The Crone’s Illusion

Below is a repost, salvaged from the olden days, of my thoughts on the film Agora, which I most heartily acclaim.

My reaction to Agora was highly charged, and I wanted to let myself cool down long enough to write something sane, something that wasn’t a searing screed against book-burning fundamentalists. I finally got there, and lucky too, because what I ended up discovering in this film was enlightening for me.

I have a mighty respect for Roger Ebert, who has a keen critical mind, but when he calls Agora “a drama based on the ancient war between science and superstition” I must wonder whether he is being intentionally understated. That’s kind of like saying World War 2 was based on the habit of nations to disagree about borders. It’strue but is about as bland as you can get. I think I would prefer to say that Agora is the parable of the dark stepmother of religious belief.

Religion is not an efficient schema. It doesn’t tell us anything useful about how the world works. It doesn’t help us survive. In fact the tremendous expenditure of effort on religious projects is a detriment to survival. It’s the peacock’s tail of the consensual hallucination that is human society. But it obviously does something, although what in particular is currently under debate. I have a two-part hypothesis, actually. The first part is that we didn’t evolve for the kind of life we now live. Millions of years of adaptation to the hunter-gatherer model, and ten thousand out of it. The changeover must have been apocalyptic.

We survived, obviously, and prospered. And I think religion had much to do with that. What allows humans to be so very successful in a huge variety of physical environments is our massively advanced social ability. We can pass memes as well as genes. This is a whole other topic, and I won’t go too far into it here. The jist is that religion is the Good Mother that allows us to straddle both the life we are biologically bound to (hunter-gatherer) and the life we sociologically compelled toward (agri-urban). That’s the second part of my hypothesis, that this Two World Problem is the root of human mythic psychology, the ultimate source of Middle Earth, the story of being human.

Myths tell us what being human is all about. There is another figure in myth, a complement to the Good Mother, and that is the Wicked Stepmother. It’s the sick, stunted side of mother energy, luring children into the oven, or poisoning them so that they will remain frozen in time, children forever. The witchy stepmother does some horrifying things to consolidate her maternal authority over her offspring. The witchy stepmother part of religion that I want to focus on is the cost of defection.

In the early part of Agora we are shown debate. There is the debate of the believers and the debate of the skeptics, and the characteristics of each scene are informative. We also ought to immediately comprehend the meaning of the film’s title. The “open marketplace” here is the marketplace of ideas.

First we have the believers’ debate. It is colored with violence and a shocking lack of empathy, true zealotry, but it is still a debate. They attempt to show evidence and draw a conclusion. The smart observer sees that their evidence is an illusionist’s trick, which proves nothing except that audiences can be dazzled by illusionists. In addition, even if walking on coals was not a trick, there is absolutely no logical connection to any particular supernatural force or agency. It’s entirely fallacious.

Now the debate of the skeptics. Evidence is presented and conclusions advanced. Here there is no threat of reprisal. Their intellectual sparring does not even seem to result in any perceptible change in social status among them. Hypatia is openly challenged, and she freely admits what is beyond the limits of her current knowledge, while at the same time being convinced of nothing. That is, a failure to explain is not itself evidence, and it is not assumed that an alternative supernatural explanation is therefore automatically vindicated (i.e., the mistake in reasoning committed in the believers’ debate).

The characteristics here are plurality, openness, debate, challenge, and inquiry. There is a lack of fear at probing the edges of understanding. The unexplored country is a wonder to chart and not a wilderness to avoid. The crowds gathered to hear the priests argue look interested in seeing and weighing multiple choices before coming to a conclusion. Why else would they be there, and why else would the priests make their public demonstrations? The students of Hypatia gather to hear and analyze a variety of claims and ideas. Why else would they attend? The essential thrust of the whole first portion of the movie is to get across this idea of a marketplace of ideas in which people are evaluating and selecting.

