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On the idea of religion

On the idea of religion

Many common words are used to convey several related but distinct meanings. This is both a convenience and a danger, particularly when discussion needs precise terms. The word "religion" is just such a portmanteau term, and debate around it is particularly difficult because each discussant means several things, or different things, when they use the word.

The aim of this paper is to tease apart these component parts. We shall see that not all of the parts are compatible with each other, and that the enterprise of organised religion is highly susceptible to 'brand dissonance'. The second section steps back from this. It notes that the transcendental impulse and the immense amount that we are learning about the human condition and the universe in which we all live will need to be reconciled on very new ground. Finally, the paper ends by asking what implications flow from the analysis, particularly in respect of the forces of change that may dominate our world twenty years from now.

An anatomy.

It is, perhaps, important to separate the institutions of religion from the goals of it. Second, one needs to think hard about these goals in the light of the motives of three classes of stakeholders, comprising the secular authority, those who see religion as a normative tool by which to manage their society and its behaviour, and those driven by a primary religious impulse, what one might call the god-smitten.

Institutions have their own imperatives, generated simply by virtue of their having resources, being of influence and offering a career path. Managers in the secular world will know how easy it is to forget the ostensible aims of the organisation and, instead, to become obsessed with internal issues, office politics and the polishing of routine. Those who have careers to make will wish to extend the power and resource base of the organisation, and to further its interests.

The implications of this in the context of a religious institution is, unhappily, that there will always be two goal structures that are in play. One of these is essentially secular, whilst the other directly connected with assorted forms of transcendence, to which we turn in a moment. However, this dissonance automatically presents what a commercial manager would see as a problem of brand integrity, and a psychoanalyst as a source of neurosis. Organised religions often respond by fragmenting their activities - a schizoid adaptation? - by establishing a rigid orthodoxy of behaviour and debate - armouring and denial? - and by emphasising their role as the intermediary to which all the messy details that might concern or distract individual believers can safely be left.

The figure shows four important stakeholders in the resulting social structure. We have, of course, already discussed the way in which organised religion - the first of these - generates a mixed goal structure for itself. This is shown in the left-centre of the figure. On the right, however, we introduce three new agents: civil government, the more or less well formed normative consensus in the society that seeks to define proper conduct and to impose it and, finally, the aspirations of individual people who feel the religious impulse.

The relationship between the state, the institutional aspects of organised religion, the normative consensus and the role of the articulate of all persuasions within this is, of course, both hugely complex and specific to cases. Nevertheless, there is a loop which is visible everywhere in societies in which organised religions have or had an important role. In this loop, each of these stakeholders both feeds and feeds on the aspirations of the other agents. That is, organised religion validates the desire of the normative to impose their views, and the normative consensus gives impetus to a range of often inarticulate but potent social forces which organised religion can capture. The state provides both of these agents with a range of tools, and it can rely upon them to maintain stability and constancy in the society as a whole. Such forms of mutual self-policing are extremely powerful. In addition, they tend to reject social change and to validate or reinforce existing patterns of power. The resulting array of checks and balances seems, nevertheless, to increase the resilience of the relatively simple, poor societies. Historically, this can be seen as a more or less protracted stage in social development, and one which has often provided the foundation from which more complex civil infrastructure has grown.

This important social role which organised religion often acquires may exclude the transcendental goal of religion. It may constrain or frustrate the aspirations of the individually religious. A powerful institution will almost always take a firm grip on intermediation for without this role, its usefulness to the state and to the normative power block is, ultimately, limited. The "two pronged" model which we show in the figure suggests that the more anxious and challenged the society in question, then the more that this will tend to be true. The more relaxed Protestant churches emerged from the wealthy and educated middle classes, whilst the intensely normative Roman church worked with the aristocracy to 'manage' the peasantry. Hinduism has an extremely limited orthodoxy (and a maze-like mythos of artistic, rather than narrative coherence) and also has a limited role in the state, the Indian BJP aside. Tibetan and northern Sri Lankan Buddhism had a strong orthodoxy and social role, whilst other plantings of Buddhism took quite different and often looser roles.

