Almanac: the Pulps

Pulp Newsstand

It’s the ’30s. The huge, awesome party known as the ’20s has come to a sudden, screeching halt.

It’s the Depression. You and everyone you know are dirt poor. You’ve been laid off, or at least had your wages cut. You don’t know if you’re going to be able to eat tomorrow.

You need to escape. Perhaps through alcohol, even though at this point it’s prohibited. But maybe illegal narcotics aren’t your particular cup of tea, and you want something else.

You could go to the movies; during this decades there are several very good movies out. You could see Frankenstein, or Gone With the Wind, or Modern Times, or The Wizard of Oz, or perhaps Snow White and the Seven Dwarfsthe first-ever traditionally animated film (and one that would still be considered excellent a century later, in fact).

But as it turns out, when you reach into your pocket, all you fish it is a lousy dime. Movies cost twenty-five cents a ticket, but all you’ve got is a coin worth about two dollars by 2015 standards.

So what do you do? Well, there are always the newsstands, which are always selling the pulps. Those can always take you right out of your crummy life.

Amazing Stories First Issue

The pulps were cheap, disposable fiction magazines printed on the cheapest printable paper available. They were shocking, they were violent, they were vulgar, most of the stories in them sucked, and I love them to pieces.

If I’m going to talk about geekdom, I simply must discuss these things. If nerd culture reached maturity in the ’80s and ’90s, then it was born with these things in the early twentieth century.

Where to start? Well, at this point science fiction was barely a century old, assuming you consider Frankenstein to have begun it. Only with the beginning of the 1900’s did the genre begin to grow enormously in popularity, with publications such as Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories. The Swords and Sorcery and Proto-Superhero stories also began in magazines, which of course I can never thank enough, since from these genres emerged my beloved franchises Batman and Dungeons and Dragons, among others.

Magazines like these gave us our modern detective stories, and they were the trailblazers for modern horror.

As I said before, most of them were awful. These were pretty much the B-movies of literature, so what did you expect? The authors were paid a penny per word, if even that, and these came out weekly or twice monthly, so the aim of the game was to produce sellable, fast writing. People knew the writing wasn’t expected to be anything good; when they were done with them, they would throw them away, and get the next issue next week and repeat the process.

However, I would argue that they didn’t know what they were doing. Of course most of the writing in these things was insanely shoddy- they were made to sell, not for quality. But the fact still remains that some of the writers working for these publication really were dedicated to their craft, and strived for true quality. The most obvious example I can think of is H.P. Lovecraft, the of course now-beloved horror author whose entire body of work was in these magazines. People would throw the magazines with his writings away, not knowing that someday those words would be regarded as works of genius; a deeply troubled genius who put an enormous deal of work into his stories, such as interconnecting many of them within the same universe (now known as the “Cthulhu Mythos“).

Astounding Stories February 1936 Issue, advertising Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness," considered by some to be his best

Astounding Stories February 1936 Issue, advertising Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” considered by many to be his best work.

Another thing I must thank the pulps for is for giving Zorro to the world; not only is Zorro an amazing character in his own right, but he’s also a direct ancestor to Batman, who is my favorite character of all time.

All-Story Weekly August 9 1919 Issue, which had Zorro's first appearance

All-Story Weekly August 9 1919 Issue, which had Zorro’s first appearance

Though these stories were often made for the lowest common denominator, the fact remains that these stories served a very important function for the literary world: they were refining fiction to be more thrilling, more fast-paced, and more entertaining. Sure they (and their covers) were filled with gratuitous shocks, violence, and fan service, but you cannot deny that they forced writers to hone their skills as escapist entertainers. In their quest to create engrossing stories, they produced some of the most compelling scenarios and characters we’ve ever seen.

Of course, the pulps eventually died out, but their legacy is still very much alive and well to this day. They paved the way for comic books and paperback novels, which still use many of the techniques and ideas they’ve pioneered, warts and all. Because of them, we have deeply compelling speculative works that are more addictive than nicotine, and we now have airplane novels that are meant to entertain and then be disposed of as soon as they’ve fulfilled their purpose to titillate and distract you from reality.

Another interesting thing that I’ve noticed is that this format of literature still lives on to this day; we have publications like The New Yorker that publish short stories every week, as well as Japanese light novel and manga magazines that follow the pulp format of serializing several stories simultaneously over several issues of a publication.

