I haven’t been around for a while. It’s not that i’m over writing (or reading), just that I haven’t had a chance to read much lately. Between tests and papers being due, I have been spending most of my time knee deep in text books. I did learn some interesting things though. Did you know that the three smallest bones in our body are located in our inner ear, and that their job is it amplify the sound-waves coming from outside before they are translated into waves in the liquids of the inner ear? Anyway, there wasn’t too much literary reading being done lately, and what I did read was more of what I had already written about, mostly some more Dawkins.
One interesting thing I read that is both study-related and continues the line of my last post is The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud. It’s a lesser known (and significantly shorter) book than his other hits – The Interpretation of Dreams for example – but it really is an excellent text which reads like it was written yesterday. In Illusion Freud presents a psychoanalytical, sociological interpretation of religion. Freud was openly atheistic and this text is perhaps the clearest
example of that. It’s not his only book on religion – see also Moses and Monotheism and other, more general references – but it’s probably the most straight-forward attack on the very concept of religion and god. Many points that he makes here are the same points that are made still today: that religious belief is a tool in the hands of the powerful few; that science can provide evidence where religion fails; that even if the scientific theories that are popular right now will prove to be inaccurate or even completely wrong that still doesn’t mean that god is an alternative in any way. But what I really like about Freud’s text is that he goes on to explain religion itself. Dawkins and co. would say god doesn’t exist because the theory of the world which science provides makes him redundant; Freud would say: god doesn’t exist because the psychoanalytical theory of organized religion makes him redundant.
In psychoanalysis as in psychoanalysis the answer lies with the father. Freud’s claim is that humanity as a whole has one big daddy-issue in the shape of an all-seeing, all-knowing god. Earlier polytheistic gods were “born from man’s need to make his helplessness tolerable and built up from the material of memories of the helplessness of his own childhood”. What about monotheism? “Now that god was a single person, man’s relations to him could recover the intimacy and intensity of the child’s relation to his father” (Chapter IV). The analogy is beyond this simple metaphor, of course. Freud compares human evolution to individual child development. In both cases we start out needing a strong, comforting parent to guide us through and provide us with meaning. In both cases we ought to eventually grow out of it. “Men cannot remain children for ever; they must in the end go out into ‘hostile life'” (Chapter IX). This is a brilliant insight which explains the transitional stage in which humanity now finds itself. We’ve been through a lot since the confusing times those couple of thousand years ago when nature was scary and unforeseeable. Science can now explain a great deal of nature to us, and we are finally ready to move past superstition and into rationality. The pessimistic claim that people could never fully let go of religion is one that I disagree with. True, the past couple of decades saw a strong regression into fundamentalism in each of the “big three” monotheistic religions. But I think it is but a short drawback on the overall right path. Progress is never a straight line. When you take ten steps forward you are bound to take a few back before you can keep progressing. In the bigger picture there is far more freedom to exercise atheism and rationality than there was a few hundred years ago – a hundred years ago – even as late as seventy years ago, in some respects.
One interesting idea that comes up in Illusion is the place religion has in society as explaining the fact that it still exists. Some people claim that religion is necessary because it has moral importance. This, in my eyes, is a wild exaggeration. If we were to follow the rules that a bible or other dictates we would be murdering women who were being unfaithful to their husbands (etc). No, the real reason for needing god – beyond the general feeling that there’s something after death to look forward to – is the sense of community. The idea of being part of something bigger. If you look around today, the western world has of course grown more secular. But people are still people; don’t they need that lost sense of community? Well, if you look closely you will see the substitutes we have come up with. For starters there are sports teams, there are political parties etc. But it’s in part of the culture itself too. What about being a punk-rocker, or a chess player? Going to concerts, to conferences, writing in forums and so on.
One example I especially like is what is sometimes referred to as The Church of Apple – those owners of iPads, iPhones, Macbooks (usually all three) who are emotionally involved in the products beyond the normal amount. I should clarify: there is nothing wrong with Apple products nor is there anything wrong with owning them (I myself have an older-generation iPod; it plays movies and music but has no touch screen). It is the exaggeration of the whole experience which I am uncomfortable with. And I call it a church for a reason: it has all the characteristics of religion. Being a Machead is being a part of a specific community. It means being devoted to one brand and being outspoken against others (how often do you see a heated argument about iPhone 4 VS Galaxy S II? The Android people usually give up earlier but they may be just as fanatic sometimes). It is about following the news closely and keeping up with the technology as it comes out, even though no one really needs a new smartphone every year. It’s about sticking to the values which the product holds religiously and blindly. Have you ever tried pointing out flaws to a Machead? Point made. Apple themselves do a lot to make this church possible. For example the lack of compatibility with products of any other company. Why is that necessary, if not in order to keep control in Apple’s hands? The financial reasons may be different but the social effect is one and the same: it means keeping things in the family and secluding your users, even if only technologically, and preventing cooperation. (Not to mention complete rejection of open source policy). Here’s another example: making it hard for iPhone users to be creative with their ringtone. Since iPhones come with iTunes you would expect it to be easy as pie to upload a song you like and make it your ringtone. Apparently it required apps and patches and a lot of effort. Your ringtone should be from a selected, short list of possibilities. Why? So that when someone calls you, everyone around you will know which phone you are using, without even looking at you to see what comes out of your pocket. Again: obviously the real reason behind this is to do with money, technology etc; but the sociological outlook is the one I’m using here. Lastly and perhaps most obviously is the unprecedented cult of personality around Steve Jobs. This is not to be disrespectful in any way – the man was indeed innovative and brilliant at marketing and technology. But the amount of heartbreak and celebration of his work after he died was disproportional, to put it mildly. Not even leaders and artist get this kind of respect. It reminded me of the cult of personality around John Lennon’s assassination, or around Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Not that it’s any better in those cases – lets all just try and steer clear out of idealization all the time – but at least musicians (or leaders, or philosophers, or writers etc) are adored for some profound message, not for technological advancement. To wrap up: my original point, in case I lost it along the way, was that in an absence of actual religion to help us feel united we easily find replacements. Today it’s Apple; tomorrow… who knows?