Virtual Verduria Almean Belief Systems

Almean Belief Systems

 
Introduction
What belief systems are
What does a belief system do?
Coexistence
Failings of belief systems
Format
Language
For further reading
Cuzeian monotheism
Caďinorian paganism
Eleďát
Mešaism
Jippirasti
Endajué
Irreanism

Introduction

In these pages I attempt the perilous task of reducing to cold verbiage the belief systems of eastern Ereláe-- the Caďinorian plain, Dhekhnam, Xurno, Lenan, and Skouras.

On Almea itself the perils would be quite direct. Religion is taken very seriously there, and attempting an anthropological, literary, or psychological analysis of the beliefs of one's own milieu, or even of other people's beliefs, could easily be taken as disrespectful or blasphemous. (The key word here is analysis. To declare that a man's beliefs are wrong, or even to mock them, would be a lesser offense.)

We are out of reach of outraged Almean zealots; but we are in danger of misrepresentation, of exaggeration, of oversimplification. We can only attempt to understand as well as we can. Still, the reader might reflect on how shallow a work of similar length on terrestrial belief systems would be, and understand that almost every point presented is more complicated than it appears here.

What belief systems are

Our concern here is with belief systems, which we might equally call religions, ideologies, philosophies, worldviews, or ways of life. What I mean may be best explained by considering each of these names in turn, and pointing out their insufficiencies.

In many cases we will be discussing religions; but this term is too narrow, suggesting an organized entity exclusively concerned with morality and worship. Not all the systems I will describe are concerned with these things; some, indeed, ignore conventional morality and deny the existence of gods. Nor will we focus greatly on official hierarchies and written doctrines, often the least interesting components of a belief system.

The term religion can also mislead a modern terrestrial reader, who may associate it either with fundamentalism or with private convictions and solitary practices. Fundamentalism must not be taken as the prototypical state of religion; it is always a reaction to a perceived state of moral or theological decadence. The normal state of a religion-- that is, the state it is most often in-- is one of moderate acceptance on the part of the many, fervor on the part of the few.

As for private practice, we sometimes hear for instance that some foreign belief system 'isn't just a religion; it's a way of life.' So it is; but that is not on oddity of foreigners, but of our own Anglo-Saxon interiorization of belief. A religion is a way of life, and in describing belief systems below we will come very close to describing entire cultures. (About all we leave out is specifically economic and political facts.)

A belief system always has an ideology or philosophy, a collection of ideas, a framework for organizing thought, and these are part of our subject. But we will be just as interested in functional and implicit ideas-- the purposes the belief system serves, its unstated assumptions-- as well as in its contradictions and unresolved puzzles. We are also, of course, interested in what is practiced as opposed to what is believed.

Finally, knowing what people believe is not enough to understand what it is like to be a member of that belief community. To complete the picture it is necessary to ask what is not believed, or what adherants disagree on.

What does a belief system do?

Why do people construct belief systems at all? Why don't they simply muddle through, like animals or New Yorkers?

One important function of a belief system is to serve as a framework for thought and action. It explains where the world comes from and where it's going; what our purpose in it is; how society should be organized; how people should treat each other; when you're messing up and what to do about it. All this is very comforting, and allows believers to focus their energies.

(Why do we need answers at all? Perhaps, as Marvin Minsky suggests, to keep ourselves from idle speculation. It takes time to ask questions; a completely open-minded person could spend all their time doing so. Our questions answered, we can concentrate on productive work.)

The reader only has to think of a fundamentalist Christian, or a Rush Limbaugh dittohead, or a Communist, to see the effectiveness of a belief system in action: there is an answer for everything, and everything can be put in its place. These are extreme cases, however. A belief system need not provide a firm answer to all questions, and probably should not; certainty leads to inflexibility, and even fatalism: if the universe is on your side, who needs to act?

(A belief system also acts as a mimetic virus, and one of its first effects on the convert will be to inoculate him against further infections. Religions thus declare their rivals diabolic (or, more cleverly, claim to incorporate any truth they have); atheists learn that religions are foolish lies; Communism condemns any "deviations" as treachery to the revolution.)

Related to this, a belief system generally provides support for the social system. However radical a dissident belief system may be, once it's in power it supports and justifies the existing order-- supplying the important feeling that the powers that be have right as well as might on their side.

Living as we do in a time of social change, we may easily consider this function negative; and so it is, when religious dogma contradicts social needs. But like science, belief systems have certain corrective mechanisms built in. This may come as a surprise: both believers and unbelievers have a stake in asserting the unchangeability of belief. But belief systems do change. If the system is flexible, or the change is peripheral, the change can come from within, the way US Anglicans became republicans after 1776, or the Catholic Church moved from supporting to challenging the local elites in parts of Latin America in this century. If this is not possible, new variations (monastic orders, cults, denominations) will arise within the belief system as a whole, as witness the appearance of the Benedictine Rule, the Methodist Awakening, or Christian Science. If the belief system is completely hopeless, it will be replaced by another, as Roman paganism gave way to Christianity.