But the biggest thing I give thanks to the pulps for is their covers. Because of the pulps, the covers of which were designed to be eye-catching, bold, memorable, and pique your curiosity, we now have the incredibly gorgeous and magnetic pieces of artists such as Michael Whelan and Drew Struzan. When I publish my own works, they are going to have covers in this tradition; compelling, stunning, and beautiful.

Here’s to the pulps, the mothers of all things nerdy!

My Little Pony Fanfictions

As part of my writing career, I’m going to be writing fan fictions.

The first I’m publishing are fan fictions for My Little Pony: Friendship is MagicI’m going to publish all new chapters for them on my blog, which are all going to be indexed under the “Projects” tab under the “Fan Works” page. If you want to be informed of new chapters of these fics as soon as I write them, I recommend you go to fimfiction.net, get an account, and follow me so that you’ll be informed of any updates I make to my MLP fics.

I also plan to review other people’s fics; if enough of you request it, I’ll put those reviews on this blog, but until then they’ll just be on my fimfiction page. I’ll also give news updates on my fics on my fimfiction blog, but not this one. All you’re going to hear about those fics on this blog is when I write new fics, in which case I’ll just announce them.

The only fic I have written so far is Break Your Heart, of which I have two chapters written. You can read it on fimfiction or in my “Projects” page. If you want to read any of my My Little Pony fics, you need to read this one before you read any others; this fic is going to be canonical backstory for all the other ones I will write (unless I note otherwise).

Most importantly, I’m writing these fics in preparation for a huge, ambitious MLP fan fiction project I’m planning to do in the near future. Unlike my other fics, I consider this secret endeavor to be a full-fledged project in its own right, so I’ll provide news for it on this blog the same way I will for all my original projects. Even if you don’t like My Little Pony, please watch for it; I think you’re going to like it anyway. Trust me.

Review: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

My Little Pony Title Card

Story time.

A while ago, I learned that the latest incarnation of My Little Pony, known as My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, had grown a rather enormous periphery fandom of adult males. This intrigued me, as I’ve generally found that other males tend to avoid young girls’ shows like the plague. What was it people saw in the show?

I was of course aware of the piles and piles of porn about it, so I thought that perhaps the fandom was simply there as yuri fans. However, there was one problem with that theory: the characters are, obviously, ponies. I had a little difficulty believing that so many people were genuinely aroused by the idea of seeing animated horses getting down and dirty.

I thought that it must be something about the characters that drew people to them. Did they have sexy-sounding voice actresses? Was there a lot of lesbian ship-teasing between them (this is, of course, a TV-Y show, which unfortunately means that its depiction of homosexuality will never get more explicit than this)? Or were the characters genuinely compelling? I didn’t know.

As a general rule, it’s my policy to not watch a show unless someone whose opinion I respect recommends it to me, so I didn’t watch it for some time. However, I eventually encountered a very vocal fan of the show who I respected, and I asked him what he saw in the show, and his response essentially boiled down to: “I don’t know. I just like it, I guess.”

This is one of the reasons I desperately want people to regularly practice their rhetorical skills; here I was, a potential fan of the show, literally asking to be converted, and because of my friend’s inability to articulate his tastes he lost that opportunity.

Nonetheless, I like to think of myself as an open-minded person. Just because it’s a show for girls doesn’t mean it’s bad, as evidenced by Beauty and the Beast, and by the same token just because it’s a show for kids also doesn’t mean it’s bad, as evidenced by Avatar: the Last Airbender. Eventually I decided that the fandom’s existence despite people’s general fears of perceived immaturity and lack of masculinity was enough of a recommendation, so I sat down and watched a couple episodes (Swarm of the Century and Bridle Gossip, in case you were wondering).

What did I think? I actually rather liked them.

I had dipped my toe in the pool and decided, “good enough,” so I dived in. I watched the show from the beginning.

This is the basic premise: the show is set in a fantasy world in which magic is commonplace and the land is inhabited by monsters and both intelligent and non-intelligent animals. The kingdom the show focuses on (though it does occasionally feature others) is Equestria, in which the primary inhabitants are ponies. There are four races of ponies: horned Unicorns, who can perform magic; winged Pegasi, who can fly and control the weather; Earth ponies, who have the strength necessary to farm; and Alicorns, which are rare, powerful, immortal combinations of the other three that make up some of the show’s pantheon of gods. All ponies have a marking on their flanks called a “cutie mark,” which appears when they discover their special talent (which usually occurs in late childhood) and represents that talent.

