Olympics, religion and symbols
The Olympics are here, the Olympics are here!
I didn’t get much excited about the Olympics in Vancouver until they were brought in my face a day before the official start. I was one of those people that were more worried about the impact to the everyday life with all the announced road closures, anticipated police presence, etc. I was even not going to buy a ticket and attend any of the competitions until I decided it might be unfair to my older daughter not to give her an opportunity to experience the time when the world came to her city — so I caved in and bought tickets for a women’s hockey game!
The tickets still didn’t make me budge too much from my position of a begrudged Vancouverite worried about the impact from all those people coming into town. What slammed me in face and made me wake-up to the grandeur of the event was when I faced the torch! It took a symbol to make my heart warm up to the Olympics and identify with the hundreds of thousands of people around the city that were cherishing the upcoming days when nothing else will be more important than the Games! I couldn’t believe it. I like to think that I am a rational person that prefers to “use his brain over his heart” in most matters involving other people outside my family. However, symbolism have managed to overpower my conscious parts of the brain and unleash some of the older unconscious circuits to take over. It was like flying with an auto-pilot — the next thing I know was that I had a Canada flag on my car!
I know that symbolism can be powerful — after all, it is major part all the world religions, organized or not. Being an atheist who thinks religion brings more suffering to the population than it may help the individuals, I generally rationalize symbols as “evil” — just think what metaphor does the fascist swastika brings to you. Clearly, that was one-dimensional thinking on my side. The Olympics symbols like the torch are helping people be happier and enjoy the event they represent — grudging citizens of Vancouver like me until few days ago are the exceptions. Similarly, we all know that every country is proud of their anthem and flag — they can unite people together to do things they would not normally do, though some can be awful like push them into war! However my personal experience with the Olympics torch made me appreciate that power more clearly than I could imagine before.
Symbols can influence ideas by increasing the odds for one to survive longer and acquire more followers than others. The torch relay through Canada was the longest running in the history of the Olympics. The result? 13 million, or about 40%) Canadians watched the opening ceremony last night! Ponder that again — 40% of all Canadians were doing the same thing at the same time! — not to mention that a good portion of the remaining 60% are babies that couldn’t be counted as active viewers (no matter how much their parents would claim they were entranced in front of the TV by the colorful display) so we’re likely talking about over half the eligible population.
Even more, they can do something that even the best organization in the world can’t — get people to effectively work together as a homogeneous group with little to no supervision or guidance! As I was watching the torch moving around the city, one thing that struck me was how well behaved the people on the street were even though the security was sparse compared to what I expected — I’ve seen more cops on an average day around Times Square in New York! I would also bet anything that had a major disaster struck to prevent the torch to be carried further, ordinary people from the street would jump right in to help and make sure it reaches its destination no matter what. It was clear by their faces that all those people were there to support the event, not just to take pictures.
The effect of the torch was the biggest on the people running with it — each one of them had a sudden urge to start running and screaming as soon as they got to carry the flare next and the volunteers supporting the event had to physically stop them and tell them to slow down and follow the schedule. Clearly they were having the best day in their lives! Probably their emotions were not unlike the many flag-bearers from the past wars that lead their comrades proudly by carrying the flag in front, even knowing they’ll likely die — though the torch-bearers didn’t expect to die for it, I’m wondering if they would not really defended in a death of life situation?!
Symbols (or symbolic activities) are heavily involved in various other activities not necessarily involving war. One example are the initiation practices of religious or other groups. Though they often involve suffering and pain, the symbols mus have an effect to identify with the group with such strength that the goal of being accepted by the group becomes ever-important and likely helps them overcome the suffering and maybe even makes the experience fulfilling. With the risk of pushing the comparison too much, I wonder if those dreaming of martyrdom and blowing themselves in the name of their god, country, leaders or whatnot are not overpowered by symbols too, except in their case it could be that the very act of martyrdom could be the ultimate symbol, so they feel proud to present that symbol to others sharing their ideology, perhaps not unlike bearing the torch, which makes people proud to be part of the Olympics, though they likely don’t identify themselves to be the torch, i.e. the symbol.
I can’t stop thinking what evolutionary advantage would have symbols had on our ancestors that we feel so overwhelmed by them today. Possibly symbols came before our ability to communicate using language. Or maybe they were a way for different tribes to differentiate themselves from the people in other tribes and increase the bonding within the tribe, leading to an evolutionary advantage to the group . No matter what is the answer, symbols can unite people and make them identify with the group the symbol denotes. Unfortunately sometimes that can be exploited, even if that was not the intention originally, to make many people identify with religious or ideological groups and are certainly major elements used to “brainwash” people to keep them following that ideology. But in the majority of the cases they positively influence us and make us identify with groups we care about — and social belonging is important for our psychological health!