less. In that context, it’s worth considering what various religious and non-religious groups think about one another. Here’s a nice table, derived from a new Pew Research set of polls, looking at this in the American context.

There are some fascinating anomalies here, more anomalies than patterns really, but we will need to explore these societally if we hope to have a peaceable future society. Additionally, the headline is a little disingenuous since mainstream Christian sects don’t tend to view Mormonism as Christian.

And there are many significant gaps in the polling which renders it incomplete. For example, what do Muslims think of the other sects? What about Buddhists, one of America’s fastest growing religions? Or Hindus? Or Orthodox Christians? What about New Age/Pagan/Wicca-based beliefs? Or Indigenous beliefs? And so on.

Nevertheless, this research, as a snapshot in time, is a reasonable starting point for ecumenical outreach for those who are religious, for religious futurist research for those like me who have an academic interest, and for those (sociologists, theologians, politicians, policy-makers) exploring similar inter-relationships in other territories.

For me, a number of these anomalies are particularly intriguing. Only Mormons like everybody. Only Jews are liked by everybody. Opinions on Muslims are almost entirely negative. Historical gulfs between Protestants and Catholics appear to be elided.

The biggest agreed antipathy instead is actually between Evangelical Protestants and Atheists. And the biggest imbalance in regard is between Jews and Evangelical Protestants (a 79 point divide). There is, in short, lots to digest, even if the research is limited in terms of range (America only) and scope (the various creeds for some reason not included.)

I suspect such a table would look different in different locations, needless to say. But we won’t know for sure until someone does the relevant polling in other nations. I look forward to such data emerging in time.

Zen and the Art of Science Fiction Ancientness

Due to the production lag of academic work appearing in public (peer review, people working for no remuneration, etc), some of the early work I’ve done on Science Fiction and Buddhism is only now emerging in print/pixels.

The first chapter of the slowly emerging book, which looked at Buddhist Reception in Pulp SF, appeared about 18 months ago, as I noted at the time.

Now two more chapters have emerged, long awaited and then arriving in tandem, like buses of legend. The first of these examines the crypto-Buddhism of Arthur C. Clarke, and can be found in a very excellent essay collection entitled Rendezvous with Arthur C. Clarke: Centenary Essays, published unsurprisingly to commemorate 100 years since ACC’s birth.

Contact the publisher Gylphi if it’s of interest, or else pick up a copy on Amazon or via your favourite brainy bookshop. Like all Gylphi books, it costs only a fraction of most academic texts.

Clarke on Clarke contained therein.

The second publication likewise focuses on a single author, this time Frank Herbert of Dune fame, and therefore it will come as no surprise that it’s entitled “The Dharma of Dune: Frank Herbert and Zen Buddhism”.

It can be found in volume one (of two) of Fantastic Religions and Where to Find Them, or, to name it in its original language, Religioni fantastiche e dove trovarle: Divinità, miti e riti nella fantascienza e nel fantasy. If you follow that link, it will take you to the page of publisher Edizione Quasar where you will find both volumes, which contain an eclectic range of clever and considered takes on religion in a vast array of SFF texts, literary, televisual, cinematic and cultural.

Where can you find fantastic religion? In here!

Many thanks are due to the editors of both volumes, Paul March-Russell and Andrew Butler in the first instance, and Igor Baglioni, Ilaria Biano and Chiara Crosignani in the second.

You might reasonably wonder why all three of these chapters feature rather old SF. That’s partly because I’ve been working on this book chronologically, though I’d expect that the next chapter to emerge blinking into the light might jump a few decades to consider Cyberpunk. Don’t ask me when that will be though. The gestation period of academic texts is an arcane mystery. When it happens, I’ll be sure to let you know though.

Reach beyond the easy binaries

It’s always gratifying to be reviewed. I always thought that, even when I made my living from reviewing for newspapers, even when sometimes I (felt I) had to dish out a negative opinion.

It’s a commitment of someone’s time to your work, chronicled for posterity. That attention alone is flattering. You write so that people might read, after all. Reading closely and responding? It’s appreciated.

Everett Hamner’s review of Science Fiction and Catholicism is generous and astutely insightful. It is always an education to get a tour of your own thinking from the perspective of an attentive, observant and intellectually acute reader.