Going back to the cost of defection: this is the social, economic, or physical price paid for departure (or simple deviance) from the in-group. Among the skeptics, there isn’t an in-group to speak of. The character of Hypatia is the metaphor for all of them. There is no room for the hunter-gatherer games of clique-forming, alpha-male posturing, or mate-claiming. It’s pure research, pure knowledge. The only religion is the religion of doubt. If for no reason other than that Hypatia is the protagonist in this story, this is the ideal we are meant to aim for. (As I watched Agora with my wife, she at one point turned to me and said knowingly, “I bet you really like her, don’t you.” It wasn’t a comment on Rachel Weisz, although she is stunning. It was the on-screen portrayal of the character that had my rapt attention.) This is the freest possible marketplace of ideas. Pristine intellectual capitalism. Each idea stands completely on its own merits. If you want your idea to gain worth, make it a better idea.

In the religious debate, however, we see the beginnings of something else. Punishment comes to those who disagree. The pagan priests gloomily predict the wrath of the gods. Of course, as the Christians point out, their statues remain inert. This is telling. The gods are impotent. It’s pretty clear literally, but I think metaphorically this is a big deal. The premise that I introduced is that religion helps us bridge our two inner worlds. In other words, it’s a tool. The priests are its vendors. Now the question is: how do you choose among vendors of religion? You go into the marketplace of religious ideas, evaluate them, and pick one, which is exactly what we see the crowds doing at the beginning of the story.

I hesitate to drive this point too strenuously, but let’s return to the evidence presented by the various priests. The Christians perform an illusion. They know this. The Christians also know that the pagan priests don’t know how to perform the trick, and that it will go badly for them if they are put on the coals. Likewise, the pagan priests know perfectly well that their statues don’t ever come to life and do things. Nobody has any real evidence of anything. So the fact of the matter is that as long as a religion fulfills its role as a psychological tool to solve the Two World Problem, there’s no particular reason to choose one over another. This is very bad news for religious professionals (i.e., the priests), because it means religious ideas can’t actually compete in the marketplace. Not fairly, anyway. The priests of one religion must engage in a duplicitous marketing campaign to gain idea-value over the priests of a competing religion: enter parlor tricks and logical fallacies.

Clever presentation is not enough, though. Acquisition is one thing;retention is quite another. For this the priests must have a cost of defection. It’s a little bit persuasive to potential buyers, but its real target is those who have already purchased. Microsoft knows that unless they build up barriers to keep you from leaving, they will have a much harder time retaining your loyalty. From this idea we get things like the punishment of heretics.

The progression of Agora into its second half is the transition to religious monopoly. The Christians gain control of the city. Their first motive is to eliminate competitors from the marketplace of ideas. The library is sacked and the scrolls are burned. The pagan priests are driven off or killed. Jews are murdered. Among the Christians themselves a single sect, the Parabolani, brutally rises to prominence and seeks to silence all competing voices.

The ignorance and cruelty displayed by the Christians isn’t supposed to mean that Christians embody these qualities more than other religions – if the pagans had established such total control of Alexandria they would have acted the same way. It’s the natural outcome of religious monopoly. Inquiry has to be wrong, because inquiry breeds new, ever-more-competitive ideas. A willful lack of curiosity becomes labeled a virtue. And the cruelty is for fear. It is easily imagined that the terror of violent reprisal makes would-be dissenters pretend alignment with the top dogs. To where does a monopoly grow? It can’t, so it turns inward and dwells obsessively on preventing defection. Examples must be made of the terrible punishment that will befall those who stray. The violence of religious fanatics isn’t for conversion, it’s for prohibiting deconversion.

The wicked, twisted stepmother poisons the daughter to keep her from leaving. The princess is imprisoned in her tower, never to grow up. The Good Mother of religion is also the Dark Mother who commands slavish obedience, thwarts the flower of knowledge, and stones infidels.

The zoom-outs to show a view from space are symbolically excellent. Some commentators have fully missed the boat and suggested this is to indicate how small, petty, and insignificant the events of the film are. Exactly the opposite! The view from space means first that Hypatia is right and the religious fanatics are wrong. We are literally shown the truth, which of course matches what she and her students are discovering. It means second that there are global implications to this story. The prevalence of revelation over investigation, of ignorance over insight, of violence over discussion, means something on a worldwide scale. The implication is entirely modern.

One thought on “The Crone’s Illusion

  1. Hey man,

    Just wanted to drop you a line to let you know how much I appreciate your writings. You may not get the traffic of a Perez Hilton, but please keep doing what you’re doing. This is the kind of stuff that the Internet was promised to foster.

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