75. votive


On the way home this afternoon, I was listening to this passage from The Selfish Gene:

A lamppost in woods at night“Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent ‘mutation’. In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does it have such a high survival value? Remember that ‘survival value’ here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.”

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p.192-193

In my last post and in posts previous (in particular, one from a few weeks ago), I’ve been discussing and considering the idea of the existence of, and belief or non-belief in, God. I’ve pondered various theories, from theism being an evolutionary advantage for our early ancestors that we just never got rid of, to it being a “mind virus” that infects a person until a good dose of rational thinking cures him or her of it. But this idea of God being a meme (that is, “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture” (source: Merriam-Webster)) finally put into words what I’d been trying to articulate. Considering how fast Internet videos and catch phrases spread now, and that some are more or less enduring than others, puts the whole thing in better perspective. God is an idea—and ideas, as Alan Moore once wrote, are bulletproof.

Or is God an idea?

Along with this I’ve considered the possibility that I’ve made God what I want God to be—or not to be—to suit my notions of the world and how I think it works. It certainly is more convenient for there to be no God, since it eliminates the “problem of pain.” This world is all there is, and there is no benevolent God in the afterlife waiting to wipe away all our tears and put all things to right. We don’t have to work out how or why God might allow terrible things to happen because there is no God to allow it. Things just happen. Children die. Planes fly into buildings. We’re just another animal on the Serengeti plains, eating or trying to avoid being eaten.

But I keep wondering if we’re simply asking the wrong questions. Supposing that there is a God (and my sense is that there is). Why would such an all-powerful being expect us to erect this monolithic ideology around the idea that people are intrinsically evil (tainted through no fault of their own, simply by virtue of the fact that they’re born and without any choice given to them, by this supposed Sin Nature that was imputed to them when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden however long ago it was) and that Jesus had to be born as a human in order to be tortured to death for our sins (which we seemingly have no choice about committing since it’s inevitable that we’re going to do something “sinful”)?

If we look not to the Bible but to the world around us, we see a common theme: it’s broken and a mess, but we do the best we can and life goes on. Why instead do we spend all this time flagellating ourselves (literally or metaphorically) about what awful sinners we are in God’s eyes? What a colossal waste of time and energy considering how brief and wonderful life is! It would be like going to the Louvre and instead of marveling at the incredible works of art, we’re outraged about how other people aren’t appropriately appreciating the artwork, or aren’t looking at it in the right way, or littering, or talking too loudly—and completely missing the point.

This afternoon one of my good friends at work and I were discussing her son and his three neighborhood friends, and how she wonders which one of them might turn out to be gay. She and her husband are trying to raise him in as affirmative a way as possible so that he feels free to be who and whatever he is. Her neighbors are of the same mind.

Then she talked about a friend of hers from college whose friends finally made him come out for his own good, because they didn’t care if he was gay—they just wanted him to be authentically himself and to be happy with that. Hearing stories like this—about parents who love and encourage their children, and friends who do the same—both inspires and kills me. One of our art directors at the agency has a gay son who is currently studying to be a dancer at Julliard. They knew he was gay early on, and when he finally realized it they basically told him what any parent tells their straight son or daughter—we love you, and be safe. No complications. No hand wringing. No soul searching. As if it was normal.

Because (pardon my Finnish) it fucking is normal—se on vitun normaali.

What if I’d grown up in a family where my parents didn’t care whether I was gay or not? How much unnecessary mental anguish could I have escaped? And, thinking beyond just myself, I wonder what kind of a world we might have if all parents did that. If kids didn’t worry about being bullied at school because they were or are perceived to be gay.

It comes back to this cultural god meme.

I’m going to backtrack for just a bit and lay some groundwork—and I’m going to focus for now on homophobia, which happens to be on my brain and is currently (and no doubt will be) a major moral and political issue in the upcoming presidential campaign. Now it’s telling to me that the only places where homophobia still has a strong foothold is in the Americas, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Let me focus briefly on the latter two:

  • Asian culture (and forgive me for generalizing here) is one steeped heavily in tradition and honor to family, though the up and coming generation is becoming increasingly Westernized and progressive, and less tradition-bound. To an outsider, it appears almost militaristic in its demand of unquestioning obedience and conformity to social mores.
  • Africa—and here I’m trying hard not to be conscious of making generalizations or value judgements—is a continent that seems largely dominated by violence, ignorance, poverty and fear. That’s also true of many societies, but I look with sadness at the genocides and ethnic cleansings of even the recent past in Rwanda and the Darfur, and the apparent utter disregard for human life in the ongoing slave trade. That AIDS continues to ravage the continent because men largely refuse to practice safe sex, or believe that the rape of a virgin will cure them, is another symptom of a continent in desperate need of enlightenment.

