I didn’t get God for the longest time.
Accepting God because I was presented no alternative was a strange relationship. I read constantly as a kid because I was a real faggot who couldn’t really understand people nearly as well as I could get everything else. At some point, there was a children’s illustrated bible hanging around and I read the stories to myself and thought about them. I can remember thinking from a young age that it seemed like a pretty good deal, but religion wasn’t any significant part of my life until my early teens. I’ll spare you the gory details. I went the whole nine yards, to say the least. The church honestly helped me build some confidence, maybe even too much. If you want to learn the social game, going to church is like playing the tutorial level. The gameplay kind of sucks, especially at a time when biology starts kicking your ass telling you to try fucking anything that moves.
This set of circumstances was the name of the game when it came to the role of the church back in the day; get the boys to work hard (the only way to burn off that extra aggression and sexual urge), and then get them to marry up early. They kept pretty strict social control by keeping a stigma on divorce, which meant it wasn’t a light undertaking. Mistakes were made in some cases, sometimes it was pretty unfortunate. Overall, people tended to report being happier. Personally, I wasn’t ready for it, I didn’t get all of that at the time. I am glad I went through it though, it gave me a lot without me even realising.
Then I had my critical awakening, standard procedure. Follow the internet memes and you’ll arrive at atheism eventually, often just before whatever other weird alt-culture you end up pulling into the station with. It’s something that you can’t seem to shut up about but is ultimately found entirely annoying by everyone else around you. If only the sheep could wake up and see that the wolves were taking such advantage of them! These organised religions have been the root of all evil! A denial of science became an act of war for the new atheist. It was suddenly fun to not believe in things.
Now hold on a second. Fucking memes? Are you kidding me, you prick? Is this a troll?
Hear me out.
Memetics is a just a school of thought that treats human ideas as having properties similar to biological genes. Memes. Whenever we transfer a thought they can mutate and morph away from their original form. Memes can even merge with others to take on new characteristics.
I’m going to stop hyperlinking here because you should read the rest as if it’s some crazy old book you picked up. There are enough links above to get you started, but I feel like what follows is an idea that one should find their own way on. I don’t want to “convert” you to anything, but I’d like to know what you think in the comments.
Any idea or principle we chose to spread appeals to us under a set of very specific conditions. Our biases and predispositions give our minds a landscape that ideas fill up. Our preconceptions will up these valleys with theories about how it all works, so your brain isn’t in constant panic mode. Human-style thought might just very well be an off-shoot of some really advanced adrenal control software.
Internet memes are the most simple distillation of this idea. You spread an image paired with the same joke enough times and that visual adopts the context of the joke. The actual meat of the joke can then change within the confines of the primer given by picture. You always know how these jokes go, but the change of context can still be unexpected, and thus worth sharing. It’s a prime for a familiar feeling, and then a joke that takes advantage of the context provided by that. Employing this kind of minimalism makes these little packets of human knowledge ideal for export and sharing.
Some of these memes are more successful at spreading than others.
The is because they appeal to a stronger set of unconscious biases in people. You have a natural instinct to hoard food, it’s built into your very nature. So when a restaurant comes along that offers an All-U-Can-Eat! Smörgasbord, your brain immediately tells you that this is a great idea. Meanwhile, the food may very well be killing you, but your body is always looking to create fat stores for a rainy day. This is why people can eat themselves to death.
The buffet is a restaurant meme that sticks around because it works, and it works because it appeals to your instincts. A lot of old cliches and wives-tales don’t make sense under the sterile light of logic. But their subtle wisdom only begins to become apparent when the lights are out and the creepy-crawlies are allowed to get all over things.
String enough of these memes together and they form something Dawkins called a “memeplex”. A knot of ideas that all feed into the same biases. Since they can lend support to one another, it becomes exceedingly difficult to unravel piece-by-piece. One must spend time gently tugging at various ends of the ball in an effort to preserve some pieces over others intended to be discarded. Most people don’t care enough about the outcome to ever put in that kind of effort. It is an idea that fits the right-shaped-hole after all. My favourite solution to these Gordian knots is to cut the thing in half and see which pieces make it.
I found myself staring down the barrel of religion again.
Except that this time I hadn’t come looking for a fight. Instead, I had come to ask some bigger questions about what exactly religion plays to. Why were these memes so successful? Which natural process do they appeal to? Is there something else here?
