In the IT industry we often speak of clashes between competing technologies as ‘religious wars’. Notable examples of such unbridgeable schisms include that between Linux and Windows users; between PC and Macintosh users; between Palm and Pocket PC users; or between any pair of programming languages you care to name. And though it may sound like a superficial metaphor, there may be a grain of truth in it.


The implication of the term is that there’s some irrational element in people’s adherence to one or other of these products, over and above any rational comparison of their respective merits, and I think that’s almost certainly true in most cases. People who love the Macintosh, for instance, think of themselves as being slightly different sorts of people from those who use PCs – their Mac usage becomes a part of what defines them as people.

In a recent book, the magnificently moustachioed Robert Winston suggests there might be a genetic predisposition in human beings to take a religious view of the world, connected to the D4 dopamine receptor gene that controls our feelings of well-being. The theory is that, unlike birds or fish – whose flocking behaviour is hard-wired – we create group cohesion and co-operation through the feeling of satisfaction that can be aroused by following a shared code of conduct. This sort of argument is open to the objection (à la Dawkins) that once elements like shared codes of conduct get involved, you’ve left the realm of natural selection of genes and entered the realm of cultural selection of memes.

A real religion fulfils several other roles apart from binding people together into communities of interest. It offers them an explanation for why things happen, one that’s easier to live with than accepting that the universe is essentially random and indifferent to our fate. An equivalent for this role too exists in the computer world, among those folk who study fractals, Turing Machines, cellular automata and self-organising systems as ways of explaining how the world is structured. Such explanations are more scientific and closer to reality than religious explanations, but they’re still only metaphors for the unimaginable ocean of boiling quarks (another metaphor, inevitably), which is all there ‘really’ is. And they can always be refuted by saying that God made them too, the way the Intelligent Design people do.

However, the most important role of a religion is as an institution for imposing a morality – that is, a code for distinguishing what’s good from what’s bad – and that it does this by disguising the truth is tolerable to many people if it makes them behave well toward one another. Many of the problems we currently face in the world – from fundamentalist terrorism to yob culture – stem from the fact that secularism still hasn’t produced a fully coherent morality, nor an equally effective way of imposing one. I’m sorry if the notion that ‘moralities’ exist in the plural, and that they can be constructed, offends anyone. Religion achieves its powerful effect by claiming there’s only one true morality, and that comes from God – a clever and effective ploy for disguising the fact that every living creature has its own different and incompatible morality built into its very organism.

Seeking food, sex and warmth, plus fleeing cold and danger, lies at the root of every morality, every creature pursues its own version of the good. Water drowns us but supports fish, vice versa with air. Evolution has so engraved such realities into the fundamental structure of our brains that we can’t help but attach value to everything we encounter, and scientific reason is our partially successful, if impressive, attempt to filter out such value judgements. What’s more, every creature’s Good must necessarily be some other creature’s Evil (yes, even vegetarians). It can only succeed by disrupting some other life form. Even plants fight for the same bit of soil and steal sunlight from each other. A working religion, through its belief in God and a single unifying morality, makes people capable of sacrificing their own good in the interests of all, and it was that alone that enabled us to become civilised. And now that many of us have, like Dorothy, looked behind the curtain, we’re struggling to keep the process from going into reverse.

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