Book Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge 2016 and the Apocalypse Now Reading Challenge 2016.

Method of the world’s destruction: ecological devastation, corporate greed, and a mad scientist’s bioengineered supervirus.

Oryx and Crake is the second Margaret Atwood book I have read. I am finding that I have mixed feelings about her. I think she’s a brilliant writer. Her prose is magical and her sense of character amazing. I can’t help but feel a little pride in her as a Canadian. But the critics always wax rhetoric about how wonderfully original she is. She’s not, at least not that I’ve seen yet. Obviously these people just don’t read science fiction.

Atwood’s basic scenario here is a weird mating of The Time Machine, The Stand, and Frankenstein. Professional reviewers claim that Atwood has written “an innovative apocalyptic scenario in a world that is at once changed and all-too familiar because corporations have taken us on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.” It sells books because of our secret fears of genetic engineering. However, it’s not true, and if that’s what these people think then they weren’t paying attention. Also, one professional reviewer who was quoted on the cover of the edition I read said it was “uproariously funny.” I don’t think it was funny at all, and I think that if this guy thought it was funny he’s probably one of the corporate drones that Atwood was critiquing in the book. Someone in a review also said that it was confusing because she jumps back and forth between different moments in time and changes tenses when she does; and this same reviewer had the audacity to criticize Atwood’s grammar! Her grammar was the professional quality one might expect of such a critically acclaimed writer, and the story started in media res and was told primarily in flashbacks, and if that was confusing, I think you should stick with teen fiction.

What is actually great about this book is the fact that it is a brilliantly-written Greek tragedy that ultimately results in the likely extinction of the human race; along with quite a lot of the animals that we are familiar with. There’s a lot of “for want of a nail” stuff going on here. At several points disaster could have been averted, but it isn’t because of human flaws and human mistakes, and so all hell literally breaks loose. The epicenter of many of those flaws and mistakes is the protagonist, once called Jimmy but now known as Snowman, who found himself uniquely in a position by which he could have saved the world but, like Hamlet, fails to do so because of ignorance, negligence, and his tragic flaw, which is a desperate desire to be loved or even liked by someone, largely stemming from childhood neglect, emotionally distant parents, and a very lonely childhood. I love it because so many people in real life fail to do the right thing because of that flaw, or they overlook things that probably should have triggered alarm bells.

Others have found Snowman to be really unlikable as a result of those tragic flaws, but I didn’t. I found I had a lot of sympathy for him, and I could understand why he did a lot of what he did. Jimmy’s mother reminded me of my own, who was bipolar, undiagnosed and untreated for the length of my childhood. You learn that she and Jimmy’s father were at odds over some morality issue associated with the work that Jimmy’s father did for the Corporation they both used to work for. And in this future vision, Corporations own Compounds and keep their people entirely separated from the rest of the world, which they call the “pleeblands” (which of course was actually “plebelands” at one time, one would guess), and your worth, status and wealth depend entirely on your usefulness to the Corporation. Scientists and mathematicians are valued; artists and writers are considered a waste of oxygen; unless they write advertising for the Corporation, of course. Protesting the Corporations is outlawed and demonstrations are punishable by death. In this, Atwood borrows extensively from the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction (or, if you believe her and the critics, she reinvents the wheel).

You learn also, mostly as side stories in Jimmy’s personal observations of what goes on around him growing up, that the world is in a desperate state of ecological disaster due to climate change, there are too many people and too little resources, and the work that the genetic engineering companies do is actually important, or at least some of it is, in assuring the human race’s survival; except that they create primarily what makes the CEOs of the Corporations money, rather than what is good for humanity, due to selfishness and an innate sense of their own superiority over the pleebs (the rest of the planet). In this we also see some shades of the overpopulation horrors of the 1970s, such as in Soylent Green (or Make Room! Make Room!, as the book it was based on was called.)

Quickly you learn that Snowman is looking after an artificially-created sentient race that bears some resemblance to humans, and who comes from humans, but who aren’t quite human. They’ll remind science fiction aficionados of H.G. Wells‘ Eloi. They were created by someone named Crake, who is a very important character in the novel, being the mad scientist in question, and who was once a friend of Snowman’s. Also, there was someone named Oryx in his past, a woman he quite clearly loved, who for some reason was believed by the Crakers to be the creatrix of the animals. But since they are guileless, innocent, and somewhat simple like the Eloi, their beliefs seem almost mythological or biblical. You also learn that Crake was somehow responsible for whatever killed humanity, which was clearly a plague, and if Atwood tried to tell me she never read either The Stand or I Am Legend I would call her a liar, because parts of the book were full of eerie scenes of human life stopped dead, just like Stephen King and Richard Matheson wrote about so well. The title of the book is meant to represent both sides of human nature and not just the characters.

