I need a big book to take on a big flight, and as I think I mentioned here before, I’m enjoying Neal Stephenson’s ‘Anathem’ on this trip. It’s over 900 pages of fairly small print, so I only read about half of it on the trip up, and have plenty to keep me occupied on the trip back.
It’s excellent and highly recommended to those who enjoy dense, philosophical science fiction. Lots of the ideas have struck me, and extended things I’ve been thinking about, but one quote from page 577 really hit me. I need to offer a bit of background so it will make sense for you. Some of the characters were using a simple gas stove to cook a meal. Erasmas, the main character, asked why they were using such a simple cooker, when there were much more hi-tech ones available, and they replied that because they often travelled in isolated, difficult environments, they preferred to rely on things that they could understand, and that they could pull apart and repair if necessary (I often have the same reaction under the bonnet (hood) of modern cars…).
So here’s the passage:
Later, Cord [Erasmas’ sister] began to share her views about what had happened, and it became obvious that she was interpreting the whole thing from a Kelx [a fictional religion in the book] point of view. It seemed that Magister Sark had got himself a convert. His words, back in Masht, might have made only a faint impression on her, but something about what we had lived through at Orithena made it all seem true in her mind. And this didn’t seem like the right time for me to try to convince her otherwise. It was, I realised, like the broken stove all over again. What was the point of my having a truer explanation of these things if it could only be understood by avout [kind of secular philosopher-monks] who devoted their whole life to theorics [kind of science/philosophy]? Cord, independent soul that she was, wouldn’t want to live her life under the sway of such ideas any more than she’d want to cook breakfast with a machine that she couldn’t understand and fix.1
OK, so leave aside for a moment Erasmas’ automatic assumption that his own explanation is ‘truer’ than hers, and the implied condescension. This passage just got me thinking about ideas and explanations and our insistence on forcing our ‘truer’ interpretations on others.
Thinking this way is anathema to Christians (and presumably to followers of other religions too): evangelism is all about convincing others to accept our explanations. It’s seen as a sacred duty in most religions. And not only religions, of course: we try to encourage, and when that fails coerce, others to see the world in accordance with our political and scientific and philosophical views, too. But I dunno… it seemed to me that perhaps what we need to look at is (again) the Dr Phil test: “How’s that workin’ for ya?” If other people’s world views seem to be making them happy and fulfilled, and leading them to make the world a better place by caring for others and the world around them, how about we leave them alone, and focus on those whose beliefs are obviously (in their frame of reference, not ours) making them miserable or making them act in evil ways toward others?
Hmm, that might change who is the evangelist and who the sinner in need of salvation, in quite a few cases, I suspect.
- Hmm, didn’t realise quite how many explanatory notes I’d need to insert when I started this!