Virgin Mary

The veneration of the Virgin Mary probably existed in early Christianity. In Christian theology, she is the New Eve. God announced that there would be enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15). Christians read this as a prophecy predicting the coming of Jesus as the seed of the woman could represent the virgin birth of Jesus. The church fathers may have invented the virgin birth story of Jesus to replace the birth of Adam from Eve. Later developments turned the Virgin Mary into a surrogate mother goddess.

Isis with Horus
Isis with Horus. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Church recognised the Virgin Mary as ‘Mother of God.’ Christians made statues and icons of the Virgin with the child Jesus similar to those of the Egyptian mother goddess Isis with her child Horus. And so, the Mother Goddess Mary, eliminated from the Gospels, may have re-entered the Church via a back door. As Christians prayed to the Virgin, she became a proxy for God.

Saint Mary Bolnichka Icon
Saint Mary Bolnichka Icon.

The Protestant Reformation aims at returning to the scriptural roots of Christianity. And so, Protestants do not venerate the Virgin Mary. For Protestants, the scriptures are the only source. In this way, they may have lost the essence of Christianity. The Mary-with-child imagery could refer to Jesus as the Son of God the Mother. The Virgin Mary appeared more often than Jesus, and she performed more miracles than the other saints. Many Roman Catholics pray to the Virgin Mary rather than God or Jesus.

The Quran dedicates chapter 19 to her. Some Muslims indulge in arcane numerological explanations as to why the number 19 is special because the Quran refers to this number in the chapter named Hidden Secret. And so, the Quran may hold a hidden secret related to this number. Perhaps, the Virgin Mary plays a central role in the greater scheme.

The star and crescent became the symbol of Islam. This symbol has a long history predating Islam as it was associated with a Moon goddess. In the Bible, the Moon refers to the woman and the star to the child (Genesis 37:9). Hence, the Islamic symbol may represent the Madonna with the child Jesus or the relationship between Khadijah bint Khuwaylid and Muhammad. She was fifteen years older, so She could have been his mother.

The St. Mary of Zion Church in Ethiopia is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant. Legend has it that the Ark came to Ethiopia with King Menelik after he visited his father, King Solomon. The Ark of the Covenant symbolises Mary of Zion. The Ark is supposed to be the residence of Yahweh, the God of Israel, but apparently, Her name is Mary.1

Featured image: Madonna and Child, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. Public Domain.

Other images: Isis with Horus. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain; Saint Mary Bolnichka Icon. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

1. Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. Wikipedia.

The last Adam

Adam is called the Son of God (Luke 3:38), and Jesus is named the Firstborn of all Creation (Colossians 1:15). An obvious question to ask is, was Jesus Adam? The usual interpretation of Jesus being the Firstborn of All Creation is that Jesus already existed with God, even before Creation, and therefore, he was not Adam. The words Firstborn of All Creation suggest that there may be more to it. Jesus could be Adam, and Adam may have been born. A fuller explanation requires an investigation into Jewish and Christian theology, which is the topic of a separate post:

How Jesus became God

An investigation into how Christians turned Jesus in to God.

Paul compared Jesus to Adam. In Romans, he writes, ‘Just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.’ (Romans 5:19) And in 1 Corinthians, he says, ‘As in Adam all die, so in Christ, all will be made alive.’ Jesus became the redeemer for Adam’s transgressions. An obvious question is what could have motivated Jesus to sacrifice himself for Adam’s mistakes? His actions are better understood if he believed himself to be Adam. That may be why Paul called Jesus the Last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45).

Christianity teaches that Jesus existed before Creation, but that may not be what early Christians believed. The likeness of Jesus to Adam in Paul’s early letters may point to an earlier doctrine still prevalent around 55 AD, which could be that Jesus was Adam.

The Quran strengthens the idea that Jesus could be Adam. Jesus was like Adam in the way he was created (Quran 3:59). More importantly, several Quran verses state that God ordered the angels to prostrate before Adam (Quran 2:34, 7:11, 15:28-29, 17:61, 18:50, 20:116, 38:71-74). It is remarkable because angels are higher beings than humans. Satan refused because he did not want to bow for a creature made from dust. The Quran stresses it several times so that it could be significant. As Christians believe that Jesus is the Lord who will command humankind, this suggests that Jesus could be Adam. The Quran also claims that Jesus will return (Quran 43:61).