Sounds like spoilers? Nope, not a bit, because you find out most of this stuff in the first chapter. The story is more about how it all unfolds than what happened. And in this, Atwood displays a masterful understanding of the dark side of human nature and how the light side of it can be manipulated and twisted to dark purposes. It’s an amazing story and I was reading it with page-turning alacrity because it was gripping and fascinating. Only at the very end does everything become clear.

There are many questions that should concern the modern mind. Have we already gone so far with climate change that it will inevitably destroy the human race? How far is too far to go with genetic engineering? What are we going to do when there are so many of us that we overwhelm the planet’s resources to care for us, which might already have happened? Are we doomed to destroy ourselves out of greed, neglect, indifference?

And yet there are also subtler questions of human morality and the nature of religion. The Buddha’s dilemma comes up; the Buddha abandoned his wife and child to pursue enlightenment. Did he do the right thing? Buddhism is founded on the idea that attachment is sin, but if anyone did this in modern society we would call them a nutbar or a jerk, and certainly they don’t have normal human empathy and are probably something of a sociopath. There’s a Frankenstein-like element too; the Biblical references in the story of the Crakers is quite clear. Did God mean to create us? If so, was S/He aware of the full consequences of that? Were we created imperfectly and almost by accident, to be lesser, or greater, beings than our creator(s)? Was the Creation a total accident, or some madman’s weird plan?

And there’s a subtle human dilemma too, and that is the damage created by neglecting a child and denying them real love. Snowman might have been able to recognize that Crake was a sociopath if he’d had anything resembling normal parental empathy, but he had no basis of comparison. Is Atwood subtly critiquing the fact that since our society demands that both parents work, our children are being raised by babysitters and the internet? I think perhaps she is.

I really wish I could recommend this novel to everyone, because it does what really good science fiction is supposed to do, which is to make you question the world and society we live in, in a setting that is weird enough to make us feel a little safer than confronting it directly in the present, real world. But not too safe, because some of this sounds a little far-fetched; but not enough of it. Not enough of it by far.

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The Irrational Fear of Death

Someday, you’re going to die.

Yes, you.

Maybe it will be something sudden.  You’ll be crossing a bridge, walking your bike with the pedestrian light, and a drunk driver will whip through the intersection, not notice the blinking light, and you’ll be Humpty Dumpty.

Maybe it will be something longer.  Cancer, maybe.  Cancer gets lots of people.

Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll actually go the distance.  Maybe you’ll avoid all the accidents, not get cancer, not get Alzheimer’s.  Maybe it will be old age that gets you.  You’ll be a hundred and ten.  You’ll have arthritis and bad bowels and all your faculties, but a tiny blood vessel in your brain will explode and you’ll have a stroke and be dead before you hit the floor.

And guess what?  There’s not a single fucking thing you can do about it.

Nothing.  NO-thing.  No amount of hand cream or botox or face lifts will save you.  Death even got Joan Rivers in the end.

No amount of positive thinking will protect you.  Wayne Dyer, who was bragging in an audiobook I was listening to about how it had been twenty years since he got a cold, got cancer.  He’s still with us, but how long before it comes back?

No amount of exercise will stop it.  Jim Fixx died of a heart attack — while running!

So knock it off.

Knock off all the silly superstitious bullshit that you think is going to protect you.

Stop hiding all the old and the broken people away where you don’t have to look at them.

Stop worrying about what other people eat because you’re jealous, since you can’t bring yourself to enjoy an occasional cheeseburger without guilt.

Stop with the Power of Positive Thinking and the Secret.  Stop with the victim-blaming.  Stop with pretending that if you just colour inside the lines, it won’t happen to you.

Because it will.  If not now, then later, and there’s no amount of magic that is going to protect you.  No one has achieved immortality through magic yet, except maybe St. Germaine.

"Cow Skull" by Lucy Toner. Courtesy of Publicdomainimages.net.
“Cow Skull” by Lucy Toner. Courtesy of Publicdomainimages.net.

So why let it bother you?

Okay, you might live a little longer if you don’t eat burgers all the time.  But one cheeseburger really will not hurt you that much.

Old age isn’t a disease.  Hiding and marginalizing the old will not prevent you from getting old.  It’s not catching; it’s already programmed into your DNA.  Everything breaks down in the flesh.  Physical bodies cannot last.

If you develop positive thinking, life might be more fulfilling because you will not dwell on unhappiness.  But it will not prevent bad things from happening to you.

More than that, losing your irrational fear of death will make you a more compassionate person.

If you don’t try to tell yourself that the homeless guy on the street corner just isn’t thinking positively enough, maybe you’ll give him some spare change.  Maybe you’ll buy him one of those hamburgers you can’t bring yourself to eat.  Maybe you’ll even actually talk to him, and you’ll learn his name is Joe and he’s a Desert Storm vet with PTSD who was abandoned by Veterans Services because they don’t want to admit that Gulf War Syndrome is a thing and he drinks so he can sleep.

