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A Brief Defense of Religion: The Double-Standard Argument

Any important or powerful idea is potentially dangerous to the very degree to which it is important or powerful. It is as foolish, therefore, to blame mechanized industry for Hitler and Stalin — or to blame advanced physics for Hiroshima and Nagasaki — as it is to blame the message of Jesus Christ and the sacraments established for our spiritualization for the Crusades and the Inquisition. Why, then, is this such a common foundational argument for atheists and materialists?

The faulty assumption of materialist reductionism notwithstanding, religion is treated as a separate entity, a thing apart from “the rest of life.” There is contradiction, here, on the part of materialists, but also on the part of “religionists.”

Materialists, for their part, want to have their cake and eat it. On one hand, we have atheists like Sam Harris who propose to study religion as any other “natural” phenomenon. That is, Harris wants religion to be a strictly sociological, anthropological, and neurological event, codifiable and quantifiable, but without the qualia of real experience. The religious person would balk at such an approach, not entirely without reason. To study the physical attributes of red light, or the biochemistry of a raspberry, is yet quite distant from the experience of redness or the feel and taste of a fresh raspberry. In answer to the faithful, however, there is surely something to be learned from, say, studies of the neural correlates of religious experience. The materialist will be forever barred by the nature of things from his true goal: religious experience cannot be explained away by mere brain states. Though not the place to go fully into the topic, it is relevant at least to point out the relationship between drugs like mescaline and DMT and religious experience. Drugs like these may provide a “sneak peek” into the world of mysticism, but do not produce — outside of traditional, sacramental contexts, at any rate — the lasting constructive shift in perspective and behavior which arise quite naturally from meditation and deep prayer. Even the so-called “God helmet”, touted by unsophisticated atheists as proof that God is all in the brain, seems to produce nothing but a hazy sense of “presence” with literally none of the hallmarks of authentic contemplative experience, and certainly no lasting change in the participant. If anything is proven thereby, it is only that there are indeed brain-states correlative with religious experience, but that tells us precious little about the nature of that experience. Seeing how the brain responds to the color blue would give a colorblind scientist no notion of the feeling of “blueness”.

Even with this desire to study religion from the outside, as it were, and to treat it as a fully “natural” event (leaving aside the purely Western need to distinguish with absolute sharpness between nature and supernature), the materialist still wishes to hold religion at arm’s length from human culture-at-large. This distinction is artificial and quite unnecessary, but the secularist will call it justice.

It is from this violent analysis of human nature that arises the attack of atheists like Richard Dawkins that the religious person is mentally deranged and that religion is a psychological anomaly requiring eradication or cure. (For mercy’s sake, we will not here delve into the proposition of Sam Harris and others that Muslims ought to be conquered or killed for the crime of being Muslims; this would take us far afield. It is enough to mention it as a possible extravagance of atheism, and that it is not representative of the majority atheist belief). It is obvious, and not enough as arguments go, to say that this is quite the reverse of the historical pattern, so far as “mental health” is defined by social functionality and statistical normalcy.

The back-alley stabbing attempted here against reality is quite easy to thwart. Study after study by “dispassionate” science shows the very real usefulness of religious faith — or even mere belief — in maintaining healthy attitudes during convalescence, old age, and life’s many trials are too clear to ignore: religion appears to aid, rather than hinder, psychological health. Taken to extremes, religion is as liable as anything to produce imbalance and extravagance, but when properly incorporated, it seems to be factually beneficial. This is, as a materialist will be quick to point out, little or no help in proving the truth-claims of religion, but it does kick a leg from under the claim of the inherent destructiveness of religion to the human mind.

Medically beneficial or not, there is something inherent to the place of religion in the human psyche; rare indeed is the person with no religious impulse at all, and even atheists tend to see something pitiable in a void of any sense of mystery and awe when staring into a starry sky, walking along the ocean’s edge and gazing at its vastness, or listening to the majestic peals of thunder approaching with black clouds in train. Like it or not, this very sense of grandeur and beauty is as “religious” as anything. Those students of religion-as-phenomenon often say that religion is an attempt on the part of the “primitive” mind to understand and participate in this majesty. The religionist might well respond: by the very suchness of things, we will participate in this suchness in any case at all, but only religion permits us to do so consciously, deliberately, and fully. This is the difference between the non-action of the Sage, on one hand, and the blind action of the passion-filled and the inaction of the lazy, on the other.