He has, I think, a slightly different vision for the future of Religious Futurisms than I do. Or than I did when I wrote Science Fiction and Catholicism. I’ve probably moved much closer to Everett’s position while writing a volume on SF and Buddhism, but especially as a co-editor of the very eclectic, ecumenist and transdisciplinary volume of Religious Futurisms.

It’s a very positive review, maybe kinder than the book deserves. I think it made one great point, and Everett identifies that very succinctly. I hope I can produce a better volume on Buddhism’s interaction with SF, as that is at least a more expansive and intriguing story to tell. And I hope I get a reviewer as acute as Everett Hamner to review it.

Thanks for reaching beyond the easy binaries, Everett.

What can we learn from alternative Israels?

Earlier this year, I started working on a project looking at manifestations of the Jewish state in alternative history literature. The seemingly intractable weeping wound that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, of course, a product of history, but a history which seems increasingly without any obvious resolution, or rather, one in which the much-vaunted two-state solution appears to satisfy almost no one.

After working on Science Fiction and Catholicism for some years, it seemed obvious to continue that work by examining Buddhist futurism. A book on this will, in the fullness of time, emerge, but for now readers will have to be satisfied with the sole tangible output to date, an article on Buddhist reception in Pulp Science Fiction. (Another on Arthur C. Clarke’s crypto-Buddhism, and one on the Zen influence over Frank Herbert’s Dune are also due to arrive in public shortly.)

But a second offshoot from that work on Catholic Futurism began to take shape in relation to Israel. Specifically, I wrote a chapter in that book on the cultural anxieties revealed by how Anglophone writers dealt with Catholicism through alternative history. The other timelines imagined by those writers were uniformally negative, envisaging retrograde Catholic empires crushing all science, innovation and progress under its clerical jackboot heel, which runs rather counter to the significant amount of support Catholicism has tended to offer to scientists historically.

Indeed, it says much more about how Anglophone writers, and specifically how ENGLAND perceives Catholicism – not as a cultural taproot but rather as a kind of fifth column infiltration which threatens their survival in an existentialist sense. This sentiment, I sometimes feel, is the archeological origin of things like opposition to the EU and the Brexit campaign.

Anyhow, when I began examining alternative history as a mode for exposing such cultural anxieties, it became quickly evident that the alternative timelines different cultures are drawn to evoke are a little like Rorschach blot tests, identifying their cultural anxieties in very clear ways.

As a test case, I chose Israel, primarily because it is in one sense a new nation, in another a very old one. Also, many writers of alternative history are culturally Jewish and this mode of artistic exploration is one that they are often drawn to. I was not disappointed by the results, and have been incorporating this work into my broader research project examining speculative geographies in literature.

Alternative histories about Israel reveal a series of cultural anxieties, from the obvious fear of Jewish annihilation (in early history at the hands of the Babylonians, Pharaonic Egypt or the Romans, but also during medieval pogroms in Europe, and obviously arising from the holocaust), as well as imagined reversals of such annihilation (particularly the fantasy of Judaic global dominance, sometimes by converting the Roman Empire).

There is a particular phylum of these alternative histories which explores other geographic locations for a Jewish ethno-state. This is also real-world history, as the Zionist Council under Theodor Herzl did indeed consider locations other than historic Palestine for the creation of such a state. Actually many locations were seriously considered, by both Zionists and non-Zionists, and some territories were even offered by certain nations, during the interim between the emergence of Zionism as a political movement in the late 19th century and the creation of Israel in 1948.

I’ve been examining the literary manifestations of these real-world alternatives, to see in what way they unveil cultural anxiety about both the conflict with Palestinians and the Jewish relationship with Europe (from whence many current Israelis, especially the Ashkenazim, derive much of their cultural inheritance). This work has identified a strong sense of determinism about the current location of Israel which interestingly is secular and not predicated upon the religious diktat of the Old Testament (though of course the Promised Land of Eretz Israel remains a significant cultural driver within Israel itself, especially among the Orthodox community.)

I hope to publish something on this soon, when I get a moment. But for now, all I can offer you is a slide or two (above) from my latest conference presentation on the matter, which took place at the Specfic conference at Lund University in Sweden last week.

Pulp Satori

This is, I suppose, the first evidence of the work on Buddhist Futurisms that I’ve been doing for the past half decade or so. It had an eventful pre-publication history, actually. At one point, it was destined for a book, but that failed to transpire. On another occasion, it was repeatedly sent back for corrections by Reviewer Number Two (accursed be thy name!) for failing to cite his (it was a he) own research. Which wasn’t remotely relevant.