Latest revision: 23 April 2022

Mohammed receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel

Religious experiences and miracles

The Jewish people still exist after 2,500 years, while they did not have a homeland for most of the time. That is a remarkable feat, most notably because the Jews are supposed to be God’s chosen people. It is also a bit of an enigma that Christianity replaced the existing religions in the Roman Empire. Somehow the message of personal salvation through Christ caught on. A pivotal moment was the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 AD. He made Christianity the favoured religion in the Roman Empire. A few centuries later, a small band of Arab warriors created an empire stretching from the Atlantic to India, spreading a new religion called Islam. Is it a realistic scenario that the illiterate camel-driver Muhammad became a crafty statesman after he had seen an angel? We only know this world, so we cannot answer that question. Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same deity. Our universe could be a simulation, and the fates of Judaism, Christianity and Islam could be implausible historical developments. In other words, God might be the best explanation. Only, we do not know whether or not these events are plausible.

When Islam arrived on the scene, there already was widespread monotheism as Christians and Zoroastrians in the area believed in an all-powerful creator. Muhammad had met Jews and Christians on his travels, so he was familiar with these religions. Before that, Christianity had faced an uphill struggle. While the Roman state suppressed this religion, pagans left their gods behind and accepted the Christian God as the only true God. And they did so in large numbers. That begs for an explanation, even though the conversion to Christianity was a gradual process that took centuries. The number of Christians increased at an average rate of 2-3% per year between 30 AD and 400 AD. Each Christian may have converted just one or two persons on average, but over time, exponential growth made Christianity grow from 30 followers in 30 AD to 30 million in 400 AD. There appears nothing supernatural about this process until you realise that the most often cited reason for conversions were stories about miracles Christians did.1

An early miracle was Jesus appearing to a few of his followers after his crucifixion. Christians believe that Jesus appeared in the flesh, but perhaps his disciples had visions of him. The New Testament also accounts for some miracles the disciples allegedly performed. These stories may have been exaggerated, but miracles are a consistent theme in Christianity, even today. And so, there may be more to it than science can explain. On message boards, people tell stories about prayers heard and miraculous healings. Chance is not always a plausible explanation. And it seems unlikely that Christians consistently lie about these matters. I also have a tale to tell, even though it is not as spectacular as some of the stories you can find elsewhere.

At the final secondary school exams, I had the highest average grade in my class. I was good at every subject. There was one notable exception, explaining literature. It was about guessing the hidden intentions of authors. My scores were consistently poor, probably the poorest of the entire class on average. I considered guessing other people’s motives and decoding hidden messages in texts a waste of time. Authors often marvelled at what literature experts found out about their intentions from the books they had written. And I was not good at it. With the exams nearing, I began to fret. I asked my teacher to give me some additional practise exams. A teacher could only dream of such a fanatic pupil, so he was helpful, but the grades remained as poor as before.

Before the final exam, I prayed to God that the grade would not be too bad. My result on the exam turned out to be the best of everyone, only matched by a girl who flaunted her interest in art and literature. My teacher was amazed and suggested that the extra lessons had made a difference. Another girl became curious about this peculiar feat and said to me, ‘You have a mysterious way of winning in the end.’ I was too embarrassed to tell her about the prayer. It was selfish to pray for a higher grade, and I did not need it to pass. Starving people in Africa needed God’s help much more than I did. It could not be that God granted my wish, or could it? I was a Roman Catholic but unwilling to accept religious interpretations when other explanations suffice. When I was doing the test, the questions appeared more concrete than usual, so it was easier for me to answer them. And so, coincidence seemed more likely at the time.