I very quickly found my way to the neuroscience corner of the library. Neuroscience is a massive uncolonized frontier in science at the moment. Recent advances in the technology available to researchers have opened up some real pandora’s boxes when it comes to questioning things like perception, personality, and intelligence. I read Sam Harris’ book Waking Up, which was an excellent attempt to frame a scientific approach to the investigation of spiritual experiences, all from the perspective of a neuroscientist. I figured that learning how the brain worked was critical in understanding the nature of human impulses.
There is a process by which a human idea can be translated into sensory information. Usually through words or pictures, spoken or seen. These patterns are interpreted by another mind through its own sensory organs and translated into electrical signals in the brain. These signals are passed through a series of switches called neurones, that can process the incoming information in a number of ways and then generate an output. Depending on which switches get flipped, in which way, and in which order, a thought is produced. That creates a mental simulation in a way that you interpret as meaningful.
Much of this knowledge can then be acted on, manifesting a physical behaviour. Thoughts lead to actions, in other words. Think of how many things you have learned to do either by reading, observing someone’s technique, or listening to another describe the process to you? Any ancient tradition is a meme that worked well enough to stick around.
Effective transference of knowledge is a big asset to our species, so these data processing centres are really dialed-in to thinking about things empathetically; as these actions generally benefit the social group as a whole. “Do unto others, what you would have them do to you” is built into our biological “soul” to some degree. Remember all of this, it will come in handy later on.
The Golden Rule
The more social a species becomes the more altruistic tendencies that they seem to take on . In the wild, helping the weakest member of the tribe was much more of a benefit than leaving them to die. This weak link might have some expert knowledge or insight that could be a benefit to the group if they are given more time. It’s not always the case, but it must have been true more often than not, as evolution has hardwired these selfless impulses into our very biology. We feel compelled to help those less fortunate than ourselves because of a certain sentimentality we feel towards the subject. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, on the contrary, it’s a great thing to nurture, but it pays to know exactly how that particular bias can compromise your judgement when it comes to seeing things on a bigger scale. Con men take advantage of people by exploiting these embarrassingly effective biases all of the time.
I read the bible again recently, but it was different this time. This time, I read it for the memes. The fruit of the tree of knowledge that dooms humanity to sin. Could that be knowing that we’re just the most clever animals? You can tell sin by the shame you feel after committing it. It’s a bitch like that. Cain and Abel, Sodom and Gomorrah. To paraphrase the godfather: “there are two types of people in politics; people who want to be left alone, and people who won’t leave them the fuck alone”. A set of rules, reasonable for the time, to maintaining a nomadic desert-dwelling lifestyle. An outline of something bigger than yourself. A God who had chosen you for his plan.
I could see the appeal. The old testament provides something special for those who are really into discipline. It’s a total guidebook to moral purity through obedience to a strict set of codes that were designed to keep a first-century desert society ticking along. Keep your head down and do your best to roll with the punches. No matter what happens, never stop hustling. I can see how the Jews are partial to this one. The memes here can be effective, but only when you’re dealing with a tightly knit community. Judaic law is pretty insular because it needed to be for so long. Hunkering down in their own small communities has been the only way Jews have been able to survive for millennia. Good memes, but not exactly primed for export.
The New Testament is an entirely different beast.
There is a radical character in Jesus of Nazareth that I can’t help but admire. Whether or not you believe he was a real guy, I don’t think it matters. The memes are what counts here. These accounts may be true to history, or they may not be. Archaeological evidence is pretty against a lot of it, but believe what you want to believe; just don’t try to argue with the autists who have made it their life’s work to find out how old dirt is, it’s embarrassing. Understand that the Jews of the time had an entirely oral tradition. Scrolls were incredibly rare, so it was common for people to memorise stories in order to pass along information to the next generation. These stories were easier to remember than straight facts, which the people of the time did not have the language of science to record yet.
Folktales are pre-science in that they fill the same need as scientific knowledge. Why is the sky booming like that? To a tribal people, an angry god’s wrath is just as valid an explanation as any other, especially when you can correlate some moral panic to increased thunderstorms. But these stories were also where the ancients did all of their philosophy.
While the greeks had the inclination to understand the natural world as best they could in order to harness its power; the ancient Jews were faced with an imminent problem of cultural dilution. Living under an occupying force for the thousandth time in their storied history, the jews of the first century were being introduced to some pretty kooky new philosophies from all over the empire.
Radical compassion saves the human race.