Anyhow, this is the overly-detailed explanation for why this is only appearing something like four years after being written. I’ve not been lazy. There is much more to this project, including multiple other publications already scheduled.

But it is gratifying to see the first bit in print. Last year I missed out on a big scholarship, primarily because there was no evidence I knew anything about Buddhism or had ever researched it. So at least now that evidence exists, albeit a little later than useful, to me anyhow, but hopefully not for others.

It actually tells an interesting story, which is not something one expects of academic writing generally. It’s a positive story too, of negative stereotypical preconceptions being overturned by a cultural encounter which shapeshifted into an ongoing interaction of mutual benefit between Buddhism and the West, and America in particular.

I hope you like it, if it’s of interest to you.

Academic Conference Appearances are like Late Night Buses

In that they offer uncomfortable seating and there’s usually some guy ranting incoherently while everyone else avoids eye contact.

Also, you wait ages for one and then a whole bunch arrive at once.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, relating primarily to parenthood, emigration and writing commitments, I’d not actually been to a conference in over a year, until I was invited to take part in this excellent one-day event on Literature, Cultural Studies, and Translation. It was my first conference held in Cyberspace, so I finally got to experience the Zoom fatigue everyone else has been complaining about for 18 months.

Speaking on Nadsat in translation alongside Benet Vincent.

Anyhow, it was an excellent, eclectic and engaging experience, for which I must thank the organisers at Cappadocia University. And it has spurred me into action to do a few more. Often, one thing which precluded attending conferences was the same reason which rendered them appealing – that you had to visit a different location. The upside to Zoom-fatigue conferencing is the same as the downside – it can and will be done from one’s back bedroom. So, newly emboldened, I’ve re-engaged on the conference circuit and have a few abstracts accepted already for the forthcoming year, primarily on religious futurism topics.

Next up is an especially busy conference, as I’ll be presenting not one but two papers in two days. I’d link to SFRA 2021, except you have to be a member and pay to attend. If that is you, then please pop in to listen to my papers. I hope you find them interesting.

I’ve already mentioned the first paper here, which will examine Israel in Alt-History. The other relates to my long-running SF and Buddhism project and takes us up to the Sixties:

There is, of course, four days worth of exceptional SF research, not to mention roundtables, keynotes and discussion. If you’re not an SFRA member, you should definitely consider joining and (virtually) coming along to the conference. There are too many papers I’m looking forward to hearing (childminding permitting) but most of all I’m excited about my fellow panel members. I’m on two amazing panels, one on Israel and Palestine in SF and one on religious futurisms.

We might even have a little announcement to make too. More of that after the event.

A Fantastikal Voyage

It’s been out a little while already, but I only just got around to checking out the latest edition of Fantastika journal.

Fantastika Issues – FANTASTIKA JOURNAL

It’s especially gratifying to see oneself mentioned, not only in Chiara Crosignani’s conference report about “Fantastic Religions and Where to Find Them”, from Genzano a couple of years ago, but also in Derek Thiess’s imaginative and very current article about preppers and the apocalypse.

As always, there’s a bumper smorgasbord of non-realist writing to be enjoyed, from the Gothic to SF, from Britain’s haunted forests to Stanislaw Lem. Over 280 pages in fact!

I’m personally saving up, like a child hoarding his easter egg, their review of the Korean SF anthology Readymade Bodhisattva for after I finish reading the collection.

Fantastika is always an excellent read, and in these days of outrageous access charges for academic research, it’s delightfully free to read.

So go read it!

The Zen of Sci-fi

Karma, they say, is a bitch. But karma is also a balancing act, a mode of returning one’s energy back to you.

I’ve been fascinated about religious futurisms for some time now, and already wrote a book about SF’s engagement with Catholicism. Since then, I’ve been working on SF and Buddhism, and anyone who’s heard me talk about it knows that I’m putting a lot of energy out there about it, because it’s something I think is fascinating, culturally complex, and also important for how we develop collectively as a society.

Jedis, Buddhism and the translational power of film – Jagwire

That energy karmically returned to me the day I got an email from Eric Molinsky, who runs one of THE best podcasts anywhere, the Imaginary Worlds podcast. It really is essential listening. Eric’s an old pro from the New York radio scene, and his ability to produce magical radio has reincarnated in his new role as host and producer of Imaginary Worlds.

