Enoch began to realize what was troubling him about this no-money economy. It wasn't economic at all, it was the religious nature of what Lazir was offering. It's all about religion. "You keep mentioning this Ancient One. What can you tell me about it? Do I have to join your religion? Or do you have freedom of religion?"
"Religion?" Lazir sounded dubious. After a pause, "Religion is about God, right? God is your word for the Ancient One, the One who created everything, right? Except you have a variety of human religions here, some with a Creator, some without. It seems to be that people can believe any silly thing they like..." He trailed off.
"Yes. Religion is about things you can't prove, so everybody gets to believe any silly thing they like. At least in the USA. A lot of us stick to what can be proved, so we don't have any religion at all. I think some countries do not have freedom of religion, but that does not stop people from believing something different. After all, who knows what you believe if you don't say anything about it?" That was off-topic. Or maybe it wasn't. "Suppose I don't believe in your Ancient One, would that be a problem?"
"Maybe you should explain to me your idea of believe in this context," Lazir said. "We found word primarily defined in terms of accepting something as true. I guess that makes sense in a culture where people are in the habit of speaking lies. We don't have that problem, so accepting something as true is generally the only way to deal with information. But that definition doesn't make any sense when you say 'believe in God' or the Ancient One, does it? The Ancient One is not information to be true or false."
Enoch had never thought of that. "I guess 'believe' has two senses. One is about accepting the truth of a proposition, a statement about the real world, like 'I believe my car can go 150 (but I never tried it).' It suggests a qualified acceptance of some idea while allowing for margin of error. The other sense is religious, and completely different. A religious person -- not me -- would say 'I believe in God' and mean something like 'I am fully convinced, despite any reason or facts that might argue against it, that there is such a thing as God.' Usually that comes with a propositional body of dogma, statements also accepted unconditionally as true, such as that 'God loves me' or stuff like that. Um, I guess there is a third sense, closer to the first, where I might say 'I believe you.' It means 'I accept what you are saying as true,' but there is the slight hint of reservation or doubt. If there were no doubt, I'd probably say instead, 'I know what you said is true.' Does that help? Usually you can tell by the form of the sentence which sense applies."
"So what you are telling me is that you do not accept the idea that there is such a Being as The Ancient One? At least not in opposition to facts and reason? I have no problem with that, provided that you also reject the idea that there is no supernatural. Where are you in this?"
"Um," Enoch felt trapped.
Lazir was relentless. "Would you say, against all reason, that you deny the existence of a supernatural Being?"
"No, not against all reason." Enoch hoped he could marshall his reasons. It was obviously coming down to that. "Why does God allow evil?"
"We already dealt with that," Lazir said calmly.
Enoch wondered what counts as calm? There was no face to look at. The body was motionless. The voice was calm. The voice was synthesized by Lazir's computer. They really had complete control over vocal inflection. It made it hard to listen for those subtle cues that a person is lying. Would Lazir lie? Enoch had no idea. He suddenly realized that Lazir was still talking.
"...has consequences, that innocent people get hurt, that..."
"Excuse me, could you please repeat that? I got lost in my thoughts. I want to hear your answer."
"You understand that your planet is in rebellion? When people act in rebellion, innocent people get hurt. The Ancient One could prevent that, but only by restricting your freedom. You value your freedom, don't you? Isn't that what your freedom of religion is all about?"
"Yes, but..." Enoch wasn't sure where this was going.
"Freedom of religion -- correct me if I got this wrong -- freedom of religion is about being free to believe any silly thing you want about the supernatural, including the notion that there is no such thing. Is that right?"
"Right." That seemed safe enough.
"Beliefs have consequences. If I believe -- I hope I'm using the word correctly -- if I believed that this chair is made of paper and unable to support my weight, I would not sit here, right?"
"But that's different. It's testable. Science is about testable hypotheses."
"I did not test the hypothesis. You pointed me to the chair, and I sat on it. If it had collapsed, I would have fallen. I took that risk. I sat. That's a consequence of belief. Take another example: You invited me into your house. There is risk in that. We have been studying some of the small animals on your planet. Most are very wary of going into unknown places, especially if they are enclosed like a tunnel or cave. But there is this line we found on the internet, 'Won't you come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.' Spiders eat flies. How do I know you won't eat me? You eat other beings -- I think you call it 'steak' -- without remorse. Well I happen to know that you can't eat me, but you could do serious damage if you were of a mind to. Do you understand what I'm saying? I 'believed' that the risk of entering your house was -- still is -- minimal. Some people kill other people for less than valid reasons. What should I believe of you? Beliefs have consequences. I accepted the risk -- I think that's the measure of doubt you spoke of -- the risk that you might do something harmful."
If he were another human, Enoch could have believed Lazir stopped for a breath. He went on, "I have the other kind of belief you mentioned, too, except it does not go against all reason. It goes beyond it, but not against it. That kind of belief has consequences also. Because there is a supernatural Ancient One, because the Ancient One created me and not the other way around, I have the obligation of ownership. The Ancient One tells us that we must do good to other people, so we do it. It is not burdensome, it's actually fun. If there were no such thing as a supernatural Creator, then there would be no rules to follow, and the world would be a very dangerous place. I believe (first sense again) that your world has this problem. People choose to behave as if there is no supernatural Creator, no rules, no consequences. Of course there are consequences. People get hurt. That's what you call evil."
