Nine years ago, a Brazilian student in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, where I used to lecture, came to me with what I initially took to be a tall tale. She described an obscure new cult that prayed in binary numbers (strings of ones and zeros), the fundamental elements of computer programs. The cult’s founder apparently believed that the universe was a giant computer.
After a summer vacation back home, the student reappeared with a videotape to prove her case. Cult members were dressed in voluptuous, kitschy robes that aliens might have worn in the original Star Trek. They chanted in Portuguese: Zero, um, um, zero, zero, um. . . . The video looks authentic, though I haven’t been able to come up with any independent confirmation, and if anyone could pull off a hoax of this magnitude, it would be a wily ITP student.
The first thought that came into my mind was that this cult had better be mistaken: If they were right, the universe might crash as a result of the slightest mistake in their recitations. (At the binary level, even a single wrong bit can cause a computer crash.)
My second thought was that these chanters, weird as they were, appeared to be sincere, serene, and harmless. Everyone probably believes in some nonsense, so why not this winsome nonsense? But then, wouldn’t it be better if these people, who didn’t look very well-off, got rich from learning to program real computers? Wouldn’t it ultimately be kinder to challenge their faith? It’s rude to tell other people what to believe, but it can also be derelict, even cruel, not to challenge ridiculous beliefs.
I’ve kept quiet during the past year or so of high-profile science/religion bickering because I assumed there would be no use for yet another voice in the agitated crowd. As it happens, though, the approach to science/religion questions that I prefer has remained almost entirely unrepresented, so now I will join in.
Sadly, the first question to ask about any religious practice these days is whether it’s likely to turn violent. Sure, binary cultists look cute on video, but will they be storming a data center in São Paulo in a few years?
Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett have recently led a charge against religion, and one of their main accusations is that religion encourages violence. This claim recalls similar ones that violent video games or pornography cause criminal behavior. Sometimes they might, but sometimes they clearly don’t. It’s hard to isolate causes of human violence because violence is so common.
What if religion can serve either to incite or reduce violence, depending on some details that we have the good fortune to be able to influence? Here is how I think that can work: The human species is clan-oriented. We are exceedingly concerned with who is a member of our clan or a competing clan. Democrat or Republican? Windows or Linux? It’s almost impossible for us to ignore clan passions. We are also hopelessly obsessed with the hierarchy within our clan. Listen to teenagers, or anyone else, talk about who ranks to date whom, or who deserves scorn. We care immensely about tiny differentiations in status. Gossip grabs our attention, no matter how banal it is.
Violence between people often comes about when they fight over limited resources, but sometimes there is no such “rational” explanation. In those cases, clan dynamics are almost always to blame. Intellectuals like to think that ideas are what matter most, but listen to what average murderers say. Kids who shoot other kids in the streets of Oakland, California, near where I live, usually report that it was either gang retribution or a response to being “disrespected.” The latter often involves the nasty business of sexual selection. These are the universal and tragic themes you find in the literatures of all peoples.
Religion placed immortal supernatural beings at the top of the clan, thereby reducing everyday violence between adherents. Crusades, jihads, and bloody schisms were the price paid for this improvement, though in the grim context of human behavioral history, that was probably a bargain.
The idea of God (or gods) also served in ancient times as a way to apply the clan-centric cognition of the human species to the problem of comprehending the dynamics of the world. In the Hebrew Bible, for instance, God is the “King of the universe,” so God served at least two duties: as clan leader and as explanation of reality. Thus when scientists tell believers they’re flat-out wrong, we think we’re making a point about nature, but I think we’re often heard as giving the primal message, “We elite persons reject your clan status.”
A more recent violence-avoiding arrangement, which has a promising track record so far, is for a society to support so many overlapping, ambiguous clan hierarchies that clannish perception becomes confused. This is what democratic capitalism achieves. There are many ways to achieve status and identity in modern America. You can be a Web video prankster, academic, and entrepreneur, with lots of prestige but not much money, all at once. (I know people like this.) Under this regime, it no longer feels as if each person has just one status or belongs in just one clan.