So now you can join the people who’ve heard my energy about SF and Buddhism, because Eric only went and did an entire episode of Imaginary Worlds about exactly that. Better again, he got some absolutely phenomenal SF writers to talk about it too, including one of my favourite authors, Ramez Naam.

The episode is here, and if you rummage around in Eric’s archive, you’re bound to find a load more interesting episodes to occupy your lockdown time.

I’m billed in the podcast as a professor at Coventry University, which isn’t accurate, as I haven’t risen to such nosebleed heights (yet!) and I’m also no longer in Coventry. That’s my karma, I guess.

The multiplying tensions of religion(s) and the future

Just a quick observation on religious futurism(s).

With religions, we might term revelatory knowledge, which is deemed to be eternal, of divine or suprahuman provenance and therefore unchangeable wisdom. With the scientific method, we have a progressive, though unending, search for fundamental reality, generated via the attempts to disprove hypotheses empirically.

There is clearly a potential if not actual tension between the two, and we’ve seen this in the centuries since the Enlightenment period when the scientific method first came to the fore.

What happens when we add the temporal factor of futurism to the mix? Do we add tensions or multiply them? How do they manifest?

It’s going to be different for every religion, predicated on the nature of each faith’s own sense of revelatory knowledge of course. Some will be more malleable than others, and some more malleable on certain topics than others.

It’s also dependent on two other aspects which are perhaps less immediately obvious. The first of these is the future vision embedded within a particular religion. If a faith has a designated end point, in terms of apocalypse, apotheosis or otherwise, then obviously any world view based on that faith assumes that the world is moving inexorably towards that position, perhaps at varying speed, perhaps with occasional setbacks, but overall, invariably towards a set destination point.

The second aspect which may not be so obvious is a particular religion’s comfort zone in terms of adapting to scientific developments. A more fundamentalist faith is going to struggle with this more than a less rigid one, for example. In this sense, some religions may be somewhat surprising.

Catholicism is often perceived, from outside at least, as antipathetic to science due to anti-scientist positions it occasionally assumed during the Inquisition period. Nevertheless, Catholic clerics have played significant roles in the development of a number of scientific breakthroughs – genetics to name but one – and the Vatican observatory today is one of the leading institutions in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. In short, Catholicism has a strong sense of futurism even if elements of its dogma are not especially malleable or open to debate.

Islam likewise has been a strong supporter and fellow traveller of science at various geographic and historical points, and has no issue with futurist concepts such as alien intelligence, or space travel.

By contrast, Buddhism, which is often understood at least by non-practitioners as one of the more rational, or less revelatory, forms of faith, has a number of points where it finds scientific rationality tricky to engage with. There are reams of books attempting to square this particular circle, some of them inspired by or even co-authored by the Dalai Lama, who is well aware of just how hidebound his own particular variant of Buddhism is.

What is the disconnect here? The answer of course is adherence to the notion of a godhead. The Abrahamic monotheisms are unapologetically attached to the concept of a creator deity. It’s their core belief. Buddhism on the other hand manifests very differently. Some forms, inspired by Hinduism, have many supernatural beings in their pantheon. Tibetan Buddhisms in particular are prone to this. Others, and one thinks of some of the more austere Theravadan forms, do not espouse gods of any kind or form.

Because of the existence of the latter, Buddhism MAY not require belief in a godhead, and therefore it has tended to be perceived by atheists who practice science (or who practice futurism, in the form of science fiction or otherwise) as potentially more acceptable. The reality on the ground and across the entirety of the belief complex, is not as clearcut of course.

As always, I do not have any simple answers here, especially as answers would require the power of prophecy. It is unknowable how religions will develop in the future alongside further scientific insights and discoveries, because it depends on the nature of the discoveries, how they relate to existing revelatory dogma in various faith forms, and how faiths respond to apparent contradictions.

But it does seem to me that the simple tension between revelatory knowledge and empirically tested knowledge leads to a much more complex relationship when we try to project any of this into the future.

And based on the study I have personally done on Anglophone SF and its relationship with Catholicism, and now Buddhism, it seems to me that the futurists are to date struggling to encompass the complexities of that potential relationship.