Motivations, Constraints, and God

I don’t want to get in the habit of writing about deep religious questions – a lot of people who know a lot more than I have been doing it for thousands of years. Still, last night my girlfriend and I watched a Brazilian movie on DVD (House of Sand – its worth watching), and it got me to thinking about a well-known Brazilian book, which then got me thinking about a loose end in my Christmas post. So please forgive this additional attempt to apply economic tools to the most non-economic of questions. I’d like to repeat what I said at the start of the previous post… I’m not a Christian myself, but I am trying to handle this topic as respectfully as I can; please forgive any failures on my part.

(Corny joke aside…
Q1. What’s the classic Spanish book about the gay farm animal?
A1. Donkey joto.
Q2. What’s the sequel?
A2. Donkey puto.)

Perhaps the greatest book ever to come out of Brazil is “Os Sertoes” by Euclides da Cunha. (I have a translation somewhere called “Rebellion in the Backlands” that’s OK.) Its been a decade since I read the book, but I remember it reasonably well. Frankly, the writing (even in, or perhaps especially in Portuguese) is overblown and pompous, but the story is magnificent – in my opinion one of the most amazing stories anyone has ever told. If you can get over the writing, the book is worth a read. (I note… the story has been retold and fictionalized several times by modern authors – including, as The War at the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa.)

The book is non-fiction; da Cunha was a newspaperman, and he was there for many of the events described in the book. Basically, the story centers around a character who styled himself Anthony the Counselor. Toward the end of the 19th century, the Counselor wandered around the boondocks in Northeastern Brazil. (Os Sertoes does a magnificent job of describing the region, and the abject poverty of its residents.) His theology was everchanging and never entirely clear, but apparently he was more or less convinced he was a John the Baptist type figure, presaging the arrival of Jesus, who was going to reinstate the Brazilian monarchy (complete with a long dead king) and then end the world.

Anyway, the whole bit about reinstating the monarchy was a problem for the new Republic, as were a few other things he preached, and a local worthy decided to have the Counselor arrested, whereupon his followers fell upon the officers and butchered them. More significant attempts to arrest him followed, with similar results. Eventually, this came to the attention of the state governor, and then of the Federal Government.

Meanwhile, the Counselor had founded a town called Canudos, out in the middle of nowhere. The town grew quickly – each failed attempt to seize the Counselor being more evidence of his holiness. I note that along the way, a number of miracles were attributed to the Counselor, with the requisite witnesses and so forth.

Eventually, the central government dispatched a heavily equipped military expedition, led by Brazil’s greatest war hero. Brazil’s greatest war hero and his heavily equipped men were set upon by tens of thousands of peasants – men, women and children – and butchered. Bear in mind – the Counselor’s people were poor, illiterate peasants. Most, if they were armed at all, were armed with old rifles or machetes.

In any case, the destruction of this military expedition led to another, much larger (6,000 men), much more well equipped expedition. (Euclides da Cunha accompanied this expedition as a military correspondent.) This expedition wiped out the Counselor, his followers, and their town.

Here’s what makes the story particularly interesting… for the most part, none of the Counselor’s followers surrounded. In the last pages of the book, da Cunha describes how, when the sun rose on the last day, there were four followers of the Counselor still alive – a boy, two men of what would normally be considered of fighting age, and an old man. They stood up against a modern Army and fought and died, literally to the last man, woman, and child.

The only parallel of which I’m aware is Masada. But, if anything, Canudos is more impressive. The number of people who fought to the death was much greater at Canudos, and the opportunities to flee or surrender were also much greater. Now, clearly, Canudos, people had Faith. You don’t charge a cannon with your bare fists, as many Canudos residents did, unless you truly believe. I think we can all agree, those who believe in a religion and those who don’t, that the residents of Canudos were wrong. The Counselor, in whom they placed their Faith, was not a holy figure, he was not John the Baptist, and he did not presage the second coming of Jesus. And I think we can agree that the miracles that many people saw the Counselor perform a number of extraordinary miracles, these did not really happen.

Human beings are fallible. Large crowds are able to remember seeing miracles that did not actually happen. This raises a point… consider the perspective of a Deity as described by each of the major Western Religions. The motivation of such a Deity appear to include, if I interpret these Holy Books correctly, to be worshipped. (I honestly can’t see why that would be, but I am willing to grant that there is a Deity, much about that Deity would be beyond my ken.) Limiting the number of people who worship false gods also seems to be a motivation. The constraints upon such a Deity, of course, are nil, though because of Free Will, the Deity wants to give everyone the opportunity to accept Faith, or turn it down.

As a result, somehow the Deity needs to differentiate the True Faith (i.e., information about Itself) from false beliefs. If the Deity does not do so, It is in effect encouraging people to develop false beliefs. Now, how can it do so? Creating miracles doesn’t seem to work. Most false faiths have their miracles. There are new faiths developing all the time, each with new miracles (and witnesses to those miracles).

So what is left? Well… telling the future. Not in a Revelation kind of way… but rather, clearly and unambiguously stating things that are unknowable to any but a Deity. Obvious examples would be “There will be an earthquake off the coast of Japan on X date and Y time” or “The temperature at the center of Kansas City, MO, on X date and Y time will be Z.”

Now, I realize that this in effect forces God to behave as Fortune Teller, but if any of the Holy Books are to be believed, the evidence of God is not any different than similar but false evidence given on behalf of false gods and testified to by many, which in effect makes it nearly impossible to differentiate the True Faith from a false one. This, of course, explains the proliferation of false faiths. For example – let us say that Christianity as practiced in the US is the True Faith. Even assuming that this is so, the miracles that followers of Jesus claim he performed are no more impressive and have no more witnesses nor more credible witnesses than the miracles that followers of other holy figures have performed.

To a non-Christian such as myself, this doesn’t seem to match the combination of motivations and constraints attributed to God by Christians. I realize that as described, God is so much above and beyond all human knowledge. Still, it is hard to see how a God as believed by any of the major Western faiths today would be OK with a situation where so many people are fooled.

Anyway, any opinions? As with the previous post’s comments, please be respectful.