If you don’t think that old age is a disease that you might catch, maybe you’ll spend some time with older people.  And you’d be amazed at what you can learn when the past is something that happened to someone in your monkeysphere and not something you read about on the internet.  If you don’t try to tell yourself that younger people are more valid than older people, maybe you’ll glean some wisdom because nothing is new under the sun and likelihood is that your original, “innovative solution” has been tried before.The fear of death underlies all of our fears.  It makes us afraid to do things just in case we trip over some imaginary line that gets the Grim Reaper’s attention.  But you can do everything right and it can still all go wrong anyway.  Eventually it will go wrong.

The fear of death underlies all of our fears.  It makes us afraid to do things just in case we trip over some imaginary line that gets the Grim Reaper’s attention.  But you can do everything right and it can still all go wrong anyway.  Eventually it will go wrong.

The irrational fear of death is what keeps us from getting involved when we should.  It’s what stops us from standing up against wrongdoing; because, after all, maybe someone will target us if we say something.  It’s what keeps us from caring when caring matters.  Easier to try to believe there’s a reason why one person is lucky and one isn’t.  Why some of us constantly struggle and others have everything handed to them on a plate.  Why one person dies from choking on a chicken bone in their soup and another lives through being struck by lightning with no permanent damage.

But don’t you believe it!  There is no reason.  Sometimes, bad shit just happens to good people.  And sometimes, good shit just happens to bad people too.  No one’s keeping score.  There’s no brownie point system.  Impressing whatever god you believe in will not result in earthly rewards, nor protect you from harm because you’ve earned enough good karma points.

So, since that’s something you can’t control, stop letting it control you.

Let it go!  Relax!  Have fun every once in a while!  Take risks!  Dare!  Because life is more fun when you’re not worrying about how it’s going to end.  And love is easier when you’re not afraid of people.

The Patriarchy is About Class, Not Gender

Credit: J. Howard Miller, Public Domain
Credit: J. Howard Miller, Public Domain

A Battle for Our Bodies

We women know a hard truth of our culture; our bodies are not our own.

We are told how our bodies are supposed to behave.  How they are supposed to look (age/weight/height/hair/skin colour/breast size/genitals; the last of particular interest to women not visibly born “female”).  What we should feed them.  How we should decorate them.  Whether or not we should use them as incubators and what we are allowed to do with them once a zygote starts growing.  We are told to hide, and suppress, our body’s needs and natural functions.  We are told that the functions that formulate the incubator are supposed to be hidden from polite company, from menstruation to breast feeding.  We are told how we should wrap them, under what conditions it’s okay to unwrap them, and whom we should (or should not) unwrap them for.

After I overcame my childhood conditioning to suppress my sexuality, I wondered why.  This is something that has puzzled me for many years.  Why in the world does anyone else care about what I do with my body, whom I choose to have sex with, or how?  I mean, think about it.  How does it affect anyone else that I’m not sleeping with (or someone who’s sleeping with someone I’m sleeping with?)  I don’t give two figs what kind of car my neighbour drives because its effect on my life is exactly zero.

I read all the Dianic literature and found it empowering: The Wise Wound, Goddesses in Everywoman, The Chalice and the Blade.  Their theory was that because, until recently, your mother was a certainty but your father was an opinion, controlling women’s sexuality assured paternity and therefore, men would not find themselves in a situation in which they were struggling to feed someone else’s offspring.  I believed it because it was the only thing that sounded plausible to me.

The men in my life were angered by this theory.  They are feminists, and they are stepfathers.  They chose to raise someone else’s offspring, knowing full well it was someone else’s offspring, and give their love even when that love has not always been returned.  I didn’t give their anger much heed.  I figured it was a case in which they did not recognize their privilege.  I figured they would come around.

But there’s another theory, one that I’ve recently stumbled upon that makes much more sense.  Like anything else it’s not new; I was excited when I discovered, as I was reading it for the first time, that Starhawk had touched on it in the Appendices of her classic book on magick and activism, Dreaming the Dark.

Patriarchy exists to preserve inheritance.

Patriarchy is all about class.

Expropriation and Estrangement

Starhawk believes that we can find the evidence in enclosure.  In the sixteenth century a movement spread through England to enclose what was previously common land.  All of a sudden, which family controlled the land and its use became of paramount importance.  All of a sudden the people who lived on that common land became threats, because if land was held by common “squatters,” it could not be enclosed.  Often, lone widows lived in such places and so they were favourite targets of the would-be landowners, since they couldn’t do much to fight back.  Persecution increased against marginalized groups; that and widespread famines and possibly ergot poisoning led to revolutions and pogroms.  Enclosure forced most of us out of the woods and fields and into places in which our livelihoods depended on wages, and since one could only farm what was now on one’s land, trade became vital, and not an enhancement to existing living conditions.  We have seen the culmination of this trend in our current world economy, which depends on trading in raw resources and the forced labour of the developing world.

