Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Advanced Civilized Paradigm II: Religion

This second entry in the Advanced Civilized Paradigm series concerns religion. I touched on this subject last January: Here, I want to go into a bit more detail about the nature of religion in the far future, in the end state of significant technological progress.

Religion changes over time. In particular, it changed dramatically at the same two junctures I cited in my last entry, the transition from the Precivilized Paradigm to the Classical Civilized Paradigm, and the transition in which we currently find ourselves, away from the Classical Paradigm and (perhaps) towards the Advanced Paradigm. Just as in government, in work, and in other areas, a pattern can be seen that remained constant within recognizable parameters across thousands of years of history and everywhere in the world.

It’s sometimes hard to recognize this, because all of the so-called “great” religions were developed under the Classical Paradigm. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, all of these emerged during the millennia of agrarian economies and monarchical governments, and so they show the common characteristics of all such faiths, but because we are used to considering only these ancient religions, and the parameters of the possible are (incorrectly) imagined to be coextensive with their variations, the relatively insignificant differences among them stand out in stark relief and the essential similarity is all but invisible. It’s analogous to an all-male convention in which one observes that some of the attendees are tall, some short, some thin, some fat, some bearded and some not, some bald and some with hair, and fails to observe that none of them have breasts.

Religion, like government, follows the material needs of society, in this case the need for a statement and ritual reinforcement of collective morality and of the myths that describe man’s place in the cosmos. Like the governments of the Classical Paradigm, the religions of that era all had certain characteristics in common. They all stipulated that man was the master of nature, entitled to rule and dominate. They all elevated a principle separate from nature over and above man. (Usually, that principle was personified as one or more deities. Occasionally, as in Buddhism, it was not. But in all cases, the principle elevated to sacred status was separate from nature. It was either the creator of nature, or supra-powerful beings dominant over nature, or a principle of reality with nature seen as illusion. Nature itself was shorn of sacrality.) They all acknowledged the superiority of some men over others and of all men over women. All propounded a sexual morality that maximized birthrates by making women the sexual property of men, denying them control over their sexuality and their reproductive behavior, and placing upon them a moral obligation to have as many children as possible, while condemning both (female) extramarital sex and (for both sexes) homosexuality.

In matters of organization as well as doctrine, broad constants can be seen. All Classical Paradigm religions included a formal priesthood. All entered into partnership with the state, which gave privileged status to the official faith and, more often than not, suppressed all others. In all cases, the clergy represented an elite class alongside the warrior nobility, endowed with similar wealth and privileges, and often enjoying somewhat higher status than the nobility itself. In all cases, the formal priestly hierarchy had the authority to declare official doctrines and to declare deviance from those doctrines to be heretical; more often than not, the hierarchy also had the power to impose material penalties for heresy either directly or through the agency of the state.

These characteristics do not describe the religious beliefs, practices, and organizations of the Precivilized Paradigm, to the extent we know about those faiths. Admittedly that knowledge is less than perfect, but we can be certain about some things. For example, we can be sure that precivilized religion did not enjoy a special relationship with the state, because precivilized societies did not have states. What we can tell about our hunter-gatherer ancestors in terms of religion, assuming that the precivilized societies that have survived into historical times and had their beliefs recorded may be taken as typical, is that their myths and morality alike placed man as part of, subordinate to, and interwoven with nature, rather than above it. Women enjoyed a higher status in precivilized society than under the Classical Paradigm, and the religious beliefs of our distant ancestors reflect this. The stories and myths taught that people should treat nature, and the animals and plants that comprise nature, with the utmost respect. The religion of the Precivilized Paradigm was appropriate for the material circumstances in which people lived, and so was that of the Classical Paradigm.

Beginning in about the 15th or 16th century CE in Europe, our ancestors began to diverge from the Classical Civilized Paradigm. They did so in terms of religion just as they did in terms of economics and government. The Protestant Reformation was the first major upheaval in that transition. Most of the religious ideas of Protestants were as rooted in the Classical Paradigm as those of Catholics (after all, most them were the same ideas), but in two key respects the movement was revolutionary. One was the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers: that each person was his or her own authority on matters of doctrine, and required no sacerdotal intermediary. The other was the sheer existence of the movement and the challenge it posed to religious authority. By breaking the monolith of western Christianity, the Reformation weakened the religion’s power and paved the way for the related Enlightenment ideas of religious freedom and separation of church and state.

The second major change to impact religion was the scientific revolution. In creating the myths that explain man’s place in the universe, religious thinking during the Classical Paradigm had often employed statements about observable fact which, under scientific scrutiny, turned out not to be true. That in itself did not invalidate the myths, whose purpose was never scientific (that is, they were not intended to make factual claims about objective reality, but rather to use observable reality as a metaphor to make values statements), but it did undermine claims to infallibility, and thus further diminished religious authority.