Many people have seen the Virgin Mary. She appeared several times in Venezuela. In 1976, she showed herself to Maria Esperanza Medrano de Bianchini, who received special powers. She could tell the future, levitate, and heal the sick. In Egypt, Mary had appeared at a Coptic Church between 1983 and 1986. Muslims also have seen her there. There have been many more Virgin Mary appearances. The most notable one was in Portugal at Fatima on 13 October 1917. The sun spun wildly and tumbled down to earth before stopping and returning to its normal position, radiating in indescribable beautiful colours. More than 50,000 people witnessed the miracle. They had gathered in response to a prophecy made by three shepherd children that the Virgin Mary would appear and perform miracles on that date.2

Jesus also appeared from time to time, but less frequently than the Virgin. An intriguing account comes from Kenneth Logie, a preacher of the Pentecostal Holiness Church in Oakland, California, in the 1950s. In April 1954, Logie was preaching at an evening service. During his sermon, the church door opened, and Jesus came walking in, smiling to the left and the right. Then he walked through the pulpit and placed his hand on Logie’s shoulder. Jesus spoke to him in a foreign tongue. Fifty people have witnessed the event. Five years later, a woman gave testimony when she suddenly disappeared, and Jesus took her place. He wore sandals and a glistering white robe and had nail marks on his hands. His hands were dripping with oil. After several minutes, Jesus disappeared, and the woman reappeared. Two hundred people have seen it. It was on film as Logie had installed film equipment because strange things were going on.2

In virtual reality, this is possible. When it appears that God has heard your prayer, that could be part of the script. In that case, God did not listen to your prayer. Instead, you were supposed to pray, and the fulfilment of your request was supposed to occur. It is like a meaningful coincidence happening. Many prayers are in vain, so a wish fulfilled does not prove the existence of God. But some stories are incredible, and mere chance seems a poor explanation. And in a simulation, there is little difference between the appearances of Christ, the Virgin Mary, deceased loved ones, UFOs, angels and ghosts.

Feature image: Mohammad receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami’ al-Tawarikh, by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 AD. Public Domain.

1. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. Bart Ehrman. Simon & Schuster (2018).
2. How Jesus Became God The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher From Galilee. Bart Ehrman. HarperCollins Publishers (2015).

The last day

The limits to growth

Imagine there is a lake in a distant forest. On the surface, a plant is growing. Its leaves suffocate all life below. The plant has already been there for 1,000 days, and it doubles in size every day. So, here is a question. If the lake is already covered half by the plant, how many days are left to save the lake? The correct answer is one day. Behold the power of exponential growth.

In one day, the size of the plant doubles, so the lake will be fully covered the next day. It does not matter how long the plant has been there already. Exponential growth stops once there is no more room for expansion. As soon as the lake is fully covered, life in the lake ends. And if the plant depends on that life, it will die too.

The lake represents the Earth, the plant represents humanity, and the leaves are people like you and me. No more room for growth means that mass starvation is not far away. As of 1971, humans use more of the Earth’s resources than nature can replenish. Currently, we use two times as much. By 2050, humanity will need three Earths. Make no mistake. We live on the proverbial last day.

The end may come suddenly. Most people do not see it coming, while others believe it is unavoidable. They are preparing for the worst. In 1972, a group of scientists in the Club of Rome predicted the end of civilisation when natural resources would run out shortly after the year 2000.1 Their predictions did not come true because new technologies allowed us to extract more raw materials from the planet.

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend
The end

– The Doors, The End

End time prophets have been consistently wrong so far. That does not mean that the day of reckoning is not at hand. The laws of nature usually are not kind to those who ignore them. The measures currently entertained likely are vastly insufficient. Technological innovation alone could fail to solve the issues we face. And so, a lifestyle change, most notably for rich people, seems imperative. Possible solutions are politically incorrect, so liberal democracy may not deliver them. The reasons could be:

  • We are inclined to value the present more than the future. What will happen later on does not affect us now. That may be why voluntary pension schemes often fail.
  • It is a collective action problem. It is pointless to restrain yourself when others do not. For instance, if I stop using my car but others do not, it will have no effect.
  • The future is uncertain. Predictions often do not come true, and most disasters we prepare for never materialise, so people hope rather than act.

We do not like to hear about inconvenient truths. Our way of living is unsustainable. Climate change gets a lot of attention, but we hear less about cutting down forests to produce biofuels. And completely switching to renewables may be so costly that reducing energy consumption will be cheaper. That is hard to sell to the public as it may entail a decline in the standard of living for many people. That standard of living probably is still better than most people had for most of history. Mahatma Gandhi once said that the world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.

