u Notes from the Underground: The evolution of religions

The evolution of religions

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Alex Tabarrok has a few things to say about how religions adapt:

My point is not to argue that Christianity or Islam are either more or less compatible with capitalism or liberal democracy. In my view all religions of reasonable age and numbers contain traditions and teachings compatible with modernity and all religions of reasonable age and numbers contain traditions and teachings incompatible with modernity. Call it the completeness theorem.

It's how religions adapt and evolve to modernity that is important. Religions are constantly changing, emphasizing certain features, downplaying others, creating new interpretations. Given enough time, I believe that any religion will evolve towards compatability with modernity because it's the memes that combine modernity and religion which will survive and prosper.

The problem is that Christianity has had hundreds of years to adapt itself to modernity while Islam has had modernity thrust upon it.

(Italics mine.)

I think the line that I emphasised is even truer of customs and traditions, (represented by the catch-all "culture") i.e. only such cultures which better adapt and evolve will survive for any length of time. Look at any culture close enough and you'll find that the search for what is "authentic" in that culture can be very elusive.


At 5:17 PM, January 27, 2006, Blogger azhar said...

True. Even though Islam has a more stringent base, in the long run it has adapted and outlooks have changed. Also, when a religion spreads through a region, it begins to incorporate traditions characteristic of that region and adapts itself.

At 6:16 PM, January 27, 2006, Blogger Venu said...

Yup. One dampener of change in religions is that you have a touchstone, holy books. And so you periodically have counter-revolutions that exhort people to do as the book tells them to do. Still, there are ways to get past this, as the post I linked to says, by downplaying some features and emphasizing others. (Mercifully, such revolutions are less powerful in Hinduism because there is no widely accepted holy book for it. Some people are still trying though.)

At 11:30 AM, January 28, 2006, Anonymous Traveler, not tourist said...

Thanks for the post. You should see Crash, if you haven't yet. It's about a certain 36 hours in LA, where a plethora of characters(of different races/etnicities), crash. It talks about how our prejudices, affect our perception, and responses. It's beautifully made and very intense.

At 11:54 AM, January 28, 2006, Blogger Venu said...


Thanks for dropping by. Your site looks beautiful.

I will try to see Crash sometime. But, to get back to the post, it wasnt about how different people deal with each other. Its about what kinds of memes survive in the long run and why.

At 4:49 PM, January 30, 2006, Blogger De-Scribe said...

This phenomenon is not restricted to just religion. Take for example language, English has survived so long because it welcomes new words and new meanings to old words. Too many rules or too much rigidity will kill anything. That's Evolution! [Darwin looks down and Smiles]

At 5:26 PM, January 30, 2006, Blogger Venu said...

I agree with your larger point, but I dont think English is special in allowing leeway. Any language sufficiently popular will evolve simply because its impossible for any single person or entity to control its direction.

I have a more mundane reason for why English is where it is today: the British were all over the world and therefore spread the language in every which place. Once it had a large as well as a diverse population, it was bound to be adapted to different needs and therfore mutate and change at a fast clip.

At 8:25 AM, January 31, 2006, Anonymous Traveler, not tourist said...

That's a nice comment Venu. In the colonial period, French was the major language of the world, and a de-facto language of scholarship in Europe. That explains the origin of the word lingua franca. One of the major reasons of English popularity is that it's spoken in the most of North America. The US has no special attachment to English as a language. They had a vote in the congress and English won(Greek was second with only one less vote). So it's only a matter of "chance" that English became popular today.

However things are fast changing. For Eg. I live in the south-west United States, and it's not uncommon to fill my bank forms in Spanish(when they've run out of English forms). Also French and Chinese has as many native speakers(well almost. And Indians are not native speakers), as English(Canada was in a similar situation and they chose French as their language).

If you're wondering why the heck I researched on this, well it's because of the asinine English exam.


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