The ruler of Equestria is Princess Celestia, an Alicorn who moves the sun and moon through the sky. Once Celestia had a younger sister named Luna, who moved the moon and ruled the night while she moved the sun and ruled the day. However, Luna grew jealous of Celestia, as their subjects frolicked and played during Celestia’s day while they shunned and slept through Luna’s night, so Luna attempted to plunge the world into eternal night. Doing so she transformed into a creature of darkness and renamed herself “Nightmare Moon.” When Celestia begged Nightmare Moon to stop and Nightmare refused, Celestia regretfully used the Elements of Harmony, the most powerful objects in the world, to seal her corrupted sister in the moon.

A thousand years later, Celestia has taken an apprentice: a young but incredibly powerful Unicorn named Twilight Sparkle, who is studying magic (her special talent for which she has her cutie mark) under her.

The show begins on the Summer Sun Celebration, the anniversary of Nightmare Moon’s defeat, when Twilight learns that the stars will align and Nightmare Moon will be able to return. When she tries to tell Celestia, Celestia commands Twilight to oversee the festivities in the nearby town of Ponyville and make some friends there.

Twilight doesn’t have any desire to make friends, as she believes that she has no need for them, so she ignores that command and decides to just oversee the festivities. Nonetheless, she meets several other girls who all attempt to befriend her: the bubbly, energetic party planner Earth pony Pinkie Pie; the friendly, sweet Earth pony cowgirl Applejack; the exceptionally beautiful, generous fashion designer Unicorn Rarity; the boastful, athletic weather Pegasus Rainbow Dash; and the shy, kind veterinarian Pegasus Fluttershy. Though Twilight’s assistant, a baby dragon named Spike, is easily won over by them, Twilight is put off by their rather enormous personalities and avoids them.

When the time comes for Celestia to ceremoniously raise the sun in Ponyville, the citizens are distressed to find that she hasn’t turned up. This is when Nightmare Moon, who has escaped from her prison, reveals herself and declares that the night will last forever.

Knowing that the Elements of Harmony can defeat her, Twilight and her five new acquaintances travel into the dangerous Everfree Forest to go to the Princesses’ old castle, where the Elements are located. Along the way, Nightmare Moon attempts to stop them with several roadblocks, which they overcome using their various strengths; Applejack through honesty, Rarity through generosity, Fluttershy through kindness, Rainbow Dash through loyalty, and Pinkie Pie through laughter. When at last they reach the castle and find the Elements, Nightmare Moon confronts them. Though the Elements at first do nothing and Nightmare Moon believes herself to be victorious, Twilight realizes that the other girls personify the Elements and that she herself represents the last one: friendship, which as indicated by the show is literally magic.

Twilight at last accepts the other girls as her friends, and together they activate the Elements and defeat Nightmare Moon, destroying her corruption and reverting her back to Luna. Here Celestia appears and reveals to Twilight that this was why she told her to make friends; this was the only way Nightmare Moon could be defeated.

Celestia and Luna joyfully reunite and attempt to go back to Canterlot (Equestria’s capital) with Twilight, though Twilight admits she wants to stay with her new friends. In response, Celestia gives Twilight a new mission: stay in Ponyville, continue her studies of magic by studying friendship, and report any findings to her.

The rest of the show details this mission; it shows Twilight and her friends’ daily lives and regular troubles, how they solve them, and ends each episode with Twilight recording what they’ve learned and mailing their findings to Celestia. These lessons continue to prove vital, as they occasionally encounter other great threats to Equestria and must use all they’ve learned about their friendship to defeat them.

So, what do I think of this show?

love it. I was shocked by how much I loved it. This show is incredibly good. And this is from somebody who also loves Gears of War and Batman Begins.

The animation is gorgeous. It’s some of the best I’ve ever seen on a television show. The attention to detail is just staggering; for instance, one monster they encounter is a giant bear that they mistake for an Ursa Major, but if you know about constellations you’ll realize before the show’s characters reveal it that it’s actually an Ursa Minor, as the constellation in question is accurately displayed by the stars on its tail.

This show is quite multilayered and subtle. For instance, Pinkie Pie is one of the most cartoonish characters on the show, able to do things such things as inflate like a balloon or teleport or produce a cannon out of thin air. Of course, as this is an animated show, you’d probably not take these abilities very seriously, or even make the effort to think of them as literally happening within the universe of the show; she’s comic relief, and comic relief characters tend to be able to do such things without much effect on the plot. However, as it turns out Pinkie’s powers are not only very real, but very much not to be taken lightly;  Discord, one of the show’s most major and recurring villains, has all the same powers Pinkie has and more, and though in Pinkie’s hands they are played for laughs in Discord’s they are very serious business and have very real consequences within the show.

