Religion

Apple creates religious experiences, not by being consistently awesome, but by making us yearn for rare, sublime moments of awesomeness

Apple products aren't user-friendly. Average users frequently encounter frustrations trying to do simple things, and yet the reputation of user-friendliness persists for Apple. Without a question, Apple's products are relatively more user-friendly than their competitors, but they get away with the "user-friendly" label because they add something extra to their user interfaces: the random religious experience.

Some of the time, when using an Apple product, there are magical "it just works" moments that are nearly absent in all of their competitors. The Apple experience then becomes like actual religious experiences in that they create a separate aspirational experience. Most churchgoers do not experience an epiphany every Sunday or when they pray. But most of them have had some significant, moving experience at some point in their life, and it's the hoping for that experience that is the bulk of their day-to-day religious experience. The aspiration is enough to be a kind of religious experience in of itself.

Archaeology is like aliens trying to understand humans by analyzing bubble gum wrappers

If a meteor killed all humans and destroyed most of civilization, what would a curious alien find? Most likely they would discover a cell phone screen here, a half-sneaker there, and some bits of a gun over there—all traces of modern civilization. The odds that aliens would ever find evidence of transitional human societies—spearheads from the Assyrians, horse-and-carriages from the British, or stone buildings from Babylon—are one in a billion. An alien is a billion times more likely to find a bubble gum wrapper than a piece of papyrus. The alien would then naturally conclude that some "intelligent designer" must have created this modern civilization as is, for there would be none or barely any record of its gradual development.

Asking whether or not we're in a simulator is uninteresting because it's ultimately like asking whether or not God exists

It's like asking whether or not we're in a dream or we're in some other being's thoughts. The question starts in earnest as a physics inquiry, but it clearly becomes a metaphysical one, which presumes the existence of something beyond physics.

Atheism needed self-help to redeem the power of rhetoric over the soul and hand it back to the individual

The beginning of storytelling is the beginning of when words developed a life of their own. Originally, words were uttered for relational or informational notification such as, "Look out a snake!" or "I love you." In stories, words transcend space and time. A stream of storied text is like a magic spell that delivers blasts of pleasure when uttered. A story doesn't have to point to something happening here and now, and therefore it has a life of its own.

It's likely that the first shamans and druids were originally storytellers. Religion is all about the toll-free bridge between rhetoric and the soul. Sin is a word, which becomes a thought, which becomes one's damnation. The priest utters some words, perhaps even unintelligible words in Latin or glossolalia, which then lift one's spirits. It happens so automatically that we take for granted that a stranger can broadcast some words to a crowd and have it affect everybody's identities.

So, first it was the story, then came religion, and now it's self-help. The difference between religion and self-help is that the latter spells out the mechanics of the link between rhetoric and the soul. The power of positive thinking, or the laws of attraction, or Dianetics, all aim to not only show us that words have power, but that we can manipulate those words. Armed now with two centuries of psychological research, it's no longer necessary to tell people that God condemns them to make them feel guilty. Instead, a cognitive behavioral therapist explains how negative distortions create negative feelings which lead to negative actions, and it is up to us to dispute such distortions.

Dianetics and The Secret are preludes to the day when a self-help book outranks the Bible

Not too long from now, a secular self-help book will compete in popularity and influence with the Bible. In The Secret, the Law of Attraction is essentially prayer. In The Purpose-Driven Life, finding purpose is like finding a guiding light or God. And in Dianetics, auditing is intercession.

There are New Age seminars on The Secret, there are Christian reading groups for The Purpose-Driven Life, and there are Scientologist congregations who study Dianetics. At some point, these stand-ins for religion will eclipse the religions that inspired them in the first place, and someone will take the oath of office of the President of the United States on a copy of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Esoteric Threshold

50% of Americans reject evolution. The sad thing is that that number probably won't change for a long time, if at all. Scientific advances since the mid-1800s ceased to become advances in the lay understanding of science. All advances before then ultimately permanently enlightened humanity. 99% of people believe the Earth is round and that the Earth revolves around the sun, despite a lack of direct observation. But concepts like relativity or evolution either require an advanced understanding of science or a tremendous amount of faith in it. And most people's faith in God is stronger. Of the 50% of Americans who do believe in evolution, probably only 5% remember why they adopted that belief in the first place. And only 1% can explain the actual evidence for it.

