Religion as the Human Operating System

December 4, 2021

One of the biggest shifts in my thinking recently has been with regards to religion. At some point in my teenage years, I discovered a YouTube series by Richard Dawkins and became a staunch atheist.

Several years ago, Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris held two debates on religion in Vancouver, and I attended both. I recall finding JP's defence of religion utterly unconvincing. Over the last few years, I've come to appreciate it more and here's why.

The current state of our public discourse doesn't make sense. Our brains are scrambled and we can't communicate properly. I've been concerned about the rise of woke ideology from long before it was called that. Since about 2013, I watched this movement gain traction, first within tech, then in broader society.

A key element of this far-left movement is the inability or refusal to parse language. It's really a tower of babel moment. Context has been discarded. A word like 'master', regardless of context, it's seen as a reference to slavery. No more 'master bedroom', the NYT says.

My favourite example, perhaps, is a law professor who, while speaking Mandarin, uttered something resembling 'nigger' in English, and he got reprimanded for it. My question has been this: in what mental must someone be to take offence at a mundane word in a foreign language, and where would such a mental state come from?

In his book, The Constitution of Knowledge, Jonathan Rauch argues this offence-seeking, mob-like behaviour is less about the ostensible subject and more about the emotional bond that the offendees build with one another. The rise of woke ideology – or internet mob behaviour more generally – has less to do with the topics we hear about (systemic racism, the patriarchy, etc) and more to do with the state of our social ties.

And here's where I've shifted in my view of Jordan Peterson's arguments in favour of religion. He argues that religion encodes not objective truths but psychological ones. And the way I'm understanding this today is in analogy to software.

A non-trivial software product that lives a long time is a collaboration by many individuals. Over time, team members come and go, and soon enough, much of the code can be an enigma to many of the people working on it. New features are added on as the old codebase keeps working. Eventually, as the requirements change, the old parts need to change, yet nobody understands well enough how to change them. Why was this bit of code there? How does it interact with other parts? This leads to bugs. The old code doesn't work in the new world, and attempting to make it do so is painful and cumbersome.

In comes a brave new software developer with a brilliant plan! Why don't we discard the old code base and rewrite it for our requirements today? Why should we continue to evolve the old system when doing so is so laborious and painful?

This brilliant plan is almost always an unmitigated disaster. That old codebase encoded years of accumulated knowledge and learnings. That knowledge does not exist in any individual's head, but it's there in the codebase. When that codebase is discarded, all those lessons need to be re-learned. Sure, some of those lessons may no longer be relevant but many of them are. That re-learning is always more painful than the bugs we had to deal with while maintaining the old system.

The strictness of religious doctrine can be stifling to be sure, and the belief that any religion can be informative in an objective sense still sounds like nonsense to me. But what is a stable state of equilibrium for human society? Is it one in which we discard language and meaning, exhibit mob-like behaviour, and bond with one another over our moral grandstanding? Or is it one in which our conduct is regulated by rules and rituals that have governed human society for thousands of years?

It's undeniable that certain social arrangements lend themselves to stability over long periods of time more than others. Take sexual liberty as one example of an arena where today's liberal-minded atheist may criticize traditional religions: surely, we'd all be happier with less jealousy and more sex! But studies of communes in the '60s and '70s paint a different story. The longevity of a commune is inversely correlated with its openness.

I'm sure the members of those sexually open communes enjoyed themselves, but the social structure itself did not last. Conversely, religious communes that enforce celibacy can last centuries, even though the members may not experience the same carnal pleasure as the former group.

So could it be that religion is actually an encoding of social behaviours that lead to long-lasting, resilient societies? In other words, that religions encode a set of behaviours that, while they may not optimize for maximum individual happiness, are more likely to be sustainably practiced by humans over multiple generations?

For whatever it's worth, my personal observation is that that's probably the case. Furthermore, we seem to be engaged in a never-ending process of evolving this "codebase". When religion leaves a vacuum, we seem to rush to create new social rites, rituals, and shared beliefs. The linguist John McWhorter and others have argued, convincingly I think, that woke-ism is a new religion, with much of the same features as Christianity and without the salvation.

If we view religion as the human operating system – as the encoding of psychological truths or sustainable social practices, discovered and applied, with error, over many generations – then we could say we're in the midst of a rewrite. We have discarded our legacy code, and we're embracing a new version that is not yet production ready.

Expect bugs... and turbulence.