Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Anthropocentric Religion

In discussing speculations on alien religion, one thing needs to be kept in mind: while looking to our own planet for some insight is a good place to start (after all, here are examples of what can exist), we need to beware of the temptation to slide into anthropocentricity.

I came across today an old entry on the Speculist entitled "Alien Religion." His article brought up some good food for thought, and I will definitely try to track down a copy of Intelligent Life in the Universe? Catholic Belief and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life, by the Jesuit Astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno. However, there is a passage that I must respectfully disagree with:
From reading their history, we will discover that they count certain religious leaders among the most influential members of their species and contributors to their civilization. Religion itself will have had a long and spotty history: nurturing the loftiest of ideals in one place and time and sanctioning atrocities in another. One day a tool of oppression plied by tyrants and scoundrels, the next day a tool of liberation used to smash the oppressors' chains. Here the friend of learning, there it's enemy.
In other words, meeting aliens will teach us exactly nothing about religion or about ourselves; nothing, that is, that we shouldn't already know.
He claims that "mono-cultural alien races" don't exist. It is true that humans are not mono-cultural. However, while mono-cultures may be rare in the universe, I doubt they are impossible. For instance, an alien sentient race that operates in a hive social structure will probably be essentially mono-culture. There may be some slight difference due to geographical variations on their planet, but overall, what the would essentially have is a mono-culture. Just because we do not see something existing on our planet does not mean that it can not exist on other worlds - "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (Hamlet Act 1, scene 5, 159–167).

Take, for another example, a long lived race who has, over the long millennia, somehow managed to have only one religion left standing - yes, it would probably be an extraordinary long process, but once it has been achieved, and all children brought up in it, and in a world that knows of no other religion (all references to past ones long erased), it would essentially be a mono-culture. It may not last as one, but for a while it would be a mono-culture. And yes, some may outwardly act as if they believed, while inwardly be agnostic or even atheistic, that happens quite a bit on our own planet, but essentially, in practical purposes, they would be a mono-culture.

We must keep in mind that while there probably is a universal biology, it will still allow for a great diversity of biologies and there may be creatures out there that have no inherent need for religion (as blasphemous as that may sound to our own ears). They may not understand our need for it - and it does seem we have a need for it.

Think about our own little silly superstitions - those actions taken before a game, or before watching your favorite team, or before going on stage, or before going on a date, and so forth. While these actions are not the religious rituals of an organized religion, they are still religious acts - rituals to appease "something" so that we will be blessed in some way. Even some atheists will admit to missing the rituals of church. We humans, generally speaking, love ritual. And this love for ritual is connected, to a degree, to our need for religion.

Is this love for ritual, or is this greater need for religion an inescapable result of developing abstract thought, of developing high order sentience, of being pattern seekers? Is it the inevitable result of sentient beings being able to detect, to see, and to create abstract patterns? Is it the ineluctable result of sentient beings being able to ponder abstract questions?

If the answer is yes, then all sentient aliens will have, at least at some point in their histories, an inherent desire and need for religion.

If the answer is no, then there will be sentient aliens who will not understand the need for religion.

However, even this is too simple. If the answer is yes to the above question, it is still anthropocentric to assume that their religious history will reflect the "long and spotty" religious history of Earthlings (a short history compared to some aliens). Aliens will be part of the grand biological diversity in the universe. And they will be at the mercy (at least at first) of the randomness that is inherent in the evolutionary process. They will also have originated on planets with a wide range of diverse environmental conditions. And so, they may have different emotional characteristics and needs (which will definitely affect how they interpret and apply religion), including a possible lack (at least by our standards) of emotions. That doesn't necessarily mean they will all be Spock like in logic, just that they may seem emotionally limited.

I said "at least at first" above as it is not inconceivable that some, or many, alien races could at some point take over control of their own evolutionary process. Depending upon a number of social, political, and biological factors, if an alien race who is at this point technologically is being ruled by a dictator, it is possible that some dictators in that position would take advantage of the technology to create a people who will be controlled by the few ruling elite - and thus essentially a mono-culture. Yes, so far no dictator on Earth has been able to take over the entire planet, but that does not automatically mean it is impossible here or on other worlds. As we have so far thankfully seen on Earth, dictators do have a hard time keeping their power - thus it would seem logical that if a dictator had access to biological technology that could alter his people to make them easier to control, that he would be very tempted to use it.

It is also a form of anthropocentric thinking to judge an alien's history by our short history - theirs may be millions of years longer, even a billion years longer. Much can happen in that time i the way of physical, mental, emotional, and cultural evolution. Their religious history may only be spotty in the beginning (the first few dozen millennia, for example), and settle down as the aliens evolve. At some point their cultures could become unified. Just because it hasn't happened in our short history does not automatically mean it can not happen in an alien race's history, especially one with a much longer history and thus more chances for it to finally develop a mono-culture (not saying that a mono-culture is necessarily a good thing, mind you).

Finally, technological advances on our own planet have begun to make the planet a truly smaller place. There is much talk about the Earth being "Flat" (connected) of late (see the book The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman), where global communication and business can occur almost instantaneously - we are becoming increasingly connected at an accelerating rate, and, in some ways, more and more like a hive, or, for the more pessimistic, like the Borg.

Ah, the Borg - there is a model to be considered. Is it impossible for a sentient race to go down that path, whether intentionally (good or bad intentions) or by accident or by force? Such a society would very well be a mono-culture.

