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Evolving A Benign Religion
Evolving A Benign Religion
by Gary Robinson,

It's getting to be time to start a new and better religion, by taking advantage of network effects on the Internet.

After all, ultimately, religions that have evolved to date have no other purpose than their own propogation. Yes, they help people feel good, motivate them to be locally compassionate, etc., but only to the extent that those benefits give people reason to pass the memes on.

The killer (quite literally) is that for a particular strain to have maximal propogation, it needs to conquer other religions. Sometimes, such as during the Crusades, this is believed to require killing the unfortunate adherents of those other religions, if they can't be converted by more peaceful means. Or, at the very least, the well-being of believers of other religions is often considered to be a matter of little or no concern.

Moreover, with some commendable but relatively ineffective exceptions, naturally-evolved religions do not strongly support the idea that we should be very concerned about people who are very different from, or very distant from, ourselves. (If the exceptions were effective, hunger would arguably not exist anywhere in the world today.)

But suppose an electronic medium were created, whose purpose was to be the substrate in which a new religion evolved?

And suppose the criteria for propogation of a meme included:

a) Its ability to propogate itself according to the traditional ways religions do so... helping people feel good, creating local compassion, etc. If the meme is represented in a story or parable, for example, it must be a very compelling story or parable, which people will want to hear and spread to others. (Most successful religions provide many examples of these kinds of very compelling parables.)

b) Adherence with the Golden Rule (commonly expressed as "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you," and a key virtue in many religions) even with respect to people who reject the religion, and with respect to people totally different from and/or physically distant from the believer. And adherence with a small number of other carefully chosen "virtues."

That is, the electronic medium could be used to filter out memes that may cause destruction, while simultaneously providing an extremely efficient mechanism for the evolution of memes that are truly of value.

While the resulting religion would be crippled, in a sense, by not having access to the "destroy unbelievers" meme pattern, that might be compensated for by the more efficient electronic-based evolutionary medium. And there are some religions that have done well without that pattern in the past, or at least very rarely embracing it -- Buddhism being an example.

In fact, it seems to me that it might literally be the case that a religion could be created in this way that could be so compelling in its stories and parables, and spread so effectively, and so perfectly embody the Golden Rule, that it might literally save the world.

In slightly more concerete terms, the idea is to create an electronic substrate where "scripture" could evolve, under many hands, to be more and more compelling to people, and more and more consistent with certain desirable goals. The substrate would have aspects of a wiki, but with a vote-based mechanism to select among various competing versions of each item of scripture. Votes would determine the fitness of a particular version. Scriptural items would take a number of forms, one being the parable.

A mechanism would be set up whereby it would be ensured that the "most fit" particular version of an article of scripture was consistent with the fundamental value system. For instance, a version that supported prejudice against unbelievers would be rejected. This mechanism could take a number of forms; one of the more practical ones would resemble an "admin" privilege system whereby it would be possible for trusted individuals to cause an item to be trashed if it was inconsistent with the chosen values. But this trusted "priestly" community must not have full power of judgement. The community at large needs to have the means to judge the power and value of various versions of scripture because a) we want to evolve scripture which has power and value in the community at large, and only that community really has the ability to judge what moves it and thus is truly the most fit in terms of propogation power; and b) we don't want the admin or priestly individuals to use their power inappropriately. The mechanism for integrating the opinions of the different levels of community would need to be very carefully constructed with checks and balances. The good news is that our experience living under such systems as the U. S. Constitution tends to confirm that it is in fact possible to construct a system with the desired checks and balances.

The one attempt I know of to start down the Internet-assisted evolving-religion path is the Church of Virus, and in particular, the Virus Wiki. If you are interested in this subject, you should definitely check them out.

However, I think that for a new religion of significance to evolve, a more advanced substrate than a wiki is needed. Wikis allow documents to evolve; but there is an implicit assumption that the most recent version, no matter who edited it, is the most fit one -- very different from judging fitness by the community. Even though many wikis allow an admin to "roll back" a poor new version of a document to an earlier, better version, this is simply not a powerful enough structure. (If I may be so bold, I think that some of my company's opinion-processing technology as manifested in Emergent Music could be a piece of this solution. And if truth be known, part of the thought-backround behind EM's technology was precisely this application.)

Moreover, I think the Church of Virus' choice of Virtues -- Reason, Empathy, and Vision -- is problematic. Specifically, I question Reason as being the first virtue.

First of all, memes not governed by reason have been incredibly effective at spreading religious meme complexes, and a truly effective benign religion would have to do everything it could to compensate for being competitively "handicapped" with benigness.

