The Shroud of Turin received another death blow today, but it's like a zombie that refuses to die!
(I wrote about the shroud once before.)
I understand and respect many religious beliefs. But how can people believe so many things that can't possibly be true? That have been thoroughly debunked? And perhaps even more perplexing to me, why do they so badly need to believe these myths?
These are the very questions that intrigued me years ago when I began studying memes, memetics, and cultural evolution, and that ultimately inspired me to write The Religion Virus.
Religious beliefs can be broadly categorized on a scale from sensible to outrageous. At the sensible end are beliefs that, while I don't share them, I can understand. Questions of the origin of the universe, the nature of the human spirit or "soul," the source of creativity and inspiration – these things are all interesting questions, and I respect those who explore them from a spiritual/religious point of view.
At the other end of the spectrum are things like creationism, homeopathy, Pat Robertson claiming that a hurricane is God's wrath for homosexuality ... and today's topic, the Shroud of Turin. These things are so ludicrous they defy all logic.
And that's where the study of cultural evolution and memes helps me. Every one of the outrageous claims are things that people, for one reason or another, desperately need to believe. Let me emphasize that word, need, because that is what gives us insight into these impossible beliefs.
Evolution favors survival, period. It doesn't matter whether the species is a noble lion or a lowly tapeworm, the individuals that reproduce faster, that survive the challenges better, are the ones that succeed.
In cultural evolution, truth can be nearly irrelevant to survival. An idea propagates through society based not simply on its truth, but on a host of complex factors, including how fascinating it is, whether it purports to explain something mysterious, and whether people want to believe it.
The problem with truth is that it's only one of many factors that affect an idea's survival. Worse, if an idea's truth or falseness is complex, difficult to ascertain, or worst of all, requires an advanced college education to understand, then truth becomes almost irrelevant in the "survival of the fittest" battle of ideas in society.
The Shroud of Turin is a perfect example of a meme that survives. People want to believe it, because if it's true, it means they can be physically close to an artifact that Jesus Christ Himself touched. And people are able to believe it, because the proof that it's a modern forgery uses complex scientific data. Those not versed in chemistry and physics are forced to simply trust scientists, and have trouble distingishing real science from pseudo science.
So, the zombie meme that won't die, known as the Shroud of Turin, has survived another death blow, and I predict it will survive many more.