You can probably take every academic discipline and point to a date in history when it breached that esoteric threshold, after which any further advances only enlightened experts and insiders. If you took the earliest of those dates, they would mark the beginning of the end for the "Renaissance Man," the person who could know the sum of human knowledge up to that point.

What does it mean if all future advances are increasingly esoteric? What if it gets to the point where even the vast majority of academics within a discipline can't keep up? One journalist reported that professors now rubber-stamp peer reviews simply because they don't have the time, energy, or expertise to wrap their head around the papers.

There is a video on YouTube of the construction process for a Boeing 747, and it occurs to the viewer that there probably doesn't exist a single engineer working on it who has a concept of how to build the whole thing. All the instruction manuals have been lost or are indecipherable. If you annihilated that factory and asked them to make a Boeing 747 from scratch, they'd have to nearly re-invent it.

Likewise, computer chips are now manufactured using automated processes programmed using computers. If we destroyed all the computers in the world today, how long would it take for us to get back to a modern processor like the Intel Core Duo 2.4 Ghz? Would we have to recapitulate the history of the development of computers?

Could we ever get to a level of advancement and sophistication where we no longer have an idea how everything around us came to be? What would happen to our faith then?

For religion, the goal is the goal, which is why abstinence pledges persist despite all the data against them

Religion is all about goals and intent. Preventing murder is a worthy goal, for example, according to most religions. Whether or not people follow up on these goals is not what they're concerned about, at least not directly. There aren't social scientists within the Church studying whether or not their messages change communities in a methodical way. Instead, their "social scientists" are religious scholars who study ancient texts for their resonance with souls.

This religious mindset has been made apparent by the debate over abstinence vs. sex education in schools. Abstinence pledges are ineffective. Teens who make the pledges have as much premarital sex as teens who don't, and they are more likely to be unprotected while having it. This flaw is irrelevant to the Christian Right, though, because the purpose for them is to perpetuate the value of abstinence. The job of preventing premarital sex, is, well, up to God and the individual. The Church is just providing the message.

Abstinence pledges do work in roughly 20% of cases, typically among pledges who go to Church regularly. So even if on average the abstinence pledges don't work in a statistically significant way, there are enough impressionable children for whom the word of the Lord will work. Perhaps the Church only cares about their regular flock: "Thou shalt obey certain rules. If you don't, then we'll guilt-trip you out of our group, and all that will be left are people who follow our rules." In other words, the Church is trying to create a world where abstinence is the dominant value.

If literacy and literalism go hand-in-hand, then so must radicalism and the Internet

Text and literalism go together. Once a rule is in writing, it can always be referenced, and usually referenced one specific way. Likewise, upon the arrival of the printing press, Christian literalism saw a resurgence in Protestantism and eventually Puritanism which laid the groundwork for the early American cultural foundation. Could it be possible that the Internet, which is as significant an explosion in text as the printing press, has led to increased literalism? Although this hasn't resulted in religious puritanism given that the religiosity in modern times is at a nadir, it has led to politically polarized minds and a prevalence of conspiracy theories. The Internet helps people codify their beliefs by giving text to every position, both extreme and generic, leading to radicalism and rigidity.

In a way, not teaching about contraceptives adds a fearless edge to the abstinence pledge

Are abstinence pledges and condoms mutually exclusive? There is a cognitive dissonance necessary to pledge not to have premarital sex and yet carry condoms on your person. To do so would be like hedging your bets. One could say, "I'll try my best not to have sex before marriage, but if I do, I'll make sure it's protected sex." While that would be an emotionally mature and realistic thing to say, it lacks the focus or commitment inherent in a pledge, especially a public one. It doesn't exactly inspire the locking of arms. And so perhaps abstinence pledges are only meant to bind those already close to avoiding sex altogether in the first place, or lock out those close to or already having it.

Instead of Biblical literalism, how about Biblical proportionalism: Apply rules by how on often the Bible mentions them

Is the point of the Bible to spread virtue, or is it to spread virtuous talk?

When studies came out that abstinence pledges were shown to have zero or a potentially negative impact on premarital sex among students, religious officials scoffed at the results. And while this is par for the course when religion meets science, it's especially troublesome because it reveals that efficacy is not the point. The pledge is the point. And perhaps this is the whole point of the Bible. It is a virtue pledge that has endured for thousands of years just because people believe that talking about virtue helps spread virtue. Maybe it just helps spread virtuous talk.