His ability to bend reality as he pleases causes enormous havoc within the show’s world; though he has the persona and humor of the Disney incarnation of Aladdin‘s Genie, he is a full-fledged Eldritch Abomination. So great a threat is he that only with the power of the Elements are they able to defeat him.

And in case you still doubt a connection between his powers and Pinkie’s, notice that Pinkie has a “Pinkie twitch” that allows her to predict the future based on several bodily tics she displays. Now watch Twilight’s Kingdom; Discord has the same power. And not only that, it has a HUGE effect on the plot; he “twitches” when the Princesses give Twilight their power, and with this information he proceeds to direct Tirek (another villain) right to her. Never before have I seen such a long-foreshadowed use of Chekhov’s Gag to such profound effect (as a side note, I find it interesting how other fans don’t seem to have noticed that Discord has the “Pinkie twitch,” as they tend to overanalyze everything).

Another display of the show’s subtlety is that after another major villain is exiled, she is shown in later episodes as a background character watching Twilight, obviously planning her next move.

The lesson I’ve learned from all this is: you must pay attention to every detail in this show.

But the absolute crowning glory of this show is the characters. These are some of the best characters I’ve ever seen. I consider this show to be one of the all-time best bases for fan fiction largely because of this; like Transformers, another Hasbro franchise, MLP: FiM has created an entire cast of extremely memorable, fully fleshed out, fantastic characters, each with a very unique and compelling personality. Regarding precisely how amazing these characters are, I will now butcher a Pirates of Penzance quote: “Oh, how awesome! How surpassingly awesome is the lamest of them!”

All of these characters are bright, resourceful, and strong, yet flawed and complex. Though extremely intelligent, Twilight is devoted to her mentor to the point it borders on madness, and this coupled with her obsessive desire for order initiate a small disaster within Ponyville in one episode. Applejack is deeply repressed and internalizes her personal woes rather than depending on her friends, which in one episode causes her to run away without explanation. Rarity is obsessed with maintaining her image to the point that it threatens to damage her well-being and her friendships. Fluttershy’s tremendous fear makes it difficult for her to overcome intimidating obstacles. Rainbow Dash has an ego almost as big as mine, and obviously she does some rashly dangerous things because of it. And as for Pinkie Pie… well, I’ll get back to her on another post.

But the thing is, despite the fact that each of these characters is deeply troubled in their own unique ways, they do gradually overcome their weaknesses and become better, braver, wiser people. That’s where the show’s strength lies, I think; it’s all about the inherent good in everyone. I would even say that’s the show’s core message: no one is beyond redemption.

From episode one, we see this idea demonstrated; Twilight and Celestia are able to save Luna from her own jealousy and have her return to her normal life. In the first Equestria Girls movie, they are able to befriend the film’s villain and have her change her ways, as well. Even Discord, the aforementioned god of chaos is eventually reformed through stubborn showings of kindness towards him despite his general jerkish behavior.

And for you more cynical viewers, this isn’t a message the show makes lightheartedly. You might contend that this show is set in a happy little sugary paradise where of course there would be hope for the redemption of everyone. However, this is not the case. Once again, this is a show that rewards those who carefully observe and analyze it. For the vigilant viewer, it becomes clear that the show is far, far darker than it first appears, to the point that I would even call the world a crapsaccharine one.

Regarding the darkness of this show, I will go into a more in-depth discussion of it in another post, as I don’t want you all to go into angst aversion against it before you’ve seen it because of me (I’d also like to give anyone who doesn’t want to hear about it at all the chance to not accidentally read it) because, seriously, this show is excellent. My only real criticism of it is that I think that being a children’s show under Hasbro‘s thumb limits its potential. I wish it could be more explicit about the adult and mature things it deals with. I wish the animators had more freedom, as its limited budget means that we get few adventure episodes (which are usually the best ones) which usually have the villains defeated via deus ex machina rather than having actual cool battles (and even the handful of cool battles we got ended with the signature deus ex machina anyway). Most importantly, it doesn’t quite respect its audience enough to assume they got the message of any given episode and instead has Sonic Sez-style segments at the end of each one, explicitly stating what lesson they’re supposed have learned (despite the fact that the unsaid messages, such as the “good in everyone” one I discussed earlier, tend to be more potent and ring more true).

