Thursday, August 13, 2015

Religion and Good Ideas

Once again I am writing about a book years after it was published. Steven Johnson is one of those thinkers who can apply concepts across many different fields of thought. Perhaps the best example of this is his book Where Good Ideas Come From.

He contrasts the creativity of liquids as opposed to gases and solids. Stay with me on the development of this idea. Consider the origin of life, which occurred in water on Earth and probably must occur in liquids anywhere in the universe. In gases, molecules bounce off of one another chaotically, causing each new association to instantly fall apart; and in solids, the molecules do not move relative to one another and form new associations. Only in liquids can new associations form and last long enough to prosper. Johnson says that the same thing is true of ideas. New ideas cannot readily form in societies with rigid structures of thought. Nor can they persist, even if they form, under chaotic conditions. The chaotic conditions of thought that came immediately to my mind when I read Johnson’s ideas were the kinds of random “creativity” found in the early to middle twentieth century: the random music of composers such as John Cage and the more general randomness of Dadaism. Not much has come from these ideas. I’ve talked with people whose minds bounce from one idea to another: just when they have an insight that I think might yield fruit, they have moved on so that I cannot even talk with them about their own good ideas. Life, and good ideas, cannot form in either rocks or nebulae. (Johnson had many memorable phrases, but I think I made that one up myself.)

You can, of course, guess where I am going with this. Solid, rocklike thought cannot create new insights or solve problems. Perhaps the premier example of this is religion. When you force your thinking to be built upon a solid rock, which most religions insist you must do, you cannot solve problems. This is how religion kills creativity. Religious leaders, furthermore, offer chaos as the only alternative to their rock-hard religions. If you disbelieve what they say, then you might as well just live in an “Eat, drink, for tomorrow we die” mentality—this is what Paul said, and what religious leaders since him have said. Either you should believe everything the preacher says, or you might as well go on a crazy binge of rape and pillage, they imply. But gas is not the only alternative to rock. There is the liquid alternative, which has just the right amount of stability. Formal religion says that its truths are unvarying; stereotyped liberalism says that there is no truth. (I actually do not know any people who are of this kind of liberal.) A liquid way of thinking allows new ideas to form, and the ones that are closer to truth can persist, while the ones that do not work can be washed away.

Sometimes circumstances force rocklike religion to dissolve a little. The Black Death shook up the power of the Catholic Church, opening the minds of many Europeans to various reformation movements, as well as to the Renaissance and the beginning of science. The official doctrines of the Catholic Church are not, in fact, the same as they were in 1350 or 1600, even though it took centuries for them to finally admit Galileo was right. Today, a similar dissolution may be going on with regard to gay rights (a subject to which I have not given enough thought to have any intelligent opinions). There is not necessarily a point in time when everyone admits the error of their previous rocklike thinking; but after a while they come to accept new realities. Racism has declined slowly among conservatives. Could even George Wallace say that he stopped being a racist on such-and-such a particular date? People may never actually admit the error of previously unassailable beliefs; they may simply ignore them after a while.

Fundamentalism is not just the rocklike perpetuation of old ideas. Fundamentalists invent new ideas, then ossify them. For example, prior to Oral Roberts, there was no doctrine about the special quasi-divine status of Oral Roberts. But he turned this idea into rock, and even in death he still has followers who accept this status. A more liquid way of thinking not only allows new ideas to form but can allow followers of charismatic religious leaders to recognize the artificiality of the rock to which they had once anchored.

No comments:

Post a Comment