Thoughts on modern religion

I was thinking about Japan, which from all of the accounts I have heard is a pleasant country that has entered the modern age without losing too much of its traditional charm. How does a country manage that?

Quoting WGD’s interview in Parallax Optics:

If I had to pin down a definition for iconoclasm that works, it is rapid, intentional, intergenerational change. That is, it is any intentional change that creates a discontinuity between a father and his sons. Progressivism is a cult of iconoclasm. We have had more unintentional change in the last two centuries than at any other point in human history, and progressivism has ridden that change into social disintegration, which has allowed will to power to overwhelm social restraint. To clarify, iconoclasm is a natural instinct, and is a useful tool in the right context. Divorced from its appropriate context, iconoclasm is a spiritual cancer.

I think the solution is having a countervailing cultural sense that opposes unnecessary changes–that is, a sense that some things are sacred.

If we start from pure animism and progress to today, we have an infinite supply of divine loci reducing down to one (or none). Each successive bout of iconoclasm was a valid coup, whereby the new, less idolatrous elite replaced the previous elite within the same ingroup. … What makes today special is that the postmodern sociopathic status maximiser has no ancient and powerful elite iconography to push off of and looks for anything that resembles divinity.

The difficulty, if you’re an American, is that so much of our “culture” is now created by corporations (were the favorite stories of your childhood the ones your parents made up for you, or did they come from Disney?) that it’s hard to find anything worth declaring sacred.

Within this context, the traditional American religion (Protestantism) has been lost. Church membership is plummeting across the board. Meanwhile, Progressivism has stepped into Protestantism’s shoes, replacing the original sin of fructal disobedience with the original sin of slavery and racism. An like all new religions, Progressivism can no longer stand the icons of its predecessor.

220px-18891109_arsenic_complexion_wafers_-_helena_independentTo be clear, even people who call themselves “Protestant” are, today, mostly Progressives. Progressivism grew out of Protestantism, yes, but its memetic immune system no longer recognizes itself as such, hence its attack on its own ancestral religion.

Just as advertisers will try to convince you that you have a problem you had never noticed before in order to sell the cure, for religions to spread, they also have to convince you that they have the cure to the problem you didn’t realize you had. (By contrast, already established religions only have to convince you to stick around and have children–which wasn’t all that difficult before the invention of birth control.) We are currently in what amounts to a religious frenzy which demands that we interpret even the most mundane events as evidence of man’s continued sinfulness, eg:

One of my kids thinks pasta is disgusting, and she expects her students to be okay with bat soup? This isn’t racism; this is a normal human reaction to unfamiliar foods–and she’s crying over it. God forbid she should ever have a disabled or autistic student with actual food restrictions.

What I’m for is formalising our faith into a more enduring religion. So many people have been so far below replacement for so long that they really do see the end of the world looming (their genes ain’t carrying on into the future), but for the rest of us, we need things to pass to our children – and more importantly their children – and connect them to what came before.

A lot of our problems probably stem from being in this historically unusual state of so many people having so few relatives around.

Underneath this is the level of machine language, completely inaccessible to normal humans, and largely inaccessible to even the most motivated. Humans generally do not belong on this level. Nobody really understands the Matrix as the Matix, but some (like Yarvin, imo) can understand it with some focus. Those who are able to comprehend reality on this level find it difficult, if not impossible to persuade others who cannot see what they see.

This is of course both the “red pill” and Plato’s allegory of the cave.

It is really distressing to look into reality and feel like suddenly you see all of the parts underneath, the things casting the shadows, and to yell at everyone that “hey, look, that’s not a dog, that’s a guy making his hands look like a dog!” and have most people just look at you like you’re crazy. Or to give a real life example, I see people arguing over this or that Democratic candidate’s policies as though they mattered when really, most voters will just vote for whomever gets the nomination, and the nomination will most likely go to whomever seems most establishment. All of this worrying over policies is meaningless drama.

That’s why I’ve got 1,000+ posts on this blog, after all: trying to explain my thoughts so I can communicate with others.

I’d still like to know WGD’s personal mechanism for decrypting the Real, even if necessity forces it to be framed in language that doesn’t sound sane.

On Rituals and Meaning

WGD recently gave an interview on Parallax Optics, On Orthodoxy, Idolatry, and Iconoclasm. It’s a dense piece that could easily stand to be 10x longer, but I think the point is basically about how we understand the world.

WGD talks about the cycle of iconogenesis/iconoclasm, particularly in the context of modern politics:

Iconoclasm is therefore the elimination of local faith loci (I often use the term “intermediaries” when discussing divine loci, because the infinite creator is ineffable, and our minds seem to require a compiler). In Judaism this is largely precluded by preventing the formation of these loci (although the Black Swan is pretty impressive when one does form), but progressivism has no pre-emptive measure, creating an iconogenesis/iconoclasm cycle that moves at the speed of information. …

Progressivism is, in some senses, the willingness to destroy or route around a locus. In our modern times, with any meritorious loci destroyed as quickly as it is discovered, progressivism is forced to turn iconoclasm itself into a locus. …

Progressivism is a cult of iconoclasm. We have had more unintentional change in the last two centuries than at any other point in human history, and progressivism has ridden that change into social disintegration, which has allowed will to power to overwhelm social restraint. To clarify, iconoclasm is a natural instinct, and is a useful tool in the right context. Divorced from its appropriate context, iconoclasm is a spiritual cancer.