What does it mean to live sustainably? A ‘worst-case’ scenario might be living like the Amish. How bad is that? Amish are free to leave their community. Most of them decide to stay. It appears that their living standard is not a burden to them. Adapting likely is the most painful part. Once you become accustomed to a new way of living, it becomes normal for you, and you will probably be as happy or as miserable as you were before.

The exponential growth of human activities may soon hit the limits of this planet. Waiting for more evidence to arrive does not seem a good idea. You have conclusive proof when it happens. But that is too late. And so, our lives may depend on taking appropriate action now. The limits of the planet do not care about you or your feelings. You will have to cope with them. Societal collapses often coincided with die-offs in which up to 90% of the people perished. The measures we can take affect the following areas:

  • food and water
  • energy
  • pollution and destruction of ecosystems
  • population

Food and water

The impact of climate change on future harvests is unknown. Climate change may cause harvest failures and famine. Crops could fail in unison so the global food supply may become unstable. Currently, stored food stocks can feed humanity for a few months. Famine is just around the corner. It seems wise to heed the advice Joseph once gave the Pharaoh, which is storing food to cope with poor harvests.

The need to increase food supplies in the face of diminishing harvests may require a critical look at our diets. The food for animals we eat takes arable land that could feed humans. It often takes three to seven kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of meat. Meat production causes animal suffering and destroys ecosystems. And meat production is a source of greenhouse gases.

Nearly one billion people lack access to clean, affordable water within half an hour of their homes. Every year 300,000 children under five die of diarrhoea, dirty water and poor sanitation are often to blame. By 2025, half the world’s population could live in areas with water shortages. Causes are irrigation for agriculture, climate change, and water-intensive production processes like producing clothes.2

Energy

There are two diverging predictions regarding the future of renewable energy. The first scenario is that renewable energy will become cheaper than fossil fuels and replace them.3 The second scenario is that this will not happen because solar and wind cannot provide a stable energy source. Our civilisation depends on a constant and reliable supply of energy. Hence, backup power from other energy sources must remain available.4 Renewable energy may become cheap, but stabilising delivery may be prohibitively expensive. And so, the most challenging part is not getting to 50% renewables but 100%. Perhaps it is possible but that is not certain.

Denmark is successfully switching to renewable energy, most notably wind. Denmark’s government is committed to renewable energy. And the Danes are willing to pay up for electricity. Electricity in Denmark costs twice as much as in France. In 2020, 32% of Denmark’s energy consumption came from renewable sources. Denmark’s ambition is to get to 100% by 2050. That points at the central issues: there must be political will to make it happen, but there may be limits to what is possible. If electricity becomes ten times as expensive, lifestyles will have to change.

Renewable energy sources will not meet the projected global energy consumption in the coming decades. They may cover the rise in demand, but not more than that. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates a near 50% increase in world energy use by 2050.5 The EIA further predicts that the use of fossil fuels will not go down. That may necessitate additional measures like:
• curbing non-essential energy consumption;
• using nuclear power (the projected damage caused by climate change dramatically exceeds that of nuclear accidents and waste);
• using natural gas and compensating for the carbon emissions.

Many people feel entitled to their lifestyles, so curbing non-essential energy consumption is a politically incorrect idea. It may be needed. High energy prices affect poor people the most. Ending non-essential energy consumption means that the rich make the greatest sacrifice by saving fuel for essential purposes so that energy prices may not rise as much. It may also affect many middle-class people, for instance, when air travel stops or car use becomes restricted.

Nuclear power can provide a reliable source of energy. There is a lot of emotion surrounding this energy source. Nuclear accidents were rare and did not kill many people, but many think nuclear power is evil, perhaps because radiation is invisible and has a long-term irreversible impact. In the Netherlands, national route 666 leads to Borssele. It is the location of the only remaining Dutch nuclear power plant. I once came on this route after leaving a village named Kwadendamme (translation: Evildam). The second power plant in Dodewaard (translation: Death Holm) has been closed. The former municipality of Dodewaard had been 66.5 square kilometres, close enough to 66.6 to be noteworthy. Nuclear power may be a ‘deal with the devil’ that we wish to avoid, but burning fossil fuels most likely is far more problematic.

