Ok I’m going to talk about religion for a bit. I hope you don’t mind. This isn’t going to be a Dawkins style, mouth-frothing rant, and no I’m not knocking on your door asking for you to let Jesus into your life. I’m not religious, nor am I anti-religious. I suppose I should pretend that it’s the proximity to Christmas that’s turned my thoughts in this way, but it isn’t. I’ll try not to be too boring and I promise I’ll talk about robots, aliens and the future before the end.
Ok, here goes…
Human minds are creative, story telling machines. Since our earliest days we’ve used religion as a way to represent and reflect the world we live in. We’ve used it to answer the questions that this perplexing world we find ourselves in throws up.
The earliest religious images came in the form of mother goddess figurines and representations of the animals early humans hunted. These cave paintings seem to express hunter gathers’ belief that they could spiritually commune with bison and deer; shape shifting shamans becoming one with their prey. This early religious belief reflects very closely the things that people held in the highest regard at the time; the women whose dangerous and heroic effort of child birth gave life, and the animals that we relied on to sustain it.
With the onset of urban, literate civilizations that sprung up in southern Iraq around 5000 years ago there was a shift in the make-up of society. Power became the province of men and the focus of religion moved to masculine gods. Each of these new cities had temples at their very heart, which were the source of their power. The poor mother goddess was relegated to an interesting underling, worthy of reverence but knowing her place in the grand scheme of things.
So religion evolved alongside our own culture, shaping it and being shaped by it. This could be viewed as a kind of symbiotic relationship or even as a parasite/host relationship if you want to be cynical about it (which I’m not). I’m kind of veering into Dawkins’ ideas on memes now and I promise I’ll stop.
Another good example of this is the development of Christianity. This radical cult sprang up in the early decades of the Common Era in a time when radical cults were ten-a-penny. There wasn’t much about this cult that was all that special either. But this one sect pulled off a trick that none of the others managed, and is why we’re celebrating Christmas and not a festival of Mithras or some Gnostic knees-up. It managed to attach itself to power. In the 4th Century CE Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Bob’s your uncle.
As the religion of the state, Christianity proceeded to shape its doctrines, beliefs and rituals to solidify the stratification of society and enshrine the power of the establishment. The power of the book and of writing kept access to sacred knowledge and power to the lucky few who were trained by the church and the state. The rest of the population, being illiterate, just had to turn up at Mass on a Sunday and do as they were told. Interestingly the mother goddess (Mary – mother of God) is still there as a central yet subordinate figure.
Fast forward a thousand years and we’ve got another huge cultural upheaval, reformulation of society and also a technological revolution to boot. And, low and behold, this led to a massive reformulation of religious ideas and practice.
Half way through the 14th Century, Europe was swept by the Black Death pandemic that killed off between a third and a half of the population. Pretty fucking brutal. One side effect of this, however, was to rebalance the power structures of the time. Before the plague, labor was cheap and peasants were in abundance. But, when the population was cut so dramatically, the workforce that remained was now in high demand and started to ask for higher wages. Those in power tried all they could to keep wages low and this lead to peasants’ revolts all across Europe. Our own one lead to some dude getting stabbed up in Smithfield.
With this newfound consciousness the people began to turn their questioning towards the Church which was a huge landowner and was corrupt on many levels. Intellectuals had been criticizing Church practices for some time and this usually ended badly/painfully for those who chose to speak out. But in the middle of the Fifteenth Century a new technological revolution happened that would make this dissent unstoppable. This revolution was printing and it started an explosion in the sharing of information at much greater speeds than had been possible before across the continent between networks of activists and it would change the way people thought forever.
Before printing, books had to be copied out by hand by scribes in monasteries. This gave the church a complete monopoly over the written word and also made books fucking expensive. With the onset of printing the power of the written word moved into the hands of normal people, who could churn out books and pamphlets at a frightening rate. Within a few years of the first press being set up in Mainz by Johannes Gutenberg printing presses were springing up across the continent. While it may take a day or more for a scribe to copy out a page by hand, a mechanical printing press with movable type could churn out hundreds or thousands of pages in the same time. This new technology was used, alongside the old fashioned method of word of mouth, to transmit opposition to the Catholic Church around Europe.