There is, therefore, a commonality for the role of organised religion which tends to transcend cultures and the historical background against which it evolved. This is far from true about either the specific transcendental doctrines of either organised religions or the aspirations of the religious.

It is a humanist cliché that "all religions are basically similar." In fact they are not at all similar: their cosmogony is diverse, the goals and rationale of the transcendental impulse which they promulgate is not at all similar one to another and their ethic - other than the need to co-operate or collaborate so as to minimise friction within the group - also is different. It is virtually impossible for religion which believe in an attainable heaven to have much in common with belief structures which regard existence as an illusion, which see the self as both a delusion and an agent of illusion, and which set the goal of religious effort as personal extinction.

As the box suggests, the fundamental goals of Buddhism are personal and intended to utterly erase the person. However, the way that this has been interpreted - and, frankly, distorted - is extremely diverse. The transcendental goals of Himalayan Lamaism are rather to attain a state of disembodied intermediation - sainthood - and so to take a role between an earthly priesthood and a vast cloud of disembodied influences, saints and borrowings from Hinduism. These goals, of course, reinforce the theocratic nature of Buddhism in Tibet before the Chinese invasion. Chinese Buddhism, by contrast, has been heavily influenced both by Taoism - which proposes intermediation on behalf of the community by superior minds - and by Tibetan ritual, whereby acts are all and sanctity comes from deeds and not intentions; for example, through chanting or paying others to chant. Yet more very fundamental distinctions of basic intent can be seen to develop as the belief evolves in Japan, in South East Asia and in Sri Lanka. Merit was gained by supporting others in asceticism, by occasional outings to a place of contemplation, through involvement in a massive militarised and magical state religion, by sequestration of the religious from the society in order to strike it like a thunderbolt when it is misaligned under Heaven.

Buddhism, for example, believes life and its experiences to be unsatisfactory, illusory or impermanent, and thus identical with dukkha, or suffering. Human beings are, however, locked into the pursuit of dukkha through our emotions and innate drives, called tanha, or desire. The key tenet of Buddhism is that this self-propagating cycle of dukkha and tanha which must be broken. In order to do this, communities must be calm, and individuals should be renunciate.

The end of suffering - nirvana - comes with the end of binding to the illusions of day-to-day reality. Nirvana comes from a Sanskrit verb nibbati meaning "to extinguish." Nirvana has been interpreted as anything from a creative serenity to an utter annihilation of the self. However, it is perhaps best understood as having achieving a status from which an individual can know themselves as nothing and of no account.

The principle that the individual personality has no place of primacy is captured in the doctrine of anatta, or 'no soul'. Buddhists, in common with Hindus, believe in the cyclical concept of rebirth, but unembellished Buddhists - and intellectual Hindus - do not believe that an individual's sense of identity is carried on.

A rather cerebral religion, in which the transcendental rationale and tools to achieve transcendence are clearly spelled out has, therefore, become a family of very different entities. Much the same can be said for other world religions, not least Christianity. The syncretic tradition of South America has so completely absorbed Christianity in some parts of the Andes as to leave virtually nothing of it intact.

Penitents with rope haloes dance to traditional music at Cusco, Peru

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Islam, too, has been fractured and re-mixed many times. It has, however, avoided many external influences by its extremely formal tradition of commentary and through its tendency to a strongly normative relationship with society. It claims access to absolute, complete revealed truth. One must surrender to this truth, or be excluded from the social group which proclaims it.

There are, of course, several distinct strands of Islam, and there are interpretations which vary systematically by geography and with the educational status of the believer. There are distinctions to be drawn between the Arab and non-Arab believers. This said, its core 'model' is common to all. It is only the socially-normative and secularised aspects of this which vary. Unhappily, it is the secular-normative aspect which has become the dominant voice in some areas and for some groups. The attention which is given to the maintenance of a unified "brand" - in the sense in which the word was used earlier - is probably stronger in Islam than it is in any other important contemporary religion.

Let us try to rise above all of this complication. The transcendental aspects of religion are at the core of the religious impulse, and it is secularisation and the normative tendency that have been grafted onto this. At its deepest, the transcendent impulse tries to provide a framework in which to think about - or feel, or experience - the role of the individual consciousness within the general scheme of things.