The mistake of the religionist referred to previously is also based in the false separation of religion from “the rest of life.” This separation is absurd. Religion is for humanity, for life, and not the reverse. If it could only meaningfully apply to quiet evenings alone, religion would be no different than watching television (except, perhaps, for the fact that we are socially encouraged to publicly discuss television, but not religion). A saying has it that faith is personal, but not private. Forgiving the inadequacy of a merely personal faith, the saying is useful in that it points to the need to fully live one’s religion without needing to violate the freedom of conscience of those around. In order to fully live one’s faith, one must first have faith to begin with. Faith is an investment of trust in a process, not mere ascent to a set of precepts and abstractions. Insofar as doctrines are necessary, they serve as foundational pointers to the process in which one might place faith, but they do not themselves make up that process. The religious process may begin in one specific arena — say, politics (Confucianism), collective worship (Judaism), or private contemplation (Buddhism) — but it must inevitably bear fruits which spread further seeds upon the soil of every other arena of life. In essence, all religions lead to the unicity of individual life, of collective society, and, eventually, of all existence. “He to whom all things are One, and who draweth all things to One, and seeth all things in One, can be steadfast in heart, and remain peaceable in God.” (The Imitation of Christ, I.3) The error of separation, of division, of dualism is one shared by many among the religious and secular alike, but it is still an error.

To draw the circle closed, the power inherent in any authentically religious perspective is, then, also its danger. But nuclear technology can provide cheap electricity as easily as it can vaporize millions of lives; it is entirely a matter of motivation. We may draw the analogy out a bit further: the amount of raw power made available by nuclear technology comes with the corresponding risk of that power going out of bounds and causing destruction purely accidentally. So, then, with ideas. Religion has been a powerhouse for enslavement of individuals and nations, but also a dynamo of freedom in the hearts and hands of the wise and charitable. It is the nature of Revelation to point the way to Liberation for those with eyes to see and ears to hear (and, despite New Age and other post-modern claims to the contrary, there is little enough evidence that real, lasting, organic, and responsible freedom is possible without dogma). This very capacity to break chains, though, may be redirected by the unwise, shortsighted, egotistical, or downright malicious among us to the cracking of bones. The same key will lock and unlock. When you lift an axe, shall you split logs, or skulls?

Nature of the Ego

This ego, which is but a ghost without a form of its own, comes into being by taking hold of a form; keeping hold of the form and enjoying sense-objects, it waxes greatly in strength: if the truth of it be sought, it will run away.” ~ Sri Ramana Maharshi, Reality in Fourty Verses

This is a topic which I have been wanting to revisit for a while, now. I first posted about the ego back in 2009 in a post, one of my most popular ever by statistics, called “In Defense of the Ego”. Even at the time of that posting, however, my understanding of the topic was shifting dramatically. In fact, said understanding went through such flux that I made that post private until I sorted the whole thing out at least a little better. While I in no way claim to have become enlightened, I think that I at least see quite a bit better where certain teachings come from, what they mean, and why they are correct. So, while I am about to largely contradict my three-years-ago self, I have unblocked the original post; if you please, go back and read it with my blessings.

I still agree with my former self that New Age and New Thought teachers largely misunderstand the ego, its place, and what ought to be done about it, but at that time I misunderstood the teachings of the East, especially of India (Hinduism) and those teachings which arose from India (that is, Buddhism). I made the mistake of accepting the Western misinterpretations for the teachings themselves. In point of fact, the Buddhist and Hindu teachings are much more sober and sophisticated than I had believed.

The ego is, of itself, simply that part of the soul, psyche, or ruach which declares, “I”; the word “ego” is, after all, only the Latin word “I”. In the advaita-vāda, it is taught that the ego is, in a sense, the root of the individual soul or personality because the ego is what declares “I, I” concerning the body, the body’s characteristics, such things as personal preferences and tastes, and the whole bag of goodies which we call “personality”. The ego is the trick or illusion of identifying with these things, individually or together makes little difference. It is, then, no less egotistical to identify oneself with one’s charitableness than with one’s good looks and, quite surprising to many, it is still no less egotistical to identify with one’s collective affiliations. Patriotism and sectarianism, just because they require identification with multiple other egos, does not in any way transcend ego but merely makes it as large, powerful, and impenetrable as the group with which it identifies.