On a sociological level, perhaps the most important function of a healthy belief system is to reinforce precisely the difficult social values, those that don't quite come naturally. Religions don't have to urge men to look at pretty girls, or to eat chocolate. But we do find medieval Christianity urging barbarians turned kings not to murder, to put away their concubines, to respect the life of contemplation. We find Hinduism counseling the poor peasant to worship his cow-- to most Westerners, irrational advice, but in fact eminently sensible; if during bad times the peasant gave in to the urge to sacrifice his only animal, he is ruined. Judaism and Islam ban the eating of pork-- a prohibition which makes excellent ecological sense in the arid Middle East, where pigs compete directly with human beings, and where their instinct to keep their skin wet assumes unsanitary forms.

(On barbarians turned kings, see Michel Rouche's "The Early Middle Ages in the West", in Ariès & Duby's A History of Private Life, vol. I. On sacred cows and the uncleanness of pigs, see Marvin Harris's Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches.)

Paradoxically, belief systems also provide a call for change. The society which has drifted too far from its ideals will find its very belief system exhorting reform or revolution; and even in more peaceful times the belief system will contradict practice to some degree, and individuals will work for individual betterment, or social justice. (Eric Hoffer in The True Believer laments the excesses of social movements-- belief systems in revolt-- but comes to the conclusion that they may be the only way of jolting a tired society into change.)

Belief systems also offer practical help, especially in matters where skill and mechanical methods cannot help. People want to cast curses, to find lovers, to get healed, to have babies, to get rain, to have their crops grow, to be protected from thieves and nobles. And where needs exist, suppliers will come.

No one likes disappointment, and belief systems will go to great lengths to deliver on what they promise. In some American Indian religions, for instance, all boys coming of age must experience a spiritual vision. A matter of such importance is hardly left to chance; drugs, hunger, and physical exhaustion help ensure that that vision will come.

Not all the help offered is illusory. Even in our own world no one can rigorously debunk every miracle, except with the aid of a countervailing belief system. And Almea is another planet, perhaps even another universe, closed to our direct investigation. Our best evidence is that some sort of supernatural powers do exist on Almea, and that recourse to them can be-- though quirkily-- effective.

Where science is more developed, these practical uses of religion recede. (And when it develops even more, it spins off belief systems of its own. The somewhat incoherent adoration of "Life" in this century is an example; a sophisticated modern variant is the Gaia hypothesis.) Almea has discovered the scientific method, but it has not progressed to the point where the truth of any religion is seriously questioned. Even in societies entirely untouched by modern science, however, there is generally a gap between the superstitious many and the rationalistic few; and this gap can be explained by the greater knowledge and power of the few. Superstition fulfills a need, a need for predictability and control, and fades away when that need can be satisfied in other ways.

On a more personal level, belief systems can offer disciplines for personal growth-- meditation, introspection, confession, prayer and fasting, visions, the interpretation of dreams, recovery from neurosis, the perfection of virtues.

Finally, belief systems satisfy the need for worship; what we might also call, in more modern terms, a sense of wonder. A healthy religion appeals not merely to the conscience but to the heart; it offers wonders and poetry as well as duties and laws; it stimulates love and creativity; in cultures racked with violence, pestilence, and injustice, it is a refuge for contemplation, gentleness, scholarship, and art.

Not all belief systems address all these needs, or address them all equally well; and because of this there is an apples-and-oranges problem in any program of "comparative religion", to the extent that Chesterton calls the subject "dust and nonsense".

( In The Everlasting Man. In this provocative though very partisan book he goes on to suggest the alternative categories "God; the gods; the demons; the philosophers." This is a bit narrow for my purposes here, but his book is full of novelty and sense, and from it I have learned much about the kind of questions to ask about belief systems.)

To avoid the problem we should ask what exactly each belief system is, what needs it fulfills, what pretensions it makes.

Coexistence

A word should be said about the coexistence of religions. We are used to the all-encompassing claims of Christianity (or Islam, or Communism), and may assume that all belief systems are the same. They are not, of course. The fact that Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism coexist in China should be suggestive; as should the completely different atmospheres of Platonism, Pythagoreanism, and the Dionysian cult in ancient Greece.

Like languages, religions probably coexist most peacefully either when they are divided between ethnic or other groups, or in democratic states which do not use them to define their nationhood.

Another kind of division is functional: e.g. in Japan you're blessed at birth by the Shintoists, married by Christians, and buried by Buddhists. Western societies in effect divide life into three belief systems: religion (optional) for private life; science for scholarship; and nationalism for public life. The turf battles between these can be spectacular, but we should keep them in perspective; they're nothing next to the Thirty Years' War.

A quick reading of history might suggest, indeed, that belief systems used to fight to the death, but don't any more. This is quite wrong, and comes of equating "belief" with "Christianity". Religions-- or rather cultures, mobilizing religion as well as other cultural determinants-- used to fight to the death, and they still do, in India, Palestine, or Bosnia for instance. Religious conflict per se has been lessened in the West, largely due to the shrinking of the role of religion. But the conflict of belief systems is as nasty as ever; only the systems in question are now political ideologies-- capitalism, Communism, fascism. Where systems are not divided functionally, regionally, or by ethnic group, dire conflict seems inevitable.

Failings of belief systems

These bitter conflicts are obviously failings of belief systems; and there are others.

One has already been mentioned: inflexibility. In its worst form this of course becomes intolerance. Outsiders may be treated to no more than scorn, or to no less than robbery and death. Our own belief systems will readily ascribe this to the intrinsic perversity of humankind; but intolerance can be explained (not justified) scientifically. It too meets a need; the need for villains and scapegoats.

(This, in Marvin Harris's view, explains the 16C-18C persecution of witches. In a time brimming with discontent and rebellion, the authorities found it very useful to inculcate a fear of witches; it divided the people against each other, and created sympathy for the state, protector against supernatural evils. The fact that the evils were spurious is evident from the methods of the Inquisition, designed (like those of the Soviet secret police centuries later) to create a steady supply of public enemies, with no need to rely on the natural supply of dissidents.)

Another is legalism. Many of the functions of belief systems lead to the enumeration of rules; but following rules can become an end in itself, and if the corrective mechanisms are clogged up, rules can long outlive their usefulness.

There is also hypocrisy and corruption. Where belief systems become part of the culture's power structure, hypocrisy is inevitable: if the only way to achieve power or wealth is to profess belief, the power- or money-hungry will do so, and will perhaps even control the official hierarchy.

Other failings are, to be frank, simply criticisms from the point of view of another belief system. History is full of foolish people who have judged other systems without understanding and without humility: Westerners criticizing arranged marriage, or Hindu cow love; Spaniards burning the books of the Aztecs and debating whether Indians had souls; well-meaning bigots explaining how a Catholic should not be President of the United States.

Where possible, we should avoid judgment, and try to understand even (or perhaps especially) what is unattractive. However, a false pose of objectivity also is an error and even a lie; the best we can do is admit our own biases. My own beliefs-- in justice, in the spiritual equality of all, in creativity, work, and love, in the scientific method-- are not hidden in these pages. Some of my more specific opinions will be obvious enough; others I have downplayed; I have considered it my first task to describe, secondly to interpret, and only rarely to offer judgment.

Format

There are individual pages for each of the major religions. I generally start with a brief geographic and historic overview; proceed to discuss beliefs, and then practice, both public and private.

Again, the scope of this work necessitates an almost intolerable degree of summarization and abstraction; any Almean would feel insulted to see his belief system reduced to twenty or thirty pages.

The major religions all have offshoots. I've treated Arašát separately from Cuzeian theism, largely because the context changed so much: the established religion of the dominant state of its time is very different from a disdained minority religion swimming in a Caďinorian sea. Endajué can be seen as a derivation from Mešaism, but the divergence is so great that it could hardly be treated as a mere appendix. However, such decisions are a matter of judgment, not fact.

Language

Particular attention has been paid to the problem of language. The original Almean terms have been used wherever possible, not only because translation into English inevitably introduces misleading connotations and distortions, but because many of the words cited are highly significant in the cultures involved, and shed light on many an otherwise puzzling idiom or etymology.

For further reading

For more on belief systems-- especially on how to devise your own-- see the Planet Construction Kit.

The Historical Atlas of Almea complements this volume. You can read this work without reading the Atlas, but you will miss many useful connections and clarifications.

Language and culture are inextricably intertwined, and the student of belief systems will find much of interest in the linguistic materials in the Research Series. The Thematic Dictionary of Verdurian, for instance, recording the categories of thought intrinsic to the Verdurian language, is something of a tour of the Verdurian mind. These materials will also, of course, be essential in pursuing primary sources!

The Cuzeian work, In the Land of Babblers, has been translated into English, as has the Count of Years, and the Xurnese A Diary of the Prose Wars.

Beyond these works, the student will have to turn to original sources. Each section contains pointers to scriptures, commentaries, books of philosophy, and other important works from the culture in question. The terrestrial reader must be prepared for a certain lack of critical distance in these books. Most of them are written by believers, some of them quite zealous; and though equally dogmatic works attacking particular beliefs or cults exist, there is simply no tradition on Almea of dispassionate comparison or analysis of beliefs. The best one can do is move to literature, history, or politics, where the rhetoric is calmer, and where with a bit of work a treasure trove of information can be found.

I have not sufficiently studied the religions of Arcél to create full descriptions, but the following pages should be of interest:


© 1998 by Mark Rosenfelder

Cuzeian monotheism
Caďinorian paganism
Eleďát
Mešaism
Jippirasti
Endajué

Virtual Verduria Almean Belief Systems