Chambers’ future religion

Several days ago, I mentioned having read Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Unsurprisingly, the thing that caught my attention the quickest was her depiction of religion. A Psalm for the Wild-Built has been characterized as “hope punk,” or SciFi that bypasses dystopian visions of the future—especially those caused by climate change and rogue technology—in favor of a vision where humanity figures out how to change for the better, becoming better aligned with the environment of which we’re part. And for Chambers, there’s also the optimistic presentation of kind-AI. When robots awake, they don’t want to kill us; robots just want to be free from the constraints of their “purpose”.

Dex, the main character of this novella, is a monk. The religion that seems to be commonly held by future humans is polytheistic, or better “pantheonistic” in that the number of gods is limited. There are “Parent Gods”. “Bosh” is the “God of the Cycle”. “Grylom” that of the inanimate. “Trikilli” is the “God of Threads,” i.e. “chemistry, physics, the framework of the unseen.” Then there are “Child Gods”. “Samafar” has something to do with knowledge and is symbolized by a sun jay. An old shrine to this god is a library. “Chal” must have to do with work of some sort, as this god is represented by a workshop-shrine and symbolized as a sugar bee. Then there’s “Allalae,” the “God of Small Comforts,” symbolized by a summer bear, whose monks, like Dex, serve people tea while listening to their problems, among other activities. That’s Dex’s role in society. They are a “tea monk”. Before Dex has an existential crisis, of sorts, they learned how to be a tea monk and spent their time traveling, serving tea, and listening to people.

In a novella that depicts the “Factory Age” as what almost ruined humanity (i.e. “the Industrial Age”), the gods of the contemporary world seem absent. There’s no dominant monotheistic being like we see in the so-called Abrahamic religions—at least not one mentioned. Does Chambers associate this sort of deity with the Factory Age? Instead, the religion that survives, thrives, and helps humanity live harmoniously with nature looks more like a collection of deities we’d find in ancient, ancient India or Greece, or maybe akin to Indigenous religions around the world.

The theology of these gods, and their interaction with humans and nature more broadly, isn’t quite deism but the nature of causation between the gods and things that occur seems to be more of a domino effect that direct intervention. Dex tells Mosscap the following:

“But the thing is, the Child Gods aren’t actively involved in our lives. They’re … not like that. They can’t break the Parent Gods’ laws. They provide inspiration, not intervention. If we want change, or good fortune, or solace, we have to create it for ourselves. And that’s what I learned in that shrine.”

The Parent Gods appear to have created a reasonable universe, governed by laws. The Child Gods inspire humans to do well in the environment given to them by the Parent Gods but humans (and other creatures, and robots) are ultimately in control of their own fate.

This doesn’t prevent gratitude and worship. Dex will say “Thank Allalae” and even chants to Allalae, saying, “Allalae holds, Allalae warms, Allalae soothes and Allalae charms.” The gratitude appears to be the point. Gratitude that emerged once humans had to learn that you might really miss something when it’s gone—something like clean air and water? No other miracles are necessary. The deities have provided the basics and for that they’re worthy.

Chambers’ presentation of future religion had me pondering the topic. What will religion look like in the future? Clearly, certain secularist dreams of a religion-less society (impossible?), or at least an agnostic-y one, don’t align with Chambers vision and I think the basics of anthropology push us in this direction. Is there’s a near cataclysm, I don’t imagine humans responding irreligiously. But they might alter their religions if there’s a sense that the “results” of their pieties almost annihilated them. So, what does religion look like in a couple of centuries from now? Chambers’ vision is one of many possibilities.


Recently read: Chambers’ “A Psalm for the Wild-Built”

Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Tom Doherty Associates), 2021. (Amazon; Bookshop)

If you want a review of this book, I recommend Amal El-Mohtar’s for NPR: “A Monk And A Robot Meet In A Forest … And Talk Philosophy In This New Novel”. It’s what led me to buy it!

I don’t read much fiction or SciFi but this was a great book. It’s set in a somewhat pleasant post-apocalyptic world where humans avoided catastrophe and learned how to live sustainably. At some point, robots became self-aware and humans agreed to give them their freedom in the wilderness, so humans and robots don’t interact and haven’t for a long time. Except a monk (of a future, pantheonistic, nature-based religion) named Dex wanders into the wilderness (driven there because of their existential crisis) and runs into a robot named Mosscap. Mosscap guides Dex in their wilderness journey to keep Dex safe and as they travel their conversations turn philosophical.

My favorite part is when Mosscap questions Dex as to why humans are obsessed with having a purpose. Mosscap can’t understand this since humans celebrated robots choosing their freedom-to-be over their intended “purpose”. Mosscap says,“…why, then, do you insist on having a purpose for yourself, one which you are desperate to find and miserable without? If you understand that robots’ lack of purpose—our refusal of your purpose—is the crowning mark of our intellectual maturity, why do you put so much energy in seeking the opposite?”

I’ll write a couple of blog posts about this book in the near future.

This is the first novella of a triquel by Becky Chambers (fellow Northern Californian!). It’s a quick read (I finished in less than a day) that leaves the reader anticipating the rest of the series. I highly recommend.