Should we talk about religion


illustrations by Mike Hoffman

At last, following months of tantalizing (that word needs a noun aside from the proper name), this post is about the fourth non-human-born protagonist in The Island of Doctor Moreau, the Leopard Man. The previous posts of this kind are All too human, The Other, and Why matters.

Everyone familiar in passing with the story knows the Beast Folk are subject to the Law, their religion. My book examines the religious activity of the Beast Folk in extreme detail, especially in that they have invented the Law, as opposed to having it forced upon them in an uncomprehending fashion, which is how the movies always show it. Incidentally the Leopard Man himself is very different across the movie versions, but (i) you knew that and (ii) more importantly, you knew I’d say it. Moving on.

My general reading of the novel is that Moreau is correct in bemoaning his failure to make a rational man, but completely misses the fact that he has succeeded in making people. Given the textual rather than the cinematic or pop culture versions of the Law, I think the story shows this most clearly in the Beast People’s experience of religion, at a number of different levels.

I’ll drop the big one first: I don’t care a bit about “belief” and I think it’s a total red herring. I dismiss the notions that religious activity has some core or central nugget of distinctive thinking in it, that it is distinctly different from other social activity, that it shows any recognizable signature regarding effects, and that “religion” is even a single thing.

Let’s do some dissection about that latter point. Consider these things:

  • Religiosity – the perceived experience of contact with meaning and purpose, often couched in supernatural imagery
  • Observance – ritualized practices
    • Community – overwhelmingly the context for observance, although not necessary strictly from definition
  • Institution – societal organization with income, political presence, and punitive and educational power
    • Doctrine – institutional context permits standard, reinforced interpretation of practices, and of the   stories accompanying them
  • Larger culture – body of identity and custom with direct and indirect influences from the region’s (or some region’s) institutional and community history

The standard view is that religiosity provides a core world-view, that values within and among one’s community reflect and express those world-view, that observance affirms this exact experience among the community, and that the institution simply reflect precisely what everyone believes. You can send the causality either way – completely sincere invention and support of institutions based on core beliefs, or community-wide beliefs instilled by institutional indoctrination. But either way you go with that, the linear causality among these nested sets is taken as a given. This standard view is also core to the current fashions in New Atheism, which rely on a basic insanity interpretation of religiosity and thus consider all the rest tainted as they are presumed to be caused by it.

I think this standard view is inane. It seems to me blatantly obvious that these things are independent of one another. It also strikes me that in practice, the term belief is not referring to religiosity at all, but instead, in practice, it is accounted for avowing commitment toward some one or combination of the others.

You will also notice, I hope, that the supernatural component is quite flexible. Nationalism in its modern form is a religion. “America” in particular is an ultra-church, whose reach is considerably farther than notions of border or official sovereignty, and whose presence in these terms is instantly observable in education, recreation, and policy-making. I regard the relationship between Washington D.C and the various socio-political regions of North America as very similar to that between the medieval Roman Catholic Church and much of Europe, including its penchant for trade control and for mobilizing Crusades.

Back to the novel, in which the Leopard Man has broken a component of the Law, is publicly shamed, and flees from public view in what appears to be combined humiliation, terror, and rebellion – I note especially that although he knocks Moreau down, he does not attack him, before escaping the scene. Prendick joins the chase for him, but quickly switches sympathy as he realizes the torment that awaits the fugitive in the laboratory, and as he recognizes a wide variety of very familiar human attitudes among the Beast Folk participating in the chase. Then he is the first to come upon the Leopard Man who has been run to ground, in hiding:

It may seem a strange contradiction in me – I cannot explain the fact – but now, seeing the creature there in a perfectly animal attitude, with the light gleaming in its eyes and its imperfectly human face distorted with terror, I realized again the fact of its humanity.

leopardman2Hands up now, who thinks Victorian writers were careless with their word choice. Not “semblance of humanity.” Not “imitation.” Not “bestial caricature.”