Knowledge became a marketable commodity in the new mercantile culture that was developing.  Universities developed.  Knowledge became something you could only have if you had the money to pay, and thus, graduates of those universities worked to preserve their monopoly on knowledge.  This particularly affected medicine.  Graduating university doctors spread the idea that anyone who did not have their certification was dangerous and stupid and might possibly cause real harm, even when the folk healing tradition was well ahead of the medicine of universities.  Often this was also a women’s profession, so once again women became an incidental target.  And “women’s medicine,” as a natural and unavoidable consequence of all of the medical practitioners being male, lagged behind and became a method of social control, culminating with the myth of the “hysterical woman” in Victorian times; an excuse to institutionalize women who did not behave according to the desired social mien.  We are currently seeing the culmination of the ownership of knowledge, with every task requiring (expensive) papers to certify your capability, bizarre trademark and copyright laws that allow corporations to claim intellectual property over ideas created 700 years ago, and tuitions so high that only the moneyed class can generally afford to pay them.

In order to justify this culture of ownership and expropriation, the world had to be disenchanted.  If the world has no life and no spirit other than what can be used as resources, there is no reason not to use it up.  Once again, the bodies of (cisgender) women, who are bound visibly by biological needs and changes, and who hold the power of the womb, became incidental targets, as the needs of the body and the needs of the earth and its creatures were denigrated, and “spiritual perfection” came to mean transcending anything as filthy and low as biology and nature.  We are seeing the culmination of this disenchantment now, in which faith is painted as a choice between the binary of absolute obedience to a patriarchal, distant god; or utter denial of the possibility of anything spiritual.

All of this is part of a culture of expropriation that derives from estrangement; estrangement from our nature, from our bodies, from the sense of the spiritual in the material, from people who are different from ourselves, even from one another.  We are almost seeing the culmination of it now.  We no longer know our neighbours.  We no longer live in families any larger than the nuclear.  Most of us these days are raised by single mothers.  We don’t even talk to each other any more, except through phones and computers.  As a result we are siloed in echo chambers of the ideas we support and our children sit across the table from each other and use their phones to converse.  Almost by definition, Paganism and Polytheism, which see gods and spirits here within the earth, are natural enemies of this culture.

I was excited!  Starhawk articulated it so much more effectively than I was able to.

Of course, it started long before that.  While the theory of the ancient matriarchy has been essentially disproven at this point, it is likely that inheritance did not matter in the prehistoric world until there was something to inherit that did not belong to the clan as a whole.  Chieftainships created a class of haves, and have-nots, which made tracking inheritance “necessary.”

How I Stumbled on This

I was writing a science fiction novel.  In the process I created a society in which all the men were warriors, so of course, the women were required to do everything else.  This society also had a noble caste who ruled over the other classes.  And I found that the society quickly developed, through a natural process of cause and effect, into a patriarchy.  Fascist societies, the ultimate in Corporatism, usually develop into patriarchies for this reason.

So I changed one condition; I made inheritance dependent on the female bloodline.  Now clans were organized around the females of a particular family, and to become nobles of the clan, males had to marry into it.  Technically the males inherited, but only through the females.  Suddenly, it looked to outsiders like the males were in charge, but in reality, the females were controlling marriages and fertility, and through that, the process of inheritance.  Over time, males began to develop traits that the females found desirable, and eventually it led to the breakdown of the class system and changing roles for males and females.

Corroborating Evidence

Why is it always the right wing who seems to support ideas that restrict the freedom of women?  You would think that powerful women of the moneyed class would be in an ideal position to challenge the supremacy of the patriarch.  But consider it.  Keeping the classes divided is the only way in which to assure that there are haves and have-nots.  In order to separate the classes, it is necessary to assure that the poor and the rich never mingle, and that requires controlling a woman’s fertility; and subsequently, her sexuality.  This is why it’s so important to the moneyed Conservatives to prevent cisgender women (and trans-men) from controlling their own fertility and claiming their own sexuality outside of the imposed rules of the patriarchy.  If women could do that, we wage-slaves wouldn’t continue to breed fodder for factories, would we?  Especially not in the developing world.  And what if a low-class male has sex with a high-class female and she has a child?  That elevates him out of the have-nots, doesn’t it?

We women impose these unconscious limits on ourselves.  Did you know that women do not call each other “sluts” based on their level of sexuality activity?  According to a study conducted at university campuses by Dr. Elizabeth Armstrong, the key trigger to being called a slut by another woman is being from a different economic class.  Why on earth would women perceive each other as being “trashy” for being more, or less, affluent than themselves?  It seems to me that this is a subconscious method of social control, to prevent the classes from breeding together.

