“We are here as if immersed in water head and shoulders underneath the great oceans, and yet how piteously we are extending our hands for water.” — Gensha
In 1982, the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot wrote a book called The Fractal Geometry of Nature in which he referenced Lindy’s delicatessen: a popular venue for comedians in New York City. Mandelbrot observed that the more stage appearances a comedian makes, the more future appearances they can be expected to make. In other words, their career’s life expectancy is proportional to the past.
“However long a person’s past collected works, it will on the average continue for an equal additional amount,” said Mandelbrot.
He dubbed this observance the “Lindy Effect.”
A quarter of a century later, the philosopher Nassim Taleb took the Lindy Effect a step further and applied it to less tangible “non-perishables:” ideas, countries, brands, and so on. For example, if a book has been in print for twenty years, we can expect it to be in print for another twenty years. If it remains in print for fifty years, we can expect it to remain in print for another fifty years on top of that.
“This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not ‘aging’ like persons, but ‘aging’ in reverse,” says Taleb.
When things undergo the Lindy Effect, it’s safe to say that there must be something inherently special, even sacred, about them. It is not a coincidence that Moby Dick has been in print since 1851. It is not a coincidence that “Ave Maria” is still sung and listen to regularly. These cultural icons speak to something inherent about the human condition. But the most striking example of the Lindy Effect on a grand scale is religion — in all of its forms.
Christianity (2,000+ years old) is the professed faith of a quarter of the world’s population.
Islam (1,400+ years old) has 1.6 billion followers.
Hinduism (4,000+ years old) accounts for another billion people.
The only things that rival the perennial relevance of religion are foundational technologies such as the written word (5,000 years old) or coinage (4,000 years old). This can’t be a fluke. If we accept there must be inherent value in ideas and traditions that have gone through the test of time unscathed — whether a book, a song, or philosophy — then it would only make sense to study the value of religions as well.
But what is it about religion that makes it as practical as writing or as awe-inspiring as a rendition of “Ave Maria?”
Religion, much like art, is a means to grapple with the non-rational forces that inform each and every human life: love, betrayal, wonder, mortality, grief, the quest for meaning. These forces can’t be reduced to formulas, algorithms, or language for that matter. They must be experienced — and religion is, as history tells us, the most effective conduit for that experience.
It is no question, then, why our ancestors have gravitated towards religion for thousands of years. It gave them purpose and connected them to something greater than themselves. Faith was the focal point for millions of families. But the recent surge of technology and individualism disrupted the tradition. It told us that surrendering to a higher power is a form of weakness; that autonomy triumphs over faith and community; that we are the center of the universe.
Accordingly, religion has gone “out of style,” as if it were a pair of shoes instead of an inseparable component of human existence. Religion’s un-coolness was sparked by a 1966 issue of Time which emblazoned “Is God Dead?” in bold red text on its cover. The issue drew the ire of clergymen and religious devotees. But to the broader public, it confirmed what they wanted to hear.
Of course, all the technology, entertainment, and uninhibited sex in the world could not satisfy the human desire for connection to the Divine, hence the “Spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) cop-out, which is gaining traction amongst those who seek the emotional perks of faith without the commitment or discipline of religion in the traditional sense. It’s sort of like taking a virtual reality tour of Bora Bora without ever stepping foot on the island.
The Jesuit priest and author James Martin has called the SBNR lifestyle “plain old laziness,” noting that “spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community.”
But the SBNR movement seems to be less about laziness as it is about signaling an identity. Sharing Bible verses and attending church on Sunday is not “cool.” But sharing saccharine self-help quotes and having an opinion on the latest HBO series is. Religion is often viewed as this petty, childish practice, almost like you still believe in Santa Clause — it’s something you’re supposed to outgrow. So we swing the pendulum back to SBNR, agnostic, or full-blown atheism.
The “I’m spiritual but not religious” qualifier is also used as a buffer against the stereotypes of Christianity: intolerance, xenophobia, homophobia, etc. But these traits say more about the flaws of human beings than they do about religion itself.
“It does not follow, because our ancestors made so many errors of fact and mixed them with their religion, that we should therefore leave off being religious at all,” said William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience. “By being religious we establish ourselves in possession of ultimate reality at the only points at which reality is given us to guard. Our responsible concern is with our private destiny, after all.”
Nihilism — the denial of sanctity or a Higher Power — is a fragile lens through which to see the world. The devout atheists always seem to be the ones who descend into madness when confronted with adversity. Or, on the other hand, their fear of death compels them to grasp at any gimmick or hack to elongate their (miserable) life.
Atheism will supposedly liberate us from archaic traditions and allow us to embrace rationalism. But as the theologist David Bentley Hart notes, atheism is nothing more than an “emotional sedative.”
[Atheism] offers a refuge from so many elaborate perplexities, so many arduous spiritual exertions, so many trying intellectual and moral problems, so many exhausting expressions of hope or fear, charity or remorse. In this sense, it should be classified as one of those religions of consultation whose purpose is not to engage the mind or will with the mysteries of being but merely to provide a palliative for existential grievances and private disappointments. Popular atheism is not a philosophy but a therapy.
Contrast this madness with the person who rests their being in a higher power, who looks to faith not as a coping mechanism, but a roadmap for navigating the human condition. In this sense, religion is necessary for human function — no different than a vital organ. Tragically, though, modernity has cast religion away as if it were as valueless as an appendix. But religion is not your appendix. It is your heart, your brain, your consciousness.
Imagine that you meet a friend who bestows all kinds of priceless insights and advice to you. He steers you away from nefarious characters and puts you in touch with all sorts of brilliant minds. He helps you ignore the obnoxious din of everyday life so you can live a fulfilling life. And all of a sudden, you decide to never talk to this friend again.
This is analogous to how many people today treat religion. They encounter a few powerful ideas from religion — the parable of the Lost Sheep, the transcendence of prayer, a verse from Proverbs speaks to their soul — but then they shut themselves off. They keep one foot on the other side of the fence. They don’t want to be lame.
Here this person must ask himself: If what I just experienced is True, what else is True? We are sitting on a goldmine of wisdom and practical advice, and yet we turn our nose up at it. Just imagine: We are living in the most technologically-advanced time with near-guaranteed food, clothing, and shelter. We walk around with access to all of recorded human history in our pockets. What if we supplemented this with the spiritual wisdom that comes with adhering to religion? We would be complete human beings.