If the ego is the root of the personal soul, it sprouts from the seed of the Intellect. To those familiar with the Scholastic, esoteric, and metaphysical definition of Intellect, this may come as a surprise; after all, the Intellect is—far from being one’s individual property or identity—quite transpersonal and Universal in nature and orientation. René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon even go so far as to identifyātma with Intellect. There isn’t space within the present topic to enter into all of the subtleties, here, or the how/how-not why/why-not of this analogy (which Guénon and Schuon definitely intended such identification to be, given the limitations of language in this subject matter), but suffice it to say that Intellect is to the Absolute as the moon is to the sun, and that the individual mind is to Intellect as a mirror to the moon; this analogy, like all analogies, is not perfect, but it gives us the sense that Intellect reflects the Light of Wisdom into the darkness of ignorance in a form which does not blind the unprepared; this Light is apprehended even indirectly, however, through the agency of the mind of the individual, more or less perfectly depending upon the polish and cleanliness of each mind. The capacity of the mind to discern the Intellect depends upon the degree to which it has identified itself with Intellect, and the revelations which we receive into our minds from Intellect come by way of the highest mental faculty of intuition.

Returning to our main topic, Intellect serves as the ego’s seed insofar as Intellect is the root of the sense of “I”; in the case of Intellect, though, this “I” is Universal and beyond any actual object of identification. It is, in short, pure subjectivity without any object. The ego is, paradoxically, both the source of object-identificationand this object-identification itself. As explained above, ego is the mere statement of “I am that,” pointing toward any given transitory object or event. Thus, it is ego which says, “I am this body,” and equally it is ego which says, “I am a fan of that sports team”, and again it is the ego which says, “I am feeling pain.”

The esoteric cosmologies of Genesis, the Secret Book of John, the Vedas, and others, teach us that this process is both intensely personal and terrifyingly cosmic. Thus, we see in the classic Gnostic myth of the Fall of Sophia a very clear retelling of this process in the form of a divine tragedy: Wisdom (Intellect-as-reflection) suddenly falls into a mis-identification or self-misunderstanding which produces the twisted creator-god.  The limitations of language do not permit the story to say that this demiurge is both the misunderstanding and its result, though the Valentinian Gospel of Truth attempts to get this point across by the seeming autogenesis of “Forgetfulness” out of “Error”; the great ambiguity, of course, is how and why did the perfect and pristine Wisdom-Intellect make such a blunder in the first place, and why did the Father-Absolute permit it? No Scripture, to my knowledge, attempts to give a firm answer to this question, though the Masters who have said anything on it at all have largely demured by reminding us that the “why” is of no importance and will answer itself by way of Realization/enlightenment. The fact that this process creates both the cosmic illusion of a trap and the individual delusion trapped within it is a great clue as to the means of escape, as well as the motive behind teachings that every individual’s enlightenment, salvation, or liberation is an event of cosmic importance.

The ego (and, by extension, the demiurge) is thus less of a villain and more of an antihero. There seems to be no intention on the part of any Master that we should hate it, in a passionate or emotional sense, but rather that we should hold dispassion toward it. If strong language like “hatred” or “revulsion” are applied to it, it is only in the ends of emphasizing what our proper relationship with it should be: not identification.

We are brought, then, to the two complementary ways given of “dealing with” the ego, once and for all. I will use, for examples of these two perspectives, a Master and His student.

Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi often taught that the goal is to “kill” or destroy the ego; one of His students, a Westerner called Paul Brunton, preferred to speak of transcending it or learning to ignore it. Though perhaps confusing, at first, the point is, in fact, the same in either case, though worded differently. The Maharshi Himself taught, on many recorded occasions, the same notion that the ego is not to be assaulted with passion, but rather simply ignored. If we like, we may combine the two languages and say that the ego, rather than being slain, is simply allowed to die as if by exposure to the elements.

