Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Mystique of Faith and the Lock-in Clause

I’m convinced that there is something in human societies, starting with the most primitive ones, that works inexorably towards a theory of everything (or at least of everything that matters), and towards the visceral rejection of competing theories of everything.

Societies, even small hunter gatherer ones, need a common understanding of the world. We had no idea in that preliterate stage, or until very recently (and who knows, maybe not even now) how MUCH there was to understand. We thought it (everything that really mattered) would pretty much fit in one book (once we started writing books). In that “state of nature” (a very dubious phrase but let’s try it on for a moment), the system had to be coherent, which meant a need to separate what fit from what didn’t fit, and maybe a downright revulsion toward what was declared to not fit, so it would not hang around to confuse. This was necessary for developing and maintaining functional worldviews in the minds of the hundred or so people who worked as a group, and their methods of dealing with the world. This challenge called for a high degree of coherency, and a much less impressive degree of “rightness” — it just had to support interacting with the environment in a manner conducive to survival (hence "functional worldview").

Consistency of understanding within the group was indispensable for preventing a drift towards a hundred or so different worldviews incapable of supporting coordinated action. On the other hand, anything like what the modern mind would view as an accurate representation of nature was neither required, nor remotely achievable. To the extent that we now have such a representation, its most basic outline was the work of thousands of people over at least hundreds of years and only possible with the aid of literacy as a means of accumulating an unlimited collection of ideas and observations, not of necessity coherent (This requires writing at the minimum and almost certainly printing beyond some point).

A few thousand years ago in the early stages of literacy, the belief systems of some societies developed a lock-in clause. As already noted, some mechanism of making a set of ideas coherent, and rejecting what couldn't fit in a given system was always needed, and hence a part of our genetic makeup, but Judaism and still more Christianity, and still more Islam took an interesting extra step, which made believing the system the most important thing. Merely to call something important may generate a yawn, but to say "believe X and you’ll be in eternal paradise after death; don’t believe it and you’ll be tortured for eternity" - once people start believing a system containing such a clause, it becomes extremely difficult to then consider a different system. You would be flirting with the devil. Then there are corollaries like “If your children don’t grow up believing the TRUTH, they will be tortured for eternity”, which can make cruel practices seem like a necessary beneficence.

You can believe in fairies, or Buddha, or the Great Pumpkin all you want, but this lock-in clause makes a belief system rapacious and virulent. If this is hard to swallow for your belief system, see how it works with another system that uses it.

Agnosticism, besides being right in some deep ways that I might argue elsewhere, is a deliberate step back from the typical threatening posture of one belief system towards another. The harsher variants of Christianity and Islam have long ago developed automatic counterattack mechanisms for ideas that threaten their most vital parts (I am thinking along the lines of a meme-adaptation — adaptive for the belief system, while benignly or malevolently indifferent to people as such). This makes the threatening stance especially counterproductive with with these "Abrahamic" religions, and perhaps to Judaism as well, or some forms of it.

I think if we could gently but very persistently emphasize just the one point – that the lock-in clause of certain religions – which can lead to a mania for ideological purity, and which was ingeniously adapted by all the worst revolutionary movements of the 20th century (especially ingeniously used by Stalin) is perhaps the biggest cause of human misery - if we could make that a major part of the global conversation, we might start to get out of our current predicament.

If I seem too full of myself, truth is, I hope I’m not all that original and would appreciate pointers to other thinking along the same lines because I think I’m onto something important, and doubt I’m up to bringing the world around to it by myself (being 58 years old and having almost no connections to the world of serious thought).

 [Initially posted as a comment to - quite an interesting lengthy sane debate, with links to other thoughtful pieces]

1 comment:

  1. Good post. As a Christian who is nonetheless put off by organized religion, I believe that the second someone starts in with "you have to believe x or..." it's time to walk.