Prendick is a Protestant Temperance supporter, committed to late-19th century Progressivism in full. Consider that the Leopard Man knows without doubt that he is now going to Hell. When the latter throws the former a single beseeching look, the communication between them is stark and unmistakable: Please don’t let them take me.

No one can say what the Leopard Man believes in the strict religiosity sense, or as modern parlance has it, “really believes.” That he’s at least stressed about having broken the Law is evident, retrospectively considering his behavior toward Prendick earlier. That he’s terrified of physical torture is clear too. But how much of a sinner is he? Internally, that’s unknowable. But note my phrasing in the above paragraph: he doesn’t believe he’s going to Hell, he knows it.

What’s also evident is how much the Beast Folk community cares about and relishes the uncovering of a sinner. Their behavior, especially among the vocally devout (the Ape-Man, the Vixen-Bear), reeks of guilty consciences eager to abuse a scapegoat. It’s also evident that Moreau has co-opted the Beast Folks’ home-grown Law, i.e., community, into a self-serving institutional Law in which avoiding punishment becomes the same as community solidarity. If you don’t blink, you’ll spot his quick thinking in directing the stress and uncertainty arising from the Leopard Man’s brief defiance into fervor to catch him, instead of, for instance, realizing that their divine figurehead is no such thing. And finally, spot that one significant Beast Man has figured this out already and handily hides his lack of community-doctrinal commitment in a show of piety in catching the outed sinner.

Everything about this and related scenes demonstrate that the Beast Folk are not incomprehending brutes bullied and chivvied into “acting”like a religion,” but people who experience these different components we call religion exactly as, well, as people do.

My favorite bit actually precedes the violent and dramatic elements of this scene – it’s when they’re all gathering at Moreau’s call, as the arrivals grovel and throw dirt on themselves before him … and glare at the late-comers for making them do this for so long. How much more familiar display of the subtleties of pious observance do you need?

There are tons more details and plot events to talk about, including how the Beast Folk undergo a Judaism-to-Christianity shift at least in the terms of the mainstream 1890s interpretation. Here, my opening point for what will almost certainly be a string of religion-y posts, is that we’re talking about a social activity with completely mundane features and effects, and that the supernatural element is of little interest, and distracts the discussion from doctrine as a weapon for the wielders of institutional power.

Links: Gorman Beauchamp’s The Island of Doctor Moreau as Theological Grotesque

Next: What are little species made of?



8 thoughts on “Should we talk about religion

  1. Might Wells have been dealing in some way with the paradox from Darwin’s Descent of Man?
    “[H]e who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature” on the one hand. And “a tribe including many members who…were always ready to give aid to each other and sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection” on the other. That other members of my group might abandon me, or cease to trust me, or that they might protect me and help me end my state of panic — all seem outcomes that could be held by a species with a far less elaborate Theory of Mind than ours. That glare directed at group members who have failed to make public expenditures of effort, in the form of large muscle movements characteristic of their grovelling and prostration ritual, that would be behaviour in keeping with a T.o.M. capable of negotiating long-term challenges of a social group. That a member of such a group would resolve to put its own life on the line for non-kin, to predict its own extinction but to feel compelled to do an act that only future members of the group could appreciate, or the simulacra of past kin and group members living in memory — I don’t know of any other species on the planet that can do that. What amazes me about the events you summarize is that Wells doesn’t suggest some innate mechanism (pheremones, changes in colour, characteristic cries from his fellows) responsible for the Leopard Man segregating himself for failing to live up to the Law, or for the dirt ritual. He endows his Beasts with basic mental and communicative mechanisms that exist in differing degrees of sophistication from animals to primates to us. And out of them grows a complex of behaviours and affective states involved in religion and other cultural complexes. There can be no doubt that natural selection is responsible for those basic mechanisms. You don’t need to propose some group-level natural selection that can inscribe group-directed social behaviour into the minds of individual members of a T.o.M-endowed species. Those behaviours arise in the Beasts that Moreau has created with some but not all of our faculties. And Wells did this without the kind of research that I am riffing on here. It is a remarkable break with the representation of motivation and affect in fiction. And to suspend the human/animal dichotomy and have humans and other species interacting with each other in (nearly) identical ways — that is a really remarkable creative achievement.