When you look at the ideas of the reformation they’re pretty radical for the time. The basic principals were that everyone had their own direct relationship with God and that the state endorsed hierarchies of the Catholic Church were completely useless. Each man or woman was created equal and the Pope was the antichrist. Pretty radical for the time and you can see why the Catholic Church was pretty cheesed off by the whole thing. At the most extreme end of the spectrum you have the Anabaptists. These guys were basically a sect of radical anarchists in an age when God was fact. They even took over the city of Munster and ruled it as some kind of weird commune, which ended pretty badly, it has to be said (look it up – especially if you’re into millenarianism, polygamy, starvation and torture).
So, we have a shift in the fabric of society and religion changes to reflect this. Add to that a revolution in information technology and we’ve got some pretty world changing stuff on our hands. But, did we change religion or did religion itself change to adapt to the times?
Now in the 21st Century we can see similar things at work. With the internet we’ve got another new technology that spreads ideas like lightning and this has provided just the type of rich ecosystem in which religious ideas love to propagate. Just look at the use of the internet and social media by Islamic extremists. These marginal sects have found themselves a world wide audience by their savvy use of information technology which have given them the means to spread their message across the world and recruit countless people to their causes.
I realize this is a pretty negative example and I’m not trying to tar the whole of religion with this brush. Just remember that the church does a lot to help the downtrodden people in our society and the past two Archbishops of Canterbury (Williams and Welby) have been two of the most consistent critics of this current government, and are consistently speaking out in support of left wing ideals. In fact I believe there was even a survey recently that showed that, at least in this country, the beliefs of the Anglican clergy are substantially to the left of most of their congregations. But, that said, the Jihadist example shows how well religious ideas thrive in the online medium.
There are other examples of how religion has adapted to and endorsed our new technological age. I love the fact that the Internet even has a patron saint - Saint Isidore of Seville.
So what next? We can be sure that religion, along with all ideas, will continue to evolve alongside us and our technology in that symbiotic or parasite/host relationship I was talking about earlier. But how will it change to reflect our own changing world? Well I suppose that all depends on how we change and, as promised, now I’m going to talk about robots, AI, and all that stuff.
One idea put forward by Ray Kurzweil is that human beings will soon be able to upload their consciousness onto the internet and therefore transcend time and space. This may seem far-fetched but as we spend more and more of our time online and the boundary between human and computer becomes more blurred I don’t think this is too much of a jump. When we live as avatars and inhabit a purely digital world what will our religion look like then? Will we bring our old religions with us? Will we worship the digital substrate in which we live? Or will the fact that we have become infinite, immaterial beings mean that we will then be gods ourselves?
Also, advances in computer science are bringing the possibility of genuine artificial intelligence closer to becoming a reality. So, if we create thinking machines will they have religion? We may try to program them to see us, their human creators, as gods but my suspicion is that if they are formulated along similar lines to our own creative, story telling ways of seeing the world they will have their own unique ideas of god if they have them at all.
Someone who thought a lot about extrapolating religion into the future was Frank Herbert in his Dune series of sci-fi novels (according to one source – me – Dune is officially the best book ever written). Herbert imagines a far-flung future in which humans have spread themselves to the furthest reaches of the universe and they have taken their religion with them. Although the religions have evolved all of the familiar structures are still there. Religion still performs the same function as it does today, attaching itself to power and is used by humans for their own ends and as an expression of themselves. Herbert’s universe is populated by the breeding programs of the Bene Geserit, the doctrines of the Orange Catholic Bible, the synthesis of Zensunni philosophy and the universal Jihad of the Fremen from the desert planet Dune. So Herbert sees religion travelling forward into the future and inhabiting the same evolutionary and social niches as it does today.
Now that scientists predict that there could be billions upon billions of planets orbiting other stars it seems ever more likely that one day we might encounter intelligent beings from other worlds and, if so, do we think they will have their own religion? Perhaps they’d have their own versions of Jesus Christ, or the Buddah or some other religious figures. If their societies have developed along similar lines to ours then I don’t think it’s impossible that their religions might take a similar shape to ours. But what if they’ve developed along different lines? I’m willing to bet that however their societies look, their religions (if they have them) will be a creative reflection of the world as they see it.
All hail our new galactic overlords.
And a very happy Christmas to them too.