But even despite these weaknesses, this show is still amazing. It has some of the best characters you’ve ever seen, and the show shines its brightest when they show huge amounts of powerful emotion (which is why I consider A Canterlot Wedding and Keep Calm and Flutter On to be the best episodes). It’s a gem of a show that hasn’t yet had its polishing finished; it has enormous potential, and there are a good many parts where that potential shines through; several episodes are excellent, and a few are even masterful. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do. You’re free to not like it, but at least read the book before you judge it by its cover. I think (and hope) you’ll be pleasantly surprised, as I was.

This is an excellent show that I adore.

Shockingly Excellent, Deep Show

Only a few months ago, I discovered an amazing show.

I never would have guessed that this show could be as good as it was- it’s downright masterful at times.

This is a show about a shy, introverted magician who must begin to depend on others in order to fulfill her destiny. Along the way she encounters terrifying horrors, shockingly vile villains, and her own (great) inner conflicts.

The world of the show is vibrant and beautiful.

This show boasts it all- fantastic characterization, comedy, drama, intrigue, and horror.

It addresses such deep and complex topics as the nature of truth, our place in the world, familial relations, the effects of disability, racial relations, the intricacies of social climbing, sexuality, abuse, and the good inherent in everyone.

Even more bizarrely, this is an animated show made for children, and one that people refuse to see for that reason alone, unaware of how truly dark and mature it is.

Indeed, this dark, deep, excellent show…

… Is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

Almanac: Religion Introduction

As a philosopher, few topics inspire as much fascination for me as religion. As indicated by a previous article, I’m an anti-organized religion agnostic ultimate atheist. To go a little more in-depth, I’m firmly of the conviction that nobody should worship anything and that people should pursue their spirituality independently without allowing others to tell them what to believe. In other words, one of my greater life philosophies is phrased thusly in Assassin’s Creed II:

“Do not follow me, or anyone else.” – Ezio Auditore

However, though I strongly oppose organized religion, I can see many benefits to religion in and of itself:

The first (and perhaps most obvious) is that religion has produced an enormous amount of astonishingly beautiful art. A good first place to begin showing this, I think, is the religious texts themselves; for instance, the King James Version is a poetic, quality translation of the Bible that has become one of the best-selling books of all time. This, to me, makes sense; Christianity is the world’s most prominent religion, and English books are the best-selling. Why though, one might ask, would this particular translation rise to the top?

King James Bible

Well, of course, there’s the fact that it saw a pretty freaking wide distribution in England, and therefore when the English came to the United States it’s the one they brought along with them. However, that still leaves the question as to why England basically recycled it over and over again for centuries rather than making any new translations when it grew archaic. In my opinion it’s because not only is it (reportedly) a good translation, it’s also beautifully written. Of course, I might just be a sucker for flowery early modern English resembling Shakespeare’s (it probably helps that Shakespeare was supposedly one of the translators), but a sign of quality writing is memorability, and we have a long list of common phrases from this translation, including:

“Bottomless pit,”

“Den of thieves,”

“God forbid,”

and “Holier than thou.”

These are phrases that have been stuck in our heads for half a millennium now. Only the universally-recognized genius Shakespeare has had such a huge impact on English. That’s some damn good writing right there.

Another such enormous literary achievement is, of course, the Quran. As I said before, memorability is a pretty good sign of quality writing, and the Quran had to be memorable; according to Islamic tradition, Mohammed was illiterate and had to recite it for others to memorize and write down. Assuming this is true, I can only assume it’s pretty memorable. It’s been compelling enough to become a religious text for over a billion people, and it’s had an even bigger impact on Arabic than the KJV has had on English. As for my take on it, although I don’t know Arabic I’ve read an English translation and found it to be quite pretty. Of course, this could simply be a translation far outshining its source material, but as I understand it this is pretty hard to do. Until I can read the original Arabic text myself, I feel rather confident assuming it that it is, in fact, a literary masterpiece.

Quran

While we’re on the subject of the Islamic world, let’s talk about their calligraphy. Muslims are insanely good at calligraphy. If you don’t believe me, take a look:

Student Islamic CalligraphyIslamic Lamp

Working Title/Artist: Leaf from a Qur'an manuscriptDepartment: Islamic ArtCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 07Working Date: 13th-14th century photography by mma, Digital File DP238067.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 5_31_12In this Thursday, Jan. 26 2012 photo, Palestinian calligraphy expert Adel Fauzy practices at his studio in the West Bank town of Hawara, near Nablus. Parchment, feathers and "qalams," a pen made of dried bamboo, are still used by sophers Jewish scribes and khattats Muslim calligraphers. AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)Tell me these writings aren’t drop-dead gorgeous. Because the Islamic people venerate the Quran so enormously and they’ve had a general aversion to graphical images due to their strict laws against idolatry, they’ve naturally become perhaps the world’s best calligraphers, rivaled only by the Chinese. After all, constraints foster creativity.