Nuclear reactors may become safer and cheaper to operate, but the problem of nuclear waste remains. This waste will remain dangerous for over 10,000 years. Nuclear fusion can be safer than fission, the type of energy currently used. If something goes wrong, the process dies out. The nuclear waste from fusion is more manageable and will probably be safe to handle after a few hundred years. Energy from nuclear fusion may be available within a few decades, but that is far from certain. During wars, armies may bomb power plants, so nuclear power can never be safe without lasting world peace.

Pollution and destruction of ecosystems

Several environmental disasters are happening at the same time. Many species of plants and animals have become extinct or are on the brink of extinction because humans destroy their habitat. On average, there has been a 60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in the last 40 years.6 There is hardly any wildlife left.

To put it further into perspective, the seven billion humans on this planet together weigh 300 million tonnes. All the domesticated animals, such as pigs, cows, horses and sheep, together weigh 700 million tonnes. By comparison, all the remaining large wildlife on planet Earth, such as lions, elephants, whales, crocodiles and penguins, together weigh less than 100 million tonnes.7

Why produce garbage

Economists argue that economic growth is the way to a cleaner environment. Wealthy people usually are willing to pay more for a clean environment. It can be true as long as the benefits of economic growth exceed the cost of cleaning up. Only, costs tend to escalate once you become more ambitious. Joseph Tainter claims that removing all organic waste from a sugar processing plant costs 100 times more than removing 30%.8 Many pollution-related issues are of a similar nature. In such cases, doing less damage is cheaper than repairing it. And so, the way to a cleaner environment could be producing less.

Population

A mother in waiting once asked the Dutch biologist Midas Dekkers what she could do to raise her child as environmentally friendly as possible. Dekkers then said that nothing harms the environment more than having a child. ‘Cutting down one hundred hectares of tropical rainforest is not nearly as bad,’ he added. Limiting the number of children people get, for instance, to one child per couple, can be a good idea. Population control becomes even more urgent when humans live indefinitely.

Apart from people wanting to have children, poor people seek economic security. Their retirement plan is to have children who can care for them when they are old. Even though they do not use a lot of resources, poor people often have many children. If their standard of living rises, that will place an even greater burden on the planet. The limits of our planet make population control imperative. In the long term, it will have the greatest impact.

The nature of collapse

The breakdown of societies and civilisations is a poorly investigated domain considering the likelihood and implications of such an event. Most people think that life after the collapse is a war of all against all where only the strong survive. There is a breakdown of authority and central control, law and order disappear, local self-sufficiency replaces trade and specialisation, and populations decline. No longer can people rely on defence, maintenance of public works, or delivery of goods.

In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter investigates some known cases from the past and available hypotheses about the causes. He then tries to come up with a general theory of societal collapse. Tainter defines collapse as a rapid loss of social and political complexity.8 It affects both the public and the private sphere. Existing explanations mention external causes like resource depletion, (environmental) catastrophes, changing circumstances, or internal causes like conflict and mismanagement.

Human societies are problem-solving organisations. Societies become more complex when they add institutions to address new problems as they emerge. Institutions have benefits, most notably just after their introduction, but they can outlive their usefulness and become a liability. Each additional institution comes at a price for the population. According to Tainter, the law of diminishing marginal returns applies to investments in societal complexity. At some point, the costs of additional complexity start to exceed the benefits. Hence, a reduction in complexity can be a boon to the population at large.8

Maintaining complexity requires surpluses. In agrarian societies, most people were subsistence farmers. Their produce was scarcely enough to feed themselves and their families. Few surpluses were traded in markets or appropriated by governments. Since the Industrial Revolution, surpluses rose dramatically, and societies became more complex than ever before. In modern societies, only a few per cent of the population are farmers. Most people nowadays work in the service sector and do not produce things. An abundant supply of energy provided by fossil fuels made it possible.

When societies experience a stress surge, for instance, resource depletion, a catastrophe, or mismanagement, then the available surpluses drop, and the cost of maintaining complexity can become prohibitive. The current world economy needs growth or continuously increasing surpluses. When energy and resource supplies do not enlarge, surpluses do not increment, and stress may emerge. Products may become unavailable, and public services may halt. People may see their prospects dim and grow angry.

