This season, people are venerating trees as the earth reaches its maximum tilt away from the sun. This is Christmas. The level of ritual almost seems silly in a biblical context. As Bill Hicks said about Easter:
“I was over in Australia during Easter, which was really interesting. You know, they celebrate Easter the exact same way we do, commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus by telling our children that a giant bunny rabbit … left chocolate eggs in the night. Now … I wonder why we’re fucked up as a race. I’ve read the Bible. I can’t find the word “bunny” or “chocolate” anywhere in the fucking book.” (via his banned David Letterman bit).
So, are these ritual practices stupid and backwards? Maybe not. If you look at religion as something older than 2000 years, as something part of human evolution, then ritual is a vital part.
I’ve been reading a book by Robert Bellah which defines religion as something of a virtual reality machine, enabling us to connect to and create alternate realities. In that sense, it’s a symbol system. A tree or a pyramid or Stonehenge is like a rudimentary printf statement for God. All as ahead of their time as Babbage’s Difference Engine was ahead of the computer, but I think the concept is sound.
Religion As Virtual Reality
Here’s one definition, a paraphrase of Clifford Geertz:
Religion is a system of symbols that, when enacted by human beings, establishes powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations that make sense in terms of a general order of existence. (Bellah, xiv)
Religion is, in this sense, a virtual reality device, something which enables us to escape the daily ‘reality’. In this sense, I personally think that religion, being a symbol system, can be computed. That is, at some point in human technology something like Gods and heavens will emerge artificially, in the cloud so to speak. Code is like prayers that work. I think this is the natural evolution of tech, to bring us closer to God.
Another definition, drawing on Durkheim, is more specific and actually includes words we’d recognize as ‘religious’.
Religion is a system of beliefs and practices relative to the sacred that unite those who adhere to them in a moral community. (ibid, pg. 1)
The word here is sacred, which Bellah defines as something set-apart, forbidden, non-ordinary. Essentially, alternate realities, or virtual ones if you will.
One of the first things to be noticed about the world of daily life is that nobody can stand to live in it all the time… All of us leave the world of daily life with considerable frequency – not only when we are sleeping and dreaming, but when we daydream, travel, go to a concert, turn on the television. (ibid, pg 3)
Brain As DJ
I think this capacity for alternate realities comes from the inherent power of our brains. I’ve asked DJs what their fancy mixers do, and they’ve said the main feature is monitoring, being able to hear what they’re going to play before they play it. The human mind has this capability, to run a demo reel of reality in our heads, to see how things might go, figure out how things did go, and generally make better decisions in the present. We essentially have a reality simulator in our heads. This is of great use in hunting and gathering, but it also enables us to travel to space or play foosball with gusto. They say that God is a DJ, but really there’s a DJ inside of each of our skulls.
Faith As A Disco
I’m on like page 4 of Robert Bellah’s book, Religion In Human Evolution, but the sense I’m getting is that religion is built on this basic scaffold, our ability to both run virtual reality and recognize that ‘this’ reality is not inherently real.
The Buddha proclaimed that the world is a lie, a burning house from which we must escape. Early Christians believed that the world was in the grip of sin and death and would soon come to an end to be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth. Zhuangzi’s metaphor of awakening, as though the world of daily life is really a dream, can be found in many traditions, including Buddhism and Christianity. (ibid, pg. 4).
I think this is true. This world is not inherently ‘real’ in a literal sense. It is more a consensual hallucination, sustained by the fact that we perceive roughly the same things. There are numerous other ways to perceive the world, and it is possible for humans to attain these other states. As Geertz said, if you follow religion as a symbol system, you can compute the raw code of reality into a better and more sensible perception (or a worse and more hurtful one, sadly). As Durkheim implied this computation, done across a social network, can even create a social reality around the sacred as real as that which defines the daily routine.
Religion As A Way Out
The unifying idea is that religion offers a way out, the possibility of a better way, of making that better way real. Look at your mind for a moment, and watch the DJ inside. You’ll realize that this monitoring is always there. We look at any situation to see how we could change it, comparing it to our internal track, seeing if there’s anything we need to react to, if anything is wrong. I look around the room and I compare it to my ideal room. I should move that cricket bat, there should be pictures on that wall. Look at your phone and you’ll feel the pull of the ideal like a wormhole, compelling you to pick it up and see what’s going on.
The impression I’m getting (after four pages and a preface mind you) is that religion is built on this basic capacity, our capacity to represent and create alternate realities. Religion (and ritual) seem to be a basic code for doing so, and things like Christmas trees and fertility symbols are a way of making that code public and social. Throughout time it seems like we’re trying to build this giant machine to get the fuck out of here and while a few people have actually gotten out (call them prophets or Buddhas) I think the vast majority of humanity is still waiting for the God app to come out, where technology writes a prayer that actually works.