Religion makes you a better person, faith not required

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explores the institutions and psychology that allow human beings to exist in peaceful society.  He says that humans are 10% bee and 90% ape, meaning that 90% of the time, we are motivated by self interest and 10% of the time, we are motivated to protect the group.  In his chapter “Religion Is a Team Sport” Haidt discusses how religion taps into the bee part of human instincts.

[R]eligions are sets of cultural innovations that spread to the extent that they make groups more cohesive and cooperative.

In a previous chapter, Haidt discussed collective movements (like marching together or ecstatic dancing around a fire) activate a biotechnology that binds individuals to the group and helps them transcend self-interest to lose oneself in the group.  The traditional standing/sitting/kneeling and hymn-singing and chanting in church reminds me of this biotechnology.  The ritual of attending church weekly taps into our social instincts.  In conclusion:

Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon . . . none of these things correlated with generosity.  The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists.

In other words, the thing about religion that someone a better person is the ritual of attending– not faith in God.


The Writer’s Process


I think Moist von Lipwig might be my favorite character in Discworld. At least for right now. He’s an entrepreneur, and that’s the world I’m in at this point of my life.

So I was thrilled to find Moist von Lipwig was a prominent character in Raising Steam. But reading this book makes me very sad because it’s not up to the standard of Pratchett’s usual writing style. It was published in 2013, so I’m assuming Pratchett wrote it while he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and maybe he didn’t have the time to do one more editorial pass-through. It reads like a draft. The story structure is not as tight as his earlier books- especially Going Postal. In his earlier books, there’s foreshadowing and a fleshing out of the villains, and that’s lacking in this book.

On the other hand, I think this story reveals more about the relationship between Moist and Adora Belle because of the incomplete structure. I get the sense that we are able to peek into their private conversations and if Pratchett had done another editing round, he would have determined those moments too intimate for us voyeurs. The flirtation between Moist and Adora Belle is what made Going Postal seem like a very new story in a very established world. I can’t think of another moment where Pratchett actually allows the reader into the head of a character at that point in the relationship. The couplings of Magrat and Verence and Vimes and Sybil are presented from a distance, a mechanical series of events. Pratchett doesn’t give us a lot of their emotional progress.

In Raising Steam, we get a very intimate view of the dynamic between Adora Bell and Moist:

“Adora Belle still had her faint smile. “Well now, my dear, didn’t you once say that a life without danger is a life not worth living?”

Moist patted her hand and said, “Well, Spike, I married you, didn’t I?”

“You couldn’t resist it, could you? It’s like a drug. You’re not happy unless someone is trying to kill you, or you’re in the center of some other kind of drama, out of which, of course, the famous Moist von Lipwig will jump to safety at the very last moment. Is it a disease? Some kind of syndrome?”

Moist put on his meek face as only husbands and puppies can do and said, “Would you like me to stop? I will if you say so.”

There was silence until Adora Belle said, “You bastard, you know I can’t do that. If you stopped all of that you wouldn’t be Moist von Lipwig!”

The Moist that Adora Belle describes is the one that is hidden in this book. In Going Postal and Making Money, we were able to tag along with Moist’s adrenaline rushes, and we don’t get that experience here. Still, I am enjoying the peek into Pratchett’s writing process. I love observing a master at work.

It’s always about blood



“Look,” said Whiskey Jack. “This is not a good country for gods. My people figured that out early on.”

Neil Gaiman’s stories are always unreal, but it’s the sort of unreal that is hidden just beneath the surface of what is real.

The pagan gods require blood and sacrifice. Something about faith requires giving up the best of yourself, or the best of your community. Are you supposed to grieve for the young tributes? Or does gratitude for the god’s protection overcome the grief? Ritual is important. Oaths are important.

Why would America be a bad country for gods? They represent seasons and uncertainty. We have seasons and uncertainty in North America. Whiskey Jack continues:

“So, yeah, my people figured out that maybe there’s something at the back of it all, a creator, a great spirit, and so we say thank you to it, because it’s always good to say thank you. But we never built churches. We didn’t need too. The land was the church. The land was the religion. The land was older and wiser than the people who walked on it.”

So why is the land America different from the land in Europe and Africa?

The story of American Gods is that old-world gods are going to war with new-world gods. People created the old gods to protect them from winter and starvation. The new gods, gods of roads and cities and electronics, protect people from seasons and uncertainty. It’s about the power to protect oneself from death, whether the death comes from climate or economic hardship or the failure to have children. That’s why all the gods are so physical. Gaiman describes their bodily functions in great detail.

But in America, the land cannot be tamed or controlled by gods. Maybe it’s because this country- as in government- was formed in an enlightened age. By the 18th century, men believed they could measure and manipulate and contain they physical world. They were developing science and medicine, so darkness didn’t scare them.

When I try to comprehend a fundamental difference between the United States and other countries, I think of the highway stretching west and that feeling of open space. When our current cities become too cramped for our ambitions, we move West, chasing the freedom to try (and fail). That kind of arrogance has no need of reverence for an old, bloodthirsty god.

We fool ourselves, though. The drive to innovate, to leave the old behind cannot eliminate death or the messy body functions necessary for life. We just try to ignore them or sanitize them. But our love for sanitation takes its toll, like the car-gods :

a powerful, serious-faced contingent, with blood on their black gloves and on their chrome teeth: recipients of human sacrifice on a scale undreamed-of since the Aztecs.

American Gods was published in 2001. I wonder what the newest gods of social media and the internet of things and mindfulness and kale are like. How do they claim their blood sacrifices? Maybe we’ll find out in the TV show.