But beyond that, reason is incredibly problematic historically, just as religion has always been. For example I have read several books on the Third Reich, and one thing that strikes me is the degree to which reason was used as a tool for justifying murder. That is, it seemed logical to many in the Third Reich that the strongest should win, and that they should be guided by analogy from nature, where there is no pity for the weak. Thus it was reasoned to be a virtue to ignore one's feelings of compassion for the victims, and kill them anyway for the greater good.

So a question that cannot be ignored once you put "reason" on the throne is: how do you know which reasoning is correct and which is faulty?

Isn't this question like the practical problems inherent in Plato's idea that a "philosopher-king" should govern? Yes, a philosopher-king should ideally govern, but only the right one. Hitler arguably qualified as a philosopher-king; Mein Kampf expressed his philosophy, and he certainly had the power of a king; moreover much of the population of Germany enthusiastically embraced his leadership. Clearly, that experiment in government-by-philosopher-king did not work out. China no longer thinks it worked out very well with Mao either. With a historical perspective that was not available to Plato, the philosopher-king ideal seems incompatible with the world as we know it because of the practical aspect of choosing the right philosopher-king and the danger of choosing the wrong one (and perhaps for other reasons as well).

Similarly, if we want our religion to be governed by reason, how do we choose the correct reasoning instead of the incorrect or destructive reasoning?

I think in the end, concordance with the Golden Rule, has to take priority over reason, because a) there is no practical way of reliably choosing the correct reasoning, and b) who is to say that compassion is even compatible, in the end, with pure correctness, if compassion isn't the first virtue?

Nevertheless, it also seems clear that reason needs to be considered to be a virtue, if a lesser one with respect to the Golden Rule. We are too far along for a religion to have complete acceptance if it contradicts reason. As Nietchze said, "God is dead, and we have killed him." Obviously, for many people, probably for most, this isn't true: fundamentalism is on the rise everywhere. Nevertheless as a world population, we have tasted the fruit of knowledge in the form of the scientific method, Darwinism, physics, etc., and we can't really go all the way back. The modern world, as a unified whole, can never fully and wholeheartedly embrace a belief system that is fundamentally contradictory to reason, even though large numbers of people could.

So a truly modern and benign religion must embrace reason as a virtue, even if not as the primary one. However, it is very important to note that this does not mean that it needs to reject all of the non-reason-based attributes of naturally-evolved religions that have given them their power in people's mind's. See, for example, Paul Tillich as an example of someone who can present one particular religion, Christianity, in a way that does not contradict reason. For instance, in Tillich's view, there is not an actual, all-knowing Supreme Being. Rather that concept is argued to be to be a portal through which we can achieve some concordance with an ultimate ground of being. A modern benign religion may (or may not) need to tap this kind of experience in order to have maximal power to have a benevolent effect; but if so, it must do so in a way that never contradicts the Golden Rule or reason.

So, in creating the substrate for evolving a modern religion which can better the lot of the human race, we can not allow a completely free-form survival-of-the-fittest evolution that will result in a "new" religion with the same destructive potential found in most naturally-evolved religions. Rather, we must use our historical perspective, our hard-won knowledge of what "works" and what doesn't in the real world, to choose the core virtues, and create a substrate that filters the evolutionary process through these virtues. I would argue that these should include the Golden Rule -- applied not only to the believer's neighbors but also those very different or distant from him or her -- as the prime, or primal, virtue which must trump all else, and consistency with reason as the most important of the secondary virtues.

In any case, core virtues must be chosen. And modern (and soon-to-come) community-oriented software on the Internet gives us the necessary means. This technology will enable us to create a substrate for evolution of a religion that is in accordance with the chosen virtues. That is, this religion will, unlike every other naturally-evolved religion, not only have its own propogation as its aim. It will also have the benefit of the human race as its aim, by as the result of filtering according to virtues chosen for their beneficial effects.

This is a new kind of genetic engineering, based on memes rather than genes. Let us call it "memetic engineering." It was not long ago that DNA-level genetic engineering was out of the reach of the human race, and would have been rejected by most people as impossible. That has now changed. There are great potential benefits, as well as great potential dangers, in that change. The same will soon turn out to be true for memetic engineering. Let us focus on reaping the potential benefits as soon as is practical to do so.

Summary: We are at a unique point in history. The Internet creates the opportunity for global communications to enable very large numbers of individuals to play a role in creating ahd judging the fitness of text documents with respect to their power to move people, as well as according to other criterion. This has the potential to serve as a powerful substrate for the controlled evolution of a new breed of religion -- one with the benefits, but not the dangers, of "naturally" evolved religions.

For ongoing discussion of the idea of evolving a religious meme-complex, you might want to check out the Virus mail list. My blog also covers the subject.

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Last update: 1/30/06; 2:48:13 PM.
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