Africa and Asia are two continents where any of the monotheistic religions haven’t had much historical presence, which is why I singled them out, and why I’m not surprised that the cultures would be strongly homophobic. For hundreds of years, the Americas have had a strong Christian dominance, and the Middle East is home to the Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Islam. Both began as largely tribal societies and religions, their religions reflecting the dominantly patriarchal hegemony of the culture.

Okay—brief excursus on sexual politics in the ancient world (which is very relevant to the discussion here) and we’ll get back on topic. Gender roles were rigidly enforced in the ancient world as social stability required that everyone know their place—and free males (those who held military or monetary power and property) were masters of that world, all others (women, children, slaves, foreigners) subservient to their wills. Consequently, because males were at the top of the social ladder, it was logical that their God was male too since he must be a bigger, stronger and invisible version of human males. And so God, like a freeman, becomes a homophobe.

Sex was often the politics of the ancient world, and a freeman’s social dominance often expressed itself through sexual dominance as well. A freeman could have sex with anyone—so long as he wasn’t violating the property of another freeman. Penetration is the key word here. A freeman could penetrate (i.e., dominate) anyone of a lower social rank—women and girls (all females were considered property of males), boys and male slaves. It was shameful for one freeman to penetrate (i.e., dominate) another since that other male was either taking on the role of a non-dominant (i.e., a woman or slave) or proving himself unworthy as a freeman by being soft or weak. Inevitably theology was woven into all of that, and it became a sin for two men to have sex since God, the überman, like any freeman, doesn’t like the idea of one man penetrating another.

Sorry, this is a huge idea to tackle in one blog post, and I must sound absolutely batshit insane and sex-obsessed, but bear with me. Fast forward a couple thousand years. At the core of every Christian pastor and politician’s polemic against gays and calling for the protection of “family values” is that same ancient meme, passed down like a collective virus that shapes and defines the culture around it.

And now I’m getting to Europe, which we purposefully haven’t talked about yet.

For over a thousand years the Roman Catholic Church was the dominant reigning power in known Western world. It dictated the thoughts and beliefs of everyone with an iron fist, from kings to serfs, holding the threat of damnation and often torture and death for heresy and unbelief—but it too was infected with that same cultural god meme that had come up through the same tribal Hebrew culture from which Christianity sprang.

Douglas Adams wrote, “There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly correct some of our misapprehensions.”

It was around the middle of the 18th century that people started having brilliant new thoughts, and the new meme of rationality began to take hold like a anti-virus in what came to be known as the Enlightenment. Suddenly it wasn’t okay to just blindly accept whatever you’d been taught or held to be true. We could understand the world and life through logic and rational thinking. And it took several hundred years, but eventually someone questioned whether our belief that it was unnatural for “man to lie with man” or “woman with woman” was right.

And that happened in Europe—just as the Enlightenment happened in Europe.

So if you’re still tracking, I don’t think it’s by accident that Europe is less homophobic, or that it thrives in places where rationality doesn’t. It is by employing reason that we move forward (in what I believe Dawkins considers a next stage in human evolution), for it was by employing reason that we abolished slavery in the Western world, developed science and medicine, recognized basic human rights and that women were the equals of men, and first got a glimpse of our place in this vast and incredible universe.

And now back to the idea of God.

… remember God?

Supposing there is a God, but we’ve created an idea of him in our image—male to boot, in all his jealous, raging, egotistical glory (and I don’t think it’s coincidence either that most theologians were males)—and built an entire civilization around that ancient meme. What must that God think of the amazingly ape-like creatures who go around stuffing each other or themselves into artificial moralistic boxes, or even going around killing each other, based on how they think he wants them to live.

What if God is like the curator of the Louvre, seeing all the silly Puritanical visitors obsessing about how furniture is arranged instead of enjoying the artwork?


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