    • I have been struck with the power of Darwin’s and Huxley’s thoughts about nonhuman capacities, in works that are not widely taught. Darwin’s research efforts, for instance, are largely taught to be taxonomic, whereas most of them were actually about decision-making across a wide number of species. Not only did he intimate that closely-related primates have minds much like ours, but also that decision-making itself is within the capacity of living things without restricting it to any particular form of mental operation, linguistic capability, or specific group.

      Your gradation of “animals to primates to us” is a bit of a howler. Those are nested sets, not different steps or types of anything. And many nonprimate animals display a wider and (much) more nuanced range of interactions, reputations, communication, relationships, and status than … wait for it … than we do. Remember my call: that the human trick is not what we do, but that we talk about it.

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      • Should have put it this way: Wells suspended the traditional hierarchical gradation of animal/primate/human. Heck, the the possibility of artificial intelligence is raised. These creatures are constructs, after all. But he doesn’t bring in old myths of ensoulment (Pygmalion) or metamorphosis (Acteon into a deer, the Selkie into a human).


        • You’re absolutely right about that last point. The novel emphatically does not simply cast classic plots and concepts into a fancy science suit. It is utterly confrontational speculative fiction.

          (The 1818 Frankenstein is the same – totally and thoroughly its own thing, utterly about scientific perspectives and challenges, nothing to do with golems or undead at all.)

          As for your description of the Beast Folk as constructs, I submit the text brilliantly points that up as an insoluble classification. Prendick and Moreau debate whether their mental quality (they are referring specifically to speech, but it’s really about a larger issue; bad names for it include consciousness, awareness, sapience) has been imposed or unlocked by the surgical and psychoactive techniques, without resolving it.

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  2. I never knew about Wells’ theological speculation from 1917 “God the Invisible King.” [Note: the carnage of WWI saw a lot of formerly agnostic people seeking solace in Spiritualism, mediums, and alternative religions]. Wells backs away from the implications of his fiction and posits a deity responsible for consciousness and whose providence compensates for sentient creatures’ suffering.

    Long-time atheist William Archer savages Wells speculations in his “God and Mr. Wells” pamphlet. Archer draws on his knowledge of Darwin, Huxley, and Wells’s earlier work and begins from something like the “utterly confrontational” refusal of idealist positions on mental qualities at work in “Moreau.”

    There is no need for Wells to hold some “Artificer” responsible for ” the conjunction of atoms from which consciousness arose.” Wells’s Artificer “clashed the flint and steel,” releasing the fire that was “slumbering potentially” and kindled the torch “which was to be handed on, not only from generation to generation, but from species to species, through all the stages of a toilsome, slaughterous, immeasurable ascent.” Archer’s implication is that spark needn’t have come from some Artificer’s intentional act. However the quality that allows humans to do what they do may be characterized, it is not of an essentially different nature from the “fire” that is at work in other animals (even if Archer holds to a scheme of linear succession and development). And there is nothing that marks a radical break from living and non-living matter either, Archer says to the Vitalists.

    A peculiar conjunction of atoms. That’s it. Archer does not buy any of Wells attempts to veil that fact. He seems outraged at the formerly forthright Wells for offering up weak philosophy and theology as escapes from the actuality of the human situation. I have yet to read what Archer wrote about Shaw’s interest in Bergson and “Creative Evolution” but I suspect it’s not any kinder.


    • In my book, I’m strict in adhering to “this one book and its author at that moment,” rather than contemplating Wells’ complete history. I agree that he went a different way in the following decades.

      Archer is definitely channeling Schopenhauer’s Will, as Huxley did in Evolution and Ethics. I find this thread of philosophy to be astonishingly powerful and also to be generally caricatured or neglected. Even the existentialists fell back on a blatantly vitalist – i.e., magical – interpretation of the human mind.

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  3. Pingback: Should we talk about the government | Man nor Beast

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