One branch of this is concerned with 'right conduct' in social relations. This is often taken in hand by the institutional aspects of religion. However, a list of common issues are tabled below. Other questions, however, relate to much more personal matters. An ideal catechism would, perhaps, run as follows:

The prescriptive, socially-linked and brand related aspects tend to raise the following concerns:

This is, of course, an incomplete list. However, the way in which it would be interpreted by an illiterate peasant with a sick cow and by a young American couple sharing a PhD in particle physics and a masters in political science and economics would, very naturally, be completely distinct. The interpretative models that have been developed have pushed back the areas in which we need to evoke occult forces. Cattle disease is created by specific factors, which act in particular ways; and certainly nor by demons to be exorcised by chanting and burning incense. Instead, we quarantine and change economic incentives, legislate and sequence genomes. Our rationale is based on a web of intangibles, backed - crucially - by repeatable evidence. Within their domain of competence, they work.

The figure extracts two dimensions from the discussion so far. Religious institutions may be inseparable from the society, or peripheral to it. The key individual impulse may be to seek guidance from religious sources as to the practical ways through life, or it may be focused explicitly on transcendental issues. In the latter case, social relations have either been marginalised (as with the monastic tradition) or regularised in a secular framework.

This affords the usual four quadrants. Most societies seem to have formed in the top left corner, which of course includes many balances and very many fundamental belief structures, as already discussed.

As societies become more complex and more aware, there appears to be a tendency for them to drift down into the lower left quadrant. Here, a range of forces lead to the questioning of the established institutions. The educated and the economically competent are tired of orthodoxy and intermediation, and seek to revisit the primary impulse of their religion. The excluded, by contrast, may feel themselves betrayed by their institutions and so undertake the same voyage, but for very different motives. The outcome is a reforming impulse, but the two types of reformed could not dislike each other more. Readers of the events of the English civil war will see both factions at play amongst the anti-Monarchists, both condemning the past but both disagreeing about the future. Major reform and fundamentalism both emerge from this quadrant, often articulated by a few figures and rapidly propagated by ready minds.

The upper right of the figure is extremely important in early urbanisation and during rapid social change. It is the domain of the reforming self-help group: adult education, mutual funds, reading circles and the like. Its role in transmitting hope to the excluded cannot be understated, for all its inconspicuous role. Its political influence can also be strong, as the UK reform movements of the early nineteenth century, and the US civil rights movement 150 years later both attest. Fundamentalism attracts much attention by its attempts to resist forward change. These groups, by contrast, create the adaptive framework that mitigates many of the most harsh impacts the change.

The pioneering spirits of the industrial world tend to envisage themselves as inhabitants of the lower right hand quadrant. They are engaged in a personal quest, and they see nodes of organised spirituality as flowers from which they can sip nectar. It takes a certain arrogance to set out without a map or compass, and much of the honey that is on offer is, of course, tainted by base motives. The buyer need beware, as is always the case where an individual sets their own course.

Scientific insight and religion

The history of organised religion in the West in the past two centuries has been driven by three forces: the death of deference, the growth in education and the staggering increase in our understanding of the natural world. There are few reasons to doubt the expansion of each of these forces, both within the rich world and out into the poor nations. This said, science delivers an interpretation which seems to work, which is self-consistent and which has deeply challenging consequences for the religion impulse. This section reviews the extraordinary advances in knowledge that we can foresee.

It focuses on two areas of activity. First, there is a review on what is known about human cognition, and the constraints that this places upon issues such as the survival of human personality after death. Second, we consider the changing way in which physicists see the universe in which we live. In particular, the nature of time itself is now thought about in distinctive ways. This is a section which many may find challenging.

