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.