Friday, October 26, 2012

The Religion Gene

I really knew very little about Salt Lake City. The roads were full of snow, so I decided to stay there for a couple of nights.  

When I drove into the downtown, I had the immediate impression of been into one of those models that architects use to present their projects. Everything was extremely well distributed: the size of the streets, the location of the parking spots, the train, the sidewalks… not even an ounce of improvisation.

I immediately got interested in learning how this city came about and the history is fascinating. A group of Mormons, kicked out of two different states, walked across the desert and settled in such an isolated area so nobody will come to bother them. It’s portrayed as a rampant example or religious discrimination in the middle 1800s, but the history is more complicated than that. They gained enough enemies as to have governors sending militia after them. But the effects of their perseverance were remarkable. In the middle of nowhere, they started to draw granite stones from the nearby mountains and cut them in pieces to build a temple with donated time of the church members. It took them forty years, but they put the last stone of this cathedral in 1893
Now, don’t get me started on the theology of their faith. An angel named Moroni revealed to Joseph Smith the secret location of one book written on golden plates that were buried in New York. The book tells among other things how Jesus came to America. Joseph’s mission was to translate the book.
The first question that pops up: Where is the original book of golden plates? The answer: Oh, Joseph returned it to the angel. 

Even the earliest Mormons were skeptical. There are at least six branches of this movement, some of them don’t endorse the story of the angel Moroni.

But forget about all that. This is the fact: a group of people carrying their belongings through the desert was cohesive enough to build a city with a disproportionally big cathedral. It’s inspiring and scary at the same time. All this was triggered by a man who was able to convince people that he was having conversations with biblical prophets (and the angel Moroni).

Today in National Radio they recalled the Orson Wells radio theater that brought people to the border of hysteria in 1938. The same joke was repeated in Ecuador in 1949 (six deaths in that occasion) and again in Buffalo in 1968. The history was “Mars invaders are coming to the Earth” and millions bought it.

I don’t think that stupidity is the explanation. I always thought that well-told stories have a quasi-hypnotic effect on humans. Once we get into the plot, we WANT to believe it. That’s why we cover our ears when somebody tries to tell us how the movie ends. We enjoy being told out of reality. We consume those fantasies. And because of that feature, we do things expecting nothing in exchange, which is essential for social organizations.

After building two cities, the Mormons are currently organizing complex charities around the world, channeling volunteer work and training people in distress rather than just giving things away. They are brilliant people. So the Maroni story triggered the sense of community, and later, an avalanche of constructive social effects.   

The story of the invasion from Mars triggered the same irrationality in a destructive way.

But it seems that once the behavior is accomplished (build, defend, run, attack, etc.) the logic behind it is no longer important.
I want to learn more about the formula. How can I tell a story that makes people build cities in the middle of the desert?

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