We may liken the method to using the ego’s method against it, or even using the ego itself, against itself. Recall that the ego is simply the identification, “I”, with some object. Tracing it, bit by bit, back to its source, we gradually (or, in some quite extraordinary cases—such as that of the Maharshi Himself—all of a sudden) train our minds to identify “I” with higher and higher, or more and more inward, objects. Advaita-vāda gives these object-stages the title of “veils” or “sheathes” and names five of them: gross body, the vital body, the emotional mind, the rational mind, and the causal body. Most of us, most of the time, identify with some combination of the gross body, vital body, and emotional mind; the first goal, then, is to first realize that “I am not this body”, and so to loosen identification with the gross and vital bodies. Once this has occurred to some appreciable degree, we enter upon the task of identifying with the rational mind and its capacity to discriminate between truth and falsehood; this discriminative capacity of vijnana is aided greatly by dispassionate action (karma yoga), unitive devotion (bhakti yoga), and meditation on Scripture and teaching (nididhyāsana), along with exercise in mental concentration (dhyāna), all of these being methods of (among other important reasons for them all) opening one’s mind up to greater and greater clarity of intuition. In other words, the mind is itself purified and re-identified with Intellect.

All of these stages, in a sense, turn ego around on itself. They trick it into working for the proper Master, turning from one object-identification to another, subtler, one, thus “transcending” it; they rob it of its illegitimate force by simply ignoring its false authority and “allowing it to die”. They “slay” the ego with the sword of discrimination (between True and false), “drown” it in the Divine Ocean, and “cremate” it in the Fire of Truth. These are all different ways of expressing the same meaning by placing emphasis on a different part of the subjective experience of the process; at times, it is quite a painful process, and so we say that it is like death by fire; sometimes it is panic-inducing and stressful followed by subsidence, and then we call it drowning; yet again, we sometimes feel beset upon by our own emotions and thoughts, and then we call it combat, war, a duel; sometimes it is a calm subdual, and so we say that the ego has simply passed away in its sleep. And, yet, until the final curtain, in point of fact and in personal experience, the ego hangs on throughout (however submerged, scorched, or sliced up, at times) as both the lock and the key to the whole problem of wrong identification.

Its a Conspiracy!

There is no need to uncritically accept conspiracy theories, and it is high time that “spiritual” people in the United States bring the light of reason to their socio-political views. There is no worldwide organization in total control of the world’s economic and political structures. The Illuminati was a short-lived attempt by a Bavarian atheist to infiltrate occultism and use it as a tool for popularizing secularism (a worthless effort, given that occultism was already largely in favor of political secularism, at the time). The Freemasons do not rule the world’s banking system; if they did, I would not be working retail and worrying over going into debt for college. The Bilderberg Group is just a group of big business and high finance gamers trying to get in on more and more successful business investments; it may be crass and selfish, but it isn’t shadowy or sinister.

Even the “1%” are not in a deliberate conspiracy of social or economic control. The fact is, they don’t need to hide what they’re doing or why. Who’s going to stop them? All it has ever taken is a little political nudge here and there and most people will pretty naturally fall in line with a pro-business agenda. Why? Because a pro-business agenda looks exactly like a pro-individualist agenda, and who doesn’t love freedom?

The principle of parsimony (popularly known as Occam’s razor) states, quite simply, that all other things being equal, the explanation which requires the fewest assumptions is the correct one. This means that an explanation which takes account of all evidence without injecting unnecessary assumptions is the correct explanation, while its neighbor which has added even one assumption above and beyond the evidence is at least partially wrong.

With this in mind, we simply do not need the Illuminati, or the New World Order, or the Grays cloaked in near-earth orbit to explain the problems in this world. A healthy mix of greed, fear, and incompetence are more than enough to cause an economic collapse, tyrannical laws and social instability. And, quite honestly, aren’t these enough to worry about without dragging unrealistic paranoia into it?