Competing societies cannot collapse voluntarily as a competitor could take over. In the past, competing polities continued to invest in their militaries, regardless of the cost to their populations. Societies do not have to break down under those conditions. Europe has seen centuries of intense military competition and warfare without polities collapsing. If competing states did break down, they usually did so in unison when their dwindling populations were exhausted and starving.8

A recurring pattern is a frantic increase in coping activities on the eve of a breakdown. These activities can be public display to legitimise the leadership, for instance, building monuments, adding hierarchical levels to manage dwindling resources, building a military to raid neighbours, and cultivating barren lands to scrape out a bit of additional agricultural output. Cleaning up the environment after polluting it may also fall into this category. During collapses, leaders appear inept, even when they make the best out of the circumstances.

Aborting the exponential growth of our economic activities and scaling them down to a sustainable level could be in the best interest of humanity. It might entail a reduction in complexity, in other words, simpler lifestyles for many people. A managed complexity reduction could be better than a collapse, as collapse can come with famines and resource wars. Nevertheless, that could still cause emotional stress and dislocations in the economy. You only have to think of what abandoning air travel will do for the freedom of movement and jobs in airline-related industries.

Tainter sees collapse as a consequence of diminishing marginal returns on investments.8 If additional investments yield nothing, there appears to be no point in making them. Negative interest rates can mitigate the breakdown and help to turn it into a more graceful contraction. For instance, a holding fee on currency could make the financial system robust and capable of withstanding a financial shock resulting from an economic decline caused by halting non-essential activities.

Few people are willing to give up their lifestyles. Countries do not stop competing and will not end economic growth out of their own. If we do not alter our course ourselves, then the limits of this planet may do it for us, resulting in unprecedented suffering, wars, and starvation. Voluntary change requires an authority all people in the world accept. Only a possible owner of this universe has this kind of authority. If the end of times ever comes, it may be now. We can only imagine how life in Paradise is going to be.

Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
Waterfalls
The Garden of Eden
Two fools in love
So beautiful and strong
The birds in the trees
Are smiling upon them
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?

[…]

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
You got it, you got it
I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
You got it, you got it
We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
You got it, you got it
This was a discount store,
Now it’s turned into a cornfield
You’ve got it, you’ve got it
Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle

– Talking Heads, Nothing But Flowers

Featured image: Judgement Day. Royal Museum Of Fine Arts of Belgium. Rama (2008). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Other images: Why produce garbage when it is thrown away all the same. Loesje. Loesje.org.

1. The Limits to Growth. Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William W. Behrens III (1972). Potomac Associates – Universe Books.
2. Are we running out of water? Fiona Harvey (2018). The Guardian. [link]
3. The Sky’s the Limit: Solar and wind energy potential is 100 times as much as global energy demand. Carbon Tracker Initiative (2021). [link]
4. The “New Energy Economy”: An Exercise in Magical Thinking. Mark P. Mills (2019). Manhattan Institute. [link]
5. EIA projects a nearly 50% increase in world energy use by 2050, led by growth in renewables. US Energy Information Administration (2021). [link]
6. Living Planet Report. World Wildlife Fund (2018). [link]
7. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
8. The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter (1988), Cambridge University Press.

one ring to rule them all

Multiculturalism

A successful idea

One of the most successful political ideas in history is multiculturalism. Multiculturalism allows people from different cultures to coexist peacefully under one government. It is an old concept, even though the modern version of multiculturalism is more about respect for other cultures than peaceful coexistence. Under the influence of identity politics, it has become a recipe for division rather than unity. Nevertheless, many successful empires of the past were multicultural states.

Cultures usually do not change in a short timeframe. Leaders of states that conquered other states often allowed subjugated peoples to keep their customs and religions as long as they did not threaten the political and social order. It promoted peace and stability, which improved trade and prosperity. For instance, Cyrus the Great, who ruled around 550 BC, respected the religions and traditions of the different peoples in his empire. He helped the Jews to go back to Palestine and rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.

