Observations: Enjoy Working on a College Campus

I recently read a post about some hate filled mail a fellow blogger received. Reading the post got me thinking about the last month or so at work. My conclusion: there are a great many things I like about working on a college campus (and wish I could continue doing so, if that whole eating, paying bills, etc. thing wasn’t an issue). So, in the last month, I have:

 1) chatted about meditation with a psychology student of unknown faith, including Buddhist, Sufi, Zen, Christian, and secular methods (for a philosophy paper).

 2) discussed pirates and ISIS with a Somali Muslim student (someone else started the conversation somehow, I came in for the tail end; all parties reached the same conclusion).

 3) discussed the Epic of Gilgamesh with an Ethiopian Muslim student, including the dangers of applying modern monotheistic biases to interpreting ancient polytheist stories and cultures (particularly regarding the essential nature of divinity; for a history paper).

 4) worked with an Israeli Jewish student and Palestinian Muslim student back to back, with them chatting amiably between sessions (turned out they were classmates, knew each other, and worked together often in class; composition classes).

 5) discussed the Iliad and Greek mythology with a Hindu doctor (MD; after looking over his philosophy paper).

 6) discussed early Christian philosophy (Augustine, Aquinas) with a student of unknown faith.

 7) worked with students from: various states in the U.S., China, Korea, Iran, Palestine, Israel, India, Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Argentina, Jamaica, and parts of Eastern Europe.

And before that, two of my more memorable class moments and students:

 1) A Sikh student from India who was just plain awesome to talk to before and after class (upper level composition class).

 2) A Christian (?) Marine vet fresh back from Afghanistan. There, he was involved in combat missions for the majority of his tour. He was also the first person in the class to speak up against disinformation regarding Islam and atheism, defending both repeatedly and respectfully (composition 1 class).

Making Society Run: Secular Ethics

A few posts back, I briefly said something about my thought that ethics, or morals, in religion were not really morals. Or, rather, that religious based morality isn’t really morality. And I said I’d expand on that sometime. So, here are my thoughts.

Every religion in history includes a moral code of some sort, whether the ancient Greek codes of no human sacrifice and hospitality or the more recent Judeo-Christian-Muslim code that includes respect for one’s parents. On the surface, these look like good moral codes. The faiths look like the source of morality.

But, I argue, they aren’t.

The moral codes are good and all, but the faiths are not the source of morality. They are a reaffirmation of self interest. Why? Because every religion out there backs up its “moral code” with a system of rewards and punishments: if you do the good thing, you’ll get rewarded in the afterlife (or when you’re reincarnated); conversely, if you do the bad thing, you’re looking at an eternity of punishment. This is not morality.

True morality is doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing, not because of an expectation (unconscious or otherwise) of reward. True morality is not doing the wrong thing simply because it is the wrong thing, not because of an expectation (unconscious or otherwise) of punishment.

But, perhaps the reward-punishment effect can create morality.

No.

Why not? Because as soon as the rewarder-punisher is removed (or belief in said being is removed), then there is no longer a reason to do the right thing or avoid doing the wrong thing. The sense of right and wrong has been replaced with a subconscious reward-punishment cycle, that fails when the punisher is removed.

All this said, ethics and morals are, in a way, social constructs. That is, without society (multiple people living together) there is no need for morality or ethics. Therefore, morals and ethics are basically cultural, but there are some universals that all societies need to function (anti-theft, anti-murder, anti-assault). After the universals, morals and ethics are based on cultural values.

This also ties into writing and worldbuilding. Considering morals and ethics as social constructs brings up the questions: What does society need to function? What does society value? What does society think it needs to function beyond the basics?

What the World Believes

“I talk about the gods, I an atheist.”

-Ursula K. Le Guin (Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness)

The subject of religion is, easily, one of the thorniest and most problematic elements of worldbuilding.  This is, of course, especially true of primary world settings.  It is easier with secondary worlds, if only because the audience is not invested in quite the same way or to the same degree.

Depending on one’s perspective, religion shapes or is shaped by society, or both.  This relationship can be quite useful for explaining myriad things as well—from laws to treatment of non-humans to treatment of magic.  That said, I commonly think of seven elements when I’m considering religion in worldbuilding, placed in two groups for ease:

1) No Religions

2) Ignore Religion

3) One Faith

4) Multiple Faiths

If there are religions and they are not being ignored:

1) Monotheistic

2) Quasi-Monotheistic

3) Polytheistic

Religion has been used quite well in fantasy, particularly the work of George R.R. Martin (A Song of Fire and Ice series), Steven Brust (Vlad Taltos series), and Rick Riordan (both Percy Jackson series and the Kane Chronicles) stand out amongst modern authors.  Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series, particularly the Elric volumes, display an interesting take as well.  And, of course, neither Tolkien nor C.S. Lewis can be left out, even if the former’s use of religion is heavily downplayed, and virtually invisible, until The Silmarillion.

Religion can be ignored effectively as well.  Depending on the author, religion could be non-existent or assumed to exist, but not important for the story.  C.J. Cherryh (mostly, except the Fortress series) and J.K. Rowling are good examples here.

If religions exist, though, more questions beyond the number of deities arise.  First and foremost is: Do the deities actually exist, or are they figments of the religions’ collective imaginations?  If the latter, how does the clergy maintain authority (historically, religions have used economic and political power, the technology of writing, and claiming responsibility for nature).

If the god(s) exist(s), then what is the nature of divinity?  Steven Brust describes divinity as another state of being (all the gods are ex-mortals).  Michael Scott (The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel) sets the gods up as another, older, species.  Roger Zelazny describes the gods as aliens in Creatures of Light and Darkness (not an uncommon method).  Rick Riordan is not entirely clear on the gods’ nature (or it could vary by culture) in that the Greco-Roman gods seem to have a physical existence on Earth (enough that they can sire or bear demi-god children), but the Egyptian gods appear to be powerful spirits, capable of acting on Earth only by possessing human avatars.

There are also, of course, questions for the clergy.  Immediately, what do the clerics wear, both daily and for ceremonial purposes?  What role do the clergy play in the faith, and in the greater society?  What rules, if any, must the clergy follow (secular, within the hierarchy, and divine)?  Based on their role in society, do they follow a different temporal legal code or have special courts (historically, the Church’s priests had both in Europe)?   For pantheons: do clergy serve specific deities (one each; a common fantasy decision) or do they serve the pantheon as a whole?

And that’s just scratching the surface.

For a very systematic method of creating fictional religions, I highly recommend SJGames’ GURPS: Religion, which covers a great amount of detail and offers some examples, both historical and fictional (and requires no knowledge of the RPG system to be useful).