I have a hypothesis. It seems to me that many “conspiracy theories” work in two directions at once: on one hand, they provide a scapegoat, which is everybody’s favorite mechanism for avoiding blame for the state of the world; on the other hand, conspiracy theories provide an ersatz consolation in that they send the message that, “Well, at least somebody is in control of this mess!” The fact is that people (and societies) are more often buffeted by the winds of fate, pushed around by the tides of luck, and bogged-down by the flotsam and jetsam of good, old-fashioned human incompetence. Still, even if everything is going wrong, it is somewhat comforting to think that some understandable, human agency is both maintaining and benefiting from the seemingly implacable scenario of earthly life. And, to some extent, there are plenty of humans who do benefit from such things. But these aren’t shadowy cabals; they’re us. Even the “99%” in America (with the obvious exceptions of the extremely poor and the homeless)—the middle and upper-middle classes especially, but not exclusively by any means—benefit directly from the hellish conditions of other parts of the world. This isn’t a reason to merely feel guilty, but is worthy of serious attention. Even the “1%”—who do rule the world, after a fashion—aren’t evil sorcerers committing intentional human sacrifice; they certainly do evil, but not out of a will to do evil; they, like all imperfect people, are doing what they think is best for themselves and their families. Almost nobody does something “bad” because they want to do “bad”; usually, evil is committed out of a misguided and narrowly-focused zeal to do good.

So, let’s stop with the black helicopters, the Illuminati, and the like, and face the very real, very serious problems which we do have before us—problems which are spoken of not in shadowy, pentagram-laden grottoes, but openly in board rooms, congresses and parliaments, shareholder meetings, and trade conventions. The problems may arise from nature, but they are bound-up and intensified by ignorance, irrationality, and a callous disregard for the broader needs of others.

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Book: “Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction” by Eliot Deutsch

December 28, 2011 1 comment

I just started reading Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction by Eliot Deutsch. Read it? Interested in the subject matter? Let me know what you think!

This book kept popping-up in my Amazon.com shopping trips, as well as in various bibliographies and the like, so I finally ordered a copy (along with two jars of Branston Pickle, because Amazon.com doesn’t want me to ever leave my house again). It just came in today, and I’ve started my usual pre-read skimming, and just finished reading the preface.

The subject is of particular interest for me, as I have spent a lot of time over the past several years pondering similar philosophical problems in relation to Gnosticism, Christian mysticism, and Hermeticism. The author’s main objective—one which I stand behind on principle—is a reconstruction of Advaita-as-philosophical-school according to a modern Westerner’s view of universal philosophical problems. How does Advaita address “problems” such as God’s existence and nature, the nature of consciousness and unconsciousness (or, more precisely, nonconsciousness), karma and morality, experiential (direct) and observational & studied (indirect) epistemology, and so forth.

As up-my-alley as this book seems, I must say that I’m somewhat skeptical of the author’s ability (really anybody’s ability) to fully deconstruct the cultural and historical context of Advaita in order to put it clearly in view of the broad strokes of Western philosophy. I certainly intend on giving Deutsch enough of the benefit of the doubt to read the book and see how much I can learn from it, but “religious systems” and “spiritual philosophies” (for lack of more precise terms) more than not defy this sort of deconstruction-and-reconstruction; please accept as evidence the utter failure of so-called “Neopaganism” to produce a viable path of spiritual growth. (Apparent examples to the contrary are almost always practicing some combination of Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Hermetic methods with a light dusting of Neopagan terminology on top, leading an astute observer to the realization that they would be much better off dropping the Neopagan trappings altogether and devoting themselves to that which is of real worth in their systems.) Deutsch’s approach remains to be seen by this reader, though, so he could very well still surprise me.

Book: “The Road to Reality” by Roger Penrose

November 9, 2011 4 comments

I just started The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe by Roger Penrose (2004, Vintage Books). Read it? Interested in the subject matter? Let me know what you think!

I’ve only ever read short pieces by Penrose, before, or else excerpts from his stuff quoted in other peoples’ works. It seemed like a good move to begin with this approximately 1050 page leviathan before diving into his other books for the simple reason that The Road to Reality is sometimes considered to be Penrose’s magnum opus.

