Humanity Has Declined #10: Ceci n’est pas un dieu
In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins sets out his idea of concepts that spread between people within cultures. Ideas, behaviours and styles that are to the cultural analogues to self-replicating genes. The meme. Evolutionary principles do a very good job of explaining the spread of cultural phenomena, and so the meme was coined as that which carries ideas and practices, among others. Dawkins then posits that religion is no more than a facet of shared human culture that mankind has itself created. The concepts behind the religions we know are particularly resolute – they have to have been to survive the thousands of years since their founding – and memetics helps to explain why they propagate into the modern day.
Full disclosure of my beliefs at this point is, I feel, necessary: I was raised Christian (Anglican, to be precise) but rejected this at a young age in favour of atheism very soon after learning of other religions. Even at the age of ten or so I could see that these world viewpoints – often diametrically opposed with each other – couldn’t all be right, and the sheer conviction in beliefs of the people dooms all of them. I received compulsory religious education until the age of fourteen, and studied it by choice for a further four years (GCSE and A-level). I may be a little rusty on my own knowledge of the facets of religion, but I would reject any claims that I am ignorant of the subject matter (and thus unqualified to discuss it in this manner).
With that out of the way, allow me to recount the salient points from this week’s episode of Humanity Has Declined. Episode ten tells the story of Watashi’s first assignment upon arriving in Camphorwood Village – she discovers a group of fairies in a junkyard-cum-ruins and befriends a few. She decides to name the fairies one by one, and is thought to be their god. This spark instigates rapid social development, and when Watashi returns the next day she finds a futuristic metropolis (“one taken straight from a sci-fi movie”). The fairies are thrilled at the prospect of being named, but shocked by their large numbers she instead leaves her dictionary of names (including a grand total of seventy-five entries). The following day she is shocked to discover a monument built in her honour. She rejects the moniker of God, passing it on to another fairy by tagging him. He tries to pass it back to her: “Sorry, each person can only be God once.” He tries to pass it on to another fairy, but they all try to escape from him by abandoning the city (and destroying it in the process).
Last week, Jintai made a brief point on the subject of religion: “Religions are invented? I’ve learned something new.” This line seems surprising given the context of this episode, where she finds herself as the figurehead of a religion centred around… Well, what is the fairies’ religion centred around? From the evidence presented in the episode, I can only offer the idea of being named. Watashi promises to name all the fairies, and this is what causes their microcosm of civilisation to develop so quickly (“just a single spark will set them off,” warns her grandfather). For giving them names, Watashi is heralded as a god. Nomenclature provides us with ways of mapping the world in our minds – names represent our experiences. For a whole intelligent society to operate without naming its members is very peculiar indeed, but when this concept is introduced it spreads like wildfire and becomes its own religion. It is the very definition of Dawkins’ meme – the fairies at the bottom of the garden are forever at the whim of the latest fad, and religion is just the latest in a long line.
The fairies are apparently a godless society until Watashi turns up, and for her to propose an idea that no fairy could conceive is indistinguishable to performing a miracle. This humdrum idea propagates through fairy society and gives birth to religion – it is a very obvious satire of the way in which religions are created (for the author, and I also incidentally, firmly believes this to be the case). It may seem that religion is pervasive and ever-present, but its spread is easily explained by memetics. It is tempting to counter that religion spreads because it is ‘correct’, but Dawkins argues that religion is no more than a collection of memes – a memeplex. Its ideas stand the test of time because of how appealing they are, not out of correctness. Life after death, for example, is clearly an attractive idea if you’ve never considered such an eventuality before, and memetics explains not only why the Christian idea of an afterlife is still popular today, but also why afterlife is such a common feature in other religions.
There is a twofold criticism in episode ten. Not only is the creation of religion satirised, but the social uptake of religion also comes under fire. The fairies are so quick to believe that Watashi is a god even when there is so much evidence to the contrary – to the point where they ignore their own god telling them she is not a god (“only the true Messiah denies His divinity!”). Earlier in the episode, there is a painting of a smoking pipe in the background, with some lettering below it barely visible but illegible. It would appear to be a reference to a painting by René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, consisting of a pipe with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) emblazoned below it. The statement is true, for the painting is the image of the pipe rather than the pipe itself. In the same way, Watashi is the image of a god rather than a god herself, don’t you think? No matter how much the fairies believe that she is a god, she is not, and she never will be.