Friday, September 11, 2009

Reverse-Engineering Religion, part one: An Immodest Proposal

I have a deep and perverse fascination with religion as a mind virus. I don't mean that it's morally perverse, but... umm... "phenomenologically perverse." Yeah, that's a properly awkward term for a rather awkward experience: the more I satisfy my curiosity on religion, the more I indulge my fascination by thinking about it and looking at it, the worse I feel. Religion is just so good at infecting and repurposing human minds to propagate itself throughout culture, and I feel so icky that it has these awful effects on those people and those minds. To paraphrase Voltaire, if there were no God, the idea of him would make zombies of us anyway.

That's thing one. Thing two is this Times Online article that PZ Myers thrashed on Pharyngula. Now, I don't disagree with Dr. Myers - I mean, after all, he would know. The shit is just common sense, and he's a doctor - that's just a winning setup for being right. This is a thought experiment, though, so I want to ask: what if we're wrong? If we're wrong on this one, and somehow, for whatever reason, it actually turns out to be the case that some people need religion, then... shouldn't they have the best religion possible?

That's the hook, and here's the pitch: let's hedge our bets on the principle of skepticism (you know, take precautions just in case we're wrong), while also taking into account the idea that "religious belief [is] a path of least resistance for many people," and have a little fun at the same time! Let's give the religious moderates the path of least resistance we'd like them to take, as a sort of cultural triage to save the world from the very worst evils of religion by building a better one until we can eliminate it completely. Let's reverse-engineer religion, see if we can find out what makes it tick as a mind-infecting idea, but design it to have good effects: an intelligently designed memetic symbiote built to oust the obsolete organic model, until we've outgrown the whole thing as a species.

It worked for L Ron Hubbard (building a religion, not making the world a better place), and I think I'm smarter than he is. I also think I'm a better person, so I'm going to try to do a better job than he did: I'm going to try to maximize the social cohesion aspect, minimize the bigotry and insanity, maintain the mystery of faith and sense of mythic storytelling, deliver a code of conduct in line with the best humanist ethics I'm aware of, and top it off with some metaphysical ultimates that in no way conflict with science (I promise!). This religion is going to be reason-proof and reason-friendly, if you can believe it! For bonus points, I'll try to future-proof it by working in some sort of auto-correcting update mechanism (something like, "listen to the scientists, even if this book disagrees with them").

Still not with me on this one? OK, let me put it this way: imagine yourself in the tragic dilemma of needing to pick a religion to be the One Truth of the Universe. I know it could never happen, but still. My goal is to build a religion that would be an easy choice. See? It's like a game!


Mr G Montag said...

The problem is that the fight against religion isn't about any particular world view or doctrine, it's strictly epistemic and I don't see that as something we could be wrong about. I mean for crud's sake, is there anything more simple than whatever it is we believe it better be true about the world? If you can't manage that much the only place I can suggest is a padded room. The next problem then however is that's exactly how much the religious can't manage so...

Mr G Montag said...

Actually, belay the pessimism and let me change my tack. Maybe "believe what is true" is a good start if you're willing to make that a part of your religion.

D said...

Hoo, boy. I wish that worked; I really, really do. If it did, though, then it would have worked by now.

Everyone wants to believe what is true. Some people attack this by keeping a wether eye out for new facts and information, with a twist of mental bookkeeping any time new discoveries need to oust old facts or systems of thought. Others try to find the One Truth of the Universe and stick with it 'til they fucking die, because they and their ancestors have come too far down this path to turn back now, right?

Well, unless they're dead fuck wrong. I mean, that would tend to put a fly in the ointment.

Also, for the record, human brains are not rationality machines, and I believe that everyone has their own private insanities (some are just more obvious or more popular than others).