The first 16 chapters, according to Penrose’s brutally honest preface, are devoted to the ideas of modern mathematics, and the entire book is peppered with mathematical exercises to help the reader to understand what mathematicians and physicists think about a lot of the important and profound ideas of cutting-edge science. It is also, he says, his humble attempt at demonstrating the beauty of maths to a population largely terrified of the subject. I welcome this sort of approach from a popular science book for the same reason I appreciated Brian Greene’s inclusion of maths in the endnotes of his books: I’m one of those people who was brutalized by mathematics early in life, but instead of resenting maths I have chosen instead to resent the presentation of it which I suffered. As a rationalist-at-heart, I know that maths are vital to understanding the reality with which we are presented daily; as something of a Platonist (a self-identification I share with Sir Roger Penrose), I also understand that mathematics have a beauty, even a poetry, all their own, and an independent self-existence, which all speak to the very nature of the cosmos more directly than most certainly any other language. So, I relish the anticipation of digging-in and trying my hand at Penrose’s exercises all the while enjoying his flowing prose explanations of the ideas the maths embody.

So here, it seems, is an exercise in not just popularizing science (though certainly that), but also in respecting the intelligence of the readership enough to challenge them in multiple levels. No mere Dawkins-esque “Everything you know is wrong, which is why I am a better man than you,” Penrose seeks not to bully us with his ideas but to use them as tools for treating us as his equals. I would expect no less from a man often called “one of the world’s most original thinkers.”

Book: “The Mystery of Consciousness” by John R. Searle

I just finished The Mystery of Consciousness by John R. Searle (1997, New York Review of Books, Inc.). Have you read it? Interested in the subject matter? Let me know what you think!

This little book is constituted of some revised and expanded articles of John Searle’s from the New York Review of Books, circa the mid-1990s, each being an extended review-and-response to a major philosophical and/or scientific book on consciousness studies. Its an interesting read, and a pretty quick one, and serves as an excellent introduction or refresher on a number of influential viewpoints and important modern thinkers in the area of the nature of consciousness and conscious experience. It is especially good as a quick introduction to Searle’s own position: briefly, Searle is of the mind(!) that consciousness is an irreducible feature of the universe (unlike traditional materialism), but that it is entirely biological in nature (unlike traditional dualism). He often compares consciousness to digestion or photosynthesis, and considers it to be sourced in equally physical/chemical processes of the brain, though he also emphasizes that unlike digestion or photosynthesis it is not reducible to those biological processes for the simple reason that the appearance of consciousness (ie, the fact that you and I each think that we are conscious) is the fact of consciousness (that is to say, if a being thinks it is conscious, it necessarily is because the thought, “I am conscious,” requires consciousness). The contrast, here, is that consciousness, while arising from biology, cannot be reduced to biology, while in the case of digestion we can reduce it to the individual chemical and physical processes which go into the breaking-down of food and the extraction of nutrients, etc., without risking the loss of subjective, first-person experience. In analyzing conscious experience, you can only look so far down into the biological underpinnings before you find that you are no longer dealing with conscious experience but instead with peptides, calcium ions, electrical impulses, synaptic knobs, clefts, and post-synaptic receptors, etc., etc., and have forgotten “first-person consciousness” back a few layers up the causal chain.

Whether or not one agrees with this position, it is at least logically consistent, as far as I can see, and certainly has longer legs than, say, Daniel Dennet’s or Patricia & Paul Churchland’s “functionalist” (a sort of “post-behaviorist” behaviorism) view which says simply (and naively) that all that exists are the physical brain-states, but there is no consciousness at all in reality. Searle is at least intellectually honest enough to acknowledge that “consciousness is as consciousness does”, and if we think we have it, well then we do. If nothing else, The Mystery of Consciousness is of value for pointing-out just how wrong Dennet, et al, really are.

 

Book Review: “Stargazer” by Miguel Conner

Stargazer
Miguel Conner
2011, Aeon Byte Press
280 pages

When I was looking for a good beach read, my instincts immediately pointed me toward a novel I’d been meaning to read for a while: Miguel Conner’s vampire sci-fi dystopia, Stargazer. The tagline says it all: “The future is paradise. But not for humans.”