Let us begin with the understanding which we are acquiring about the mechanisms of identity and choice. It has long been known that lesions to the brain, due to accident, stroke or surgical intervention lead to highly specific losses of function, and that stimulation of the human and animal brain at particular points leads to highly specific actions, recollections and states of mind. One can lose anything from one's sense of humour to the ability to recognise a face through a cerebral stroke, for example, and it has proven possible to create a map that transfers well between people. Crucial lesions lead to the loss of the ability to recall anything save the distant past, the loss of what might be called moral discrimination and the capacity to think creatively. One can forget one side of one's body, but this is less disconcerting that the apparent ability to subtract the capacity to recognise emotions in others, or to recall whole conceptual categories, and still be left with an aware individual.

One of the most powerful tools that can be deployed on the study of the intact brain is functional magnetic resonance, fMR. This and high resolution tomographic encephalography (HRTE) allow one to track various indicators of activity around the intact brain at high speed and to tight resolution. By subtracting the 'noise' in an aware brain from the activation when it performs a specific task, the differences can be highlighted and the key locations can be defined.

It turns out that these replicate the maps which are generated from consideration of brain lesions. These are, however, better seen as bottle necks which, when damaged, affect much more extensive pathways. One can, for example, use HRTE to watch the cerebral cortex perform a repetitive mechanical task until, that is, the prefrontal and medial motor cortex pick up the repetition and take over the management of it at much higher efficiencies. High resolution fMR is used to track the associations that are piled one upon each other on a percept within the limbic cortex. Levels take a percept from 'mobile blob' to 'animal' to 'dog' to 'Fred'. (The categories are in fact more arcane than this, and extremely parallel.) We can also watch "Fred" being presented forward to the frontal cortex, and presumable set into his due context in our theatre of perception.

It seems likely that the machinery that sorts percepts out is also involved in recalling them and in visualising them: the process is a network that flows in many directions simultaneously. It can be generally or selectively interrupted by anything from anaesthetics to strong magnetic fields, and its quality can be lessened by anything from competing demands to the attrition of the underpinning cells in encephalopathies and dementia. Awareness - identity, being - comes with a variable quality parameter, and is not an all-or-nothing business. We are frequently semi-aware, but by definition unaware of this! - and at other times we are tightly focused on one aspect of our awareness, with other aspects of our being turned down or as completely 'off' as they are under an anaesthetic.

All of this sets a challenge for religious thought to surmount. First, are we 'there' when we are not there? If awareness is turned off during sleep or anaesthesia, and to bob in and out of focus the rest of the time, then what is to be said of the continuity of "me"? One cannot, of course, experience not being there, yet we know that there are major periods when the brain is otherwise engaged and in which the areas presumed to be involved in consciousness lapse to sleep-like states. Second, if awareness is a property that a processing system of a certain complexity can easily don and doff, then what is to be said of artificial systems that can do the same? We shall certainly have these in operation within two decades.

Third, and related to this, how is individuality to be differentiated? That is, if a given structure can generate awareness, then how is this experience different from that of another brain? The memories and percepts will be distinct, of course, but we have shown that these are ephemera. The 'bare soul' would be expected to feel the same awareness - the same "me" - in any brain, and indeed, in probably any mammalian brain. The canine sense of self is probably the same, fundamentally, as yours or mine; we are literally all one, in the sense of all experiencing the same 'me', embellished with sensory and database differences.

This is probably more than enough for most readers, although much more can be said. It is time to turn to the second issue with which we began, that of time. It is necessary to fill in a little background before getting to the meat of this.

The physical universe that we have been able to explore in the past century is a complex and hierarchical place. There are some deep difficulties of reconciliation between various ways of modeling what we observe, some of these technical, others matters of profound concept. It is, for example, difficult to reconcile the idea of 'becoming' with that of a fixed space time. The Einsteinian/ Minkowski model of the universe sees it as a perfect thing, a sculpture in four dimensions, three of space and one of time, Everything is to be represented by trajectories within this space. It is hard to reconcile this with the observable universe, in which causal chains are everywhere. Quantum theory needs these 'causes' to be probabilistic at their smallest scale. How can one reconcile deterministic and frozen space time - within which even causality finds it hard to make a home - with fundamental indeterminacy at the microscopic level?

Quantum theory itself appeals to all-permeating 'fields' which are observable only insofar as they are embodied in the characteristics of the particles that we can observe. Thus light is made of photons, excitations in the electrical and magnetic fields, and these carry force (or instructions on how to behave) between particles which feel these forces. These fields were once thought to be similar to physical space, something that could be modulated but which was pre-existent. This is deprecated, both because it simply moves the need for an explanation into a new black box, and partly because quantum theory has a distinct view. This is that empty space is a fecund seedbed of latent particles of all kinds. These are lifted up into existence by what we call 'energy'. Low-energy space is therefore capable of being polarised by a fluctuating source of energy, with the kind of fluctuation depending on the kind of energy that produced the fluctuation. Thus an electromagnetic fluctuation makes the latent particles in its locale that feel these two forces, and so become a little less latent for the stimulus. They in turn stimulate particles further away, and thus a wave propagates. (Why it does not disperse, and why it has a fixed direction, is a mystery solved by appeal to 'quantisation' and frankly fudged in the mathematics.)

Theories - and they are very much theories, without much evidence to back them - have been built which dig deeper. One class of theory notes that we need a large number of dimensions in which to typify the zoo of particles which we find in nature. They have various kinds of charge, spin, mass and so on. String theory makes the assumption that this can be reduced to eleven (or so) physical dimensions, such that particles are represented as vibrations of (physical, presumably topological defect-like) strings that exist wound around the complicated curled up space that this produces. The 'curling up' of the space means that each bit of the space time that we see is underpinned by these mote-like extensions around which strings can curl, vibrate and interact. The resulting mathematics is exceedingly complex, but has a devoted following of several thousand physicists around the world. It makes no useful predictions and is not open to experimental test. Loop quantum gravity is even more abstract in that it constructs everything - space time and particles - from transactions conduction in an abstract 'spin network'. Everything is, in this view, essentially identical with the flow of information across an abstract field of nodes. Elegant in its completeness, it too fails to offer predictions and has a smaller following, perhaps due to fashion.

Is this different from saying that the universe is turtles resting on the back of turtles? Yes, because it is an attempt to build from exhaustive evidence to a clean set of concepts as to how things work. It is not clear what an answer to this would look like, but physicists bet heavily on esoteric mathematics, often to the purposeful exclusion of 'common sense' models. Although it is the case that there is no clear winner, the progress in the past century has been extraordinary, and whilst the models are chiefly phenomenological - they describe what is observed, not why it is observed - they arrive at very exact predictions and endless experiment has failed to surface affects which they models are not able to explain. That said, we do not know what a 'final' theory would look like. Plainly, it would be self-referential in a useful way: A makes B, B makes C, but C makes A.

There is, however, a different kind of fundamental in play. This is the idea of 'emergence'. Simple things, when connected together, may acquire complex properties. One needs a more complex model - one with more dimensionality - in order to describe them. In physics, this is termed a broken symmetry, where what was once featureless now acquires separation, distinctness, difference. An example that is often used is that of a dinner party around a circular table. If the first person to engage their neighbour does to to the right, then the table will be "right handed" - asymmetrical - whilst if they turn to their left, then the opposite will be true. The table thus has three latent states: undefined, left, right. None of that is 'written into' the physical facts of diners, table, cutlery; but is latent in the dynamics of the system.

Assume that you have a completely comprehensive computer model of an ant, one that captures absolutely everything about the ant's physiology, biochemistry, instincts and so forth. If you run this model on its own, it will behave in ways that can be represented in a mathematical space: moving thus and so, eating and sleeping, doing ant things. A thousand instances of this model will occupy exactly the same space. However, connect up these instances - let a thousand ants interact - and they occupy a much larger space, defined by collective social behaviour. This requires a more complicated description than the ant alone, so where did the extra information come from? It 'emerged'.

Emergence is found almost anywhere one cares to look in the biological and social sciences. Our cognition is emergent on the nerves that make up our brains. Markets emerge from many independent transactions. The emergent is not able to be mapped down onto the component part: there is nothing of 'market' contained in the individual trade, nothing of thought in the firing of a single neuron. The emergent 'thing' - agent, property - exists in the ensemble.

