Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Puzzles, and Practical Atheists

with 2 comments

Before I let myself get going here, I’d like to make one point.

Yesterday, I tried very hard to say “detective novel” and not “mystery novel” at every possible instance, because I wasn’t talking about the “mystery,” but specifically about the sort of thing written by Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

There is a lot to be said about the mystery as a total form, a metagenre, if you will, taking in several different subcategories of writing about crime in fiction. 

But most of that has nothing to do with what I was saying yesterday, which had to do with the way in which we often behave as if we held different convictions that we think say we hold, or even think we do.

And I’ll stick with my statement, yesterday, that most of us behave as if we thought the unverse had been consciously designed.

Even those of us who know, intellectually, that this is probably not true, respond to the events around us as if we could count on them–as if they were largely predictable.

And in our day to day lives, the things we can count on have not come about by chance and circumstance, but by engineering. 

What’s more, we have such a strong internal bias in favor of engineering that we continually attempt to treat real chance and circumstance as if it were not.  We develop “systems” for the roulette table, for instance, and for craps, and for poker.

But there’s something else we do, and it’s no less important to the larger point I was hoping to get to.

We live our lives as practical atheists.

I have to admit something here. I didn’t come up withthe idea of the “practical atheist.”  The first time I saw the term was in an article on a Catholic website castigating fellow Catholics for not acting like Catholics.  Since then, I’ve seen it in a number of different places. I get the impression that this is a fairly common approach to the behavior of most people who call themselves Christians by people who think they are better Christians.  My guess is that you could use the concept to good effect applying it to Jews and Muslims, too.

Those of us who are actually atheists would be, well, just atheists.

The concept runs like this:  people who say they are Christians say they believe in a world in which an omniscient, omnipotent God is watching over their every thought and action, no matter how small, and recording and remembering each one. 

But if you look at how they actually behave, it’s obvious that they don’t feel themselves in that position at all.  They behave as if nobody is watching, not even the neighbors, never mind an omnipotent God.

For all practical purposes, they behave as atheists.

(Note the “as.”  I didn’t say “like.”  The issue isn’t if these people behave as actual atheists do, but if they behave as if they thought no God existed.)

And this is another thing that’s necessary to make a novel, and especially to make a detective story.

On one level, characters in a novel–and especially characters in a detective story–must behave as if they thought the universe was designed (engineered might be a better word) and at the same time they must behave as if they thought that no God existed.

You cannot safely dispense with either side of the equation and still write a novel, and you really can’t dispense with either and write a detective novel.

The detective novel is, I think, a kind of meta-narrative for the entire Western historical period from about the end of the Victorian period through at least WWII.  For some of us, of course, it remains the meta-narrative.

It is the form that attempts to balance something that in all probability could not be balanced for long–a secular rational order in the context of a universal established one.

The detective novel is the Deism of fiction.

This works in more ways than I’ve outlined so far.  On the God-exists end of the scale we’ve got the necessity of a shared morality that is not experienced as “values” but as truths–a morality that is fixed, certain, and applicable to everybody, that is outside our ability to modify or change.

On the atheist side, it assumes a settled body of human law that scrupulously ignores the metaphysical and theological to concentrate on humanly discovered facts and humanly established rules.

It’s a balance that is enormously productive while it lasts.  It just doesn’t last very long. 

It’s inherently unstable, because it rests on an unacknowledged contradiction.  

And it can only do that as long as the contradiction remains unacknowledged.

Since WWII, and especially since the Sixties, it seems to me that that contradiction has not only been openly acknowledged, but nattered at endlessly, all throughout the Western world.

Maybe that’s why we see so much “crime fiction” and so few detective novels these days–maybe that’s why more readers prefer more and more nearly identical tales of serial killers with sexual dysfunctions or child molesters with the same. 

That rape is bad is one of the few things we’re all still willing to think of as a moral truth (rather than a moral value), and chasing and catching people who engage in it at least feels “realistic.”

