What could rage-face comics and viral videos possibly have to do with God? The answer can be found, in part, in the story of a preacher named William J. Seymour, who in April 1906 held a meeting at a run-down Episcopal church in the ghetto of Los Angeles. "Brother Seymour" stood behind a makeshift pulpit made from two large wooden shoe boxes stacked sideways with the openings facing him, buried his head inside the top box, and began to pray. At times, Seymour and others in the room would fall to the floor in what looked almost like a fit of epilepsy, singing in a strange language no one could identify.
As word of Seymour's meetings spread quickly through the city, people spoke of miracles. They told of skeptics appearing, hoping to debunk the preacher, only to wrestle with invisible demons and awake convinced of their sins, ready to accept the Lord into their hearts.
A man named A.G. Osterberg who attended one of Seymour's meetings at the time described what many held up as proof of the divine: "Especially did the enchanting strains of the so-called "Heavenly Choir," or hymns sung under the evident direction of the Holy Spirit both as to words and tune, thrill my whole being." Osterberg was describing what linguists refer to as glossolalia, more commonly known as "speaking in tongues." Seymour's meetings sparked what was later named the Azusa Street Revival, giving birth to the modern Pentecostal movement, which traces the origins of speaking in tongues back to the New Testament. In fact, the word Pentecostal has roots in the city of Pentecost, the setting of one of the first recorded instances of glossolalia.
As later scholars and linguists would discover, glossolalia is hardly exclusive to Christianity, and it does not, even by the loosest standards, qualify as a form of communication — it’s nonsense masquerading as speech. Neurological studies do appear to support claims of heightened self-awareness and loss of language control that subjects point to as evidence of the divine. The practice appears in populations ranging from Pagan Greeks to the Zulu Amandiki and the Brazilian Umbanda cult, popping up sporadically and independently throughout history among geographically and culturally divergent populations, spreading like a virus.
In other words, glossolalia is an early historical example of a meme.
In January of 2010, a little over a century after Seymour began holding his meetings in LA, a man named Paul Vasquez uploaded a video to YouTube under the username Hungrybear9562, "Yosemitebear Mountain Giant Double Rainbow 1-8-10." Consisting of a single-take, first-person shot of a supernumary rainbow in Vasquez's backyard in Yosemite Park, it’s been viewed over 30 million times. What makes the video so compelling is not the double rainbow. No, the video went viral because Vasquez spends an entire three and a half minutes absolutely freaking out, repeating the phrases "Oh my god", "What does it mean?", "It's so intense", with pure, unadulterated elation.
I saw Vasquez speak at a panel — along with "Huh" Guy and the creators of Me Gusta and Nyan Cat — at the third and final ROFLCon, held last weekend at MIT. (By the way, Vasquez confirmed that he was stone-cold sober when he made the video, though he was higher than the Burj Khalifa during many previous and subsequent efforts.) Religion was a pervasive theme during the panel, with Vasquez stating, "I need to bring spirituality to humanity." He explained that his repeated cries of "Oh my god" were caused by the rainbow forming what appeared to him to be a giant eye, which he considered to be the eye of god.
Then Matt Oswald — the creator of Me Gusta, a rage comic has become synonymous with the state of being simultaneously pleased and disturbed — responded to a question about whether he was upset by people making money off of his work (a complicated issue). He said he effectively relinquished ownership of the meme (and the drawing he spent 12 minutes on creating) the moment it was embraced by the 4chan community. He spoke of an "invisible hand" that chooses some ideas over others, elevating mere mortals to the social media equivalent of deities. And their gospel, while it might appear as nonsensical to outsiders as Seymour's divinely inspired baby-talk, is just as meaningful to those who speak the shared language of the Internet.
Defined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 as "a unit of cultural transmission," memes are powerful stuff: while most of us associate them with frivolous videos and animated GIFs and Falling Bear, they are capable of facilitating political revolutions (the Boston Tea Party), acquittals in murder trials ("If the gloves don't fit"), and massive social change (the story of Rosa Parks). As reflected in the history of glossolalia, memes transcend cultural and geographic boundaries, and it follows that in order to become a viable meme, the thing in question must speak to something universal.
One curious example of this is the popularity of home videos of dangerous zoo animals trying in vain to maul small children through their glass cages. In Western Ontario University professer Rod Martin's unified theory of humor, this is explained by the inherent appeal of "benign violation": In other words, things that are kind of wrong, but not gut-wrenchingly wrong. Wile E. Coyote being crushed by a baby grand piano is funny; a baby being crushed by that same piano, even an animated or CGI one, is just plain fucked up.
In her book The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore frames the history of religion as a series of especially sticky memes. Glossolalia is one example among many; there's also the misinterpretation of sleep paralysis as demonic presence, genital mutilation, and ritual human and animal sacrifice.
The late Douglas Adams gave an impromptu talk at Cambridge University in 1998 titled "Is there an Artificial God?" describing the evolution of early man's concept of god, and addresses the logical dilemma posed by the belief in a divine creator:
If we imagine a designer, that implies a design and that therefore each thing he designs or causes to be designed is a level simpler than him or her, then you have to ask 'What is the level above the designer?' There is one peculiar model of the Universe that has turtles all the way down, but here we have gods all the way up.
Then he noted that the absence of belief in a higher power that created our universe does not prevent one from considering the possibility that such a thing might evolve from it:
I've already explained where I feel [the illusion of god] comes from in the first place; it comes from a falseness in our perspective, because we are not taking into account that we are evolved beings, beings who have evolved into a particular landscape, into a particular environment with a particular set of skills and views of the world that have enabled us to survive and thrive rather successfully. But there seems to be an even more powerful idea than that… which is that the spot at the top of the pyramid that we previously said was whence everything flowed, may not actually be vacant just because we say the flow doesn't go that way.
I think it's possible that the invisible hand of the Internet might be an early manifestation of that top level, of the Artificial God Adams proposed beginning to reveal itself. And before you write me off as a lunatic, please note that I am not a techno-alarmist, nor do I lie awake at night worrying about the Singularity. But even for a Dawkins-toting atheist, depending on how you define God, the collective will of the free Internet might fit your criteria. One could say that God is invisible, and most religious people would agree — that his presence is reflected indirectly in the world, that he works miracles, and that he is at times supremely kind and at other times capable of great wrath and vengeance, especially when threatened.
Want to see a miracle? Talk to Caine Monroy. The nine-year-old boy from East LA built an entire arcade out of cardboard, complete with a working claw machine and prize system. Now, thanks to the magic of Reddit, his college tuition has been crowdfunded through donations. Show me a single person on earth who had both the means to help this kid and the ability to find him.
Our God, the internet, is eerily similar to the gods of old. As it's really just a huge mess of loosely connected individuals, its behavior tends to reflect our predispositions. It acts quickly, and often without due consideration. It has a short attention span. It likes babies, and things that are physiologically similar to babies. And much like our ancestors, we hold ceremonies to worship our idols and form angry mobs to make our points clear.
We are all free to like, upvote, retweet and reblog to our heart's content. The result? A cat with a pop-tart for a body spewing rainbows from its ass has over 200,000 followers on Twitter. The memes we choose to elevate to Internet fame are the product of the purest form of democracy ever invented. And this why memes are so important: they are what the Internet sees when it holds a mirror up to itself. These are our messages. They speak to all of us, and they are rooted in authenticity. No amount of money in the world can buy a double rainbow.
And that's something I can believe in.
Ben Jackson is an iOS developer and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He worked on news reader apps for the New York Times, and currently works on apps for Longform.