Joseph Campbell's hero's journey is universal, simply because it's the most efficient, entertaining story about self-actualization

Joseph Campbell's presentation of the monomyth is designed purposefully with an unanswered mystery. That there exists common myths in cultures that did not have contact with each other bespeaks of some innate, shared human longing, and therefore something universally identifiable with the hero's journey.

However, it's a simple exercise to guess what this innate, shared longing is all about. For one, the hero's journey is simply about education. Parents tell children stories about heroes to instill courage in grappling with the unknown: "There may be woolly mammoths in some valley or some other such mystery, but you will figure it out. If not, there will be mentors along the way." It reinforces the role of teachers, but also that of students transcending their teachers to acquire new knowledge.

The monomyth also follows the laws of flow, with the hero or player attempting something beyond their skillset, thereby causing anxiety and doubt. Eventually, through practice or trial-and-error (i.e. falling into the abyss), they will transform into new capable players and return to the village with bounty. The hero's journey is, therefore, the most compact, entertaining story about self-actualization.

Or, the monomyth is just what happens when a basic story reaches its logical form after generations of evolution. The first version could have been, "John went out into the woods, was hungry, starved for a few days, but invented bear traps, then came back with bear meat for the tribe." After iterative storytelling, with adjustments made over years to increase the story's appeal, it becomes, "John was hungry, had visions (i.e. hallucinated), was eaten by the bear, but became a bear god in the process, and now watches over the universe." The consequences are exaggerated to involve death and the abyss, and the stakes are made astronomical, with the whole world hanging in the balance. All of this makes for better storytelling, which means that the monomyth has a lot in common with a writer's room plumbing the human psyche for the most viral stories possible.

Maybe the bear case for religion is that change is happening too fast

Religion sells stability. But norms, such as marriage, race relations, and career choices, are changing too quickly for religion to adapt. The diversity of ideas is too problematic for the hegemony of religion. This could just be a Judeo-Christian problem, as Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which sprung from longer-lasting large-city civilizations, are much more flexible. Or perhaps, this change will drive Western religion to its original status as a cult, serving small communities with uniformity.

Religion evolved from the genes for obedience and leadership

The evolution of religion follows the evolution of fashion. Fashion itself isn't a gene, but a sense of art and a desire to look good are. Both evolved independently over an extended time period, but when combined, quickly produced the fashion skill, which may have then fed back into those first genes, thus enhancing our interest in art and a desire to look good.

Likewise, religion isn't a gene, but obedience and leadership are. Both genes are independently useful, and whenever the accidental invention of religion arrived, religious obedience and religious leadership became even more useful, as religions created groups, and groups became the dominant source of power.

Religion might be the byproduct of the war between dictator genes and free-thinker genes

Religion might have evolved in a similar fashion to the arms race between liars and lie-detectors. Our distant ancestors may have had more free-thinking genes or even culture, but they were defeated by those with genes for controlling others. We may have even been more rational and atheist, but priests/dictators killed off—or at least, ostracized—independent-thinkers, both within their tribe and in other tribes. Likewise, genes for independent thinking may have developed depth in response to the challenge from dictators. In which case, our advanced brainpower may be the result of eons of struggling between alpha and beta males.

Religions sell slowness

Religions sell slowness. The slower the religion, the more long-lasting. The Bible is a wiki where new entries or changes get added every hundred years. In a sea of shifting morals or attitudes, religion provides code that doesn't change, or if it does change, changes merely by shades of interpretation. Or if there is a schism, it's because the religion gets truer. Even if the religion does change, it's to unwind improper deviations. The unchangeability is the message.

Spiritual awakenings vary by geography, with cosmopolitan, New Ageism on the coasts, and provincial, New Sectarianism on the interior

The nature of spiritual awakenings varies by geography. In middle America, a spiritual awakening often results in switching to a different Christian sect, such as Pentecostalism. In coastal America, a spiritual awakening often results in discovering something New Age, such as Buddhism.

Perhaps coastal people are naturally cosmopolitan. Always looking beyond the waters, broadening their horizons, and greeting aliens, they are comfortable integrating strange ideas. In landlocked areas, like Minnesota, there are less external stimuli. Minnesotans must turn inward, divide their horizons into smaller segments, and form tribes within larger tribes, like Christian sects. Innovation on the coast is outward toward new ideas. Innovation on the interior is inward, toward nuance, provincialism, and the modification of traditions.