Also, we choose mates based on perceived status.  It’s such a cliche that we make jokes about it; trophy-wives and sugar daddies.  Men with money are considered sexy.  Men buy expensive gifts and seek good jobs to impress women, and it’s considered the height of romanticism from him to buy us jewelry or that coveted diamond ring that proclaims our status as desired property.

We feminists think we’re above that.  After all, we believe in making our own way in the world and not relying on other people for financial support.  But consider this; assuming you are heterosexual, would you marry a man who made less money than you do?  Most of us won’t.  We think that “we can do better” and men who make less than we do are often perceived as freeloaders and “bums,” no matter how hard they work.  Fortunately this is changing.

There’s one last point of note that supports this theory, and that is the Mosuo people of China.  Often called “the last matrilineal society,” they have evolved a society in which all property rights pass through the female line.  There is no permanent marriage and partners do not live together, even if they have a long-term relationship.  Men live with their female relatives.  And all the behaviours of control and sexual dominance are displayed by the women; all the behaviours of social manipulation and preoccupation with appearance is displayed by the men.  In other words, property equals power.

The Real Enemy: Kyriarchy

Kyriarchy, pronounced /ˈkriɑrki/, is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. The word is a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, economic injustice, colonialism, ethnocentrism, militarism, and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.  (Source: Wikipedia).

It is in the interests of the Capitalists to maintain divisions of haves and have-nots.  Kyriarchy is how they go about this in a (nominally) free, democratic society.  They teach the rest of us to see one group as being superior to another, which leads to an interconnected system of privilege and disadvantage.  Notice that the poor are the only identifiable group that it’s perfectly okay to discriminate against?  Institutionalized discrimination limits the ability of the poor to get education, houses and jobs, and forces them to pay more for simple things due to interest payments, bank fees and “planned obsolescence.”

This is why it is necessary to consider all disadvantaged groups.  The truth is that Kyriarchy cannot exist if we all stand together and refuse to see these artificial divisions.

In other words; sisters, men are not the enemy.  Those who teach us that one group is better than another, are.  And those who benefit from the status quo the most are usually the ones most invested in preserving it.  The ones who benefit the most from this current status quo are white, white-collar, straight, wealthy, older men; in other words, the Corporatist 1%.

By extension, this means that anyone who challenges this status quo and demands change is our ally.  It would help us all to march in Ferguson.  It would help us all to defend women’s reproductive rights.  It would help us all to support labour unions, advocate for anti-poverty groups, and march in the Pride Parade.  Any one of these activities is a blow to Kyriarchy; which, in its death throes, will take the Patriarchy with it.

Why the Patriarchy is Doomed

Don’t worry; it can’t last forever.  It was doomed from the invention of the Pill.  When you can’t control a woman’s fertility, you can’t control her sexuality.

But social sanctions will try.  And as long as we allow groups which are invested in the idea of patriarchy — such as religions or corporations — to dictate morality to us, then it will continue.  We must stop calling each other sluts.  We must stop trying to dictate to each other when it’s okay to sleep with someone and when it isn’t.  We should feel free to make our own sexual choices and respect the right of others to do likewise.  We should support the rights of all genders, especially because challenging the binary breaks up the division that is based in haves (men) and have-nots (women).  The Kyriarchs know this and that’s why they find it so threatening and fight it so hard.

A great victory was recently won when the United States finally caught up to the idea that marriage should be a right for everyone.  I am pleased to see another nail being hammered into the coffin as the worldwide movement for the rights of sex workers grows and we stop looking down on women who get more action than others.

When our social customs catch up to our physical and scientific realities, patriarchy’s inevitable end will crumble the support pillar that sustains the Kyriarchy; and it will collapse like a house of cards.  We will see the dawn of a new age which is not dependent on human beings dividing themselves into superior and inferior classes.  That day is coming.  I believe it’s not far away.

  • Sept. 2 Update: edits made in response to suggestions from Keen on how to be more gender-inclusive (see commentary below).

Heresies II: Being and Divinity

Floralia_in_Aquincum

Polytheism: Old answers, to new questions

i – The Question at Hand

Debates about the existence of (the Monotheistic) God have been going on for ages, and have gone nowhere interesting for almost as long. A regular dance now plays out – where believers and non-believers dodge and weave around the bones of Augustine and Aquinas, Voltaire and Kant, their jousts and jibes predictably inconclusive. I think part of the problem is that what we have is a disagreement between apologists and critics – people who want to defend a particular theory, and those who wish to poke holes in it. What’s more, that “particular theory” is the rather narrow beam of mainline Christian theology – set in stone and ink in a hundred or more synods and councils since Nicea. What nobody ever seems to do in the debate over the Man Upstairs is speculate – theorise openly about what sort of god, if any, the evidence might point towards. It is worth remembering that the question posed – in TV debates and radio discussions around the world – is always “Does God exist?” (never “gods”). Nobody asks “In what ways might the gods exist – from the available evidence we can muster?”

