Skepticism and faith: architecture vs. sculpture

In my younger days I was a voracious reader of fiction. Since then, a combination of school and work have more or less completely robbed me of the inclination to read anything that isn’t grounded in reality (don’t cry for me – I still find lots of ways to have fun), but once upon a time I could truly describe myself as ‘a reader’. One of my favourite series of fantasy novels was the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind. In retrospect, it’s a bit overwritten and the last three books were pretty terrible, but I loved it in my heyday.

The sixth book of that series, entitled Faith of the Fallen was my favourite. It’s simultaneously an exploration of the primacy of human dignity and the harsh criticism of the debasing effect that religion has on it. It’s also a not-so-thinly-veiled retelling of objectivism, but I tried not to let that get in the way of my enjoyment. Moral lessons aside, a great deal of it is about sculpting because, y’know… why not?

The book’s protagonist, an uber-wizard named Richard, gets kidnapped and, for reasons that are really not relevant to anything important outside the context of the story itself, is forced to be a sculptor whose job it is to make a statue that shows humanity from the point-of-view of their religion – debased and cowering in the face of the almighty. He, of course, creates a masterpiece glorifying the power of the will and the resilience of humanity. In so doing, he changes everyone’s mind about religion and starts a riot (because, y’know… why not?). You should be thinking “Howard Roark” right about now.

Anyway, plot points stolen from bad writers aside, there was something that stuck in my head about that book. When describing the  process by which he carves, Richard says that he finds the figure inside the stone and then cuts away all the unnecessary pieces – essentially excavating the figure that’s already inside the rock. It’s an interesting idea – start with the whole and then remove all of the pieces that don’t fit your vision.

It has been several years since I read that book, but it popped back into my head when I was reading some piece of apologetics or other, as I am sometimes wont to do. This particular one was of the “No True Christian” variety, essentially saying that elements of the Biblical account were written for their time and are not relevant anymore; however, all the stuff about ______ is still totally true. The process by which truth is discerned from irrelevance is never revealed to us except through vague references to the Holy Spirit or whatever bogey man functions in that capacity for the religion under discussion.

It struck me at that moment that what religious ‘moderates’ (those who profess belief in the scripture until pressed for details) do is very similar to the sculpting process described in that novel. The belief starts with the end in mind – some variation of a secular moral code, with its roots stemming from the same source as it does for the rest of us. This is then re-imagined as a religious framework because, as everyone knows, religion is the source of morality. The moderate believer then begins subtracting all of the bits of the Bible/Qur’an/Vedas/whathaveyou that conflict with the already-held beliefs, like chiseling away excess marble to reveal the figure buried within.

The problem is that, unless one is a particularly skilled artisan, sculpting from marble is a fairly inaccurate and clumsy job, with bulges of excess left in unsightly places. The shape of a hand or a face might be crudely left to stand. Without the proper tools, it is impossible to smooth out the rough edges. So too does it operate for the moral parallel – extraneous beliefs like talking snakes, flying horses, and an endless cycle of physical rebirth get left behind in a more-or-less perfectly serviceable framework, leaving it fundamentally flawed and cumbersome.

The opposite of this kind of faith-based moral sculpture would perhaps be more akin to architecture* – start with a blank piece of paper and then build upon it what is necessary to meet the needs of the task. Structural elements – a definition of ‘the good’, a method of making moral comparisons, some basic maxims – are of primary importance or the whole endeavour collapses upon itself. Once the basic components are in place, however, the rest of the exercise depends on the creativity of the architect. Some moral codes are elaborate and ornate, others are far more minimalist and spartan.

The reason why the architecture method (that of a rational humanist) is superior to the sculpture method (that of a religious moderate) is that, aside from the load-bearing crossbeams, any or all of the other pieces can be removed or modified to fit a changing reality. An infelxible moral code is inert and non-responsive when circumstances dictate – the famous case, for example, of lying to the SS officer about the Jews hiding in your attic. A responsive moral framework allows for compromises that still serve the underlying premises without major conflict.

A sculpted morality, on the other hand, completely collapses when any of its structural elements are strained. Remove the wrong piece of stone, wield the chisel just a shade too hard, and the whole endeavour is irretrievably disfigured. It is this kind of morality that forces someone to concede that genocide might be justifiable if it was willed by the creator of the universe. Like a human face with a gouged eye, or a hand missing a finger, the resulting product is ugly. We can see what was intended, but lost through an inexpert process.