And of course, buildings. Religion has produced what are (in my opinion) the world’s most beautiful buildings. Here are some mosques, temples, churches, and other awesome, awesome buildings from an assortment of religions:

Notre Dame de Paris

Buddhist Temple

Shinto Temple

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Need I even mention the paintings that religion’s produced?

da Vinci John the Baptist

Creation of Adam

Or the sculptures?

Buddha

Pieta

Yeah. Needless to say, religion inspires unbelievably amazing art.

But then why, you might ask, do I oppose organized religion so strongly? For the answer to that, look up the Spanish Inquisition. Or the Crusades. Or the Salem Witch Trials. Or the September Eleventh Terrorist Attacks. Even if you think those are  overly dramatic examples of religion’s harm, go look at Jehovah’s Witness deaths over (lack of) blood transfusions or LGBT suicides over bullying.

Now, I want to make something abundantly clear: I do not think it’s religion’s fault these sorts of things occur. After all, the world’s most genocidal man was an atheist. Rather, I believe that it’s the problem of mankind itself; I believe that humans are basically evil and that kind, virtuous people are rare (and by the way, before any of you start shouting that I’m even more full of myself than I am, I don’t count myself among the decent; I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second that I am one of them). I think that rather than allowing passion or conscience to drive them, people allow fear to be their primary emotion, and that religion simply accommodates and (potentially) amplifies this.

Therein lies my greatest criticism of religion: I think that, taken literally, it’s almost invariably fear-based. People even readily admit this; notice how common the phrase “God-fearing” is. Especially with Abrahamic religions, ethics essentially boils down to “carrots and sticks;” do good, and you’ll be rewarded. Do evil, and you’ll receive punishment. In my opinion, this way of viewing the world is deeply misguided and cowardly.

Of course, I think that religion can do great things, as well; in my opinion, the wisest of all men were deeply religious (Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Fred Rogers, etc.) and religion has inspired a great deal of charity, warmth, and brotherhood.

The reason I believe religion is capable of causing such tremendous evil is because it can make people act in fear of the ultimate retribution: eternal suffering. The reason I believe religion is capable of inspiring such tremendous compassion is quite simple: people are very visual creatures.

To explain what I mean by this, think of the method of loci or Oriental abacists. People are able to memorize staggering amounts of information and make enormous calculations by visualizing imaginary locations and objects. By the same token, we use stories to teach lessons; with Hansel and Gretel, we use the vivid imagery of being eaten alive and burning in a furnace to teach the lesson of not trusting strangers. With the Lion and the Mouse, we get an obviously highly contrasted pair of characters to demonstrate for us the potential self-benefitting nature of altruism. Wise religious leaders have thoroughly understood this; Jesus framed his lessons as parables, one of the most famous being the Good Samaritan, establishing that all men are brothers and should show compassion and kindness to one another (as a brief aside I think it would do Islamophobic Christians much good to recall this parable).

What I’m ultimately saying is: we need stories in order to learn, and in many respects religions have the most potent stories, and therefore the most potent lessons. After all, it’s hard to get loftier and more vivid than lakes of brimstone and fire or a parting sea or being raised from the dead. This is where I believe the benefit of religion lies: it has perhaps the most powerful images and ideas with which we can learn and understand the world.

By this standard I am in a way deeply religious myself; I use books to shape my morals and the characters therein to be the personifications of my ideals to be emulated.

However, once again, I would advise against organized worship, or even worship altogether; when it comes down to it, my thoughts on whether or not there’s a God (or gods) is: I don’t care. If none exist, I’ll live the best I can with the time I have. If one does, I acknowledge it as nothing more than another being with greater power than myself and I will continue to attempt to live ethically and happily, regardless of what it tells me or threatens to do. Anything that wants to be worshipped doesn’t deserve to, and anything that deserves to be worshipped wouldn’t want to, and therefore I worship nothing.

Although I believe that it would ultimately be better for people not to worship anything, I believe that so long as people are kind to one another and strive to make the world a happier and more peaceful place it ultimately doesn’t matter what they believe.

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” 

Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso