In the beginning, God was decadent and mean. But about two and a half thousand years ago, in advanced civilisations around the world, he transformed into the righteous sort who condemned materialism and fun. The world became moral. To be precise, the world has since been under immense pressure to be moral, which is a great human quest for liberation from biology.
We can still find traces of proto-god in modern religion. Like the gods who would not let bathing girls be. Many of the asuras were surely proper gods once. In Christianity the old gods surface as the despicable idols of pagans.
For years scientists have tried to explain why god became good. The most widely accepted theory is that humans made god in their own image, and humans are innately moral. Being good is very simply an excellent idea for any species. It is in the heart of co-operation, a ruse that helped us triumph over other species. But there is now a new hypothesis.
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Last year, the evolutionary psychologist, Nicolas Baumard, and his associates published a paper in Current Biology that argued it is not a coincidence that “moralising religions” rose in some civilisations around a time when they were experiencing unprecedented prosperity. The affluence, as is now, was not evenly distributed. The economic elite of the time, who consumed the most, began to abandon “short-term” survival strategies like polygamy, aggression and consuming as though there was no tomorrow. They began to withdraw into sophisticated “long-term strategies” like seeking love, romance, knowledge, better care for their children and a form of introspection we call spirituality.
As we know, it is in the interest of the monogamist that the polygamist does not exist. For how can those who have chosen loyalty survive when the decadent can encroach into their resource. And, it is in the interest of those leading slow lives that the uncouth fast are tamed. Hence morality. And the deployment of god to convey a convenient message. Last week, in an essay in New Scientist, Baumard said that the disadvantage of slow life inspired “the elite to morally condemn fast behaviours, in part by adopting and promoting the new religions that legitimised and reinforced a slow morality and promised punishment for transgressors”.
One may think that the implication here is that the elite were cunning. Not at all. People tend to truly believe in what suits them. The origins of “moralising religions” may have been in the hallucinations of the primordial insane, but the propagation of those ideas was through the elite that had complete faith in the ideas. Why is this so familiar?
If Baumard is right, every economic era should have created new religions. As the societies changed, circumstances changed, and the elite would have invented newer moral codes. Actually, they have. The contemporary world is filled with probable proofs of Baumard’s theory. They are the new moralising religions.
The environmental alarm of the West, and the westernised, is a moralising religion as officially perceived by the Indian government. According to India, the West plundered nature to prosper but is now moralising to the poor because it wishes to protect a crucial resource it shares with all — the planet. That the human race must protect nature is commonsensical. India does not dispute that but it has a grouse against the moralising elite of the world. And the grouse is in line with Baumard’s theory that the rich are prone to find high moral grounds to thwart the poor from diminishing their resources. In this battle, it is in the best interest of everyone that the rich win as they did with the idea of morality.
A more treacherous moralising religion is a type of socialism, the bungalow-wala socialism of India’s intellectual elite. For years, the progeny of old money, the rentiers, protected their social and economic headstart by preaching that wealth creation was immoral. Baumard’s theory would tell us that it is not a coincidence that the first generation of moralising socialists and Marxists of India were from the economic elite. They foresaw that new money would encroach into their resources and diminish their standing, but what they thought they saw was that new money was vulgar and immoral. They were not charlatans. Like the ancient elite, they were believers.
Many of the new moralising religions are in the spectrum of activism. Recently Facebook faced a Quit India movement. It released a version of the Internet, a scaled-down free Internet for the poor called Free Basics. A fraction of India, the kind that does not need free Internet, erupted. Their real squabble was with telecom giants who were trying to increase their revenues by taking control over a user’s experience, which is a violation of an ethical arrangement called ‘net-neutrality’. If the telecoms had succeeded start-ups would have become dependent on them, even having to pay them to reach us in meaningful ways. Also, internet users would have been at the mercy of service providers who could control the speeds of access to various applications.
Self-interest then created a hysteria. Activists, who included venture capitalists, many of whom explored the world through Apple’s walled garden, claimed that real Internet was all-or-nothing, and so Free Basics, because it did not offer the whole Internet, was a sinful violator of an obscure interpretation of net-neutrality. They chose the “moralising religion” of net-neutrality to guard their turf. As a result of their activism, a capitalist strategy that could have connected millions of Indians to the Internet was sabotaged. Forever, the elite among Indian internet users would think they did something “moral”.
“People,” Baumard writes, “intuitively disapprove of behaviour that threatens their interests.” People are not frauds. We are far more dangerous. We are believers.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The views expressed are personal