Utterly Indifferent

One of the main purposes of this blog, apart from being a kind of daily tablet for my thoughts, is to demonstrate that religion continues into the age of secularity.  It would be an uncomfortable stretch of the imagination to suggest Kurt Vonnegut was a religious writer, but it would also be a disservice to him to ignore just how much religion shows up in his novels.  Often the remarks are subtle and perhaps easily missed, but one of his early works, The Sirens of Titan, treads pretty solidly in that territory.  From the fact that monument to the twelve great religions was made by artisans who don’t know what those religions are to the founding of a new religion to unify humankind, this story never strays far from it.  It’s also, in my experience, the most science-fictiony of Vonnegut’s books.

The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent is the goal of Winston Niles Rumfoord’s doomed Martian attack on earth.  Because the Martians are actually brainwashed earthlings, they are sacrifices to the grand vision of all people sharing a single religion that recognizes God does nothing to help humans and humans, therefore, should not worry about serving God.  Clearly a religion that functions the opposite way of most actual religions—which try to keep God happy, often by harming other humans—Rumfoord’s vision is a united Earth.  One of the pawns in his scheme is his unhappy wife, and another is the biblically named Malachi Constant.  Constant built a ship to take humans to Mars.  Christening it The Whale, Constant took the pseudonym Jonah, which is something readers are increasingly ill-equipped to understand, but which demonstrates Vonnegut knew his Bible.

Religion plays throughout Sirens of Titan in ways that both poke fun at the seriousness with which religion is treated and with a certain respect for its power.  Vonnegut’s famous nihilistic leanings pervade the novel with an almost Job-like portrayal of Rumfoord, and several ethical questions lie beneath the apparent space-travel story.  Genre fiction, as I’ve intimated before, is intended to be slotted easily into recognized categories.  Critics reserve the sobriquet of “literary fiction” for those pieces that don’t really fit other patterns—not all fiction obeys the rules—and that’s where I’d put Sirens.  Yes, people zoom around in flying saucers and invasions from space are standard sci-fi tropes.  Engagement with religion, even if it is to question it, tends to move fiction into more serious categorizations, excluding, of course, novels written to promote a particular religion.  None of them would suggest a Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.  Unless, of course, they came from Kurt Vonnegut.

Honest Doubt

Kurt Vonnegut was never required reading in my high school English classes. I read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was in seminary, and picked up a few of his other titles in the dearly departed Boston Book Annex. A couple of these used books have been waiting patiently over the decades, and so I selected Cat’s Cradle to be perhaps the last book I finish this year. As far as I can recollect, the Vonnegut books I purchased while in seminary had no particular order or reason. A friend had recommended The Sirens of Titan, but Cat’s Cradle was what would now be called an “impulse buy.” Reading it, I rediscovered why I like Vonnegut so much. I also found out the book revolves around religion.

Regular readers know that I tend to find religious themes in secular books. It’s partially human radar and partially an unfortunate occupational hazard. Occasionally I’m pretty certain the author had no intention of including or developing the themes I discover. Cat’s Cradle, however, places religion front and center. The story involves a journalist on the trail of one of the developers of the atomic bomb. He unintentionally coverts to Bokononism, a religion made up by a castaway on the island of San Lorenzo. The religion, based on the teachings of a still-living sage, revolves around the idea that all its sacred writings are lies. Think about that a moment.

Lies, in which we’ve all had a crash course since January, are among the most insidious of human accomplishments. We value and crave the truth. We all believe that we believe it, but there are differing opinions as to what it is. Some opinions are backed with evidence, and others with flimsy fabrications. To declare a religion based on lies is, of course, to undermine the whole enterprise. Vonnegut was a noted iconoclast, but there’s a brilliance in declaring a religion to be knowingly based on falsehood. In fact, we’re seeing it happen before our very eyes. The religion formerly known as Christianity, once upon a time, took into account the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the gospels. Modern Christianity—Evangelicalism—has completely thrown Jesus out of the equation in all but name. Branding, after all, is everything. This modern faux religion suggests hating your fellow creature, taking advantage of the poor, and believing falsehoods to be the most sincere of truths. It’s alive and released on the earth even now. And it is far more scary than even ice-nine.