The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, November 30, 2007

What I've been doing

Two-score and seven days ago, Martin Wisse kindly listed this as one of the top five socialist blogs that are not updated enough. I don't know about socialist, but I'll take my compliments where I find them, so thanks. The lack of updating is mainly because I'm very close to finishing a novel, which has taken longer than I expected.

The Night Sessions is a crime novel set in a future Scotland (and New Zealand) (and space), about fifteen years after the end of the Faith Wars, which began in 2001 and ended in 20--. It's taken so long because (a) I made false starts on two other novels earlier this year before hitting on this one; (b)I made the mistake of spending a lot of time planning it, in what turned out to be not quite enough detail to let me sit down and just write the damn thing; (c) the theme of the story (religious terrorism in a militantly secular society) got me distracted by, um, research.

Stuff like this:
The new atheists use this acultural modernity rhetoric in almost every argument that they make and every topic they touch.

For example, there is a cute saying that many of them trot out every once in a while: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." Is this not a shining example of the acultural view of modernity? For the new atheists, it is simply a matter of opening your eyes and getting rid of all the "extra" (non-reasonable) beliefs one might have.
This is a good example of how an intelligent person can completely miss the point. For one thing, I don't know where he gets the 'acultural view of modernity' from - well, he cites where he gets it from, but I don't know of anyone it applies to. And the saying he refers to is not a good example of it. The new atheists (and the old atheists, like George H. Smith, who I think coined it) are using it to try to crowbar in closed minds an opening for the thought that you routinely apply to other religions the same kind of critical reasoning that they - as well as atheists - apply to yours.

And, having read far too many online apologists and sceptics than is good for my productivity, I have to agree. Towards other religions (and, in some cases, towards rival interpretations of their own religion) the typical believer who has considered the matter at all is not only an atheist, but a sceptic, a scoffer, and a higher critic. 'Every sect as far as reason will help them, gladly use it; when it fails them, they cry out it is a matter of faith, and beyond reason.' - John Locke


Looks like my reply was eaten... (sorry for the double-post if you're just moderating comments.)

The short of it was, I'm looking forward to your new book, and don't want to distract you from it, but I would welcome nonfiction writing from you as well.

I've recently learned, in part from reading your fine The Star Fraction how much Americans don't know about the real Left.

Earlier today, Charlie Stross pointed out in Jay Lake's blog that the American government is essentially a hereditary nobility... these are the sorts of things which are sometimes invisible to those too close to them (though I -have- managed to figure out the breadth of the worldwide political spectrum, the closeness of the Democrats and Republicans, that both are to the right of center, etc.).


B. Dewhirst

Ooh! Ooh! I have to say, that sounds intensely cool.

Admittedly, I'm unusually in the centre of the demographic Venn diagram, as an atheistic Scottish New Zealander who likes crime and science fiction novels, as well as discussions of religion, but even if I weren't that, I think it sounds like a cool book for you to have written.

So when can I trade money for those words?

Also, I'm completely out of shelf space, so could I please just buy the words, without the paper?

You're all very kind. The book's due to be published in August 2008, just as long as I finish it real soon.

You are forgiven for not posting. Continue the cool writing.

A couple things.

First, if you follow the links in my post, you will notice that I argue that both Dawkins and Harris take the "acultural view" of modernity based on comments they've made. I think Harris' recent "don't use the term atheist" speech shows this view.

Second, it was Stephen Roberts who coined the phrase, I believe.

Third, I agree that that is what many atheists are trying to do when they use that phrase. But that doesn't really affect what I'm saying since my point is that the phrase doesn't really make sense unless one holds to an acultural view of modernity. Furthermore, the fact so many atheists seem to think it is a good "crowbar" (it isn't) suggests to me that many of them hold to an acultural view of modernity, too.

Two points, Macht.

One: where are the divergent modernities? All societies that modernise become more like the West. North Korea is more like South Korea than either is like the Korea of 1807, say. And this isn't just economic or superficial. An Ayan Hirsa Ali or a Jung Chang can go into a library and stumble upon the works of Jefferson, and find that the wicked old slaveholding patriarch (etc) is speaking to their condition.

Two: I still don't see why that particular atheist argument, as I've stated it (and you seem to agree mine is an accurate statement of it), depends on an acultural view of modernity. Would it not be just as much to the point if it had been applied (I don't know if it was) in a conversation with a Muslim philosopher in Andalusia, back in the glory days of Islam?

On the more general point, the view that reason is what you have left when tradition is strip-mined and fire-hosed away does have some truth in it. As was said in 1847: 'All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.'

On the other hand, if you're arguing that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are not the world's most sophisticated thinkers on cultural matters, you won't find much disagreement from me.

Looking forward to the new book. As for the acultural whatnot, either:

1. Belief is a culture-dependent construction, and hence can be criticized as such.


2. Evaluation of belief must not refer to cultural embedding, since the believers would claim that it is somehow either true or false regardless of culture. Well? In that case, the believer has to extend that courtesy to other beliefs as well, and answer why he is one god less atheistic than the "pure atheist".

That said, the epistemic issue is all a sidetrack. I don't know whether God exists or not, but if he does, He must be fought by any possible means. Ken, you probably know the exact Baknin quote.

Late last night, after a busy day, I read acultural modernity as agricultural modernity, and was having some difficulty imagining the group of atheists in question.

As for religion, well, if the impulse is built into the structure of human brains (which certainly appears to be the case), trying to get rid of it isn't likely of success. Making a mighty distinction between public and personal relevance, with accompanying changes in tax law, though, that seems to me worth doing.