If religion were a pie, then cosmopolitan seekers would want a different kind of pie, whereas provincial seekers would find the best parts of the existing pie, and make that their focus.

The genes that enable religion to flourish are the same genes that evolved to solve the problem of collective action

The limiting factor for group size is coordinated action. Wolf packs, for example, have a simple system that involves following a leader's whim. If the leader attacks, so does the pack. Chimpanzees have more complicated hierarchies and sophisticated communication, and therefore they can patiently wait for the right moment, sometimes over days and weeks, before coordinating the overthrow of a leader or a competing tribe.

But when a tribe's size reaches for the hundreds or thousands, coordinated action is confounded by rival factions. In a leader-following system, the alpha could stand on a perch and command, "Okay herd, let's jump up at the same time." If the group is small, everybody will jump. But if the group is large, there is too much incentive for people to disregard the distant alpha's commands and obey a local one.

Religion solves this problem by making humans not just receptive to commands from leaders, but receptive to commands from culture. The culture, or society, or the hive, or God, i.e. the group, can—through anointed voice boxes—say, "Okay herd, let's jump at the same time, X says so," and a thousand or a million people will do what It wills.

The infallibility paradox of the Bible is that it is both absolute and "what we make of it."

Dawkins popularized the notion of memes, which are like genes but for the mind. Different ideas use our brains as hosts to propagate themselves, as can be seen with viral media. Memes combine together into memeplexes, which are like organisms, with smaller memes (such as one for Heaven or one for God) developing a symbiotic relationship (such as a religion). The reason the Bible is such a good memeplex is best understood through a metaphor of a piano. Every verse in the Bible is a key on the piano, and preachers are like musicians, building chord progressions into songs—i.e. verses into sermons—to justify whatever their message is.

The Bible is simultaneously "what we make of it" and absolute. It's paradoxically strict and flexible, so flexible that it has led to myriad varieties of Christian sects, such as ones that emphasize populism, hard work, "speaking in tongues," and polygamy. Its strictness is then of a higher order. The infallibility is more of a matter of tone. No matter what Christian sect you belong to, the Bible chastens you about the nature of good and evil, and it's that chastening that is eternally useful to spiritual leaders.

We already have a tool for eugenics, and it's dating within our own religions

There are no deplorables at the religious service, maybe a few token ones for inclusiveness, but those that can't sit and behave and be introduced to the priest's daughter are tacitly excluded.

We invented God as a face-saving way to resolve arguments, turning "my way or the highway" into "God's way."

Heated arguments seem to ultimately become fights over who has a better handle on reality. So the secret is for both parties not to believe they are the end-all, be-all of knowledge. They need to become open to a referee "out there." A belief in God can provide such a mindset because God acts a neutral third-party. By believing in God, you believe there is something separate from us that has the real answers. "Well, it's not what I think, nor what you think, but what some Third thinks." Plus, when an argument ceases (either through disagreement, agreement, or postponement), there may be less bitterness because the final settlement will occur under God's bookkeeping, not ours.

Of course, a belief in God doesn't automatically end disputes. A couple could argue with each other over their interpretation of God or religion. However, arguing over an interpretation of the neutral third-party seems less rough than arguing over, "What I think vs. what you think." Plus, if both parties regularly attend the meetings of their organized religion, or maintain a strong belief in a particular dogma, there will be less room for misinterpretation.

In some ways, this is an argument against disagreement in a relationship. Some will say that good relationships have "healthy" and "lively" patterns of disagreement. But while as debates are fun among friends or partners who don't share children, they're fatal to a relationship when the disagreements are about serious topics, such as child-rearing or money.

We mask our eugenics instinct through religion

Even though eugenics is verboten, we practice it collectively by each of us selecting the best possible mate. However, because this practice is an undirected, collective effort, it's free from blame, as opposed to a government program, which has collective intent. When the group directs the gene pool, it's abhorrent.

But there is a group direction of gene pools, and it comes from religion. When people date within their religion or when a religion urges its flock to date amongst themselves, the religion is asking for genetic isolation and hopefully, improvement. Sure, it's under the guise of people of the same beliefs sticking together, but indirectly it leads to the select mating with the select. Religion also serves eugenics through exclusion. Churches tacitly block "undesireables" from entering, despite being born into that religion. Religion is, therefore, a tool by which we can mask our potentially ugliest practices through creative rhetoric, distracting rituals, and supernatural jargon. There's a reason they call Sunday "the most segregated day in America."