By the Old Gods and the New


It is one hundred years since French mathematician Émile Borel first coined the metaphor of the typing monkeys. Finally, a mathematical theorem everyone could remember and broadly understand, even without a proper grasp of the concepts of infinity, probability and time.

(Quick reminder – an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters given an infinite amount of time will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare.)

Here’s another one to ponder, more historical pattern than a theorem. Isolate a group of people for long enough and they will make up their own religion. In Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin has done a masterful job of illustrating this human phenomenon.

From the Old Gods of the Forest to the Faith of the Seven, the Drowned God to the Lord of Light, there’s something for everyone in Martin’s brilliant array of belief systems. Fire, water, sand, horse blood, ancient trees – anything can be ascribed sacred properties in his fantasy kingdoms, as in the real world.

Of course not all religions evolve over countless generations, some enterprising folk fast forward the whole process by putting together their own faith package either from scratch or rehashing a new version of what’s gone before. If Martin has the imagination to create a dozen religions, clearly there are enough creative individuals out there with the ability to produce one.

Once the basic stuff is established – the back story of the religion, who or what to worship and a description of the afterlife – there is the option to make up a set of rules for everyday life. It doesn’t matter how silly these rules are, people will lap it up.

Baseball caps must be worn at all times by anyone over the age of ten, breakfast must be eaten within four minutes of waking up, no drinks may be consumed cold, brush you hair only with your left hand, no sex on Mondays, no work on Tuesdays, hop on one leg on Wednesdays. Throw in something about women being simple minded, dangerous, or in some way tainted with evil and you are onto a winner.

My own religion Clarism involves a lot of tea lights and a special devotion to butterflies and tomato plants. I’ll spare you the complicated story linking these elements. Followers are marked with chalk on their foreheads and always carry pepper on their person. Each new convert is allowed to add one line to our holy book in the quest for the one true story. And we’ll all live forever in the eternal lake of dreams.