Skeptical free thought allows us this architect’s process – a way of crafting a worldview, moral or otherwise, that is individual and customizable without requiring burdensome excess or the risk of disfigurement beyond recognition.

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*The irony of this allusion should not be lost on those who have read The Fountainhead, whose protagonist actually is an architect, as well as being more or less the prototype upon which Richard from Faith of the Fallen is based.


  1. julian says

    A sculpted morality, on the other hand, completely collapses when any of its structural elements are strained.

    Which is what makes compromise and discussion with believers so frustrating. Their entire moral framework demands everything stay as is even after it becomes ridiculous to do so leading to cog. dis. out the wazoo.

    To me the most irritating manifestation of ‘sculpted morality’ is the refusal to acknowledge different facets of a fact. It can only have one possible meaning and the one they have is the correct on. Never mind this view invariably comes about from ignoring the context and contradicting evidence.

    For example. Gay marriage. Marriage, rather than being an expression of love or commitment, becomes about procreation. Literally about sticking your dick in a pussy to make babies. Never mind everything else. In order to preserve their moral outlook marriage becomes an inflexible cog with one purpose and one purpose only.

  2. No Unicorns says

    Hi there,

    I’ve been reading here since you moved to FTB, and I’ve appreciated much of what you’ve written – lots for me to think about.

    I rarely comment on any of the blogs I follow, but this piece resonated with me to the point that I felt moved to comment. You’ve provided me with a wonderful metaphor.

    I chipped away at the sculpture for a long time.

    Science – chip, Genesis falls away, rather quickly, in a big lump.
    History and archaeology – chip, there goes Exodus.
    More history – chip, Luke’s story of the nativity looks like story, not history.

    Chip, chip, chip.

    What was left? Marble dust in a shaft of sunlight, for a time. Pretty, swirling but amorphous. And then, even the dust settled.

    And now I am embarking on my work as the architect of my worldview. Perhaps I’m tracing the design in the dust of the vanished sculpture, but there, all similarity ends.

    Thank you.

  3. Jenny Draper says

    Hmm. I’ve never read Goodwin, but it sounds like he robbed Michelangelo, who said of David: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” and “You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David”.

  4. Nentuaby says

    Yeah, the whole “I just carve away the parts that AREN’T my sculpture” is an old, worn sculptor’s cliche. Nobody ever accused Terry Rand of being a font of originality. 😛

  5. julian says

    Hey now, he did have old people sex in the first book. Old saggy sex is sometimes hard to come by in fantasy.

  6. Beauzeaux says

    “The best artist has that thought alone Which is contained within the marble shell; The sculptor’s hand can only break the spell To free the figures slumbering in the stone” — Michelangelo

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    I made it all the way through one chapter of one Terry Goodkind book before putting it in the donate pile and vowing never to waste a minute on him again.

    He and T. Brooks are the foundation on which was erected the praise of Pratchett for being the only Terry who can write readable fantasy.

  8. geocatherder says

    Interesting metaphor. As a one-time art student, I’ve tried both subtractive sculpture (removing the not-image from a block of rock or plaster)and additive sculpture (creating the image from components, much like architecture). I found the former far, far more difficult, psychologically, than the latter. I also found that my gradual disengagement from faith (a subtractive activity) much more difficult than my construction of an atheist morality (an additive activity).

  9. chrisdevries says

    Heh, that’s funny. I’m 9 books into The Sword of Truth series and my favourite is also Faith of the Fallen. I like it much better than Rand’s two famous tomes, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead for a variety of reasons. It’s shorter (big bonus) and doesn’t really go into long rants about objectivism, a flawed philosophy in my opinion. There is an actual believable oppressor, in Nikki and the Order, who see their way as virtuous. And I suppose the biggest reason I like it better than Rand is that it doesn’t make large, sweeping blanket statements about the way things should be. There is moral subtlety in Goodkind’s book. Richard is flawed; he isn’t the God-delivered savior, the one with all the answers. He needs to navigate his own way through the moral morass to see his destiny, and to take up the leadership of the New World again. Also, while he is technically a monarch/emperor, he want his people to choose their own path, to be free. I don’t know how the story will conclude, but I can see the D’Haran Empire morphing into the Republic of D’Hara. Given the governance displayed in the books thus far, democracy seems like a new idea.

  10. badandfierce says

    Wow, I’m amazed even a starting point for a decent argument could have been found in those awful books. And that anyone could see veiled Objectivism in The Sword of Vicious Misogyny. The godawful things read like Ayn Rand got rid of her thesaurus and decided to artlessly rip off Star Wars instead of Nietzche for a change.

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