Friday, August 17, 2012

"The Fourteenth Point" by John Ball

(cover image from

John Ball (1911-1988) was an American novelist best known for In the Heat of the Night, but he wrote many other novels (including other Virgil Tibbs mysteries), too.

I guess I could describe him as an American version of Nevil Shute - which is high praise, for me. Ball tended to write pleasant stories about good people. They weren't up to Shute's level, being very light-weight and even a bit corny - well, an American version, as I say - but I still thought they were entertaining.

In those books I've read (Wikipedia seems to indicate otherwise), Ball wrote from a liberal prospective. At least, he promoted racial and religious tolerance. He seemed to ask, "Can't we all just get along?" It was a bit corny, as I say (In the Heat of the Night has a great message, but it's certainly not great literature), but his heart was in the right place.

And I have fond memories of his books. I tend to forget books pretty easily, but some do stay in my mind - for some reason. The Fourteenth Point (1973) is one of those. I was thinking about it the other day - I'd originally read it at the library, and I couldn't even remember the title - so I had to track it down and buy a used copy.

The book starts with a bishop in the Church of England proposing a universal church - "the beginnings of the unity of all mankind under the banner of a single common faith." Note that he's not talking about using force, or even about convincing everyone else to become an Anglican. It's not "onward Christian soldiers!" This is faith from a liberal perspective.

His superiors in the church aren't too pleased with this, but a very wealthy man decides to back the idea. And an American college has a bequest they really want to spend.

So religious people worldwide end up attending a conference. Can they come to any consensus about their diverse beliefs? And what happens when an Anglican priest falls in love with a Buddhist woman?

It's all good clean fun, very much in the spirit of the 1960s (although the college seems more like the 1950s than the 1970s). And this is back before the right-wing hijacked religion. As I say, it's faith from a liberal perspective.

But it's still faith. At one point, Bishop Roundtree announces, "We have in common the knowledge that there exists a greater Power than we can see with our own eyes or experience with any other of our material senses."

But, of course, they don't. They might all believe that, but they have no evidence for it. It's not knowledge, it's just belief.

Note that an atheist group asks to take part in their conference, but their request is denied. That's reasonable, I guess, because this isn't a debate about faith-based thinking. They've already decided to believe by faith. The only problem is, which faith.

The bishop proposes 13 points as a basis for discussion, very general beliefs which he thinks might be accepted by all religions. Of course, he can't get a consensus for any of them.

As an example, here's the first point: "The universe in all of its complexity and grandeur is the creation of a sublime intelligence commonly called God whose authority is infinite and absolute."

Of course, I wouldn't agree with that. No atheist would. But not all religions believe that, either. He couldn't even get a consensus on something as basic as that - nor on his other points, all designed to be just as non-specific as he could get.

Now, it's not that reality can be decided by majority vote, not at all. But there's a reason why science comes to a consensus and religion doesn't. Science has a method - called the scientific method, oddly enough - for distinguishing reality from delusion and wishful-thinking. It's a method by which scientists can demonstrate to other scientists - and to themselves - what's true and what isn't.

So science tends to come to a consensus. It's not that every scientist will necessarily agree, but you don't have half of them thinking the Earth is flat and the other half bitterly opposed to such heresy. Scientists worldwide tend towards agreement, as the evidence mounts. You don't have Saudi Arabian scientists and Israeli scientists and Indian scientists and Canadian scientists all with their separate and conflicting scientific beliefs.

Before I get to the conclusion (don't worry, I'll warn you about any spoilers), let me mention something else that really struck me when reading this book. I said that it was faith from a liberal perspective, and that's true. But it's just astonishing to think how things have changed in recent decades, isn't it?

Remember, there used to be a strong liberal movement even in the Catholic Church. Imagine that these days! One character in The Fourteenth Point comments on how liberal congregations are growing in Israel, how Orthodox Jews are becoming such a tiny minority. Again, not these days!

And there's no mention of fundamentalist Islam at all. They're all moderate Muslims. There's even a quote from the Shah of Iran. Yes, things have really changed.

Sure, there are a handful of fundamentalist Christians who demand that the only acceptable 'compromise' is for everyone else to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, but these people seem to be included more for comic relief. They seem to be a small, ineffectual minority in the great mass of liberal believers.

Funny how things have changed, huh? Well, not 'ha-ha' funny. But that's faith. Faith caused the 9/11 terrorists to fly passenger planes into buildings. You can argue against that act, but if you're faith-based yourself, you really can't argue against their motivation. They believed by faith, and even liberal believers accept that way of thinking as valid. (It's not.)

After the fold, I'll talk about the end of this book. Note that there will be spoilers. In particular, I'll tell you what that fourteenth point was.

Spoilers Below

As I said, these diverse believers could not agree on the thirteen general points proposed by Bishop Roundtree. But this book is called The Fourteenth Point, and as you might expect they did come to a consensus on that, eventually.

You can probably guess what it was. The Golden Rule is one of the most basic ethical codes worldwide. It's phrased in many different ways, both positive and negative, but it existed long before Christianity did. Nearly all cultures have some version of it (although not everyone actually follows it).

But, of course, atheists accept it, too. They might as well have had atheists taking part in their conference, because they would still have gotten a consensus on this point. After all, there's nothing supernatural about the Golden Rule. There's no requirement to believe in magic. It's not even religion at all, not really.

It's just a very basic moral maxim, nothing more. So while it's great that people can come to a consensus about it, there's absolutely no need to believe in fairy tales. Any rational skeptic, recognizing that we're social animals, will come to the same conclusion.

One other thing that's something of a spoiler (but you could guess, I'm sure): I mentioned the romance between an Anglican priest and a Buddhist journalist. Well, being that kind of book, you can easily guess how that turned out. True love conquers all, right?

Like most of this book, that's pleasant, but simplistic. If you're a priest, are you really going to be happy that your wife will roast in Hell for eternity because she doesn't accept Jesus Christ as her personal savior. Well, maybe Anglicans don't believe that, I don't know. But many Christian sects certainly do.

And what about their future children? How will they be brought up, Buddhist or Christian? That's not even mentioned here, not by anyone. Well, it's a feel-good kind of story, like all liberal religious belief. You're really not supposed to think about it much.

(Yes, I know that mixed marriages aren't uncommon in America, but not of priests. Mostly, it's people who really don't care all that much, don't you think? If you care, if you think it's important, won't you worry about what your children end up believing? You have to get them young if you want to make sure they believe as you do. And if you think that a person's specific religion isn't particularly important,... are you really going to become a priest?)

OK, I enjoyed this book, despite its simplicity, despite its corniness, despite the old-fashioned feeling to it (or maybe because of that). But it demonstrates to me why faith-based thinking is wrong. As an atheist, I can enjoy books like this, but still see the problems with this kind of thinking.

This is fiction - and a feel-good kind of fiction, at that. There's no reason why anyone shouldn't recognize that. You can enjoy a television sitcom without thinking that it bears much of any relation to reality, right? Well, that's the same thing with this book.

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