I will close by revisiting Mr. Bowermaster's words above: "In other words, meeting aliens will teach us exactly nothing about religion or about ourselves; nothing, that is, that we shouldn't already know." I disagree. Going to other planets. like Venus and Mars, to study their weather patterns, for instance, teaches us about our own weather. It is not so much the similarities that teach us, but the differences. And the more another system is like our own, the more any differences will help us learn how our system works. Weather is a complex system. I think this applies to complex theological systems as well. If there are many similarities with alien religions, with all having long and spotty records, there will still be differences, and those differences can be very telling, very instructive. Sometimes it is the smallest of variances that can give great results.

I think that the probability is high that meeting aliens will teach us something about ourselves, including religion.


Bowermaster, Phil. "Alien Religion." The Speculist. 2 December 2005. 6 February 2008. <>


Anonymous said...

For example, an alien race from a world with frequent extreme food scarcity may have a idiosyncratic view of pecking orders, because a higher ranked individual would take their food, inevitably starving them to death before they can reproduce. Such aliens may not even be capable of emotionally bearing the notion of (personal) deities. Or an alien race who live in hives with a single breeding queen and many sterile workers may not have any concept of an afterlife, because they, like ants and termites, have no individual instinct of self-preservation.

Mr. David Michael Merchant said...

The hive race could have an concept of after-life in that 1) they are reborn as future workers, especially if they die in the service of the hive or 2) the after-life is only for the elite.

Anonymous said...

The concept of an afterlife is quite outlandish and require a great deal of desperation to believe in. And what is a "hive elite" ? Hive insects have no chain of command, and i certainly disagree with the idea that dominance-thinking should be a result of intelligence. Chickens have pecking orders and early humans probably lost their primary signal of threat/submission (what a smile is to chimpanzees) because early humans avoided competition by spreading a small population over a large surface. Because a hive can exist forever, intelligent hive aliens would raise LONG-term planning to an art form and have it in lieu of religion in the terran sense.

Mr. David Michael Merchant said...

A hive elite would be the queen, for instance. Some ant colonies actually have hierarchies - Jack Jumpers (Myrmecia pilosula) in Australia, for instance, will fight with each other to move up in status. Some colonies have soldiers, which are cared for by the workers (cleaned, fed), so they have a higher status (elite, as it were).

Simple hive creatures(ants, bees, etc) may not exhibit chain of commands, but that doesn't mean some theoretical sentient alien hive creatures would not. With sentience may come the concept of chain-of-command.

And it is not automatic that all alien hive creatures will be insectoid.

Finally, while the concept of an afterlife may be outlandish, it is popular (some say even hardwired) with humans. That may not translate to non-human species, of course, including aliens, but just because it may be outlandish doesn't mean that it may not be common among certain levels of sentience.

Thanks for the thought provoking input!

Anonymous said...

Chain of command is not repeat not a result of sentience. Read the comments about the stupid chickens and the smart early humans again. That "hardwiring" for believing in an afterlife you are talking about is all about mortality and individual self-preservation. Why do you see feeding soldiers who cannot eat without assistance as "status"? Stuck in post mesolithic overpopulation crisis status thinking and generalizing it to all life?

Anonymous said...

Why do you associate lack of hierarchy with simplicity? Chains of command means arbitrary decisions over logic and is thus more in line with nonsentient animal behavior. The oldest archaeological evidence of hierarchy in human history is from soon after the whole world was populated, creating a frontierless congestion where pecking becomes inevitable. Hopefully space colonization will address that problem. All nonhuman apes use smile as a signal of threat and submission, but not humans. That means that at some point human ancestors lost their primary signal of threat/submission. So humanity does not even have any homolog of Great Ape hierarchy.

Mr. David Michael Merchant said...

I suppose it is how you define status, for one thing ("The relative position or standing of things OR especially persons in a society").

Mr. David Michael Merchant said...

Lack of hierarchy does not automatically mean simple - I didn't mean to imply that. However, hierarchy means ranks, organization, a system of ordered groupings. This tends to make the system more complex, even if in many hierarchies it means being led by arbitrary decisions (as in based on or subject to individual (the leader) discretion or preference). I suppose more complex hierarchies could exist - lead by committees, or bu majority with the leader just a way to simplify carrying out the will of the masses.

Anonymous said...

You are still ignoring the comments about how human ancestors lost mtheir threat/submission signal. Sentience causes the ability to discuss why something should be done instead of simply ordering.

Mr. David Michael Merchant said...

True, sentience allows questions.

If we look to ourselves, we see that with sentience, and the asking of questions, we still have strong tendencies to create hierarchies. Maybe partly to give up accountability - if someone else makes the decision and we are "just following orders" we can blame the other for anything that goes wrong and avoid, at least in our own mind, accountability.

Maybe it is also an outgrowth of sentient desire to order the world around them - to catalog, name, label, identify, figure out, to make sense of, detect (or to overlay our own) patterns? Thus from sentience comes hierarchy?

In other words, different paths to hierarchies: paths involving sentience, and paths not involving sentience. However, this is not to say that all sentience beings will create hierarchies. I am sure that at least some will not.

Anonymous said...

The "strong tendency toward hierarchies" you are talking about is merely a result of overpopulation. There is not a single archaeological evidence of hierarchies from the time before the whole habitable world was inhabited. Back then people spread few individuals over large surfaces thus avoiding competition. "Ape politics" is not a evodence of apes being intelligent but that human politicians are forced to behave like nonsentient animals by the overpopulation effect. Even the remaining hunter-gatherers are not a appropriate model for pre-overpopulation human behavior because they too are affected by having no "empty" lands to scatter into.

Anonymous said...

Ever read about cases where a lone deaf child grew up in a village where everyone else could hear? They could not aquire spoken language due to their deafness, and they could not aquire sign language because they were not members of a deaf community. Some of them were actually taught sign language later in life, but when they were asked about existential matters, it turned out that none of them had any concept of a deity or afterlife! That debunks the theory of hardwired religion.