For a puzzle to be realistic, we’d have to go back to thinking that we can solve our problems with reason.

Ack.  This sounds depressing, and I’m not depressed.  I’m listening to Handel.  I’ve got tea. 

And I’m not freezing.

Written by janeh

December 22nd, 2010 at 9:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Puzzles, and Practical Atheists'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Puzzles, and Practical Atheists'.

  1. We’ve got lots of moral truths – you’ve mentioned some yourself, such as the one that any moral orientation is equally valid and good. The problem isn’t in our lack of moral truths, it’s in our inability or unwillingness to apply any kind of logic to our moral truths, or to try to connect them in any kind of framework. Oh, I know, philosophers and theologians do, and people like us dabble in the ideas, but most people hold, for example, the moral truth about the orientations as being self-evident and try not to think too much about whether, say, pedophiles fit into that idea.

    I’m a bit more irked than usual about the irrationality of strangers because I’ve been reading comments about Quebec’s new law restricting religion-run daycares from teaching religion if they want a government subsidy. Now, you could – I could! – argue either side of the issue (but please note, fellow Canadians, ‘It is illegal to spend tax money on religion’ is not a logical reason in Canada. You think you are in the US). But people don’t. They rant. They post illogical arguments and baseless ‘statistics’ and ‘facts’.

    I must be tired or worried. Usually this sort of garbage doesn’t get to me so much. But why can’t people THINK??? They don’t have to agree with me, but can’t they realize the implications of the things they say??

    About ‘practical atheists’, well, yes, most Christians don’t manage to live every moment of their lives as good Christians should. Most probably count the seconds that they come somewhere close.

    I bet the conversations among Christians involving language like ‘practical atheists’ are as enlightening as those arguing over the funding of day care centres in Quebec.


    22 Dec 10 at 10:45 am

  2. Yes, I noticed the careful wording. I merely wished to make the point explicit. We’re discussing Christie and Sayers here. Raymond Chandler and Thomas Perry are beside the point.

    As for “practical atheism,” I’m less convinced. The people who eat junk food and lament weight gain don’t disbelieve in nutrition, and the people who spend the rent money on frivolities don’t disbelieve in mathematics. They pursue the immediate pleasures without regard for the more distant consequences. It’s not an uncommon or unprecedented state of affairs. For that matter, would an atheist who forgave enemies and performed acts of charity be a “practical Christian?” Certainly not all of us pursue the consequences of our beliefs with equal rigor, but this is always so.

    Beyond that, I think the road goes three ways. Are we less rational? Are we less moral? And do either of these explain the decline of the detective story?

    I think the first two questions could be approached in a spirit of rational inquiry, but I haven’t done so, and will not speculate in advance of data. I would suggest that the difficulties in PUBLIC morality from the 1960’s on may be an inherent problem with liberal (modern American sense) atheism. You can ground morality on religion, and any religion that lasts a thousand years has a reasonably workable set of rules. You can ground morality on tradition. But I have my doubts about arriving at a moral code by unaided reason–and even if it were possible, convincing everyone else one was right would be a separate and harder task. But I think we’ve done that argument before.

    As for the decline of the detective story, I think Haycraft was right, and the conditions of liberal (old meaning) democracy are fertile soil. We may have broken the liberal democratic consensus. Stories in which the hero is basically a private avenger may indicate a lack of trust in state institutions.

    But I would also keep in mind that stories go on but genres have life cycles. Science fiction also is not what it was in its golden age, the western is in deep decline, gothics are scarce and the era of the swashbuckler is over. We cannot, I think, say the detective story is in decline for deep societal reasons but all the others are part of a normal cycle.

    Blame marketing, too: if there WERE a great new detective story writer out there, how would I find her hidden in a couple of thousand “mystery” titles? And where, in our neatly categorized bookshops, would someone place the next Rafael Sabatini?

    The true cause of an event is not always the deepest one imaginable.


    22 Dec 10 at 6:50 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 571 access attempts in the last 7 days.