Another pause. Lazir continued, "Suppose the Ancient One made those wrong choices impossible. You cannot harm people. You are forced to do good only. You are -- what's your word? -- a robot, with no freedom. Do you want to be a robot, only doing what you are programmed to do? The Ancient One did not make you a robot. You can choose. You can choose to drive too fast and risk harming another person. You can choose to cheat on your taxes and force others to pay extra to cover the loss. You can choose to treat me with respect instead of killing me. You choose. Isn't that better?"
It seemed like a long answer, but it is, after all, a hard question. Enoch had to concede that Lazir had all the answers. "So if everybody chooses to do good only, no harm comes to people, no evil?"
"Right. Not even so-called natural disasters. Of course the Ancient One controls those. When we pay attention, we can be warned away from danger zones. I'm in a danger zone right now, but the Ancient One protects me. That's another consequence of belief: there is no real danger."
Enoch groped in his mind for another defense against religion. Lazir had already pretty much shot down evolution. He thought about the trilobite. It wouldn't prove anything, but he was curious. "Did your Ancient One ever find any trilobites?"
"They were never lost. Yes, there is a colony of small trilobites very similar to your fossil off the coast of Africa in the western Mediterranian. There are others, larger ones, in the Indian sea off the western coast of Australia. But the Ancient One tells us that you would not be convinced, so going and getting one would be a wasted effort. I think the real issue is whether you are willing to choose to do good. You have that choice, and there are consequences."
Enoch tried another diversion. That's what it was, and he knew it, but damn it, this was getting dangerous. He didn't want to become religious. "How do I know your religion is right? There are hundreds of religions, all making truth claims. 'Believe in Jesus!' or 'Believe in Allah" or Buddha or Joseph Smith or whoever. How do you choose?"
"That's a good question, Enoch. How do you know which box you see in the store has good food, and which does not? They all say 'Buy me, I'm good!' Right?"
"Well they all must pass the FDA regulations before the store will sell them."
"So you trust the FDA? Is that it? Do you buy everything they authorize?"
"No, of course not. I don't like okra, so I don't buy that."
"How do you know you don't like okra, if you don't buy it?"
"My mom sometimes served it. It's big in the south. Not very often, because dad didn't like it either."
"So you don't like it because your dad didn't like it? Do you dislike religion because your teachers in school didn't like it? Or did you try it?"
"I didn't like all the rules."
"Don't l..." Enoch decided that rules against lying were not bad. "I mean 'Don't have sex. Don't have fun.'"
"Your father's religion tells you not to have fun?"
Enoch turned red. "Well no. Sex is fun, they said not to have sex."
"Did they really say that?"
Damnation. Every damned time Enoch tried to argue religion with Lazir, he lost.
It was time for the door slammer.
"What if it doesn't work out? Suppose I decide to come along, and then I change my mind. Can I come back?"
"That's a good question. I don't know. We can't imagine anybody wanting to come back to a life of pain and sickness and fighting and death, so we didn't ask the Ancient One about the option of backing out. Who would want to?"
Before Enoch could say anything, Lazir went on, "The Ancient One just now responded. Nobody is ever forced to stay on any unfallen world. If you change your mind about living forever, your wish will be accommodated and you will be removed from that environment."
It sounded a little ominous. "You mean you would kill me?"
"Not us, never!" Lazir didn't move, but it sounded like a shudder coming from the voice box.
He paused, then resumed. "Suppose you come with us, and after a thousand years you get -- what did you call it -- bored with your new existence and all the fun and new things to do and places to see, and you decide you want out. Nobody in any of our worlds has ever considered such a horrid option, but you have been exposed to evil, so let's pretend you get to that place and you want out. You will have already lived 900 years longer than anybody you know here, longer than anybody on Earth ever lived in all of history, so what do you think is a good way to get you out of the system you are today considering joining? Bring you back to Earth? Twenty generations will have passed during your absence, nobody would know you!"
Lazir paused again. "The Ancient One agrees to bring you back to Earth any time you get tired of living forever, but you must come back to the Earth as it then is, and you will not be able to import anything you have learned while you are away. I mean you could try, but it will seem like magic to them, and they will likely take measures to protect themselves from the perceived danger. I suspect you understand what that means."
Oh yes, Enoch knew very well what that meant. He might get dropped on a witch-hunt society, or maybe in the middle of a military-industrial complex. In either case, he would be the enemy. Not a pretty thought. Or maybe he would just shrivel up and die of old age the instant he entered the Earth atmosphere, like they do in the movies. Why would this Ancient One give him any perks for rejecting Nirvana? At least the terms were clear and reasonable.
Even the opt-out clause seemed no worse than staying here. He just needed to decide if he really wanted to be "good" forever and ever. "Let me think some more," he said. "I need to be sure this is right for me."
"No problem." Lazir got up off the chair. "Send me an email when you
decide, or if you have more questions. We should be around for at least
a couple more days." He headed out the door.
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