Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Religious fundamentalism explained

Lets start with a theory:

As science increases in complexity it becomes indistinguishable from magic.

I don't really know the origin of this theory but I credit Todd with bringing it to my attention. Its a fun theory. I like it because it often proves to be a useful filter through which to view technology's relationship with people.

With no empirical research, I sense that mankind is beginning to tread down the back side of a bell curve because of this theory and that this is causing a rise in religious fundamentalism.

The bell curve represents man's understanding of his surroundings, which in the beginning we didn't really know much about so we made up stories like about how the moon chased the sun across the sky and those stories turned into polytheistic religions.

As mankind has learned more and more about our surroundings, we stopped believing those stories were truth and started using them as fables and morality plays. Correspondingly, our religions evolved becoming generally monotheistic and less and less a part of our everyday lives.

Recently three things have caused our general understanding of our surroundings to decrease First, our scientific explanations of our natural surroundings have become so complex that few people really understand them (quick: smallest building block of matter?). Additionally, our surroundings have increasingly become artifacts instead of nature, artifacts that fewer and fewer of us really understand. Perhaps most importantly, the nature of the world economy is a mystery to everyone and yet affects everyone at the core of their existance.

Sure many of my bright and loyal readers probably feel that they know a lot about technology and nature and how things work. But more and more people have no idea how computers work or even how programs they use everyday do what they do. More and more are people in Arkansas losing jobs to people in Korea who are losing jobs to people in China and don't know what they can do about it. So if we haven't started down that bell curve from understanding to mystery, I think we are getting close.

But then what? What happens when we begin to feel more and more like we don't understand our surroundings? Do the old ways creep back? Do we begin to make up more stories in an effort to establish order on things we do not understand?

I think they do, but we can never go completely backwards. We are still walking forwards on this bell curve, even if we are descending in our general understanding of the world. We don't see people making up stories about gremlins running traffic signals (ok, I guess I have heard that but I think they were kidding). But something has to fill this understanding vacuum and for many people religion is that thing. The middle east is an obvious example where secularism continues to lose to fundamental Islam, even in Iraq. But you see it in the U.S. as well with the increase in the influence of fundmental mega-churches.

I'm not here to argue that an increased role of religion in people's lives is a bad thing on its face. But religion at its core is based on faith, not understanding. Running to religion to help you understand economic theory is going to result in a bad understanding of economic theory. If enough people do that you will end up with a theocracy or something indistinguishable from it.

[Reply]

Your theory is stolen from Arthur C. Clarke's third law which states, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Fable, myth, storytelling are not going to go away. Religion is part of these things and also part philosophy (answering the questions of why am I here?). If I do not know why I see shoting beams f fire in the night sky (meteours) then may I either make something up to explain it (religion/myth) or let me study it and offer a theory (science).

What is shared by both of these approaches is an inate curious with the world around us and our place in it. I would venture to say that religion and science share some common traits:
a) curiousity
b) creativity

Religion says the earth was made this way but is not concerned with proof. Science calls faith something else, hypothesis.

Someone studying Genetics may think Genetics magazine is the end all to be all. Another person who prefers the study of games may find the demise if a particular gaming magazine a sad endnote on a useful part of the human discourse (wonder who that could be).

If you are concerned that specialization is somehow diluting the meaning of things perhaps you should try moving to Amish country, forgo electricity, and take a more simple life but the fact is you can't, no one of us can. I do not see any of us becoming Luddites anytime soon (like the ipod too much to go back now).

Even pre-computers there was a rejection of the over specialization of things. Where would we be today without electricity and refigeration. Now the internet goes down and we say where what did we do without the internet and cell phones? What is next? What did we do without the i-com and the transporter?

All of these gizmos big and small are very seductive. When you leap over several generations of this technology suddenly is alters your whole world order. It threatens the viability of believe-it-because I say so. Power in society shifts faster that anyone can reconcile. If you (Western, pluralistic society dude) are having reservations about technology diluting the meaning of the world around you try to imagine if we brought George Washington forward to 2005 in a time machine (or So-crates dude!). Can you say culture shock?! (Actually I think George would think all this tech was pretty cool stuff as he was an Enlightenment-type of guy, but he would probably get car-sick and get information overload so quick he'd be in the corner rocking back and forth like a crazy person.) I think of that image when I try and understand why is all this tech so threatening, only to realize I've had several hundred year to reconcile all this stuff (and the ethics and laws surrounding it). Nnow that we have laid fiber optic cable to feed the world to anywhere anytime it seems some do not consider this quite the blessing we do; instead they see it as no different than a cruise missle.

Religion does not have as big of marketing budget and when it does the combination seems contrived and cheap. Alternatively religion does not require battery power but people power. Collectively a group of people belief in a theory of creation which can not be proven but because they believe in it therefore it is. Just like that!

So in conclusion science only and religion alone can not answer all of questions of the universe nor give a persons life all its meaning. It is a combination of the two. Some are better than others with reconciling these two, others are just getting started. After all, "In God we trust."

Comment by Armchair quarterback (12/15/2006 15:54)

Vatican on Science [Reply]

Interesting snippet from, of all places, Fox News. Caught this on FARK (which should be REQUIRED reading for everyone here).

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,174489,00.html

Summing up, the Vatican says religion risks turning into fundamentalism if it ignores science.

Personally, I don't think any one religion is correct, even though I do call myself Catholic. It isn't like the episode of South Park, where it was revealed the correct answer was Mormonism.

I think there is something for us on the other side. Perhaps that is just the blind faith that allows me to sleep at night without imagining what happens when it all goes dark...to no longer...be.

Comment by steve (12/15/2006 15:54)

[Reply]

Do you mean the dark side of the force?

Comment by Armchair quarterback (12/15/2006 15:54)

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