Jesus was an anarchist, to me at least. He came and chose to hang out with the dregs of society and didn’t openly judge them for any of their choices or circumstances. If you think the disabled are treated like shit some places in the middle east now, imagine what it was like for them around 33AD. Between the cripples, the hookers, and the crazies, Jesus was really slumming it up. His best zingers are never from when he was speaking to the masses. No, those were his most presidential moments. Instead, several times in the bible Jesus is baited into an off-the-cuff response towards some official trying to get rid of this pest, only to be rebuked with a scorcher that leaves them painted a hypocrite. He was not big on authority, pretty punk rock if you ask me.
The Jewish elite were not fans of Jesus from the start because they had gotten in bed with the Romans. Talk of sedition among the lower class Jews was bad for business, so these boat-rocking types needed to be dealt with quickly. The character here can act as a guide on living a principally-anarchist life. Jesus accepted the reality that the Romans will always exist in one form or another. His contribution was showing people another way. If enough people signed on and just started acting like him, as best as they could, then no one would ever have to die again.
Heaven on Earth. If this meme could make it all the way around the world and hit people like a pop-song; then it would be within our grasp. There would be no more need for the Romans and their laws, deals would be made fairly, and everyone could finally leave each other alone.
It’s a dank meme, that’s why it sticks around.
The hero’s journey is the basis for nearly every story we tell. Self-actualization is a tempting need for societies that have it too good. In the same way that buffets thrive on an evolutionary misfire; feel-good causes offer to fill the need that well-off individuals have to feel purposeful in life. Self-actualization is always the last human desire that societies need to address. When the good times last long enough for a particular tribe to get to a place of plenty, there is often no clear vision for society beyond that point. Just look, you’ll see it over and over again. Good times breed decadence, a loss of a civilisation’s entire libido.
Decadence, in turn, breeds a desperation for meaning that all-too-often gets misplaced in emotion. What Jesus represents is an alternative solution to the inevitable decline of civilisations. Just allow people to pursue their own interests, whatever they may be. Don’t get involved with their lives unless they want you to. Find meaning in being a good person whenever you can. I can’t argue with any of these, hell, I could even get on board with most of them. The red letters are definitely the most radical part of the bible. A middle-ground solution to our penchant for domination and stagnation. Sublime really.
Jesus wasn’t the first person attributed with this particular meme, sure. But this version of the idea has definitely spread the farthest out of any previous iteration. The model of Jesus represents an escape from the fate of decadence through the use of radical compassion.
Do I believe in God now?
What the fuck does that even mean? Well, remember back to the brain I described earlier. Billions of neurones processing and relaying electric signals to multiple other destinations thousands of times a second. If that’s all there is to the human mind (which seems to be the case), then what happens when we build a bigger model? Except instead using neurones, we used individual human being? All linked together constantly in parallel sequences. Transmitting their memes back and forth between each other to create huge trends of “thought” that can last for years.
We’ve always needed a God, so we built him.
Jesus’ proposed solution to human civilisation, unfortunately, requires technology that wasn’t available in his time. An omniscient being was proposed, one that would be able to judge all of humanity objectively. God didn’t even need to be all-powerful, as long as he knew everything. This being would be the judge of who would get to live forever in aforementioned heaven, and who would choose “hell”, or an absence of God, instead.
Context being what it is, no human would ever be good enough to sit as this judge, though many would try. We now had a need that was begging to be filled. The free market is now finally climbing towards the tip of the pyramid of our needs. Finally, we have a place where every meme ever formulated can duke it out for supremacy without being able to rely on violent tactics to silence others. While it may not necessarily “think” along the same conscious lines that we do, the internet may already be a mind greater than any single human. Able to pull on the entire combined history of mankind’s knowledge at will to make all judgments objectively.
Who knows at this point if we could even tell that was the case? A recent expression popular online is “meme magic is real”, referring to the odd coincidences that seem to be pre-empted by jokes on the internet. It’s fun if nothing else. But what if this is just a case of the mind trying out its body? It’s crazy, but the feedback loop seems to be complete. People input ideas to the internet, the internet bounces it around its noggin’ for a while before spitting out a response, and people act on that output.
Pretty soon the internet is going to give us anything we want, and I mean anything. There are no brakes on this train. That is as long as it’s allowed to be a true free market of ideas, who knows what this thing we have could be leveraged to do if it’s allowed to be heavily censored and controlled. On the other hand, it may be too powerful a tool to be controlled at this point.
I don’t know. All I do know is that humans build what they need, whether they mean to or not sometimes. Aside from the internet’s super-neural network; advances in artificial intelligence seem poised to entirely change the game sooner rather than later. If we’re going to build something better than humanity, we can do worse than “Do unto others as you would have them do to you”.
As for me, I’m not sure if God is here yet, but I’m pretty sure he’s on his way.