11 February, 2014

religion: a meme on its way out

"I am fascinated by religion. (That's a completely different thing from believing in it!) It has had such an incalculably huge effect on human affairs. What is it? What does it represent? Why have we invented it? How does it keep going? What will become of it? I love to keep poking and prodding at it. I've thought about it so much over the years that that fascination is bound to spill over into my writing." - Douglas Adams (The Salmon of Doubt, 2002)


praise the sun god, the giver of energy and life

for me to explain the origin of god would be to repeat what has already been said a million times, and in a million different ways. god may have been created as a placeholder for things yet unexplained, of which there were quite a few when the concept of god was invented. i am not sure when and why, but this is as good a guess as any

religion was law once
however, what is not a guess is that religion was created as a political identity/ideology. all religions are essentially laws about how life is to be lived. they provide a way to identify yourself, as well as the 'other'. the formation of an in-group identity allowed easy identification, as well as a clear definition of the out-group, who could be de-humanised, and hence hated. this is necessary in any political ideology, and is apparent even in the latest one: nationalism, as you can see with the similarities they both share in the way they foist themselves on the human mind, desperate to 'belong'

everyone wants to be part of a team
any such ideology needs one (or several) book(s), an ensign/flag, a colour, a song, a costume, and a secret/public identification system. all this symbolism leads to only one thing: individual and group identity

this is important for humans to be able to coalesce into a social group so as to fight collectively for limited resources, usually from other social groups, or even other species. it must follow that this be a trait of all developed brains, and assuredly, there are other mammals, and 'lower' life forms that display this phenomenon

a uniform, a book, a flag, a song, an enemy
so, how are we different? why don't ants, or bees, say, have religion? honestly, i cannot claim they don't, but prima facie, it seems humans are unique in this ability to create imagined gods, and then ascribe to them, various human characteristics, as well as laws that come straight from such divine beings, and are compulsory for the humans, at the cost of a wide range of punishments, both in this life, and the 'hereafter'

what is different for homo sapiens (i believe) is the recent (as compared to the origin of life) development of language, and writing (or, to be more generic about it: recorded communication). this allowed any meme, not just that for religion, to propagate faster, more efficiently, and with much more permanence than in any other animal. naturally, the memes which adapted to language and writing became tougher and tougher to kill, and religion seems to have evolved in a way that makes it the ideal parasite for the human brain, like a virus that harms the host just enough to benefit the parasite, but not enough to hamper its own reproduction and propagation

of course, with further development of the brain, the religious meme is likely to be discarded in the next hundred-odd years (what's a hundred years in human history? nothing), but it is quite likely to be replaced by a similar meme

nationalism is very much like religion, except with WMDs
it seems that the meme for nationalism might win this war, since by definition, they are rival ideas. witness how long it took for the christian meme to fall at the hands of western nationalism (itself not older than the french revolution), and how much of a rearguard action the muslim meme is desperately fighting against the same today. the pan-islamic movement(s) that consider all muslims part of one ummah, while condemning national constitutions, penal codes, and other secular laws as illegal are a proof that islam has realised that it is being encroached upon, and being driven out, unless it puts up a fight (and by god, what a fight it is putting up!)

nation before religion
every secular politician today wants you to put nation first, and religion next, even though both concepts, if seen carefully, are pretty similar. there ought to be a questioning why one must say american before christian, or indian before hindu, and what logic can being american provide that being christian cannot, but there isn't. the difference is slight, though significant enough to make the idea of nationalism more fit to survive, when compared to religion. slowly, the brain has started to accept this more and more as time passes, and it won't be long before nationalism will be the new theism. the signs are all there

we all know communism tried, but failed, against nationalism. to unite people across borders using a common idea is becoming more and more difficult due to the new parasite on the block (nationalism), and soon, we might see the rise of a new community: the anationals

the future?
but then, maybe even nationalism is fighting a losing battle today in face of the ubiquotous, mobile, always-on, always-connected world of the internet and the wispy, difficult to define social networks, which bring humans together without any reference to common geography, common history, or common currency. of course, that is another story altogether, and i have already written about it on a previous blogpost in some detail