This, amongst other things, settles a long-standing undergraduate argument. It tells you that you are not a predetermined being, because your brain (and social relations, very much etcetera) are continually causing new things to emerge. After the event, you can gather up all of the information and so understand why a given neural cell fired, or why this or that atom had its lunch break curtailed by a passing thought. It also tells you that you cannot ever know that your model is complete, and indeed there are sound theoretical reasons for knowing that no model can ever be complete. Finally, it tells you that given perfect knowledge of the brain at the start of a run, you could not - based only on a description of the atomic and cellular plumbing, predefine the state of the brain at the end of it, because it (or the ecology, or society) would have changed the rules on you, doing so in completely transparent ways that were nevertheless understandable only when you understand the system top down. You could only do this after the event, when the rules had been written in the interactions which the participants create.

Now, please, think back to our brave new universe. Could the network of A making B, B making C and C in turn making A which we suggested as the archetype for a theory of everything be generated by emergence? Of course it could; indeed, perhaps by nothing else. How does emergence fit with quantum uncertainties? Very well: for systems that are indetermined on ther own are crystallised into emergent structures with defined properties when they interact - in the jargon, when they renormalise. And very much so on and so forth: Loop Quantum Gravity is a model from which properties emerge in just the required manner. What this might tell us is that reality does not get more fundamental as one goes down the layers of ordering. At each layer, properties and capabilities are dropped - dropped, lost, that is - not dissected but retained for a more fundamental explanation.

We are very used to thinking in this manner around everyday issues, and equally used to dropping this approach when discussing philosophy or addressing even more rigorous fields, such as physics. This may be a weakness that we shoudl drop as being out of date. Knowledge exists in domains, and so does agency: how an ant colony acts depends on the property of the particles that make up these ants and their environment, but it is not defined entirely by these. Without particles, no ants; but with particles, what myriad of possibilities!

Our day-to-day working model of time flow is rather poorly thought out. We tend to see the past as fixed and 'always there', rather as though the present were a musician and the past, a tape recording of their performance. We are happy to believe that if we had Mr Well's time machine - and if we could travel 100 light years through space-time in it - then we could visit Victorian London. It would be there, enjoying its present. The future, however, is somehow held to be unfixed. This raises the potential for paradox if, for example, we leave our Walkman in a Victorian café.

Classical physics saw the passage of time as the workings of a vast clockwork, following an innate track that somehow existed in the mathematics: a fixed Platonic future, and a fixed actualised past. Quite what made the present, or what happened to the past was not addressed. God and man rode a boat through time, but God had a map and man did not, and God could, mysteriously, disembark but still do sequential things like act and think when out of time.

The space-time model, by contrast, suggested a universe which was all of a piece, with change as an illusion. It was a self-consistent statue. Whatever would be, whatever was and whatever had been were embedded in this structure, waiting for Mr Wells to visit. A major caveat was, however, that distant parts in space (and all but points in time) could not communicate, due to the limited maximum rate at which information could be transferred. Any one observer existed at the points of two cone: one of influences radiating in from the past, the other of influences radiating out into the future.

The new model is altogether stranger. It has no universality, but rather an asynchronous patchwork, each part of which self-invents itself in conjunction with its neighbours. Consider the mechanisms for the maintenance of a price for tomatoes across many - let us say - Mediterranean village markets, each of them linked by small boys on bicycles. There is no grand overseer and 'setter of prices', only a dynamical process that depends on information flows. Space is, however, seething with transient virtual particles which, together with actualised particles, stitch this patchwork into a seeming unity, a process called 'decoherence'. There is no solid past, only a patchwork of membranes that are continually inventing the present from what went before. What went before evanesces, is not. Fortunately, the stereotyped nature of what can be invented by these processes and agents keeps the world predictable at the atomic level, but far from mere clockwork where accumulated embodied information maintains higher levels of complexity.

