I am not a religious person. While I don’t begrudge religious people the comfort they find in their faiths, in general I don’t see much point in the whole concept of a higher power. Sure, it would be nice if there was someone big and powerful out there interested specifically in my personal well-being, but I’m incapable of believing that, and thus I find very little use for the entirety of the monotheistic set. And as for the more pantheistic approach, it all just seems far-fetched and unlikely to me, and thus not terribly useful. I’m not a religious person and I very much doubt I ever will be.
I am, however, deeply fascinated by the role that religion plays in people’s lives as a personal philosophy. In this one capacity, I think it can be a force for good, though also quite dangerous in the wrong hands. The problem is, I’ve never encountered a real-world religion that was useful in this way, without all the fanciful trappings to distract and obscure. I have, however, encountered fictional ones, one of which comes from a series that I’ve just finished reading about ten minutes ago. Thus, I present: the Two Fictional Religions I’d Seriously Consider Joining (despite not having a religious bone in my body).
1. Earthseed: “The only lasting truth is change.”
The first–the one I’ve just finished reading–is Earthseed, from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. These books are intense near-future dystopias set in one of the only apocalypse-like worlds I’ve ever considered plausible, and thus they are terrifying. Do not read them as bedtime stories. There is nothing glossed over or held back in these books, and moments of comfort come only rarely, between long swaths of harrowing, unblinking staring into the darkest corners of humanity. Seriously, these books are bleak.
And so is Earthseed. The central premise of this religion is “God is Change.” In this case, “God” is more of an idea than an actual deity–an indifferent force that shapes and molds the world according to the whims of the universe. It is change. Change is the only universal, and it will always come, desired or not. But Earthseed is not a religion of helplessness; on the contrary, it encourages its adherents to embrace the power of change, and to direct it in a deliberate, intelligent way, to create a better future. “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you.” It’s not always a particularly comforting thought, but it is a true thought–at least, in my opinion.
Earthseed is not going to offer salvation or a shoulder to cry on. What it will do is train you to look for your own agency in the seeming chaos around you. Change is inevitable, nothing is permanent, and that keeps you grounded in good times and moving forward in bad. Personally, I find this whole idea very comforting, in an odd way. It’s a useful philosophy. It’s an idea that puts the world into perspective, and champions innovation and creativity and perseverance over blind faith. That’s an idea I can get behind.
2. Bokonon: “All of the true things I’m about to tell you are shameless lies.”
While Earthseed may very well be the most practical religion ever designed, Bonokon is the most impractical–which is exactly what makes it useful. It’s from Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, a book with which I have a complicated relationship, which is probably why I usually cite it as my favorite. It’s a book that has greatly influenced how I think about the world, especially the relationship between technology and morality and humanity, and that influence has evolved over the years and continues to do so every time I re-read it. It’s a really, really good book.
Bokonon is a fictional religion within the world of Cat’s Cradle, too, sort of. There are people who practice it with great fervor and believe in it utterly and completely, but they do not believe it to be true. This is because the first phrase of the first book of Bonokon is what you see above–“All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” Bokonon is, by design, not intended as a literal truth. Its stories are not real events, its prophets are not real prophets, it is unashamed about its status as an entirely invented religion, and that’s the entire point. Nobody argues over whether or not Bokonon is true, because it isn’t. It skips right over the debating/evidencing/fighting-over-technicalities parts of religion that seem to bog down every discussion of it and gets straight to the part that’s useful–the way it encourages and comforts individual people.
There’s a whole, complicated structure, complete with new vocabulary words and commandments for finding happiness, that goes along with Bokonon. At its heart, though, Bokonon is an absurdist religion, encouraging its adherents to see the many contradictions of life and accept them for the comedy that they are instead of worrying about it. Bokonon is not useful in the way that Earthseed is useful–it doesn’t have goals, or encourage people to improve in any way. Instead, Bokonon teaches people to find a happiness within themselves by accepting the strangeness without. Essentially, it’s a go-with-the-flow religion, and I genuinely believe that taking its philosophies to heart would make many people much happier. I know when I get overwhelmed, I find it comforting to answer the complicated mechanisms of the world with an awed shake of the head and a muttered, “busy, busy, busy.”
Plus, it has the best verses. My favorite is, “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” That’s advice that will improve your life immediately.
Have you ever encountered a fictional religion you’d actually consider joining? This is a serious question, because I’m actively looking for them. I love the two mentioned above, and I’d like to see what others are floating about out there.
“Busy, busy, busy.” -what a Bokononist whispers whenever they think about how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is