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Octavia Butler on Religion

At present, I'm reading Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler. It's the sequal to Parable of the Sower. The story involves a period of US future history called "The Pox," which, interestingly to me, covers the period from 2015 to 2030. I find this range of dates very interesting because several economic prognosticators project an economic downturn starting around 2010-2015 and lasting for about 15 years that will exceed the Great Depression by a factor of seven.

In the first novel, the protagonist is a black girl living in a walled neighborhood. Her father, a Baptist minister and college professor has organized their little walled-community around self-suffciency and defence. They garden, work together to educate the children in the neighborhood, and practice with firearms. Outside the walls that enclose the neighborhood, an economic meltdown has created an enormous residuum of desperate people; people who knowingly give themselves over to debt slavery in exchange for admitance to the safety and security of life in corporate-owned company towns, squatters working hard to retain their dignity, drug addicts addicted to a substance that leaves them enchanted by fire and prone to arson, bandits, gangs, rapists, pimps, slavers, and a panopoly of human predators for which such an environment would differentially select.

Lauren, the protagonist, knows that the chaos of the larger world will eventually break through her neighborhood's protective walls and she makes preparations. She tries to encourage others to do so, but for them, the breech of the walls means the end of the world, and they refuse to contemplate it, much less make preparations to flee at a moment's notice.

Lauren suffers from a condition of hyper-empathy which causes her to experience the pain and pleasure of the people she sees. Before Lauren's birth, her mother took smart drugs in order to remain competive in college. At the time, every student with a modicum of ambition took them, and so the hyper-empathy that afflicts Lauren also afflicts a great many of the people her age. In the world of the Pox, there's a lot more pain than pleasure to experience second-hand, so her condition counts far more as curse and handicap than it does as blessing or special ability.

Over the course of the first book, Lauren develops a new religion she calls Earthseed, the gist of which holds that God is change, and that humans have a manifest destiny in space. She forms a community around her ideology that she hopes will grow into a larger movement that will take humanity to the stars.

Of course, in the environment of the Pox, many religions prosper; not all of them benign. A demogogic preacher rides a wave of UTism and scapegoating all the way to the White House and makes preparations for foriegn wars and for the imposition of domestic cultural hegemony.

Now we come to the excerpts from an interview with Octavia E. Butler on the topic of religion that I wanted to share with you.
''In Xenogenesis, I bring in the aliens, but in the 'Parable' books I wanted to keep everything as realistic as I could. I didn't want any powers, any kind of magic or fantastical elements. Even the empathy is not real – it's delusional. I wanted to have human beings in that one book find their own way clear. And I used religion because it seems to me it's something we can never get away from. I've met science fiction people who say, 'Oh well, we're going to outgrow it,' and I don't believe that for one moment. It seems that religion has kept us focused and helped us to do any number of very difficult things, from building pyramids and cathedrals to holding together countries, in some instances. I'm not saying it's a force for good – it's just a force. So why not use it to get ourselves to the stars?

''It seems to me we're not going to do that for any logical reason. It's not going to happen because it's profitable – it may not be. The going certainly won't be. The people who work on it will probably not live to see whether or not they've been successful.


''In the 'Parable' books, we have one person who decides this is what religion should be doing, and she uses religion to get us into interstellar space. Sower and Talents were the fictional autobiography of Lauren Olamina, though Talents turned out to be a mother/daughter story. There are no more books about her, but I am working on a book (which may or may not come off, and may be called Parable of the Trickster) about people who go, who do fulfill that destiny and go to this other world.''


''I don't think of religion as nasty. Religion kept some of my relatives alive, because it was all they had. If they hadn't had some hope of heaven, some companionship in Jesus, they probably would have committed suicide, their lives were so hellish. But they could go to church and have that exuberance together, and that was good, the community of it. When they were in pain, when they had to go to work even though they were in terrible pain, they had God to fall back on, and I think that's what religion does for the majority of the people. I don't think most people intellectualize about religion. They use it to keep themselves alive. I'm not talking about most Americans. We don't need it that way, most of us, now. But there was certainly a time when many of us did, maybe most of us.

''The religion in the 'Parable' books would probably change over time to make it a more comforting religion. For instance, Lauren doesn't believe in life after death, but that's one of the hopes people have. They know they're going to die, so they have to believe, a lot of them, that there's something else. An interviewer I mentioned this to said she didn't feel she needed her religion to be comforting, and I said, 'Well, that's because you're already comfortable.' It's those people who have so little, and who suffer so much, who need at least for religion to comfort them. Nothing else is. Once you grow past Mommy and Daddy coming running when you're hurt, you're really on your own. You're alone, and there's no one to help you.

''I used to despise religion. I have not become religious, but I think I've become more understanding of religion. And I'm glad I was raised as a Baptist, because I got my conscience installed early. I've been around people who don't have one, and they're damned scary. And I think a lot of them are out there running major corporations! How can you do some of the things these people do if you have a conscience? So I think it might be better if there were a little more religion, in that sense. My mother didn't just say, 'Go to church, go to Sunday school.' I did all that, but I could see her struggling to live according to the religion she believed in. My mother worked every day, sometimes on Sundays, and I didn't have a father, and she still managed to install all this.'

link: http://www.locusmag.com/2000/Issues/06/Butler.html

If you've read this far, I'm guessing you've taken an interest and won't mind reading an extended excerpt from the beginning of Parable of the Talents. in the context of the novel, the excerpt below comes from the journal of Bankole, Lauren's much older husband and father of the book's narrator. If this sounds like a thinly veiled diatribe against George W. Bush, keep in mind that Talents was published in 1998.

From Memories of Other Worlds

I have read that the period of upheaval that journalists have begun to refer to as "the Apocalypse" or more commonly, more bitterly, "the Pox" lasted from 2015 through 2030--a decade and a half of chaos. This is untrue. The Pox has been a much longer torment. It bagan well before 2015, perhaps even before the turn of the millennium. It has not ended.

I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. We caused the problems: then we sat and watched as they grew into crises. I have heard people deny this, but I was born in 1970. I have seen enough to know that it is true. I have watched education become more a privilege of the rich than the basic necessity that it must be if civilized society is to survive. I have watched as convenience, profit, and inertia excused greater and more dangerous environmental degradation. I have watched poverty, hunger, and disease become inevitable for more and more people.

Overall, the Pox has had the effect of an installment-plan World War III. In fact, there were several small, bloody shooting wars going on around the world during the Pox. These were stupid affairs--wastes of life and treasure. They were fought, ostensibly, to defend against vicious foreign enemies. All to often, they were actually fought because inadequate leaders did not know what else to do. Such leaders knew that they could depend on fear, suspicion, hatred, need, and greed to arouse patriotic support for war.

Amid all this, somehow, the United States of America suffered a major nonmiliatry defeat. It lost no important war, yet it did not survive the Pox. Perhaps it simply lost sight of what it once intended to be, then blundered aimlessly until it exhausted itself.

What is left of it now, what it has become, I do not know.

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