Imagine that you see someone wearing a tinfoil hat. What are they concerned about? Perhaps that their thoughts are being read by the NSA or CIA. Perhaps that some mysterious government agency is using radio waves to send commands into their brain. But that wasn’t the original purpose of tinfoil hats. Delusions change with the times, and there was no NSA or radio programming in the 1920s when tinfoil hats became a thing. Back then, the goal was to prevent telepathic intrusion.
Today, someone might fear alien abduction, but it might’ve been demon possession in an earlier time. Today, someone might fear government spying through computer malware, but yesterday it might’ve been fear about someone stealing their soul.
Signs of the times
It’s not just paranoid delusions that adapt to developments in science and technology. Bogus medical treatments also keep up to date. With new scientific interest in magnetism, Franz Mesmer treated patients with magnets in the late 1700s. With the discovery of radioactivity, radioactive products were popular in the early 1900s—radioactive toothpaste to brighten teeth and radium water (advertised as “Perpetual Sunshine”) to improve health.
We’ve seen this innovation in religion as well. The Fox sisters were key players in the growth of Spiritualism in the late 1800s. They were investigated by well-known scientists, and this gave them a respectable luster. During the same period, Christian Science developed as a Christian response to scientific medicine.
More recently, UFO religions grew after UFOs and aliens became part of the culture. The Seekers cult expected to be taken aboard an alien spacecraft in 1954, just before the end of the world. When the appointed hour came and went with neither destruction nor a spacecraft, they reframed reality so that their prayers had saved the world. In 1997, the Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide together to catch a ride on a UFO flying behind a comet. Raëlians prefer to enjoy life here on earth, with aliens providing technology for eternal life. Scientology’s mythology includes Xenu, the ruler of the Galactic Confederacy. The Nation of Islam also includes UFOs in its teachings.
New religions that would’ve been inconceivable just half a century ago include Kopimism, which views communication as sacred (“kopimi” = “copy me”) and Jediism, inspired by the movie Star Wars. Barely more credible are New Age views like those of Deepak Chopra, despite his frequent use of science-y words like “quantum” and “vibrations.”
What does this tell us?If “Yahweh is the creator of the universe, and his son died for the salvation of mankind” were an instinctive truth programmed into every human heart, we would expect to see people moving toward Christianity, and there would be only one interpretation of it. However, the hydra of religion that we actually see, with new heads appearing daily, doesn’t look like what we’d expect if there were some universal, accessible religious truth. In fact, it looks like quite the opposite. Religion is a response to vague supernatural desires, and these responses change with time and place. Far from coalescing into a single viewpoint, Christianity continues to mutate, with 45,000 denominations and counting.
Why does religion change and adapt? For the same reason that bogus medicine changes and adapts: hope.
If conventional medicine won’t promise you a cure, quack medicine will. Laetrile will cure your cancer, and stem cell treatments will cure your Parkinson’s. And if your life sucks—whether you’ve just been dealt a bad hand by life or you screwed it up yourself—religion offers hope. If you have guilt from past actions, it shows how to wipe the slate clean. If your present life is painful, it shows how to ensure a great afterlife. Religion is the cereal aisle at the grocery store—there’s something for everyone, with novel new products testing the water all the time.
Delusions, quack cures, and religion adapt to the times. None make convincing claims for truth.
There is a rumour going around that I have found God.
I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys,
— Terry Pratchett
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 5/19/14.)
Image credit: Matthew Bellemare, flickr, CC