Wednesday, April 25, 2012

deity or no deity

Today's crackpot theory is one I came up with after a couple of weeks off work on paternity leave. Now obviously parenthood is the best thing ever, but there's no doubt that it does restrict your opportunities for, say, just wandering off down the shops or up a mountain for a few hours if the fancy takes you. So one of the things you end up doing, while trying to keep a small person fed and warm and entertained and, well, alive, is watch a substantial amount of daytime TV.

You have to be a bit careful, obviously you don't want to accidentally end up watching Loose Women or, worse, have your eyes fall upon the unguarded portal to Hades aka That Which Once Seen Can Never Be Unseen, or, as it's known in the TV listings, The Jeremy Kyle Show. In general you're better off finding one of the free channels which just re-run old game shows on a constant loop - Challenge is a good one as it has re-runs of old episodes of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? as well as Alexander Armstrong's Pointless, which I rather like as it appeals to the nerdy trivia-obsessed pedant in me.

You can also, with a bit of judicious channel-hopping, spend most of the day watching re-runs of Deal Or No Deal, and here's where this post starts to coalesce into something resembling a point. It's about religion, almost inevitably, so feel free to sigh heavily and stop reading now, if you like.

One of the standard arguments that religious adherents trot out when they get involved in an argument with an atheist goes something like this: well, religion has persisted in the human psyche for thousands and thousands of years, hasn't it? So therefore, by your own argument, Mr. Evolution, it must be of some use to us, mustn't it? Therefore it must be true. Aha, checkmate, etc.

Now of course the "therefore it must be true" bit is clearly bollocks, and easily demonstrated as such by pointing out the huge range of mutually contradictory religious worldviews that exist, but there's some interesting mileage, from a purely anthropological perspective, in examining why this sort of stuff is so persistent, since it clearly is.

The most persuasive explanation I've ever read goes something like this: once early man stopped swinging around in trees eating bananas and generally just roaming about wherever he pleased hunting and gathering as he went and started doing things that required him to stick around in one place, like building proper dwellings or planting crops, little communities of people started to aggregate and we developed into a properly social species. One of the side-effects of many little communities with their own patches of land is an inevitable competition for resources, and therefore conflict between communities. So there's a great deal of utility in being able to know who is "one of us" and who is an "outsider" quickly and easily. This is trivial when everyone in your community is either a member of your immediate family or at least someone you know by sight, but less easy when communities get bigger than this. So it's useful to have a shared collection of stuff that you and your kind know about, and that outsiders don't. Now there's not much point in this stuff being universal real-world stuff like "the sky is blue", "rain is wet", and stuff like that, as that doesn't help. So it's positively a benefit to have a collection of stories that are a bit out of the ordinary, say about burning bushes, parting of seas, guys coming back from the dead, yadda yadda yadda. If some of these myths are of the Just-So Story variety that seem to explain natural phenomena like the sun coming up in the morning, periodic flooding, locust infestation, etc. etc., well then so much the better. Add to that the evolutionary benefit of believing things your parents tell you - like "cliffs are dangerous", "fire is dangerous", "lions are dangerous" - without insisting on testing it out for yourself, add several thousand years, mix well, and hey presto, organised religion.

Anyway, the Deal Or No Deal connection is that I watched a few new-ish episodes after not having seen ths show at all for a couple of years, and noticed a few changes. Firstly, Noel Edmonds' hair and beard combo has undegone a radical transformation from a greyish bouffant and goatee combo back then to a frankly terrifying dark brown full beard and yellow-ish (but still fairly bouffant) hairdo combo now, courtesy of (I assume) a large amount of Just for Men hair dye and beard treatment. More importantly, as far as my theory goes anyway, the language used within the game has mutated into a jargon probably incomprehensible to those who don't watch the show regularly. The jokey "West Wing", "East Wing", "pilgrims" stuff was there before, but now we've got all manner of other stuff like "the death box" (number 22), "the guv'nor" (an offer of £26,000), "the power 5" (the top 5 red amounts), "5-box" (the penultimate banker's offer, made when 5 boxes remain), and many more that probably passed me by because I simply didn't understand them. Add to this the constant stream of bullshit about "strategy" (satirised by Charlie Brooker here), convoluted explanations from the players about their reasons for choosing a particular box (birthdays, usually), and liberal application of the gambler's fallacy among assorted other irrationality and I think you have quite a close model of how religions develop and eventually ossify into arcane and incomprehensible ritual accessible only to the chosen. Admittedly the adherents of Deal Or No Deal haven't started killing each other in some dispute about dogma yet, but I expect it's only a matter of time.

It should also be noted, while we're speculating about the depths of irrationality to which people might sink, that Noel Edmonds is a bit of a devotee of the splendidly fluffy and inane self-help psychobabble known as Cosmic Ordering, and has written a book on the subject. Someone who has also jumped on this particular bandwagon is astrologer Jonathan Cainer, whose televisual ambushing at the hands of The Amazing Randi and Fry & Laurie back in the early 1990s really never gets old.

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