A third major change has emerged over time from the industrial revolution, that awesome tidal wave of progress that has toppled kings and aristocracies, freed slaves, liberated women, and radically transformed societies from top to bottom. It has had its effect on religion as well. It has allowed population to grow to the point where we now need to restrain it rather than encourage it, and this has rendered inappropriate much of traditional sexual morality. Together with the elevation of brain over brawn, the same change has rendered pointless the subjugation of women. It has expanded human power over nature until today we must restrain ourselves in its use, so that myths which make man a divinely-authorized tyrant over the natural world have become inappropriate.

A fourth change impacting religion is the revolution in communications technology. From the printing press to the Internet, this has led to the exchange of religious ideas on a global basis, making it problematic for any faith to remain intellectually isolated and preserve its doctrinal purity or claims to exclusive possession of truth.

Most subtle of all, but perhaps most radical, is the observed reality of progress itself. All Classical Paradigm religions were built on a foundation of unchanging Truth known for all time and handed down by God or perceived in a state of enlightenment. (It’s true that there are Truths which are True for all time, but it’s also true that none of these Truths can be told in language, so religious doctrines, which of necessity are expressed in words, do not expound them.) Commandments written on stone tablets by the finger of God. God Himself inhabiting a human body and proclaiming infallible truth. The Prophet taking dictation from an angel. But these metaphors and mythic images, while appropriate and holding resonance within a society whose pace of change is so glacially slow that it is possible to believe it never does change, cannot work well in a society where change is rapid and constant. We cannot help but feel that they are relics of a bygone time – and indeed they are.

There is I believe one final change which has not emerged, but will. It will come from future developments in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. When we are able to remake the genetic structure of our own species, we will not use this technology merely to eliminate genetic diseases or augment average intelligence. There is more than one template of the ideal man or woman, and so the man or woman of the distant future will be a highly diverse creature, with genetic variation that is difficult to contemplate today. (The science fiction writer Greg Bear did a fair job of it, though. I recommend his Eon for a good mind boggle. To a lesser extent, also his Darwin’s Radio and Darwin’s Children.) At the same time, developments in artificial intelligence may create minds, recognized as being minds, with a radically different basis of thought than our own. The myths expressing man’s place in the cosmos must take different forms when the nature of man itself has changed almost beyond recognition.

These six changes – religious liberty, scientific method, the need for environmental responsibility, global communication, the perceived reality of progress, and redefinition of what it means to be human – will define the religious thought of the Advanced Civilized Paradigm. Under the influence of these factors, we may get a somewhat hazy image of what will emerge, indeed what is already emerging.

First, contrary to what is supposed by some militant atheists, I am sure that religion will still exist. There is a need in the brain for mythos, for a narrative expounding the nature of man and our place in the universe, for ritual weaving us into that narrative, and for reinforcement of collective morality. Whether and to what extent the religion of the future incorporates crude “supernatural” ideas is another question, but a more subtle one than is usually recognized; the myths of the Gods, and perhaps even more so that of God, resonates with the mystery of consciousness and that of existence itself, which are inherently beyond the reach of science. Reason does well at contemplating the working of the parts, but is not designed to encompass the whole.

But if we need neither fear nor hope for the end of religion, the end of the religions of the present day in their Classical Paradigm forms is a certainty. The religion or religions of the Advanced Paradigm will have the following characteristics:

Fluidity. Religion in an advanced civilization will be an evolving thing, and it will be accepted and understood that its forms must adapt themselves to the concept of change itself. People will move easily from one religious idea to another, and the idea of fixed membership in a strictly-defined belief system will be abandoned.

Diversity. Religion will take many forms, mixing elements of many faiths and adding new metaphorical forms. The fact that all religious ideas are metaphors, and so multiple “truths” are possible – or rather, that multiple ways to express truth are equally valid – will be universally recognized.

Egalitarian, environmental morality. The Advanced Civilized Paradigm will include much greater recognition of the ideal of equality than the Classical Paradigm did, and it will, of necessity, be environmentalist to a degree most people do not comprehend at this point. Religion will reflect these values. All religion will promote equality of rights and economic equality, and all will promote good stewardship of the natural world. As a consequence, traditional sexual morality will be replaced by a morality of respect and trust in sexual matters. As part of this, traditional taboos against homosexuality will disappear.

As with all elements of the Advanced Paradigm, we should not expect its religious motifs to emerge without controversy. But emerge they will, because they must. In fact, the religious aspects of the Advanced Paradigm are closer to being with us already than any of its other aspects. That’s to be expected, because one must envision the future before one can build it.

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