If the empire lasted long enough, the different peoples of an empire could form a common culture and become one. In this way, smaller groups became integrated into larger ones. That happened, for example, in the Roman Empire. Many later Roman emperors came from the provinces such as France, Africa or Arabia. When the empire collapsed, the conquered peoples did not reappear as independent nations.1 The Roman Empire did not have an assimilation strategy, but cultural integration happened nonetheless.

multiculturalism

The case of Bosnia can illustrate the success and the vulnerability of multiculturalism. For over 500 years, Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians lived relatively peacefully together under the umbrella of three successive multicultural states. These were the Ottoman Empire, the Austrian Empire, and Yugoslavia. But in the 1990s, identity politics suddenly turned them into Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Serbs, and they started killing each other in a civil war.

Multiculturalism has often been a step towards more unity. There have been temporary reversions as empires collapsed. Still, the long-term trend is unmistakable. The world gradually became more integrated as smaller cultures merged into larger ones. Nowadays, the world is closely interconnected, and a global culture may emerge without conquest. A new unifying religion can accelerate this process like Christianity and Islam did in the past.

So why do many people think multiculturalism is a failure? First, identity politics changed the nature of multiculturalism. Rather than peaceful coexistence, it is now about respect for other cultures. Respect for one person or group is often at the expense of another person or group. It is also hard to see the success of multiculturalism when foreigners come to your country and do not integrate. Large numbers of immigrants can profoundly change the nature of society. Many people currently in Europe and the United States fear that it will not change for the better. That is understandable. Refugees come to Europe and the United States because they see no future in their home countries.

If human civilisation does not collapse, all the peoples are likely to be integrated into a global culture. Multiculturalism can be a step in this direction. There may still be cultural differences in the future, but tribes and nations may lose their meaning. Multiculturalism can provide a framework that allows different cultures to coexist peacefully in the meantime so that forced assimilation is not necessary.

Us and them

Us and them
And after all, we’re only ordinary men
Me and you

Pink Floyd, Us and them

We divide humanity between us and them. Us is the good people, and them is the evil people who act oddly, look differently, have funny accents and wear peculiar outfits. People differ in skin colour, religion, sexual preferences, or other qualities. And that helps us to feel good about ourselves. Even when you think you are open-minded, there are those evil narrow-minded others. Welcome to human nature. Xenophobia is a trait we share. Racism and homophobia are particular expressions of this feature. Many people prefer the company of like-minded individuals and do not like people who are different. The strange people can tell you similar personal stories about bullying, physical violence and exclusion.

Those who do not experience regular bullying and exclusion often fail to understand life under these conditions. That is the meaning of lived experience. For instance, you do not know how it feels to live in a ghetto if you have never lived there yourself. Lived experiences express themselves, for example, in Black Lives Matter, right-wing populism, and #Metoo. These movements highlight the effects of police violence towards blacks, the neglect of the interests of the working class by the elites, and male conduct towards women. But emotions can undermine rational debates. For instance, defunding the police can cause more violence. And right-wing populism is often just anger without a viable perspective for the future. Lived experience is also central to identity politics. More and more groups demand respect for their lived experiences and demand not to be offended by unpleasant facts. It halts progress towards more unity.

If your culture is dominant, you enjoy advantages you may not realise you have. Societies in Western Europe and the United States may be multicultural, but Western culture is dominant. Western culture has such a profound impact on world culture that it may be the most influential culture in the world today. White privilege is being part of the dominant culture. Similar privileges exist for members of dominant cultures in non-Western countries. The most significant cultural advantages do not come from being part of the dominant culture. Some ethnic groups have trouble finding a place in the multicultural society, but others do better than the dominant cultural group.

A multicultural society is a melting pot with growing pains. If it lasts long enough, tribalism may end, and unity may emerge. If we constructively engage the unpleasant facts, then a social contract for the multicultural society can emerge. It can help us to focus on our future together. Adaptation can hurt feelings, and cultural change comes with stress and alienation. It will be painful for everyone, but the existing cultures of today are unfit to meet the challenges of the future. And so, cultural change will be about meeting the demands of the future like living within the limits of the planet and ending poverty.

Being born with a specific cultural heritage is not an achievement nor a reason for shame. Overcoming the limits of your background and contributing to a better future is a real accomplishment. Lived experiences can help us evaluate how our conduct impacts others and renegotiate social rules. Such a feat is much easier to achieve with a new unifying religion. That may happen because this universe could be a virtual reality created by an advanced humanoid civilisation.

Featured image: One Ring to Rule Them All. Xander (2007). Public Domain.

1. A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.