The former question is very narrow, and this can be seen in the lines claimed by the belligerents in the debate itself. Atheists tend to merely claim that God is a “delusion” concerning a “supernatural being” or a “creative intelligence” hypothesis that has now been exceeded. Monotheists tend to agree (apart from the delusion-and-hypothesis part), viewing the traits of supernaturalism and creative intelligence as the natural conclusions to draw from the various omnies they attribute to God – omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence. This view has a long (Christian and Islamic) philosophical provenance, and aside from being logically fraught, it seems to say more about what Divinity does than what it is. Even labels like “supernatural” tell us nothing other than this being or quality doesn’t fit within our world. It doesn’t stipulate how its own world functions, or how we might identify its effects on this one. It throws the divine outside of this world, specifically to protect it from scrutiny – something atheists are wont to criticise, but never really transcend. All this verbiage is the intellectual equivalent of kicking the can down the road.

In short, it seems to me that whole debate is badly posed, and badly understood – even by most theists. They cling to one particular image of Divinity, rather than approach that image philosophically and critically. The reason for this is simple – the importance of upholding the right set of beliefs in Christianity has always been paramount, and is of considerable importance in the other Abrahamic faiths. As such, rather than openly ask the question “What is this Divine thing anyway?”, theists have spent much of their time in the recent past trying to justify other people’s answers (i.e. those of Biblical or Quranic prophets) to this basic question, while atheists have spent most of their time trying to torpedo those same answers. To use an awful academic phrase, nobody is doing any blue sky research. Or nobody participating in the debate is, at any rate.

Imagine if we asked the same question of other things. It looks patently stupid if we apply it to physical objects – when Copernicus discovered that the Earth orbited the sun, nobody began to ask “Does the Earth exist?”, after all. But a more telling comparison arises when we think on immaterial qualities. When Charles Darwin discovered evolution, nobody (or almost nobody) questioned the existence of humanity itself as a category. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, nobody asked “Does the economy exist?” This a particularly good comparison to strike, as the economy is very much a product of human artifice – it is imagined, a fiction, “made up” – and yet it has very real consequences for how we each lead our lives. It is quite real. Nobody denies its reality, and although many of us want to see the entire system transformed, root and stem, there is nobody who either suggests that all exchange between persons should be abolished, or that such exchange doesn’t exist in the first place. So even if the atheists were right in claiming that the gods were brought into being by men (and I do not believe they are), that doesn’t necessarily mean the gods aren’t there at all.

My approach has always been one of looking to the blue sky for answers; always one of trying to explain experiences I have, rather than attempting to defend a theory somebody else has provided for those experiences. For me, the Divine is as real as joy, power or the colour green – it is something I experience directly. So the question isn’t “does this exist?” but “how does this exist?” How does this relate to the world, of which I am also part? This approach – known in philosophical circles as “Natural Theology” – is not only worthwhile because it allows for free and open speculation towards the gods, of the sort we would use for any part of reality – it also allows us to escape two basic contradictions; one in monotheism, one in atheism; that still dominate popular discourse about divinity.

ii – The First Contradiction

Monotheism is predicated on the notion that there is only one god; powerful and eternal. But as is pointed out in Steven Dillon’s excellent text on the subject, this is flatly contradicted by two facts, namely:

a) Many people have wildly contradictory experiences of “God”. He is alternately male and female, kind and cruel, helpful and harmful, generous and selfish, forgiving and grudging, wise and stupid, immanent and transcendent. One is not meant to be all things to all men, but this being supposedly manages it.
b) Still more people – throughout history and around the world, of good character and with no reason to lie – have experiences of more than one god. They meet these beings, work with them, understand them as well as we understand any human person we might meet.

Now, the usual monotheist apologetic for dealing with this is threefold: God’s superlative quality means that he not limited by human perception of his qualities; human beings frequently lie, forget, and are deluded about god; and that these other gods who behave in ways unlike the One True God, are actually devils sent to trick us.

The first of these three statements is easy to dismiss; special pleading, without evidence – it’s yet more kicking of the can. The second two bear closer scrutiny. Both of these may indeed be true; we know that human beings are indeed fallible, and there may well be devils, if there is a God (ignoring why a supposedly omnibenevolent, just God would permit such convincing frauds to carry on their business for now). My objection, however, is that both of these explanations sound suspiciously like gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a means by which abusers twist or manipulate information in such a way that benefits them – denying that a victim’s own experiences of the world (i.e. that social workers, friends, and family are helpful and kind; that you yourself know what’s good for you) are valid (i.e. social workers, friends, and family are all secretly plotting against you; you don’t know what’s good for you – I do). When you consider the behaviour of “God” – the blatant obsession with controlling his followers, the constant threat of (eternal) pain, the desire to police their thoughts, the push to attract more followers, and punish those who disobey, accompanied by the near-constant lip-service towards love and kindness; what emerges is not a kind and loving Father, but a vicious and persistent abuser. In this context, the apologetics of monotheistic theology are unmasked as a rather transparent attempt to separate devotees from those who might otherwise be able to help them – that is to say, other gods, and first and foremost the good sense and genius of each follower in themselves.

