2011-12-30

Cult of the Green Fairy, Part IV

At last we come to the fourth level of Rappaport's hierarchy: the arena of on-the-ground adaptive pressures, where religious ideas meet the real world in practice and must respond like any other organic system in order to survive. This last part of our look at an imagined absinthe religion will be a piecemeal conclusion, addressing a smattering of issues the Green Goddess may encounter on her journey from spiritual obscurity to deific stardom.

One large pressure in particular may doggedly challenge the absinthe cult, even if it were to gain substantial footing: namely the question 'is this a real religion?'

At the outset such a question could prove fatal to the Green Fairy's young religious idea system. Without basis in authoritative tradition, and making the somewhat audacious move of building a sacred order upon something generally regarded a profane activity, the absinthe cult is susceptible to accusations of being a mere eccentricity, an elaborate excuse for godless indulgence, and the like. This non-believing doubt could threaten to stifle the budding religion, and would probably represent a perpetual pressure on religious absintheurs even if their numbers grew enough to cement the cult's stability.

However, the Green Fairy might sidestep this relatively high-order doubt with a classic and always effective strategy: accessible folk practices. Indeed, her absinthe cult might find its niche as an easily transplantable branch of so-called folk or popular religion, as opposed to more centrally institutionalized traditions. In any case, with a highly accessible central practice (the absinthe ritual) and ready ability to provide simple supernatural benefits through spells, prayers, charms (blessed absinthe spoons, anyone?), and so on, the Goddess can provide the sort of flexible paranormal goods that are always in popular demand.

A charmed spoon here and a blessed glass there may not seem particularly important, but providing accessible and easily replicated practices is in fact probably the most important thing any religion must do to ensure its survival. No matter how small or how simplified, such practices preserve the higher-order idea systems that inform them. Because so much of the absinthe religion is transmissible through these kinds of practices, the Green Fairy may actually have better chances of making it big by reaching more people (that is, more memetic vectors) and making more of them adherents. Even if they only enjoy the occasional sacred absinthe or keep special spoons for good luck, that's successful transmission and potential replication — memetic bank, as it were.

On the other end of the spectrum, hyper-institutionalization might present an entirely different adaptive problem. If the loose, decentralized, highly personal cult were to develop into a more organized religious institution with professional priests administering the sacramental absinthe, that institutional organization could become a cancerous blight on the idea system it represents. The typical abuses of corruption and oppression that have historically attended institutional religion more or less everywhere are as much a threat to religious absinthism as to any other tradition.

Whether it becomes more institutionalized or remains highly personal, the absinthe cult will always have to walk the line between its disciplined and Dionysian tendencies. Whatever degree of formality or centralization the cult should have, excessive debauchery or restriction could both undermine its adaptive health. A careful balance between the two aspects is necessary to avoid hyper-specialization. Providing something for everybody and every occasion means more adaptive strength.

Survival is just a matter of how well a system can deal with environmental changes. An adaptively strong hierarchy of ideas is necessary to make a good start, but memetic survival depends more on how flexible that system of ideas can be on the ground, in practice and in the face of change. She may be an unusual contender, but it seems to me the Green Fairy's chances are pretty good — or would be, if of course anyone were to take up her worship.

Whether in blessing or wrath, like a lover may the Green Goddess keep close to you.

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