March 19, 2006

Analysing Religion 

In the last few days, I encountered a couple of discussions that touched the issues of what is the "true" form of a religion; what in the end determinates the general features of a religion and how deeply the majority of believers know their Holy Writ and theology.

One such discussion is at Kevin's place, and he being an atheist has no problems in dissecting any and all religions. And of course the reply is that some Christians behaving badly do not make Christianity bad.

Another of these discussions started at LGF, and predictably it soon degenerated into the usual bash-Islam fest where the signal was lost amidst the noise of the shriekers.

As an aside, I think that calling Islam a "satanic cult" or something like that is quite stupid. Yes, it has cultic elements, but I've read of an imam saying that Christian women are "satanic" because they do not go around covered from head to toe.
And guess who is the bad guy for the Satanists (those with pentagrams etc)? Yes, the Christian god. So in this context "satanic" becomes an epiteth flung back and forth with no real descriptive or explanatory value.

Back on the main topic...
There is no doubt that the Holy Writ on which a particular religion is based has an important role in shaping it. The principles, the words of god are written there.

Yet, there are many examples of religions being practiced in a manner quite different from what is in the Holy Writ (for the better or the worse).

I think that ultimately the true form of a religion depends strongly on the consensus of its followers. It is as the majority say it is, and the minorities can either accept it or separate and start their own religion (and often this process is far from peaceful).

Religions are at least in some part hive-minds, where collective behaviour and beliefs emerge from the summation of the behaviour and beliefs of each individual, able to observe the others and communicate with them - communication is a fundamental factor. To quote SDB:
Likewise, there are ways in which hive-minds seem to exhibit behavior which is strongly similar to the ways in which "real" minds behave, even though there really isn't any single "mind" as such in the sense of a single central brain processing data and making decisions. In colonial insects the queen often has somewhat more influence than any other single member, but she doesn't actually rule the colony in any real sense, and when soldatos migrate the queen doesn't decide where they'll nest or where groups of ants will forage. It's rather the case that those decisions of the hive-mind are an emergent result of the collective behavior of a huge number of individual ants who can and do communicate with one another, or observe and react to how others are behaving.
Notice that the consensus I mentioned above is not necessarily explicit, like signing a manifesto or statement; often it's implicit or even subconscious.

However, individuals within a religion (or ideology) are not always free; not infrequently a tyrannical majority or a supremacist minority coerce nearly all the followers into some behaviour and beliefs not all would take if given the choice. The ruling class is unwilling to relinquish even small amounts of power and control, and dissent is not generally encouraged - sometimes actively repressed (it is possible to group these last considerations under the Evolutionarily Stable Strategy feature).

In the case of Islam, I have read stories of people who learnt to recite part or even all of the Koran - but without knowing Arabic. They didn't know what their prayers meant, and some were horrified to discover the true content of some passages. This is not very dissimilar from when the Christian church used Latin as its languange, thus effectively excluding the peasants from having direct access to the holy books and doctrinary discussions (some prayers and chants are still in Latin, and that is cause of hilarious mistakes and misunderstandings).

The real problem then is not whether Islam can evolve or not; it is what will take to convince a sufficient number of Muslims to change their views (of course some think that there is no need for a change in the first place. I strongly disagree).


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