With this in mind, there seems to be little reason to doubt such an overwhelmingly well-attested report as that of there being many gods; not just as an article of faith, but a vital step towards personal liberation from long-lasting patterns of abuse on a cultural scale.

iii – The Second Contradiction

From a reductionist atheist perspective, the gods are just mere imagination – voices in the head, created by some quirk in the evolution of the brain. Primitive man, so the theory goes, personified natural phenomena – thunderstorms, dreams, spring, childbirth – in an attempt to better relate to them. Those who still express this trait are a throwback to this earlier time, before mankind developed reason as a better way of understand the world. In anthropology, this idea was championed by Edward Tylor, who believed that religion was a “survival” from a prior phase of human evolution. He was working in 19th century, and his ideas are now seen as highly antiquated by contemporary anthropologists of religion. But they still prove popular amongst certain atheists – particularly Richard Dawkins – because they serve the same purpose for which Tylor originally thought them up – to discredit religious beliefs. There are some Pagans who, quite happily, base their own practice on this theory; here, the gods are just human projections onto the world, protected from refutation by a postmodern affirmation of personal experience. There is a delicious irony in how a theory devised by a sceptic to skewer religion for good has ended up being retro-fitted as a kind of Natural Theology for a relativistic age.

The problem for this reductionist disavowal of the gods is, of course, that lots of other things exist primarily as structures in the brain – not least consciousness itself. Physically speaking, my humanity, that of all the people I know, and the personas of my gods are composed of much the same stuff – neurological matter. If we take a materialist view of the world, my sense of “I” and my sense of “Sulis”, “Frey” or “Nodens” are basically the same mental function – the brain being able to create a particular sensation, in this case, one of persona and agency. We see that this places atheism in a bind; if [a] god does not exist because my experience of it is solely in my head, then my consciousness does not exist by the same token – both are mere shadows on the wall. If we put the gods on the bus, then we will surely join them soon after. What will be left behind are mere bodies; capable of nothing but empty production and consumption, devoid of any meaning or purpose, and easily exploited. This point has been made excellently elsewhere on this blog; but suffice to say, if we kill the gods, then we wipe out ourselves too. The claim that gods do not exist because we imagine that they are there, also indicates that our own consciousness does not exist, because we imagine it is there.

iv – Weighing and Measuring – Towards Better Questions

Here, we have taken the measure of the two conventional stances taken in the debate – that of conventional Monotheism, and that of conventional Atheism. Both, as we have seen, are blighted by fundamental flaws, that conflict with the commonsense view of reality – monotheism is contradicted by the fact that many gods have been met by humans; the flat out denial of the gods on the basis that they are imaginary would also require denying humanity as a “delusion” as well.

So how might we construct a more robust, natural theology?

v – On the Nature of the Gods

We know, from a vast array of historical and personal evidence, that gods exist. They are awesome, powerful, and long-lived beings. From the second contradiction, we know that the gods share their interiority – in some degree – with humanity. From the first, we know that they can lie.

Many of them appear to be embodied by natural forces and features of the landscape. Others are connected with forces and powers that are found within human society – like love, and war, and victory. They are mortal. They can kill. And they can lie. Humans can become divine through theosis, and gods can become human through incarnation.

From a moral perspective, gods seem little different to human beings; some are good, some are bad, all have virtues and vices. As such, we should approach our relations with them in much the same way as we do with one another – showing respect, giving credit where credit is due, and avoiding those who give the signs of being abusive or cruel. Gods may be much wiser than we are, much kinder, much braver – but they are still people, and so, they might not. We must use our own discretion, and that of those we trust, to be sure.

The relationship divinities have with their physical manifestations appears to be the major difference they have with humans. Simply put, humans are tied to and defined by our mortal bodies, in a way that gods are not. We find mirroring of this in the ancient texts, where what marks humanity and the gods apart is not their power, their supernatural station, or their cosmogonic role – indeed, humans often fill these roles too – rather, it is the fact that they eat food that makes them immortal. Ambrosia or apples or the bread of life; it makes no difference. Because they are not tied down by life as we are, they can extend far more broadly throughout time and matter; so that, as Thales once said “All things are full of the gods”. Man, sadly, appears to be mostly full of himself.

Ragnarök, The Magic Of Capitalism, & The Transformation of Consciousness

“Odin is recruiting for Ragnarök”

I have heard this statement from more than one source in the past few days. This is often the case for me with statements that resonate in my soul as strongly as this one did when a friend of mine uttered it and I heard it. When consciousness hears a resonant idea for the first time, it will often see iterations of that same idea all around, and would otherwise remain hidden without the spark of the initial idea feeding it.