Let’s start with a quick look at the modern vampire. Popular fiction has done the famous bloodsucker to Final Death over the course of several decades. Everybody points to Ann Rice as the last good example of vampire fiction, but if we’re being honest with ourselves she only produced one good one: Interview with the Vampire. It had a sense of romance to it, but never forgot that vampires are basically horrible supernatural parasites. Since then, it has been a downhill slide in which vampires have become more and more romantic, less and less threatening. And now we find ourselves with the totally, er, defanged Twilight. But the Twilight vampires aren’t merely overly romanticized; worse, they are symbolic (probably not intentionally, given how self-absorbed and unreflective Stephanie Meyer comes off in interviews) of the severe emotional abuse which many women suffer through at some point in their lives. The couple of Bella and Edward are the very picture of co-dependency, and Edward (the vampire, for those unfamiliar) is obviously experienced enough to be doing it on purpose, for his own ends. (Bella has no better options on her hands, as her other love interest is the werewolf Jacob, who appears to represent physical abuse, given what is revealed about the relationships habits of werewolves.) So, vampires are still symbolic of the darkest tendencies in humanity, only our contemporaries don’t seem to notice! Stephanie Meyer and her ilk have not stripped vampires of that which makes them frightening, but have instead instilled those qualities with an ersatz romanticism; Bella loves Edward because he manipulates her feelings. Anybody who has been in an abusive relationship, or who has even looked into the dynamics of them, will tell you that this is a common psychological state to find oneself in: the abused often want to return to their abuser for any number of reasons, not least of which are the need to feel needed, fear of the abuser’s retribution, and a sense that the abuser can be “saved”.

Compare the semi-conscious mindgames of Twilight, however, with the vampires of Stargazer: predatory violence hidden behind a veneer of civilization, wanton cruelty masked by “necessity”. In Miguel Conner’s literary hellscape, humans are little more than talking livestock, cattle with culture. Vampires—who refer to themselves by the more romantic title of “Stargazers”—raise them on farms, herd them into slaughterhouses, and kill them in an industrialized fashion. The Stargazers took the land over by destruction: they unleashed military power on humanity and reworked the world so that it was only by their vampiric will and technology that humanity could survive at all. Sound familiar at all? Miguel Conner, in the grand tradition of Phillip K. Dick, uses weird horror, sci-fi, supernatural tropes not to pull us away from the world, but to point us back toward it. Conner’s “vampires” are simply the worst elements of ourselves, of humanity, of intelligence and culture. We pretend to be civilized, but we are killers. We insist that we are unique among all of creation, and yet we behave toward one another and the other creatures of this planet no better than the lowest of beasts. And yet, there is no room for pessimism. Even if everything is terrible, if we look deeply within and bring with us the full force of both intellect and intuition, we will find a rationally workable something which, if we identify ourselves with that instead of with our animal bodies and passions will save us. And if we first can save ourselves, perhaps we can help others, too. And this time, really help them—unselfishly, not merely because it aids our own survival but because the Good demands it!

The Gnostic themes in Stargazer are thick but not heavy; if you know what to look for, they’re mostly pretty obvious, although by and large they are woven into the narrative such that they don’t jar you out of the action. And there is plenty of action. As a vacation read, Stargazer works: there is enough going on all the time that even without any interest in the overt Gnostic ideas, there is still plenty of story to keep the reader hooked. In fact, I passed my copy off to my father, who has no real religious leaning at all, and he’s presently enjoying it as a great sci-fi romp! It is a rare novel which can facilitate the transfer of ideas while still flowing like a story should.

The one problem with Stargazer is a mechanical one: though Conner’s style is good, the book could have lived through another cycle or two of editing. I’d say: one cycle of editing (as there are a small handful of stylistic issues which could easily be resolved), and a follow-up copy-edit (to pick up the remaining grammatical mistakes). Even these aren’t deal-breakers, but they do sometimes grab one’s attention away from the story itself.

All in all, Stargazer is a very good novel, with plenty of action and no dearth of big ideas, but it could have used just a tad more polishing. Even with that one complaint, I recommend it whole-heartedly for Gnostics in search of their own “inspirational fiction”, as well as fans of sci-fi action and new takes on the tropes of horror. Fun, intense, and thought-provoking, it provides something no matter what you’re looking for, even a bit of romance!

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