Douglas Adams on religion

July 18, 2006

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[excerpted from a talk he gave to attendees of a Biota conference at Magdelene College Cambridge, in September 1998. You can find the full talk at http://www.biota.org/people/douglasadams/
where you'll also find that I've edited it down.]

I suspect that as we become more conversant with the way in which the computer models the process of simple elements giving rise to complex results, then the idea of life being an emergent phenomenon will become easier to swallow. We may never know precisely what steps life took in the very early stages of this planet, but it's not a mystery. So what we have arrived at here — and although the first shock wave of this arrival was in 1859, it's really the arrival of the computer that demonstrates it unarguably to us — is 'Is there really a Universe that is not designed from the top downwards but from the bottom upwards? Can complexity emerge from lower levels of simplicity?'

It has always struck me as bizarre that the idea of a creator was considered sufficient explanation for the complexity we see around us, because it simply doesn't explain where he came from. If we imagine a designer, that implies a design and that therefore each thing he designs or causes to be designed is a level simpler than him or her, then you have to ask 'What is the level above the designer?' There is one peculiar model of the Universe that has turtles all the way down, but here we have gods all the way up. It really isn't a very good answer, but a bottom-up solution, on the other hand, which rests on the tautology of anything that happens, happens, clearly gives you an answer that needs no other explanation whatsoever.

This is where I want to address the question of why the idea of a god is so persuasive. In the first place, it comes from a falseness in our perspective, because we are not taking into account that we are evolved beings, who have evolved into a particular landscape, into a particular environment with a particular set of skills and views of the world that have enabled us to survive and thrive rather successfully. But there seems to be an even more powerful idea than that. I want to propose that the spot at the top of the pyramid whence (we used to say) everything flowed, may not actually be vacant just because we now say the flow doesn't go that way.

Let me explain what I mean by this.

We have created all kinds of things; we have changed our world in all kinds of ways. That's very very clear. We have built the room we're in and we've built all sorts of complex stuff, like computers and so on, but we've also constructed all kinds of fictitious entities that are enormously powerful. So do we say, 'That's a bad idea; it's stupid — we should simply get rid of it?'

Well, here's another fictitious entity: money. Money is a completely fictitious entity, but it's very powerful in our world; we each have wallets, which have got notes in them, but what can those notes do? You can't breed them, you can't stir fry them, you can't live in them, there's absolutely nothing you can do with them that's any use, other than exchange them with each other… and as soon as we exchange them with each other all sorts of powerful things happen, because it's a fiction that we've all subscribed to. We don't think this is wrong or right, good or bad; but the thing is that if money vanished the entire co-operative structure that we have would implode, but if we were all to vanish, money would simply vanish too. Money has no meaning outside ourselves, it is something that we have created that has a powerful shaping effect on the world.

[The way in which religion has developed seems to show all kinds of evolutionary strategies. Think of the arms races that go on between one or two animals living in the same environment. For example, the race between the Amazonian manatee and a particular type of reed that it eats. The more of the reed the manatee eats, the more the reed develops silica in its cells to attack the teeth of the manatee and the more silica in the reed, the more manatee's teeth get bigger and stronger.

Now, the invention of the scientific method is the most powerful framework for investigating and challenging the world around us that there is, and it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day. Religion doesn't seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy. That's an idea we're so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it's kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is 'Here is an idea or a notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? — because you're not!'

If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says 'I mustn't move a light switch on a Saturday,' you say, 'Fine, I respect that.' The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking 'Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?' but I wouldn't have thought 'Is there somebody from the left wing here who subscribes to this view or the other in economics…' when I was making the other points. I just think 'Fine, we have different opinions.' But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody's (I'm going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly defensive and say 'No, we don't attack that; that's an irrational belief but no, we respect it.'

It's rather like an animal that's grown a carapace around it, such as a tortoise — that's a great survival strategy because nothing can get through it. Why should it be that it's perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows, but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe, no, that's holy? Do we ring-fence that for any other reason other than that we've just got used to doing so? There's no other reason at all, it's just one of those things that crept into being and once that loop gets going it's very powerful.]

There's a very interesting book called 'Man on Earth' by an anthropologist who use to be at Cambridge, called John Reader. It's a series of studies of different cultures in the world that have developed within somewhat isolated circumstances, either on islands or in a mountain valley or wherever, so it's possible to treat them to a certain extent as a test-tube case. You see therefore exactly the degree to which their environment and their immediate circumstances has affected the way in which their culture has arisen. It's a fascinating series of studies.

The one I have in mind at the moment is one that describes the culture and economy of Bali, which is a small, very crowded island that subsists on rice. Now, rice is an incredibly efficient food and you can grow an awful lot in a relatively small space, but it's hugely labour intensive and requires a lot of very precise co-operation amongst the people there, particularly when you have a large population on a small island needing to bring its harvest in. People now looking at the way in which rice agriculture works in Bali are rather puzzled by it because it is intensely religious. The society of Bali is such that religion permeates every single aspect of it and everybody's role in that culture is very carefully defined. It's all defined by the church; they have very peculiar calendars and customs and rituals, which are precisely defined and, oddly enough, they are fantastically good at being very, very productive with their rice harvest. In the 70s, people came in and noticed that the rice harvest was determined by the temple calendar. It seemed to be totally nonsensical, so they said, 'Get rid of all this, we can help you make your rice harvest much, much more productive than even you're, very successfully, doing at the moment. Use these pesticides, use this calendar, do this, that and the other.' So they started and for two or three years the rice production went up enormously, but the whole predator/prey/pest balance went completely out of kilter. Very shortly, the rice harvest plummeted again and the Balinese said, 'Screw it, we're going back to the temple calendar!' and they reinstated what was there before and it all worked again absolutely perfectly.

It's all very well to say that basing the rice harvest on something as irrational and meaningless as a religion is stupid — they should be able to work it out more logically than that… but they might just as well say to us, 'Your culture and society works on the basis of money and that's a fiction, so why don't you get rid of it and just co-operate with each other?'— we know it's not going to work!

So, there is a sense in which we build meta-systems above ourselves to fill in the space that we previously populated with an entity that was supposed to be the creator (even though there isn't one) and because we — I don't necessarily mean we in this room, but we as a species — design and create one and then allow ourselves to behave as if there was one, all sorts of things begin to happen that otherwise wouldn't happen.

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