The implications of this are quite strange. At high levels of complexity, many intersecting realities define what happens next. There is no one explanation as to 'why that flower is red', for example, and no single dynamic. There are many biological factors and mechanisms that contribute to an answer (and to the actual dynamic path that led to the object of the question). There are, however, just as many social mechanisms, and we have to take account everything from the preferences of the decorator to the momentary economics of the cut-flower market. The survival of these mechanisms from moment to moment depends on their ability to imprint themselves on the many decaying substrates on which they ride. There is no solid past, recording what has been. There is, indeed, no universal present, but rather a patchwork of presents. There is no Platonic model against which "real things" can be set. There are hidden variables to which we can have no access and there are uncomputable problems for which the only 'solution' is to let them happen. These inject innate randomness into what is already a complex stew.

To repeat the disclaimer with which we began, the analysis in this section is a bare sketch of how we are beginning to see the universe in which we live. It is certainly at least partly wrong. Nevertheless, it will take a very long time to internalise these issues. They have a profound impact on what we can expect from the universe, and what we will be likely to learn about our own cognitive freedoms and limitations. Certainly, neither the internalisation nor the impact have been much felt amongst those for whom religious transcendence is important. As matters become more clear, however, so such issues may matter less to a minority and more to anyone who wonders about 'life, death and the whole damn thing'.

And so..?

Many people who feel the religious impulse will be unmoved by what emerges from science. They feel the deity in music, or say that they do, and weird stuff about thirteen dimensional spaces is unlikely to move them. Nevertheless, such ideas move gradually into the mainstream, often through art, perhaps also through popular culture. (Consider the passage of psychoanalysis from monograph to Hitchcock movie - or the impact of Heisenberg on the surrealists - to see an example of the process of discourse in action.)

Quantum mechanics shows us that it is impossible absolutely to typify a particle. The more one pins down some aspects of it, the more the others become uncertain: indeed, reducing a particle to a tight location is identical to raising its and the uncertainty of the directional features of that energy. If one wants to see the very small, one needs a very high energy particle in order to resolve it. If one considers an extremely small box, then the temperature inside it is innately very high. Much the same may be true about the religious impulse, constrained on all sides, hot in its social box.

There will be interventions that can be made on individual cognition - operations on your personality, so to speak, which will no doubt spawn the equivalent of cosmetic surgery. There will be self-aware systems in boxes - and perhaps analogous entities embedded in human ensembles, such as companies - and these may well outperform us in many tasks and see the world in very different ways. Each of these may offer fresh routes to a kind of transcendence, what Frederick Pohl has called being "vastened", being made mentally vast, or given new senses. It is unlikely to be a path to innate significance, however, with each of God's children receiving a personal pat on the head from the deity. It may be that life is soon to be prolonged almost indefinitely, which will lessen the acuteness of the question of what happens to me when I die. It will not, however, deliver personal significance.

Organised religion has always had to create a place for itself. It used to do so because it had a monopoly on learning and explanation, and because it convinced the population that it held the keys to everything from social order to a satisfactory afterlife. It has no convincing wares to peddle in the developed societies, however, and its role has, correspondingly, declined both in absolute terms and in the socio-economic status of the groups which still tend to support it. Even if something completely new emerged about the relations between the human and the transcendental, it is still extremely unlikely that organised religion would be able to put itself into an intermediary status. Saving the impact of demographics, its continued decline seems assured in the industrial world.

The developing world, by contrast, continues to support a powerful contract between the society and organised religion. The forces of change have, in fact, strengthened this. There are a series of countervailing forces which will determine what happens next. The elites believe that they need religion to manage the population, but are increasing unwilling to take on the constraints which this implies. One can see this as a trend which has developed very quickly in Latin America in the past two decades. Second, the excluded are not reaping the benefits from their opened economies to the extent of the able, and are suffering more of the negative affects. They are less deferential of traditional institutions, and are frequently using religion as the grounds on which to reject them. Observers see this as 'fundamentalism', and the impulse may indeed, be the joint one of shutting off the sources of change, whilst raising an individual's personal status. If I see truth more clearly than my supposed leader, who is the true leader?

Religion may well be a schismatic force in the developing nations. The main drivers are, however, social rather than religion considerations. This said, the stage is set for a trans-national religious movement that opposes change in all its manifestations, and which acts towards their leaders (and neighbours) as the Iranians acted to the Persian Shah.

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