As I looked out across the city of Bangkok this morning I marveled at how its many millions of inhabitants go about their daily business in a peaceful way. Of course one could say that about many cities, but it seems more pronounced in Bangkok because life is not easy for many people here and yet I have not witnessed a single argument or cross word in my nine days in this city. Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of the American invasion of Baghdad and the contrast between Baghdad and Bangkok leaves a marked impression on my mind. The Thai consider Buddhism to be one of the three pillars of their civilization (the other two being King and Nation). It started me thinking of religion in utilitarian terms and as analogous to a computer operating system.
In his weekly column in the Italian newspaper Espresso, the Italian writer Umberto Eco in 1994 famously declared that the world was divided in two: users of Macintosh computers and users of MS-DOS computers. He argued that the Mac was Catholic, cheerful, friendly, employing sumptuous icons and helping the user by taking them step by step towards “if not the Kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed.” Eco argued that DOS was Protestant, allowing for free interpretation of scripture, asking the user to make difficult personal decisions and taking for granted that not everyone will reach the Promised Land.
Since that famous observation much has changed in the world of technology. A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend who was about to start at a company that specializes in virtual computing. A virtual computer is just like a normal desktop or laptop but the user chooses which operating system the computer will use depending on what he or she wants to do. For example, if you want to make music, then you might choose the Mac operating system so that you can use the Garageband program. On the other hand if you want to do some engineering drawings you might choose the Windows operating system and one of the various computer-aided-design programs available on that platform. Apple computers can now switch between the MacOSX and Windows operating systems as needed. They have thus become virtual computers.
Staying with Eco’s analogy, what is the religious equivalent to virtual computing? It’s not syncretism, though it shares the syncretic openness to new influences. Syncretism attempts to reconcile and combine disparate or contradictory beliefs. The word syncretism comes from the Greek word synkretismos meaning a union of communities. Virtual computing does not argue for a union of the MacOSX and Windows environments. It keeps them separate but allows you to use either. The religious equivalent to virtual computing, for which perhaps the term virtual religion will have to suffice, would envision all religions as schools of human technology and users as free to use any religious practice at will. Thus if you find yourself perpetually distracted, use Buddhist meditation and reduce your levels of attachment; if you think killing animals is cruel use some Jainist beliefs; if you need to motivate yourself at work use the Protestant work ethic; if you have difficulty reconciling religion and sex use Tantra; if you feel the need for mystical fulfillment use Taoism or paganism. But the active verb is always use because the perspective is utilitarian not dogmatic.
If there is a polemic underlying this thought exercise it is this; we must reach a point where we say that a religion has failed. If people are killing one another in the streets because of religion, not defending the freedom to worship, but merely because their religion has directed them to kill another human being, then that interpretation of that religion has failed. If, as many believe, the purpose of religion is to make man more divine, then if he descends into barbarism doesn’t that mean that there is some corruption in the code? Shouldn’t we at least examine religions with the same common sense that we examine computer software by asking – does this work?