Continued elsewhere

I've decided to abandon this blog in favor of a newer, more experimental hypertext form of writing. Come over and see the new place.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Long Con

The title of this post owes a hat-tip/finger-wag to David Mamet, who popularized this term-of-art in movies such as House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner. The long con is an elaborately set up confidence game, where an entire false world is set up, the mark is pulled in slowly, and eventually stripped of his assets. Mamet delights in telling stories involving con men, which makes it rather ironic that he's just published a very bad book, aimed at "apostate Jews", urging them to rejoin their tribe's 4000 year old collective game.

Religion is one of the oldest games in the book, and the interesting question for me is just what is the nature of it? Obviously it has elements of a con game played by memes on minds, and/or by priests on the laity. But is it a pure con, simply a parasitical trick that sponges off of honest human cognition and society? Or is it a vital symbiont, something that was indispensible in forming human civilization?

The militant atheists (Dawkins, PZ Myers) tend to be those who view religion as wholly parastical, but that's always seemed much too simplistic to me. Religion might have its roots in trickery but that trickery enabled the creation of civilization, which depends on the ability to extract surplus value to support classes of people who aren't engaged in a subsistence economy. While I'm no fan of priests, pharohs, popes, or aristocrats, I don't think we'd have a technological civilization without them. (Of course, whether we still need them is a separate question).

One difference between religion and a traditional con game is that the con never stops, there's no sting, no blow-off. The relationship is long-term, even unto death. A religion gloms onto a society, enables the creation of a priestly class, but hopefully doesn't choke the life out of it. If things go well, it makes that society grow and thrive.

To further mix metaphors, you can compare religions to infectious agents. Some are virulent and destructive, like Ebola. Death cults are like this, they do tremendous damage but are inherently short-lived. Other religions (Abrahamic monotheism) seem to have a more beneficial relationship with their hosts, actually increasing their fitness for the most part. Those are the ones that resemble long (actually infinite) cons. Keep the mark on the string and tithe them slowly.

[This post was inspired by a long discussion on the adaptivity of religion at Pharyngula, taking off from this interesting talk by Robert Sapolsky. Sapolsky was talking about the relationship of religous tendencies and adaptive forms of mental illness, but I seem to have veered into a rather different area.]

[Update: as if on cue, just after I posted this reddit coughed up this story about a family of pastors in Canada who are living high on the hog while their congregation scrapes together pennies to do charity work. Ho-hum, I'm surprised it's considered news. Under my above typology, if a church gets too greedy and gets in the news by skimming too much off the congregation, they are moving from symbiote to parasite status, and the news media are trying to be the immune system...]


Anonymous said...

Thank you. I enjoyed reading your post on the long con...I came across your post while googling "long con", in hopes of finding about the details in order to play a practical joke. I found much more... I think you got it right. Which brings me to the question and ideas of "legitimacy",
and that can of worms.


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A band with this name is either going to blow listeners away with a sound that's entirely their own, or they're going to sound an awful lot like Blueshammer from Ghost World. There's really no in between. So which is it?

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It occurred to me that I, as an average American male who grew up in North Carolina with parents originally from the Northeast, speak a multitude of variations on the English language.
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Failure to agree with them is 'heresy'. Failure to behave properly is a 'sin'.
have lost or abandoned religion in the traditional sense by now, or have retained only a tenuous, formulaic connection, or have veered off into various unsatisfying concoctions of "spirituality"....................................

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.