If the tendency is (entirely) inbuilt, why do different countries (Japan, England, Sweden, Poland, the United States) have such varied extents of religiosity? Even a genetic component can't explain this varied distribution, as it has changed over a relatively short period of time without an underlying change in the genetic composition of the public.

And, even if it is shown to be 'fundamental' and 'ineradicable' that does not mean that the extent of religion in public life need be what it is today.

-- Brian

Brian --

The brain wiring -- which is very probably there -- is the thing I'm suggesting can't practically be got rid of.

I'm not sure the utility of Imperial religions -- since that started with Hammurabi at the latest! -- can be got back into the bottle, either, but that there is some hope of doing.

I would say that the essential difficulty is that the default assumption, in the Protestant Christian cultural fan, is that when one discovers one's head is full of gods, that the significance is necessarily and inherently general, rather than personal.

A default assumption of personal would remove pretty much all that is problematic; it would also require major cultural change.

Ken once remarked something to the effect of "oh, great, we're up against Milton and Tolkien" in terms of the necessary re-imagination of cultural mythology. It's not a trivial problem and rational responses, however necessary, aren't sufficient, either. Finity and mortality need a response that works when people are five years old and first asking those questions, and at fifteen, twenty, twenty five, fifty, and ninety, too. It's not going to be the same question or the same answer, but it had better have some kind of consistent cultural pattern.

While religion has influenced culture in its greedy grab at every human enterprise it could get its hands on, to call the abandonment of religion acultural is a bit of a stretch.

Culture is not defined by religion. If that were the case, there wouldn't be a nationalist movement threatening to tear my country apart. Great Britain wouldn't treat drinking as a competitive sport and there wouldn't be a massive discrepency between the American and Romanian definitions of Freedom.

The abandonment of religion is not, in short, the abandonment of culture. On the contrary, I think it may just enrich it, as without a common thread partially homogenizing so many different cultures, we may see further divergence and more and more interesting cultural phenomena.

Ugh, am I alone in wishing that I had a gun to reach for when I see phrases like "acultural modernity". Maybe if I knew what the hell it actually meant...

ps. Looking forward to the book Ken!

The best way to find out what the writer meant by 'acultural modernity' is to follow the link, and the links from that.

Near as I can tell from following the original link, 'acultural modernity' is a postmodernist strawman fallacy.

-- Brian

Ah, I'd missed this, probably because you don't update enough. Kind of Martin to mention me.

your latest book sounds really interesting.

looking forward to seeing it in the shops :)

Yeah, I always give your books a quick flick when I'm in the shops. I've even been known to borrow a few from the local library.

Are plans afoot for a promotional tour when your latest is done and dusted?

Thanks, Moonbootica.

Phil, no plans as yet. We'll see.

Acultural blah blah blah.

To paraphrase from a blog somewhere, "When outing the Emperor’s nudity one should not be admonished for ignoring learned tomes on ruffled pantaloons and silken underwear."

If you're over 10 years old: There's no magical man in the sky who grants you wishes. There is also no Santa Claus. Live with it.

For those religious people who attempt to escape into the labyrinthine corridors of complex philosophical quandaries, there's still the issue of those silly thousand-year-old books of yours. You know, the ones full of bigotry and violence that are held up to be the Absolute Truth...

anonymous, it will be my policy to disallow anonymous comments like this Real Soon Now ... if you want to say stuff like that, say it with at least a pseudonym.


Please, write more books. I was in local shoppe looking to stock up for the festive reason, and was simple ytaggered by the lack of output from my favourite mob of sf writers. Apart from Iain, I think ye are all spending too much time on your fecking blogs :)

This latest sounds like twas worth the wait mind. Keep pushing the revolution outwards, and if you run into China leafletting someplace for the Trotters give him a shove up the rear end from me.


Can't say I see why the "stuff" I said necessitates a pseudonym though ... you aren't one of those nutty Santa-Clausists, are you? ;)

I mean, its perfectly fine to appreciate and participate in Santa-Clausian culture, but if you actually believe it, it fosters ignorance, and you could end up stoning people to death (with coal), starting Holy Wars (at the North Pole)...

I think one point that isn't mentioned enough in discussions regarding religion, and especially whether religion is 'hard-wired', is the fact that very few people get to come to religion on their own. All currently popular religion requires that people are very young when they are first introduced to the teaching (indoctrination? brain-washing?) of said religion. This must make later analysis almost impossible I would have thought.

As a fellow Scot (originally from Edinburgh but now in Highland Perthshire) I must say how much I enjoy your books - I'm looking forward to the new one already!

Frenetic - one point you might like to bear in mind is that it's not really helpful if the project of Reason becomes mixed up with the project of Superiority.

looking foward to your next novel ,,but as your devout fan and as an americn I hope you can keep the anti-american scenarious to a minimum

Anti-American? Moi?

As an American, and a fan, I hope you hit us in the face with it. It is time to wake up and smell the colonialism.

I hope you've been following the Lakota business with some interest. They're to indicate the territory they're claiming on the 29th (117th anniversary of Wounded Knee.)

[The above all said, I found myself grasping for a primer on leftist political thought whenever I read your stuff. Some of us don't have the advantage of a 1970s pub-tour trawl through greater Marxism and Anarchism... I found what I was looking for in Wikipedia, as it turns out, but you've made quite clear to me the perspective most Americans lack on these subjects.]

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