January comes with a lot of down time.  It’s before things begin again.  The diversions for which I look begin later.  I’ve had time to finish off books I’ve borrowed from the library the last few weeks.

I’ve finished The Neighborhood Project by David Sloan Wilson.  I have Rav Stephen “Steg” Belsky for bringing this book to my attention.  My gratitude to him.  A book about the evolutionary studies of a city and its neighbourhoods was brought to my attention by a rabbi from Michigan.  Yes, really.  There must be a story behind that.  The book feels to me like a memoir rather than a manifesto.  It doesn’t provide a guide to making changes to a city.  The research that Wilson is doing is continuing.  The book established how he has got to the point of studying Binghamton, New York.  The results of this study are harder to quantify.

I will indulge in one last quote:

Now that I am trying to make a difference in my city of Binghamton, I find myself working with religious leaders and believer all the time.  Every audience I address includes churchgoers, and many of the meetings take place on church premises.  We do better than tolerate one another’s differences.  We have a shared interest in foresting community that makes us genuine allies.  Most religious believers are not threatened by science and are among the first to capitalize on technology.  When I portray evolutionary science as a valuable tool kit for making the world a better place, they are eager to use the tools as they are to use the Internet.  For my part, I regard them as kindred spirits to the extent that we share the same objectives, without insisting that they embrace my commitment to methodological naturalism. They are welcome to believe whatever they like, as long as it doesn’t cause harm to others.

The Neighborhood Project by David Sloan Wilson (2011) p. 330-331

Wilson makes this statement in the context of a critique of the New Atheism movement.  His criticism is that the New Atheists believe that by getting rid of religion irrationality will evaporate from society.  I suppose that this is a rationalistic dialectic analogous  to the Marxist socialist dialectic.  It rejects that irrational behaviour is systemic to human culture (and probably among other animals as well).  I imagine that the New Atheists risk becoming the new authoritarianism.  I’m happy to be committed to being one voice for a world-view in a society of diverse voices, and diverse world-views.  I imagine Wilson feels the same, otherwise he would not have committed himself to his criticism in publication.

As well as The Neighborhood Project, my recent reading has been Neptune’s Brood by the science fiction writer Charles Stross, and Cold Days by the fantasy writer Jim Butcher.  Bear with me.  Thinking about the three books I found myself thinking that there was a contrast in how the three authors perceive institutions.  Wilson interacts with institutions like neighbourhood churches and other community groups to create a model of his city.  Institutions are composed of people.  This is a Good Thing.

In the novels institutions are more monolithic.  The most powerful people, the leaders of institutions, in the stories direct what will happen.  The other people in the institutions are the followers, less powerful.  They are mooks, to be directed about and disposed equally by more powerful characters and the forces of narrative.  The institutions conspire to disguise the story that protagonists must uncover and reveal as the stories unfold.  In both cases the novels end in situations that are potentially world-changing for future story-telling.  The institutions are impersonal.  This is a Bad Thing.

In Real Life, ordinary people matter because individuals affect the causality of other lives and communities.  In the Land of Fiction, less so?