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Sometimes your reading list juxtaposes two items that complement each other perfectly. Here be mild spoilers, but I will vouch that they won’t ruin the stories for you.

The Streets of Ashkelon – Harry Harrison

Garth, an interstellar trader, is the first long-term human contact with the literal-minded and unfailingly honest inhabitants of Wesker’s World. But as his term there is about to end, a Christian missionary arrives. Garth, an atheist, panics and lashes out at Father Mark. It’s not just because he thinks the preacher will corrupt the innocence of the Weskers, who have no deities or spirituality of any sort. He also dreads having to explain a species with no concept of lying or untruth that he and the missionary believe contradictory things. But soon Garth, not having seen another human for a year, begins to regret his inital hostility towards the priest. They uneasily coexist as Garth prepares to leave and Mark builds a church with the help of the Weskers, to whom he also preaches. But the Weskers inevitably must ask Garth the questions he dreads, and he answers them honestly: there is no god. Faced with this contradiction, the Weskers conclude that the only way to find out the truth is to ask for a miracle, and only the grandest of miracles will do. What’s a lonely atheist to do when his sometime rival and only human companion is threatened with death?

This story is bleak from both theist and atheist perspectives. The Weskers seem so rational when they demand an experiment to test god, and if you come to this story sympathetic to Garth’s point of view, you’ll almost be cheering for them (at least, until you read their methods). But after the fact, after they’ve failed to reject the null hypothesis, that rationality disappears. They accept Mark’s preaching regardless. Like most religious people, they explain away contradictory data to fit the hypothesis they want to believe.

It has been a while since I tried to think like a theist (specifically, like I used to when I was a theist), but I think the end is even more disturbing from this point of view. It forces you to confront the fact that introducing the Weskers to religion, i.e. “saving” them, also ipso facto damns them. Garth was concerned that Wesker society would be contaminated; the Weskers now have to deal with believing themselves sinners; but Father Mark—at least, until he passes out from pain—has to realize that he has acted as Satan at the same time that he brought salvation. This version is set in space, but it’s happened many times in our own past. I’ve heard Christians explain this conundrum away or, more often, see it only as a positive thing, more than once.

A slightly irrelevant confession: I expected not to enjoy this story. Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat books are full of rampant casual misogyny coupled with so many comma splices I stopped reading halfway through the second volume. (Don’t ask me which transgression bothers me more. I can forgive one of them at a time, but not both. That said, the first book at least is pretty funny.) So I was reluctant to try reading this story, but I’m glad I did; it redeemed Harrison a lot in my mind. I can now blame those comma splices in the book on a terrible editor (or perhaps I should be less generous and assume that a decent editor fixed The Streets of Ashkelon up).

The Way of Cross and Dragon – George R. R. Martin

The interstellar Catholic Church of the future has seen a few changes, including the ordination of extraterrestrial clergy (though still, presumably, not of women), and clearly expanding the frontiers of space travel has brought fresh theological challenges as well as brand new heresies. Damien, a senior Inquisitor of the Order Militant of the Knights of Jesus Christ, is one of those responsible for stamping these heresies out. His latest assignment involves an Order of Saint Judas Iscariot and a book called The Way of Cross and Dragon, in which, among other things, Judas is not only Jesus’s best friend but also a Dragon-Tamer. Seriously, read the story just for this part; it sounds like a pretty badass blasphemy.

Damien confronts Lukyan, the founder of this sect, who freely admits that he made the whole thing up. Lukyan calls himself a Liar (capital L), and claims to belong to a super-secret group who believe in no god and go around making up not only religions but all sorts of systems of thought, as long as they’re beautiful and comforting. Lukyan tells Damien that he is doing just the same thing with his Catholicism. He takes him to meet Jon Azure Cross, a telepath and fellow-Liar, who senses Damien’s doubt about his own faith and tries to recruit him. But Damien realizes that his commitment to truth outweighs any desire to comfort people, and declines.

Now comes the point at which my mechanical recitation won’t make any sense; you have to go read the thing. I’m not even capable of spoiling it.

This story left me utterly chilled, and I’m already pretty cynical about religion. Is it too cheesy to say “You can’t handle the truth”?

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I really don’t know what to make of this story. A Muslim stonemason helped restore a Catholic cathedral in France, and in return (he’s worked on it for 37 years), a sculptor made a new gargoyle for the cathedral that looks like him and says “Dieu est grand/Allahu akbar”, i.e. “God is great” in both French and Arabic.

And…cue freakout. To be fair, only a small, noisy minority is freaking out. I’m sure the average Catholic and the average Muslim alike is thinking, “Why is this an issue at all? Both parties were just being nice.” And that is kind of what I (the average atheist, I guess) am thinking too. I think both Catholics and Muslims are wrong about a lot of things, but I also think both religious traditions have given rise to some beautiful art, architecture, music, etc. and even some great science, and I can admire and even enjoy art, architecture, music, etc. that is coming specifically from a religious viewpoint. Again, I’m sure the majority of religious people can do the same with respect to other religions. It’s when you listen to, say, Bach’s St. John Passion and go “Oh no, Protestants! They’re going to burn in hell!” rather than “Oh wow, amazing music, this guy’s religion really inspired him!” that you might have a problem.

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