Memetic Diversity: What It Means to Be a Liberal Agnostic

Although I’m an agnostic, I don’t think that the world would be a better place if there were no Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, or Christians in the world, anymore than I think it would be a better world if we all just spoke English, and all other languages died out.

It is the diversity of narratives in the world that makes life crackle, and gives it nuance.

I just think that atheism and religious fundamentalisms are always in danger of EXCLUSIVISM—of not acknowledging that all languages—whether one speaks “Feminism,” “Buddhism,” “Freudianism,” “Calvinism,” or “Dawkinism”—bring interesting ideas and insights to the COLLECTIVE TABLE, and that to wish for the permanent elimination of one or another “language” is not a way for making a better society, but one that is actually intellectually impoverished.

Contending languages expose one another’s intellectual blind spots, and strengthens a society’s collective base of knowledge. I don’t look forward to a world free of Baptist churches anymore than I would look forward to a world free of books by Robert Ingersoll and Richard Dawkins. I don’t look forward to a world free of neo-conservative Republicans anymore than I look forward to a world free of postmodern pacifist Democrats.

I don’t share John Lennon’s hope, in his song “Imagine,” that religion will one day vanish from the earth.

My half-ass figurings out about the world don’t need to become a universal law that supercedes everybody else’s half-ass contingent figurings out.

We should want MORE crazy religions and wild intellectual theories in the world, not fewer. Just as the evolution of our planet needs genetic diversity, the ecology of our civilization, if it is to continue to flourish, needs “memetic diversity.”

And that means that quirky and exotic “species” of ideas should have space to thrive and compete with one another. 

Our longing should be, not for “no religion” in the world, but in the direction of freedom and diversity, and an insistence on free, unfettered speech. You should be able to worship Mohammad and raise your kids as Muslims, and you should be able to draw pictures of Mohammad, and mock religion, and teach your kids that religion is bullshit (if you want to).

And who would say that the Greek pantheon of gods isn’t a cool cultural and literary development in world history, and that the pagan gods don’t give us an interesting archetypal language, with insights into the human condition?

Likewise, I think that Scientology, Mormonism, Islam, and Christianity gave the world weird languages, but I also think that they can be reflected upon and worked with. I also think that the children born to parents who speak one of these peculiar languages have been given a foil in which to intellectually wrestle with for the rest of their lives.

If many people never transcend the religion of their parents, it may be because the language works for them. It may also be because they were weak or stupid. But whatever the reason, I can’t help but paraphrase Blake:

Those whose desires or thoughts are restrained are weak enough to let their desires and thoughts be restrained.

People can fight their upbringing if they want to. They aren’t entirely helpless, and they don’t need the state to jump in and assist them at every turn.

Ayann Hersi Ali fought her way clear of her religious upbringing. And Voltaire fought his way clear of his religious environment. And when I was a teenager I fought my way clear of my fundamentalist Christian beliefs, fearing hell and the loss of family and friends every step of the way.

Not everybody has the energy or inclination to fight the bullshit in their lives. A lot of people make peace with their situations, and stay where they are. Let’s not pretend that the state can step in and make this part of life easier for everybody.

All of life is a struggle against a lot of bullshit, conceptual and otherwise. It’s not just a kid born to Amish parents who has to wrestle her way through a maze of illusions about the “real world,” it’s you and me too, everyday, because we are human and don’t see the world whole, but in part, and from a peculiar contingent moment in time and space.

Let’s not pretend that the state can save us, or kids who are homeschooled, from this part of life, by passing a law that makes everybody sit in on a compulsory comparative religion class, or by making everybody learn more evolution in high school biology classes.

Let’s try to keep the state more Lockean than Hobbesian. Let’s let freedom be first, not state coercion.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Memetic Diversity: What It Means to Be a Liberal Agnostic

  1. Nikki says:

    I know this post is pretty old, but I just want to say that I’m touched and humbled by your tolerance. I’m a libertarian Christian, and while I don’t agree with everything in this post, I have to applaud your intellectual views on this touchy subject. And the fact that you have the nerve to voice them.

    Peace.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Nikki:

    I like the idea of libertarian Christianity as a concept. I’ve long wondered why more Christians don’t see their personal covenant with God as just that—and not try to force it on the community as a whole. Christianity is a choice, and people who reject it have a right to their lives. If more Christians treated their neighbors like this, I bet they would attract more people to Christianity.

    Any thoughts on why libertarian Christianity has taken hold on so few people who profess contemporary Christianity?

    —Santi

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