Although we may know deep down that one day is pretty much the same as another, people have always held profound reverence for the new year. Symbolic rather than empirical, hopes resonate around the concept that a good start presages better things ahead. That’s why tragedy early in the year sometimes possesses such solemnity; we had hoped that things might begin anew. The headlines today announce that a church bombing in Alexandria, Egypt, started a new year of violence in the southwest corner of the cradle of civilization. Muslim extremists are suspected as there has been some tension between the Coptic Christians of the city and their Islamic compatriots. Although details are not clear, one matter remains in focus: the violence is based on religion.
One of the more savage legacies of monotheism is the absolute truth claims that follow in its train. If truth be truth, there be only one. So the meme goes. Multiple mutually exclusive truths cannot coexist in a religious universe. Scientists might well claim that in this non-empirical universe, no testing may reveal the actual answer. Belief takes over where knowledge fails. And belief in a religion, like it or not, follows the dictates of survival of the fittest. Memes, like genes, can be quite selfish. If one is to stake eternal, unchanging consequences on a religion, the proposition is all-or-nothing. Even purgatory is not forever. The coin falls one way or the other. Religions fight for the memes of truth, and those with the highest survival rate win.
Alexandria has suffered its share of violence in the past. Its famed library, the center of learning in the ancient world, traditionally underwent four destructions, the final two religiously motivated. The books surviving antiquity fell under the Christian ban of paganism in 391. Arabic sources note the destruction of the institution after the Islamic conquest in 642. The end result is the same – the irreparable loss of centuries of knowledge. The lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, might well stand as a symbol for the influence of rationality. Tradition states the light could be seen 29 miles away, but earthquakes and the need for building material saw the extinguishing of the light so that by 1480 the darkness settled for good. A fort was built from its remains. Given a choice of light or fortification, it is clear which way the selfish meme will go.