JANE: We’ve been talking about religion in SF for several weeks now, tangenting off now and then into other topics as the mood takes us.
I will admit that until we had this discussion, I hadn’t realized just how much science fiction attempted to reconcile in one way or another religious or spiritual concepts and a future dominated by science.
ALAN: Yes – it’s been a bit of an eye-opener for me as well.
JANE: Courtesy of this discussion, some weeks ago I finally read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. This novel may be one of the most ambitious attempts to address questions of religion in a science fictional setting, given that in the novel Vonnegut creates an entire religion, complete with founding prophet, texts, and rituals.
ALAN: And he does it all in a very thin book! Other writers could take lessons from him…
The religion is Bokononism. The foundation of the faith is that everything about it is a lie. However the lies that define the faith (known as foma) are themselves harmless untruths that, if believed in and adhered to, will give peace of mind and lead to the living of a good life.
Central to the novel is the idea of a karass – a group of people who are cosmically linked. I strongly suspect that you and I belong to the same karass.
JANE: I like that idea. It would certainly explain a friendship that thrives despite our having met only once and living on opposite sides of the globe.
Let me check. Yes! The key element of a karass is that the people within it are organized into teams that “do God’s will without ever discovering what they are doing.” In Cat’s Cradle the narrator believes that the instrument of his karass (its kan-kan) is the book he is writing. I guess in our case the kan-kan is the Thursday Tangents.
ALAN: Quite right. Without the Tangents, we couldn’t-couldn’t.
JANE: Ouch! Please, go on while I recover from that horrible pun!
ALAN: Any karass will always have at least one theme that defines it. This theme is a wampeter. Sometimes what appears to be a karass will prove to have no wampeter. The links between the people are superficial. Such a false karass is a granfalloon. Members of a granfalloon soon split up and go their own separate ways. Vonnegut uses Hoosiers as an example of a granfalloon. Apparently Hoosiers are people who were born in Indiana. Have you any idea where the word Hoosier comes from?
JANE: Absolutely not! However, I will go look it up. Before I do though, I think it’s important to stress that Vonnegut implies that granfalloons, rather than wampeters, are what most people use to define themselves. These may be political parties, racial identities, or the like – but no matter how important these groupings may seem to be, without a wampeter, they are empty of divine purpose.
Ah, now… To define “Hoosier.” Hmm… This is interesting. According to Wikipedia, even Hooisers don’t know what a Hoosier is. I shall quote:
“Hoosier is the official demonym for a resident of the U.S. state of Indiana. The origin of the term remains a matter of debate within the state, but “Hoosier” was in general use by the 1840s, having been popularized by Richmond resident John Finley’s 1833 poem ‘The Hoosier’s Nest’”
ALAN: Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs! (That’s Yorkshire for: Gosh, that’s surprisingly interesting). Vonnegut himself was born in Indiana and so I suppose that he is therefore perfectly qualified to assert that Hooisers are a granfalloon…
JANE: Absolutely! As you already mentioned, one of the most interesting things about Bokononism is that, unlike most religions, which claim to provide Truth, Bokononism freely admits that all its tenants are lies.
ALAN: That’s right, in Bokononism, foma are the lies that the religious structure is built upon.
We actually have our own real life foma here in New Zealand. It is the “Federation of Maori Authorities” (FOMA) which is a network of Maori business organisations dedicated to the pursuit of indigenous economic development. Which leads me to believe that this FOMA does in fact constitute a karass whose wampeter is economic growth. But if it is a lie, as all foma are lies, is it harmless? I suspect not, because the goals are real… The whole thing makes for a nice, circular irony something which Vonnegut, that most ironic of writers, would certainly have enjoyed.
JANE: But surely such a group would be a granfalloon, since clearly the goal is not to do God’s Will but mans’!
ALAN: You’re right! Gosh, I never realised that theology was such a slippery subject. Could this be a schism? Is it a heresy?
Vonnegut was so attached to the ideas of Bokononism that he later published a collection of essays which he called Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons.
JANE: We could keep going on the subject of religion and SF. For example, I realized that I hadn’t mentioned how religion – most particularly the theme of God the Tester – grows to be an important element in some of David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels. At one convention, I even met a self-ordained minster of that church, who held a service on the Sunday morning.
I bet you have other examples as well.
ALAN: Indeed I do. In real life (TM) Pastafarianism, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, promotes a light-hearted, satirical view of religion. Satire, of course, requires a firm basis of truth to be effective. And as with many of the literary examples that we’ve looked at, there really are serious concerns lying behind the jokes. The doctrine has distinct parallels with Bokononism.
Several countries have officially recognised the church. Ministers (Ministeroni) have been ordained and wedding celebrants appointed. The first legally recognised Pastafarian wedding in the world took place in Akaroa, New Zealand in April 2016.
JANE: Wow! I know you and Robin have been married longer than that, otherwise I might wonder…
Now, even with our various jaunts off topic, we’ve been very serious for several weeks now. We’re going to need to find something completely frivolous for our next Tangent.