i haven't stepped foot in church for at least six years now, but sometimes you can still find me listening to Hillsong Worship music.
i found the church somewhat by accident, but spent ten years in it of my own volition—in Sunday morning service, in Wednesday prayer meetings, at Saturday night youth group. we memorized bible verses and volunteered in shelters; went on mission trips and prayed for each other. in the summer we went camping and sang worship songs around a bonfire accompanied by an acoustic guitar. we were the saved, and we were happy.
i stopped believing in the god of the bible in my early twenties, when i finally figured out enough about the world to understand that the church would always be fundamentally, irreconcilably at odds with my views on my feminism and the role of women in the world. but my time spent in the church gave me a unique clarity on what makes Christianity so successful; why it still captivates a significant portion of the population: we're all in search of redemption for this existence, and the church is made up of redemption stories stacked on top of each other throughout all of human history. Jia Tolentino grew up in the evangelical church and writes,
On Sundays, as we drove into the city, I sat quietly in the back seat next to my cherubic little brother, ready to take my place in the dark and think about my soul. Spiritual matters felt simple and absolute. I didn’t want to be bad, or doomed. I wanted to be saved, and good.
— Jia Tolentino, Losing Religion and Finding Ecstasy in Houston
she says, Christianity formed my deepest instincts, and I have been walking away from it for half my life. i have been on the same path, renouncing the church but unable to forget its draw. you see, i still know all the words to all the early-2000s Hillsongs; the Hillsong-UNITED-Brooke-Fraser-and-Joel-Houston era of worship music is forever imprinted onto my brain. i think all of TAYA's work is gorgeous. Oceans almost makes me want to believe again. i'm never going to not be able to recite the lyrics from Desert Song. i don't know what any of the words mean anymore, but they give me immense peace.
here's something the church got right: we're all in search of “now i can trade these ashes in for beauty” kind of mercy for our deeply flawed existence; looking for our personal redemption stories to craft the narrative of How I Was Bad But Now I'm Good. Sunday service promises belonging; it welcomes everyone regardless of where they come from—you can come as you are, and it is enough; you will instantly find the acceptance that you had to work for everywhere else.
today i work in artificial intelligence research, and it feels like religion is manifesting in an entirely different way—this is a subfield of technology where scientists are gods, effective altruism is a religion, LessWrong is the church, and everyone is either believer or skeptic—you're with us or against us; there is no nuance. like religion, effective altruism demands that we give up our prosaic earthly desires in service of a higher purpose. the believers are on a mission to create something resembling our own intelligence, and then come up with rules for how to govern it. at the same time, they require penance for their flawed human existences; this time, instead of being saved by a messiah paying for our original sin, we're overcoming human irrationality with the laws of Bayesian thinking. there are new rules, too: the prophets look a little different and the Bible is made up of six books instead of sixty-six, the wealthy megachurch is located in the Bahamas instead of Australia, and the priests run technology companies instead of churches—but some things haven't changed: believers still pledge 10% of their income to charity, try to maximize doing good to alleviate human suffering, perform outreach to evangelize others into the faith, and are still trying to save the world. rationality, like religion, promises that if we maximize doing good then we can assert moral superiority: if we donate to effective charities then we will successfully offset the negative impact of our day jobs trading cryptocurrency and making millions of dollars in the process; if we work towards bringing AGI into existence then we won't be tortured when it finally comes; if we let ourselves by guided by the right set of rules then we will find transcendence beyond our earthly, ordinary selves.
we're all just in search of absolution in whatever form we can get it.