Perhaps, therefore, I am keener to the idea; since it is already in my consciousness, I more easily recognize it. My inner psychologist concurs.

Or perhaps it is the will of the gods, manifesting themselves & their wills in specific patterns discernible to those sensitive to such things. My inner gnostic concurs.

Or perhaps it is delusion, and a sure sign of mental illness. My inner atheist concurs.

Or perhaps it is mere coincidence buttressed by wishful thinking, with the always-yearning consciousness assigning meaning to the coincidence that has no correspondence “in the real world.” My inner skeptic concurs.

In other words, there are a variety of ways to interpret the statement, and through the process of interpretation, creating truth. All of these interpretations have some element of truth to them. Philosophers speak of epistemology as the theory of knowledge creation, but for me, another word is more applicable for this phenomenon.

The Magic Of Capitalism

It’s a controversial word, magic, as in “the art of changing consciousness at will.” For me, magic is the correspondence between what one holds in one’s mind, and what happens outside consciousness, in the world. It is not superstition, delusion, wishful thinking, or illusion.

You can see magic in operation every day, indeed every moment.

For instance. one man this week had an idea in his head, that People of Color are “the biggest problem for Americans,” that they are “stupid and violent” (oh, the irony), and “inferior.” These ideas did not originate with this man, but he accepted them as true, and they certainly manifested from consciousness into the world, in Charleston.

Interestingly, magic has many different connotations for most people these days. Most of them aren’t particularly positive: prestidigitation, illusion considered real by naive observers, conjuration, deception. And it can be these things.

But capitalism has its magic. It has its thought-forms that seep into our consciousness. In some ways, the contents of an accountant’s spreadsheet are more real to many of us than a homeless person starving or freezing to death in an alley. These ideas govern the very fabric of society, of resource allocation, of comfort & suffering for every living thing on the planet. The world is seen through the lens of quantification, reduced to a mere number, and capitalist wizards work their arcane lore to manipulate these numbers to their favour, manifesting their will to profit in the real world.

And the costs are externalized, as always. This is part of capitalist magic and privatization in general. When the numbers come in, they belong to the owner-wizards. But when the numbers need to go back out, it’s everyone’s problem.

Have you ever been to a corporate training seminar? They are really common these days. They cover a lot of areas, like exemplary customer service, or sexual harassment in the workplace, or assertiveness training for women in business, or techniques for results-oriented communication, or effective employee motivation, or really just about anything that a “limited liability” corporation needs to sign off on, so they can create the appearance that their employees know all about the topic the seminar covers.

Whether or not all the employees actually do understand these things is not important; what is important is that the corporation is no longer liable if trouble ensues when an employee acts in a way that clearly shows he does not understand. Usually when these conflicts occur the liability shifts from the corporation to the employee, who is disciplined or simply fired. And then everyone pretends this is normal, and as it should be.

But here’s the thing. There is a key component missing from a lot of the capitalist magic going on out there: will. The most important task for an occultist is to turn inward, into the self, beyond the veils of illusion, and learn to discern what the will is. The will is not whim, it is not passing fancy, it is not going along with what everyone else around you is doing. By suppressing and thwarting the ability of millions of people to discern their will, and choosing to move forward and defend the very system that oppresses them and benefits their oppressors, capitalism works its magic.

So we resist, those of us who reject the received will of capitalism. We struggle to find new social relations within paganism, though it’s difficult to resist assimilation of our spirituality into capitalism.

Capitalist magic is particularly prone to what Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness, which is “merely the accidental error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete.” The problem is, the abstract & the concrete (or theory & practice, seen from another angle) are not always two separate worlds, forever cleaved in half. One influences the other. The abstractions we carry in our minds usually regulate our behavior. If we focus on changing behavior without addressing the fundamental thought patterns that underlie it, we will forever be chasing small fires that keep arising. Overthrowing capitalism will require a transformation of human consciousness — the very essence of magic.

Ragnarök & The Transformation of Consciousness

So yeah, Ragnarök. For those unacquainted, it is the end of the world in Norse mythology, the twilight of the gods, deaths, disasters on a vast scale. It’s not difficult to imagine in the 21st century, where sensitive souls can see the damage being perpetrated on the planet. We are now in an extinction event, where some scientists think that humans will be extinct within a century. And many of the most ardent radical anti-capitalists feel hopeless to stop it, that there is nothing we can do.

But if we follow the example of my polytheist friends and take the statement — Odin is recruiting for Ragnarök — literally, there is plenty we can do. This perspective not only shows that Gods are aware of the problems we are facing, but that they are fighting against it and recruiting help. This is comforting.

Or, we can take the statement metaphorically, and realize that the machinations of capitalism also have their opponents in those of us who would protect the precious ecosystems of the planet against capitalist exploitation and destruction. We can re-enchant the world, but we must also re-enchant consciousness.