My basic reaction:

The universe is real, but much vaster than we can really comprehend or deal with in any practical manner, so we have to divide it into useful chunks. The chunks we happen to chose are not arbitrary; they are only useful inasmuch as they are real, and are useless if they are not real.

A dog, for example, is a real thing. It is different from a cat or a wolf. A dog is a real part of the universe.

Words, however, are arbitrary. They’re random collections of sounds we ascribe meaning to. It doesn’t matter that “dog” has the sounds d-o-g in it. It would work just as well if we used the sounds c-a-n-i-s or p-e-r-r-o to denote a domesticated canine. But we use “dog” because we have a common, agreed upon understanding that this collection of sounds signifies something.

Being arbitrary in sound does not make it arbitrary in meaning.

Words are arbitrary, but the things they refer to are not. We have words for the wider dog family, including foxes and wolves: canines. We have a word for general domesticated animals that live with people: pets. We do not have a word for “the set of things that includes only dogs and dinosaurs,” because this is not a useful category: it does not refer back to a real set of things.

Words are the smallest unit of meaning. Cultures build up layer upon layer of meaning through things like a common stock of songs we’ve all heard and literature that we’ve all read and can allude to (“Alas, poor Yorrick, I knew him well”). This accretion of meaning allowing us to increase the conceptual density of communication. I don’t even like Shakespeare that much, but we have hundreds of years of culture and communication built on him, so we can’t just toss him out in favor of a “non dead white male” without losing something important.

Removing these arbitrary cultural norms (on the grounds that they are “arbitrary”) leaves people unmoored. We end up with idiotic things like corporations referring to “people who menstruate” instead of “women” because they are afraid of offending the screeching masses who want disassemble language. These people object to the conceptual density of “woman” and so insist on breaking it into its component parts, but this makes communication much more difficult. Language forms symbols and layers of meaning naturally and attempting to pull that apart is unnatural and damaging: 

Culture goes well beyond language. We have clothes and games, rituals and holidays.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry gives the best explanation I have seen of the importance of rituals:

It was then that the fox appeared. …

‘Come and play with me,’ suggested the little prince.’I’m terribly sad.’

‘I can’t play with you,’ said the fox. ‘I am not tame.’

‘Oh! I beg your pardon,’ said the little prince. Then, after a moment’s thought, he added:
‘What does “tame” mean ?’ …

‘Something that is frequently neglected,’ said the fox. ‘It meam “to create ties” … To me, you are still only a small boy, just like a hundred thousand other small boys. And I have no need of you. And you in turn have no need of me. To you, I’m just a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you shall be unique in the world. To you, I shall be unique in the world.’

‘… My life is very monotonous. I run after the chickens; the men run after me. All the chickens are the same, and all the men are the same. Consequently, I get a little bored. but if you tame me, my days will be as if filled with sunlight. I shall know a sound of footstep different from all the rest. Other steps make me run to earth. Yours will call me out of my foxhole like music. And besides, look over there! You see the fields of corn ? Well, I don’t eat bread. Corn is of no use for me. Corn fields remind me of nothing. Which is sad! On the other hand, your hair is the colour of gold. So think how wonderful it will be when you have tamed me. The corn, which is golden, will remind me you. And I shall come to love the sound of the wind in the field of corn…”

The fox fell silent and looked steadily at the little prince for a long time. ‘Please,’ he said, ‘tame me!’

‘I should like to,’ replied the little prince, ‘but I don’t have much time. I have friends to discover and many things to understand.’ …

‘You have to be very patient,’ replied the fox. ‘First, you will sit down a short distance away from me, like that, in the grass. I shall watch you out of the corner of my eye and you will say nothing; words are the source of misunderstandings. But each day you may sit a little closer to me.’

The next day the little prince came back.

‘It would have been better to come back at the same time of the day,’said the fox. ‘For instance, if you come at four in the afternoon, when three o’clock strikes I shall begin to feel happy. The closer our time approaches, the happier I shall feel. By four o’clock I shall already be getting agitated and worried; I shall be discovering that happiness has its price! But if you show up at any old time, I’ll never know when to start dressing my hearth for you… We all need rituals.’

‘What is a ritual?’ said the little prince.

‘Something else that is frequently neglected,’ said the fox.

It’s what makes one day different from the other days, one hour different from the other hours. There is a ritual, for example, among my huntsmen. On Thursdays they dance with the village girls. So Thursday is a wonderful day for me! I can take a stroll as far as the vineyard. If the huntsmen went dancing at any old time, the days would all be the same, and I should never have a holiday.’
So the little prince tamed the fox.

Not all rituals are good or important. Of course not. We can make a very long list of terrible rituals humans have come up with over the years. But that does not mean that all rituals are bad. Indeed, most rituals humans have come up with are probably good.

The rate of technological change in modern society is such that we have been forced to give up a good many of the rituals that we used to find pleasant or comforting. This is not all bad–we have gained a great deal of nice technology in exchange–but it takes time to build up new, functional rituals to replace the old.

Anyway, it’s an interesting interview, so I encourage you to read it.