Values and Religions

Reading Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” has got me thinking about how future historians might talk about our age, and to what extent capitalism might be interpreted as a “religion”. While that might sound far-fetched at first – hear me out. For instance, when Diamond talks about the history of Easter Island, and how changing material conditions led to changing religious practices (and vice versa), it is possible to talk about the “religion” of the islanders, in a meaningful way, without ever actually talking about which dieties they worshipped – in fact sometimes it is useful to talk about a rellgion only as a set of cultural practices. Another example of this might be rifts in Christianity – sure there might be theological differences but it would be strange to say that someone doesn’t understand anything about the religious conflicts in Ireland simply because they don’t know the technical theological differences. What is true in both these cases is religion, and religious difference, is largely an issue of cultural value.

The strict Nietzschean in me resists using the term “value” in this sense. In the technical philosophical meaning, it might well be true that “values” are inherently related with the self-positing and self-certainty of the subject, and talk of “cultural value” or “religious value” is a derivative mis-understanding of pre-subjective ways of understanding the world. However, since we are subjects, and significance for us is value, it is natural to mis-understand cultural significance as value – and who am I to argue with objectively necessary misunderstandings?

That is after all a technical issue. The serious question is, what kind of “religion(s)” could secular society be interpreted as practising? The obvious choice would be to posit secular ethics (which includes environmentalism) as our “religion”, but I think this is far too narrow.

I think that a proper interpretation of the religiosity, or cultural-value, of secular(ish) society should centre on those values which we hold but don’t see. These are the uncontested values, the ones that appear necessary to us.

For instance, there is the particular way we value being in-touch. I think this is manifested largely in technologies that allow us to network by turning ourselves into a node on a plain of connections. This happens when you own a cell phone and can call/can be called by many people (and is made explicit when someone calls or texts you to get another’s number). It happens on facebook – especially on the “wall” where people comment and respond to each others comments. And it happens on youtube, flickr and picassa when we post content (ourselves) for distribution and discussion. Perhaps one trend we can see in the way we connect ourselves in nodal networks is the trend from us being the node (i.e. my phone – I am literally the thing you contact), and having media content act in place of us as the node (i.e. my facebook page, which enables me to be a locus of activity even when I am disconnected).

Technologies like smartphones should be interpreted not as creating any new possibilities for connections – but are rather built in order to facilitate those avenues of keeping in touch which are already dominant. For instance, I can now (with a 3GS iphone, if I had one) record a video, post it on youtube, while walking down a busy street or as a passenger in a car. But, these are not new technologies, simply easier ways of participating in existing ones.

But, ease of use can itself be a qualitative difference. What does the overwelming success of smartphones, (which should, although are not often, called laptops in your pocket) show? It shows that we value (and are willing to throw resources at) being in-touch in the way above described. It can hardly be said to be irrational either, since even expensive phones and plans rarely cost more than 4 or 5 dollars a day to run.

But, it is not enough to say our culture or religion was about being in-touch, that’s certainly true for every culture. There is something about the way representations of ourselves online, through blogs, photos and videos, and tweets/status updates, which is particular to this age. I don’t pretend to have a full understanding of it, but I do know how it feels to want to be part of it.

Shortly, I will take a cross Canada journey – and I very much feel the desire to blog about it in real-time – posting photos and video as we go. Perhaps, if I knew how to set it up, even podcast a short radio show (this might be possible just by creating mp3s and uploading them to the blog). There is something broadcasty about these desires, but they seem in tune with today, don’t they?

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